pink boxes are still boxes: on being creative

Once upon a time, I lived in a purely utilitarian building. There was a good reason for its existence. Most of the city had been destroyed in World War II, so the citizens of Wrocław, Poland–many of them newly arrived after deportations from parts of the country that were annexed by the Soviet Union–needed shelter. Eventually, concrete apartment blocks took shape. By the time I lived there in the early 2000s, some were deceptively sunny in coats of pink and yellow paint. But they were just concrete boxes, and I shook my hand at them and said, “You can’t fool me with pink paint! I know I live in a box.”

Living in a box is certainly better than living on the street, but I always felt a little better when I got outside and walked to the square, where the Gothic and Baroque buildings (many also rebuilt) thrilled me. I need creativity in my life. I must feel it, see it, hear it, taste it. Maybe it’s a luxury for some, but it’s a necessity for me.

Slate has an article that describes our rejection of creativity. We say we appreciate creativity, but the reality is that we only appreciate the result and most of the time when we see creativity, we stomp it out. Jessica Olien writes: “Even in supposedly creative environments, in the creative departments of advertising agencies and editorial meetings at magazines, I’ve watched people with the most interesting—the most ‘out of the box’—ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution.”

Ugh. I’ve experienced that in a lot of jobs. I’m the type of person who likes to solve problems, so when I see a problem, I’m not interested in ignoring it, or enabling it, or trying the safe things we know aren’t going to work because they never have before. I’m a creative problem-solver. I will find a way to fix this thing, but you have to give me the freedom to do it and you have to back me up on it to make it work. Unfortunately, most people are satisfied with the status quo, so things don’t get fixed. They remain inefficient and ineffective, and I pull out my hair and wonder why I am still there.

Olien cites a study that shows that teachers prefer uncreative students over creative ones. These would have to be uncreative teachers, I think. Teachers who toe the line and lash out against students whose curiosity extends beyond the neat borders of the curriculum. I’ve had those teachers. In ninth grade, my friend Kate and I were always the last two to make it into our English class after lunch. We were seated before the bell rang, but we preferred to linger in the hall or outside in those last few minutes rather than sit at our desks, where we’d be stuck for the next hour anyway. We were definite creative types, more comfortable in the theatre than on the track, and our teacher was a cross-country coach who was so obsessed with his team that rumor had it he named his child after his best runner.

It was clear that he didn’t think much of us. His feedback on my papers convinced me that he didn’t like my writing style and that he wasn’t interested in my creative approaches to his assignments, which only made me more determined to write them the way I wanted instead of the way he recommended. Kate and I both did a lot of daydreaming and gazing out of the window while he droned on about cattle rustling in The Ox-Bow Incident.

One day our teacher looked at Kate and said, “You’re such an enigma. Why don’t you sit in the same seat every day?”

Yes, apparently being the last person in the room and taking whatever seat is left is enigma-worthy. But what he really meant was: you’re creative, and I don’t understand you.

No thanks to him, Kate and I are both writers now. Fortunately, we also had creative teachers who nurtured our creativity and encouraged us to take risks.

In my first year of college, I wrote loads of papers, but one stands out. Another English class and an assignment on some really boring religion debate where you had to take one side and develop an argument. I didn’t want to do that, so I expanded the topic and wrote a creative response to the idea of organized religion. My instructor, fresh out of grad school and not much older than I, pulled me aside after class and said, “You know I can’t give you an ‘A’ on this paper because it doesn’t fit the assignment, but I can see that you are smart and creative. I’m going to give you the chance to rewrite it as assigned, but I also think you should keep writing creatively outside of class.”

Although I’d been encouraged by teachers in theatre and music, I’d never had a teacher tell me to “keep writing” the way I wanted to write.

I can get stuck working in formulas just like everyone else. That’s how we appease and, often, move forward. But, as with teachers, I’m always looking for the employer who will recognize what I really have to offer and open up a space for me to soar. Sometimes I’ve been lucky to find that person, sometimes I’ve retreated into the corner after too many disappointments, and other times I’ve been able to create that opportunity for myself.

Like anyone else, I can get so caught up in the mundane chores of life that I forget to find room for creativity. So I’m practicing intentional creativity. Every day I look for opportunities to be creative. If I’m stuck inside, I stop and notice what the natural world is up to outside my window, which allows me to wonder how mockingbirds learn to mimic, how I can work those sunset shades into something pretty to keep around, or what flowers to plant in the spring. I play with spices and listen to stories while cooking. If it’s too cold to run, I have a private dance party. If I need a distraction, I turn to Pinterest for project ideas and daydreaming rather than scrolling through Facebook posts. When I wake up, I take a moment to try to remember my dreams.

And whenever I feel like I’m trapped in a box, I at least open a window and bring in some flowers until I can find a way out. I definitely do not paint it pink and settle in.

why i started this blog

It was probably my junior year of college that I went to see the chair of the humanities department for a little encouragement. Much as I loved literature, I was feeling uncertain about my studies. I had become quite the budding feminist activist, and when I read Alice Walker or Adrienne Rich, I increasingly wanted to get up and DO something. I was not content with scribbling behind a desk. That’s why I knocked on my professor’s door and asked her why we interpret literature.

Unperturbed, she gazed out the window at the blossoming dogwoods. We sat in an office full of dark, shiny wood and cloth-bound books in muted tones, but the sun lit up the world outside. She smiled. “Why do we enjoy a spring day?”

I nodded. It was all I needed to hear to get back to the books, but when I finished school, I decided to join AmeriCorps and become a VISTA. I wanted to learn through experience and to serve others. I felt a great need to make people’s lives better in some way, and my myopic poetry certainly wasn’t going to do that.

The best part of my AmeriCorps assignment in Philadelphia was my weekly visit to an after-school program for at-risk Latinas. We laughed, danced, and learned. It was their safe space in the day because outside of that program their lives were full of violence. A friendly, open senior on a fifth-grade reading level told me that she had been raped by her uncle for years. Another girl–a vibrant, intelligent eighth-grader who attended with her sister–lost her boyfriend to a bullet in the head because he had the best corner.

I loved those girls dearly. It was a profound learning experience for me, one that confirmed everything I thought about the world: oppressions converge to make the notion of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps a joke, investing in education should always be our priority, and giving is better than having.

But I had a serious hankering for a creative fix, so I went back to school and studied poetry and fiction writing. I devoured the pink-covered Vorticist magazine Blast, the stories of Katherine Mansfield, the groundbreaking fiction of Nawal el Saadawi, the verses of Sharon Olds. I studied Said and Spivak, Gilbert and Gubar. I learned to step back from my writing and to revise, revise, revise.

And what do you think happened next? I had enjoyed teaching composition to first-year students who desperately needed to learn how to write a basic argument, but I soured on the idea of teaching poetry to middle-class kids who wouldn’t do anything with it anyway. Fed up with the ivory tower, I abandoned my PhD applications and ran off to Poland to teach English as a second language.

My students came from all walks of life. One was a wealthy CEO whose wife could never travel to the US with him on business trips because officials would not give her a visa for fear that they would stay. “As if I want to move to America to work at McDonald’s,” he would say. “I am a businessman!” There was a shoe designer, a gregarious woman with curly dark hair, who came from Georgia for a better life, and a teenage girl who was frequently in trouble with her mother. I always enjoyed chatting with an amiable young man who could not marry his girlfriend because his low-wage job in a shop kept him living with his family, six people in a two-room flat. There simply wasn’t room for another person.

Every student there was learning English to improve their lives. Most planned to leave Poland for England, Scotland, Germany, or the Netherlands, where they saw opportunities they did not have at home. I felt guilty for being able to go and do whatever I wanted. I felt frustrated that the only way I could help them was to teach them the language of the people who ruled the world.

I came back and worked as copywriter. It felt amazing to get paid to write and come up with ideas with creative folks, but I hated advertising. Obviously. Then I wrote grants for a nonprofit, which led to my work in women’s advocacy–leading online campaigns, influencing legislation, developing and improving programs for women and girls. I truly love women’s advocacy, but sometimes I get so caught up in politics and analysis that the left side of my brain feels heavy. It’s like the right side is withering away.

I try to avoid binary thinking, but somehow I’ve spent my whole life trying to balance these two sides of myself–my desire to create community change and my passion to create art. Sure, writing itself can be revolutionary, but it never seemed enough for me.

Recently, I decided to devote more time to my writing. I brushed off some old poems to submit and revised a story, but writing is a solitary pursuit and I needed to connect. Therefore, I decided to start a blog where I could discuss current events that disturb me: gang rape, slut shaming, cyber bullying, the bizarre need to legislate my body to death.

And then I thought, hey girl, you don’t have to stop there. I realized I could combine politics and art in one spot. I could make my own creativity political. I could sit behind my desk or march down the street, and either way I’d effect change. That’s the birth of Saga, a place to explore feminism and creativity while engaging with other artists and thinkers and doers.

As I write this, birds in the eaves of my house, in the magnolia and pine trees out back, are singing because it’s spring. It’s rainy, and the slender sprouts in my garden are getting stronger. Even now, without much sunshine, I look from my computer screen to the window and remember why I do what I do.

I hope you’ll join me on this exploration.