Love Letter on Awakenings

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The best teachers at Iowa Writers’ Workshop taught me nothing. They were highly skilled magicians who pulled rabbits out of our ears. Stranger still, the most wicked among them convinced me I’d pulled the whole furry bunny—floppy ears and all—out of my very own cochlea—myself.

What am I saying? That creativity cannot be taught. I resonate with Chinua Achebe on this point. “I learned” he writes in There Was A Country, “that my story had to come from within me. Finding that inner creative spark required introspection, deep personal scrutiny, and connection, and this was not something anybody could really teach me”; it can only be awakened or lit, like a seed that sleeps through a thousand years but takes root when the right winds blow; or a volcano that’s convinced everyone it is dormant and impotent, until a fierce fury stirs deep in its belly.

The best art teachers know this. Instead of inciting mimicry or cultivating acolytes, they make their business igniting that spark. Theirs is the role of catalyst, not reactive element. The strangest example of this was working with Marilynne Robinson.

Marilynne was a quiet, even removed presence during workshop. She listened. Deeply. And her large cursive handwritten letters were measured in words, if penetrating in their incision. So what is it that she said? What one word of advice did she offer that opened us up to creative wells of our own? Nothing. A tleast nothing crystalline about craft and writing that I can recall. Of course, there was that first class together—a feeling and creative catalyst that still nurtures me today.

Marilynne held court. She spoke the longest I heard her speak the rest of the semester. Gently, voice barely audible, she imparted the urgency of our work. Why do we write, Marilynne essentially asked us. Why make art? Because art is life’s deepest sustenance. Because the art you make today may be the only source of nourishment for a soul parched and far gone—lost in a desert wilderness. For whatever reason, the thing that struck me most was all the prisoners Marilynne spoke about, how the imprint of a good book in their hands could open boundless freedoms.

Maybe it’s my South African roots and the intimate footprint prison walls (behind suburban gates, inside Robben Island’s maximum security fort and of course, the prisons within our racial and socio-economic stratifications) have made on our collective psyche. Or maybe it’s my living in America and understanding the intimate proximity between this black body and the corporal warehouses filled with living souls throughout Lady Liberty’s land.

Whatever it is, Marilynne’s class was a deep awakening. I’d already committed myself to taking words seriously. To honoring that gift. But her class gave me a further awakening—the inner artist who’d so long been shunned and asked to step aside could finally breathe. It was a lot like that first birth after labour, hearing the baby’s cry and knowing she’s alive. Knowing, in a mysterious way, that she’s always been alive.

Because awakenings are mysterious. The same source that tells spring blossoms to bloom and stirs hibernating bears is surely also at work in the delivery room. Stranger still, but true—it’s the same force at work when we awaken. It is a force which lives in divine time and clicks into gear only once we become willing, only after we grow open and ready to conceive.

You cannot iron-fist your awakening; it cannot be manufactured in China or express shipped to you on Amazon Prime. And as sterile and callous as that sounds, I’m not above sometimes wishing for it!

What you can do is become your inner muse’s most wicked magician. The same way Marilynne showed me how to pull rabbits out of my own ears, you can be your own creative catalyst and spark.

Taking your craft seriously is a good beginning. Remember the Love Letter I write you on Rituals? That practice creates an opening. An invitation. Another hack is community. Creative Awakenings seem to crave good company. It’s no mistake my experience was in the middle of the country, America’s heartland—surrounded by more painters, writers, poets, bookbinders and dancers than all of the cornstalks the state of Iowa can shake at a haystack.

But buyer beware. Awakenings are a funny business. As life-transformative and euphoric as they can be, they are not the destination. Think of that newborn crying in the delivery room. Birth is her first awakening, but it is only her beginning. She has many many more awakenings to grow into, each one helping nudge her toward a fuller, true and more realized self. I should know—all these years after first my breath.

Here I am. A grown-ass woman who woke to adulthood at age 9, awakened to her womanhood in the season of late bloomers, was shaken into Creative Being around 30 and just a few short weeks ago awakened to her life’s innermost purpose. How can human time ever measure the meaning of all that?

Your own creative awakening/s. Is it soft ripples in a placid lake or more like lightning bolts with rainbow-making unicorns? I like the thought of unicorns! Are you waiting for lightning to strike? Try this instead. Wake up to the life that surrounds you. The spring blossoms rising from deep sleep and the noisy kids on morning walks to school. There is sunlight and silence somewhere in your house. What can you shake awake inside you, from that small and still space?