Where Creativity Might Live

It may be the case that expensive cities are killing creativity, but I suspect the real culprit is the belief that you have to live in a certain sort of place in order to create.

If you want to have time to make your art, it helps to live somewhere that offers low overhead. Cheap rent, or — imagine it! — an affordable mortgage, in a place that’s reasonably well-tended and feels safe. Because chances are it isn’t the city that’s killing your creativity, it’s the amount of money it costs to live there and the amount of time you have to spend acquiring that money. Scarcity — insufficient time, inadequate funds — is the real creativity-killer.

Maybe going home to your “dying” hometown — or some reasonable facsimile thereof — will serve your creativity in ways you can’t imagine from where you are right now.

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Unspectacular

“To know the pleasures of an unspectacular landscape, such as that of Indiana, requires an uncommon degree of attentiveness and insight.”

~Scott Russell Sanders, “Landscape & Imagination”

There’s something to be said for learning to value the less-than-spectacular: that which is merely here, in front of us, right now.

An Old School Influencer

A long, long time ago, when the current century had yet to be born and we were all wearing plaid flannel shirts tied around our waists and urging one another to think globally and act locally, a co-worker handed me a copy of Wendell Berry’s essay, “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse,” which had just been published in the Atlantic Monthly.

“You’ll like this,” he said.

It was my first encounter with Berry, this essay containing twenty-seven propositions about global thinking, culture and community. It was contrarian and pointed and a little bit snarky. And it was written by a farmer.

“Properly speaking,” it began, “global thinking is not possible” in any way that would warrant calling it “thought.” Nor is it beneficial to actual communities of living creatures.

Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground.

What followed was an indictment of abstraction, industrial production, the fossil fuel industry, unsustainable cities, and the creation of a forced dependence within rural communities on the money economy. Global thinking, Berry argued, drives the extractive economics that have decimated so much of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and the whole of Appalachia, not to mention the rest of the planet. As a guiding ethos it is inherently destructive precisely because it “can’t distinguish one place or person or creature from another.”

I was working in corporate communications at the time. The firm’s biggest clients were in the fossil fuel industry. Oil companies, utility companies. And I knew he was right. I was seeing it daily. I was living it.

Those 27 propositions took root in my soul. I scoured libraries and bookstores to find more of Berry’s work — no Amazon then, it was all traipsing and browsing. I found poetry and essay collections and his pivotal work, The Unsettling of America. And I found myself caring about farming. About how food was grown, and by whom.

Wendell Berry kicked my ass into another way of living. Out of my car, off my horse.

Nearly three decades later, I live within 100 miles of the Berry homestead in Kentucky, and that first essay I read continues to shape my thinking on the subject of work and place and local affection. You can find it in its entirety here.

Late Summer

The yard is utterly overgrown. I wave to my neighbor through a tangle of grapevine and mow a path alongside the explosion of honeysuckle. Volunteer mulberry trees appear out of nowhere, three feet tall before I even notice them. How can this be?

A far corner of the lot out back goes unmowed season after season, all shaded and wooded and strung with yet more grapevine, Virginia creeper, English ivy. My insurance company tells me it all must go, the insistent vines and intrusive saplings that threaten the integrity of the nearby garage.

This is Indiana, and the abundant flora will have its way.

The Oval One was in town last week. It was billed as a rally, which is to say, a campaign event. It never ends, the campaigning.  Two of my friends were there, dressed as Handmaids in red cloaks and white bonnets. One of them even made it into the venue before being escorted back out to the sidewalk by two men who weren’t interested in parsing her First Amendment rights.

Lock her up, lock her up.

My writing practice is giving me grief; I’d like to blame the Huckster-in-Chief for sucking all the oxygen out of the room, but it’s not his fault. (Surprise! Not everything is his fault!)  I am summered out, lazy and without direction, in need of something I know not what.  I go outside and breathe in the last of the fragrant honeysuckle, and tell myself I’ll cut it back to a manageable size next spring.