Creativity and Place

A body in motion precedes a mind in motion. Is what I told myself as I set out on foot in search of the perfect location in which to work on the writing phase of the AiR project. I auditioned a number of places from my living room to the Spruce Street Hammock Park and in each place I felt like my brain was bifurcated into two architecture firms, each commissioned to build half a bridge and meet each other in the middle of the river, but as we know from Abe Lincoln, a bridge divided cannot stand. Half of my mind bridge, the half that did the storytelling in the Smokies, is made of azaleas, branches, and mottled light. The other half, the half that is trying to write those stories in Philly, is made of metal, concrete, and noise. How, I wondered, do I stay true to the spirit of The Smokies when there are three power saws and six car horns ringing in my ears and the only vista is from the onramp to I-95?Even the book I was reading, Satin Island, takes place in a city. The main character, city dweller that he is, is all sharp angles; he changes his mind abruptly, is constrained by his own moral rigidity, and physically walks down many, straight corridors, and as a result the book reads like its shape: rectangular. This is not surprising seeing as cities are made up of boxes. We live in box shaped homes, commute in box shaped cars and trains, and the city itself is divided into box shaped plots of land. Location and creative expression are a feedback loop, each influencing each other.In the mountains, the feedback loop is different. Mountains are all curves and asymmetry and stories from the mountains are as windy, airy, and lilty as the land. Imaginations can certainly run wild in both cities and mountains but my own imagination, which gets claustrophobic and hyperventilaty in boxes (I like curves, dots, and, for the record, odd numbers), tends to run in one direction, that of the Worst Possible Scenario. I will grant you, The Worst Possible Scenario for this project being that I have to write stories about mountains while staring at a bunch of 90 angles listening to intermittent power saws is not exactly cruel and unusual, but I would like to give my imagination a little more fodder than that when writing stories about cloud lands and bear cub spirit guides.Now, I know what you are thinking: "Why did not you write rough drafts of these stories while you were IN The Smokies?." You have a good point. I should have done that. But I was busy being IN The Smokies. Besides, there's no use crying over spilt ambiance. I did not even know until my last few days in the park that writing was going to play a major role in this project and by the time I would figured it out my dance card was filled. Lesson learned.I have one year to complete a project that is tangible and lives at the park, which gives me plenty of time to get back out to some mountains for a while to write, but I want to start working on it now while the images, scents, sounds, and stories are fresh in my mind so for the last few days I've set out on foot to find a place to write that engages my imagination and puts my saw-sensitive nerves at ease. What I have have learned is that no matter where I walk to I am still in a city.My friend Sarah recently send me an article (from which both quotes in this post are drawn) that confirmed much of what I've felt in the last decade as I've cultivated loving but creatively unsatisfying relationships with the cities of Washington D.C., NYC, and Philadelphia:"A 90-minute walk through a natural environment had a huge positive impact on participants. In a survey taken afterwards, those people who took the natural walk showed far lower levels of brooding, or obsessive worry. The control group who spent that 90 minutes walking through a city reported no such difference."I know, I know, I am an artist, it's my job to be creative whether I want to be or not, whether I am where I want to be or not. And yeah, that's a pretty luxurious position to be in, but it's also a job. If a carpenter does not have a hammer it makes the job of building a house infinitely more challenging. Tools vary from trade to trade but they are essential to getting a job done. Nevertheless, there is work to be done so I have no choice but to fall creatively in love with somewhere- anywhere- in the city.Now, as pretty much anyone on the planet can tell you, you can not force love. But you can cultivate it. I've spent the last two years looking for things to love in this city and I've found them; from the gnarled tree grove at Penn Treaty Park to the cemetery on Belgrade with all of it's solar lights that looks like a little, outdoor, ghost rave at night. There is a crack on the wall in one of the studios at school that looks like Tigger and a hole in the floor on the way to our dressing rooms that I think leads to another universe.I fell in love with these places because I wanted to. Because I had to. Because in order to draw inspiration from the city I need to make meaning and mystery here. I have to work to love cities whereas I feel lovingly worked upon by mountains and forests. Wilderness I cannot help but love. I will chase it until I die. It is the Romeo to my Juliet; "My love as deep; the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite."However, I have another year of grad school and I do really and truly like cities so here's the metropolitan game plan: Keep falling in love with things. As many things as possible, as often as possible. Philly may not be my soulmate metropolis but it's great for doing boxy things like "getting organized" and "applying for grants" and it is filled with opportunities for cultivating creative love. Just last night I visited an open kitchen sculpture garden that has been built by and for the people of the community and which has as much heart as any national park I've been to. The national parks protect lands and animals, which I hold to be vitally important, but this sculpture garden (which is an actual garden with actual soil) in Philly protects and provides peace for the people of the community and while it might not be the perfectly serene place to write that I quest for it is an inspirational, connective force in this world and a community I am proud to be a part of. Maybe I will do a story share here and bring some of my mountain story skillz to bear the bearless, urban world. The bridge between city and mountain life might be tough to, well, bridge, but it's all one ecosystem and as long as I am a part of this world I am going to do my best to get to know it all, be it a city hammock park, a local sculpture garden, or a national park. Does this solve my writing problem? Probably not. I still focus and write more freely in quiet, nature-y space, but remembering that it is all connected makes it easier to tap into what I love about The Smoky Mountains portion of the ecosystem, which does not feel so far away as it did yesterday

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