It’s after dark and I’m bone-tired after a long day of teaching. I have a handful of tasks to check off before I can unplug for the night, but I feel uninspired: like Old Mother Hubbard, my cupboard is bare.

Kid Photo Op

I pick up a book I recently checked out from the library but haven’t yet had time to read–Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear–and read the first chapter, hoping for a glimmer of inspiration or encouragement.

And there it is, only a few pages in: a poet corners a shy student and asks her what plans to do with her life. When the student says she wants to write, the poet responds, “Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work?”


It takes great courage to show up to the page, especially when it’s dark and you’re bone-tired. It’s so much easier to curl up with one’s doubts and insecurity–so much easier to rehash the old complaints and rehearse the usual excuses. Last night, one of my colleagues quoted one of his own teachers as saying “It’s my job to make sure you pursue your ideas.” It takes great courage to pursue an idea wherever it goes, tracking it relentlessly like a bloodhound hot on her prey. Do you have the courage and tenacity to follow your inspiration wherever it leads?

Hand written first impressions of Lynda Barry's Syllabus

I’m currently reading Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which I’d requested from the library a few months ago after reading a review that sparked my interest. Barry teaches an interdisciplinary course on creativity at the University of Wisconsin, and Syllabus contains her hand-drawn notes, assignments, and other course materials.

Love at first sight

When I picked up the book from the library last week, I immediately flipped through it, captivated by its hand-drawn, doodle-like appearance. The book looks and feels like a well-worn composition book–the kind with black-and-white cardboard covers you can buy at nearly any dime store. I know this kind of comp book very well because I used to write in them before I switched to Moleskine notebooks, which are sturdier, more expensive, and ever-so-more serious. Moleskines are what I use now as a Serious Writer, but black-and-white cardboard-covered comp books are the familiar and unassuming standby that many of us started out with: comfort food for the creative soul.

Nature journal - Sept 10 2009

I’m loving Barry’s book and have already bought my own (back-ordered) copy on Amazon, as this is one of those books I’ll want to read and re-read even after I’ve returned my library copy. In Walden, Thoreau wonders “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” and I suspect Lynda Barry’s Syllabus will be one such book for me. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was a book like this, and before that, so was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Both books helped shape me as a creative person long before I actually saw myself as being creative, and they did so by giving me a practice (not just a philosophy) to exercise that creativity.

Nature journal - Sept 11 2008

Both Goldberg and Cameron use writing as a tool to unlock creativity: timed free-writing for Goldberg (with the admonition to Keep Your Hand Moving) and morning pages for Cameron (with the insistence that you hand-write your pages first thing in the morning). I’ve been doing some modified version of free-written morning pages for years, since first encountering Goldberg and Cameron, and the results have been revolutionary. You have no idea how much have to say until you actually sit down and start saying it.

Nature journal - Sept 5 2007

For Barry, drawing is the key to creativity–and by “drawing,” she means something more akin to doodling than Serious Art. The point isn’t to produce a “good” drawing but to produce an image that is alive. Many of her students’ drawings look like they were drawn by children…and both Barry and I see that as being a good thing. Children’s drawings might not be technically advanced, but they delight with their lively lack of inhibition.

This time last year

There is a certain charm in things made by hand, and Barry captures that in Syllabus. By requiring her students to use inexpensive supplies such as index cards and dime-store composition books, she eliminates the pretension and self-importance we often associate with Art. If you’re drawing a two-minute self-portrait on an index card–something Barry asks her students to do at every class session as a way of taking attendance–you aren’t trying to create a masterpiece; instead, you’re trying to (quickly) capture the mood of the moment.

Lynda Barry's Syllabus

Many of the drawings Barry includes in her book were “rejects”–that is, drawings her students left behind because they presumably weren’t good enough to keep. But to my eye, even a rough, technically imperfect doodle done by hand has an immediacy and charm that more than makes up for any technical flaws. These doodles are like people: you don’t love them despite their imperfections but because of them.

Two views

Just as the simplest home cooking is more satisfying than a pre-packaged meal, even the most primitive hand-drawn images have a warmth of personality that is lacking in a photograph or polished painting. There is, it seems, a simple magic in making something by hand, whether you’re chopping vegetables, scribbling words, or doodling images in a well-worn composition book.

The top photo shows the first draft of this post, which I wrote by hand in my journal. The second and seventh photos are images from Syllabus itself, and the other photos show you previously-blogged images from the nature journal I used to keep when I taught a first-year Thinking & Writing class called “The Art of Natural History” at Keene State College.

The Wall at Central Square

One day last week while I was writing my hour, a curious thing happened. I came to the page uninspired: my promise to write was my only goad. On days when I’m uninspired, writing my hour feels like pure drudgery: more an act of will than creativity as each word ticks by like a slow-moving second-hand inching bit by bit closer to “done.”

The Wall at Central Square

But then, a pair of words appeared. I’d been describing a wending and rambling drive J and I had taken and how it took us through nearby neighborhoods I’d never seen. Isn’t it interesting, I wrote, how you can live in a place for years without exploring all of its streets, your feet following well-worn and familiar paths. This in turn reminded me how I learned to navigate Boston when I first moved here and relied upon public transportation, my knowledge of the city growing in discrete, piecemeal patches every time I explored a new-to-me subway stop and the neighborhood within walking distance of it. My knowledge of Boston was like a map drawn by foot, with scattered pockets that were explored and familiar while the largest portions remained unmapped and foreign: an inland archipelago of known neighborhoods stranded like islands in a vast and largely unknown landscape.

The Wall at Central Square

“Inland archipelagos” was the magic phrase: two words that shimmered to the surface of consciousness, announcing themselves as the title of an essay I’ve only begun to write. Those two words served as a kind of guiding or governing concept: the one central “hook” from which you can hang an entire narrative. Some writers need to start with a first line or a central image; some writers need to start with a title rather than discovering it by accident halfway between “I don’t know what to write” and “Done.” In my experience, though, the first line, central image, title, or other guiding concept doesn’t typically come first: instead, it arises only after I’ve groped around in the dark for a while, writing a meandering series of sentences that (seemingly) head nowhere.

The Wall at Central Square

I’ve been writing long enough to recognize that this is how it typically happens: I find a subject to write about only after I’ve started writing. I often think of this as being like a runner settling into stride: you start off stiff and awkward, but gradually you relax into a comfortable pace…but that will never happen until you lace up shoes and get moving. You’ll never find your stride unless you stand up first.

The Wall at Central Square

When I write my daily journal pages, this settling-into-stride often happens around the third page, the first two pages serving as a kind of warm-up where I rehearse the mundane details of the day. Those first two pages are like the casual chitchat workers engage in at the start of a meeting, catching up with what’s new before their boss clears her throat and announces, “I called you together today to discuss…” That ellipsis is the crux of the matter—the matter of substance—the magical transition between “How are you” and “Let’s get to work.”

The Wall at Central Square

Sometimes, that matter of substance appears in the form of a title, or a first line, or concluding remark: “Here is something I want to write a longer essay about.” Other times, a subject simply arises without announcing itself: suddenly one sentence leads to another, one paragraph leads to the next, and the next thing I know, I’ve written an essay where once there was nothing: spontaneous inspiration.

The Wall at Central Square

This proliferation of words is like an amoeba dividing or a cancer cell multiplying: an insubstantial thing becoming something with real matter and heft. Suddenly you realize the coarse stuff in your hand can be spun into something fine, long, and strong. You’ve literally found your material, a sturdy textile of text that’s stronger than steel.

Modica Way

I have the habit of writing in the morning because that is when I feel the most awake, alert, and alive. This morning I did yoga then lifted weights, so my muscles sang with strength as I opened my notebook to write. Later in the day, I feel sluggish and thick, incapable of bright, interesting discourse, but in the morning my body feels both lithe and light, its strength and resilience reflected in the suppleness of my moving mind.

Modica Way

This morning I started reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. The book is favorably reviewed on Amazon, and I trust the taste of the friends who recommended it. But still any time I start a book by an author I’ve not read before, I wonder what I am in for. Will this person’s definition and practice of creativity differ from my own? Will there be breathy, New-Age aspects that clash with my down-and-dirty Zen approach–an insistence on praying to fairies, perhaps, or a pervasive belief in unicorns and leprechauns as totems of creativity?

Modica Way

I shouldn’t have worried. Tharp’s approach is as down-and-dirty as my own–no surprise, I suppose, since she is a dancer and choreographer, someone intimately acquainted with the poetry of bone and sinew and the languid beauty of shimmering skin. Tharp believes, as I do, that creativity is a practice–a habit–that thrives (as embodied things do) on ritual and regularity. Your Muse isn’t some ethereal spirit who imbibes rainbows and twirls with angels on the heads of every pin; it is a creature who must be both fed and exercised, as fierce and fragile as any animal.

Modica Way

I am already enamored with Tharp’s approach because what she says in her first chapter resonates so deeply with my own experience: not just what I believe, but what I do. Creativity doesn’t happen by magic nor by accident; it is a strength that must be exercised. Just as we all possess muscles that grow stronger and more flexible–more invigorated and alive–through use, so too does creativity thrive on habitual activity. No one lacks creativity any more than any of us lacks a muscular system. We all come with creativity as a standard feature–something factory-installed–but many of us never use the thing, so it becomes dull and dusty with disuse.

Modica Way

Tharp, who choreographed scenes in the movie Amadeus, makes an intentional effort to debunk the romanticized view of Mozart popularized by that film. Mozart’s creativity did not happen by accident, nor was it effortless. Any natural talent young Mozart possessed was honed by an attentive and at times overbearing father who exposed the boy to the best musical models and mentors while urging him to practice, practice, practice. Mozart himself denied the claim that writing music came easily to him; instead, his was a craft he honed through extensive practice and study.

Modica Way

This is a lesson Malcolm Gladwell emphasized in Outliers, where he argues both the Beatles and Bill Gates became great by practicing for 10,000 hours, and it’s a lesson underscored by Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who memorably remarked in an interview once that “The elite is the elite for a reason.” Mozart might have been born with more musical talent than the rest of us, but he would have made nothing of that talent had he not practiced. Practicing scales for 10,000 hours might not make me a Mozart, but it would make me far more proficient on piano than I currently am, without any practice.

Modica Way

Tharp begins her second chapter by describing her daily ritual of waking at 5:30, dressing in work-out clothes, then hailing a cab to go to the gym. “The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym,” she explains; “the ritual is the cab.” Regardless of what happens at the gym, in other words, the part of Tharp’s practice that matters is simply showing up. This rings so true to my experience, I wanted to shout “Amen” and “Hallelujah” when I read Tharp’s words.

Modica Way

“In order to be creative,” Tharp insists in a sentence that literally jumps off the page in large red print, “you have to know how to prepare to be creative.” Creativity, it turns out, is as much about preparation as it is about perspiration: creativity, in other words, is a phenomenon that starts the night before. This isn’t about sitting and waiting for your Muse to arrive on the back of a unicorn prancing down a rainbow; it’s about dragging your ass to the gym, the keyboard, or the blank page. Show up, practice your craft, then keep showing up and practicing. Judging from the opening chapter of The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp and I are kindred spirits.


One surefire sign of fall at Keene State College is the annual appearance of student art projects. As in past years, these temporary outdoor sculptures feature cheap, widely accessible materials such as empty water bottles and plastic coat hangers. When you’re a starving student artist, you learn to use whatever you find close at hand.

Green bike

This practice of creative frugality is one I can appreciate. On a gray, mildly Melvillean day like today, it’s easy to feel like one’s cupboard of creative inspiration is bare. Finding nothing scenic or sensational to share, you reach for whatever is close at hand, even if “whatever is close at hand” is a handful of photos you shot last month. On some days, preparation for blogging starts the night before; on other days, it takes even longer than that.

One of the things I enjoy about my November commitment to post something every day is the way it forces my creative hand. If I were a student in a college art class, I’d have to figure out a way to impress my professor with yesterday’s trash by today’s deadline: I wouldn’t have the time or the luxury to wait for inspiration. Making a commitment to blog everyday accomplishes something similar. On any given day, you’ve promised to post something whether you feel inspired or not, and this discipline to “do it anyway” unlocks its own kind of creativity. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and it turns out that “invention” has a twin sibling named “inspiration.” Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, a blogger who’s promised to post every day has to take her inspiration wherever she can find it.


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