The value of disengaging in the creative process
When someone refuses to face a problem, we have all sorts of metaphors for their behavior. We tell them they are “turning a blind eye,” and the implication of looking at something with one’s eyes closed is clear. But why do we accuse them of sticking their “head in the sand?” That’s not just avoiding conflict. That’s life threatening. You could asphyxiate!
You may have seen a popular myth in the entertainments of your youth when you saw an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, thinking that would protect it from a predator. You probably saw it portrayed and didn’t question it. But ostriches don’t do that. The only reason an ostrich puts its head in the sand is to go into its nest and turn its eggs with its beak.
And that is a better metaphor for how I’ve begun to balance my news consumption and my creative pursuits. I occasionally have to put my head close to the earth and forget about politics and wars and natural disasters. I have to tend to my eggs too. I put them in a special secret space I think of as my writing and composing desk. And when they are fully matured, my stories and music head out into the world.
When I watch MSNBC incessantly, I forget about my eggs, sometimes for days at a time. When I read the New York Times, I worry that my contributions to the world are not worth nurturing against such rampant evil. Our brains are problem-solvers, so if we keep them working on current events, fighting that unwinnable war, they can’t spend as much time figuring out characters’ motivations, the most surprising plot twists, the perfect setting.
My eggs need my attention. If I don’t turn them periodically, I hobble my stories, my music. They become stunted. They don’t run. They don’t sing. They don’t survive.
I tell myself I’m busy and stressed. I have a new relationship, a new job, and my writing career is taking off. It’s okay if I take a few days off from creating, isn’t it? I have quite a few eggs ready to hatch. Do I really need to worry about laying more?
Yes, I do. I need to turn away from all the sensationalized coverage of crazy, selfish people and stick my head in the sand every day or two. I’ve got eggs that need turning, so they will hatch and become healthy, beautiful, young ostriches.
I don’t need to cloister myself from reality. I can take sips from it, every now and then, because I need to update my snapshot of reality. While I’m hiding away, working on something I hope will speak to the readers out there in the world, the zeitgeist might have moved on, and my labors in solitude become quaint. As much as we expect our journalists to be vigilant, we need to expect the same vigilance from our artists. There will be time to create in solitude or collaboration again once we know what we need to write about, or especially if we are hoping something we create now will still be relevant when an egg hatches (reaches its audience) that we laid perhaps years before.
I’ve got an “egg” that got its first crack in it recently. I suspect that little ostrich will be ready to hatch by summer. Maybe a couple others will hatch about the same time. The midterm elections are over, so I can lay another egg or two and then put my beak back into the sand and turn the other ones. I try to keep turning those eggs right up until the first crack in the shell appears. And I’ll pull my head out of the sand regularly to look for hyenas and cheetahs. I don’t have to keep my eyes on the horizon all the time.