Words As . . . Oxygen

As an older writer, and as a teacher of students of various ages, I have the unique perspective of viewing life in the dreams whispered of the young in early spring, in the struggles of the middies in the summer sun, and in the regrets of the elders as autumn falls. One thread is common among all three: the desperate dream of returning to uninhibited innocence and an abundance of creativity — both seemingly, always a touch beyond the grasp.

The reasons, as you might imagine, are the usual suspects as captured by my college writing students: a lack of time and money, the demands of domesticity and jobs, and life-defined priorities.

Their stories began with vibrant images in early youth, where they embraced an exhilaration to create: write, paint, sing, dance, build, bake. But something happened around the age of 8 or 9. Their pure connection to creativity was interrupted by classrooms as darker spaces of evaluation, where test-taking judgments replaced the free-flow of creativity.

By the time students reach the end of their essays reflecting on their education, the writing is tired, even labored, as they lament the loss of the good old days and whimsical risks with the arts.

“Life just gets in the way,” one student wrote. “I hope to find myself in one of those arts and craft stores some day, pick out a sparkly purple journal like the one I used to have, and write every now and then. That would be nice.”

I witness the life draining out of their words. What started as a bubbly youthful enthusiasm filled with color and possibility morphs into — time and time again — a tired maturity hooked up to a dented half-empty tank of oxygen trying to supplement the breath of life that once came instinctively.

Why have we programmed our culture of educational nurturing and extension to debase  creativity as secondary to evaluation and data collection? The former does not need to be replaced by the latter; if we are to recognize and celebrate the power of creativity in the very young, why must we dismiss it in increasing measure as we grow up, demoting it to a sub-classification of “hobby” or something we do when time permits?

I think it’s time to change that classification; as we get older, we must embrace the essential role creativity plays in our lives as the vital oxygen we need to thrive, both domestically and professionally.

I am heartened by two of my former students who have proclaimed their love and devotion to creativity.

Lacey, who graduated in 2006, was on the verge of becoming one of those oxygen-supported creatives in high school, but she embraced the concept of the daybook — a daily journal — and felt the surge of energy every day when she put the pen to the paper to write.

“At the end of the year, I couldn’t stop,” said Lacey. “I can’t imagine not writing in my daybook anymore than I can imagine not breathing.”

Ruthie is another model for all of us. She graduated from high school in ’14, and just a few days ago, I happened upon her Etsy page for handmade pottery.

Ruthie? I couldn’t recall a single art class she had taken in high school. Her world was sports and graphic design; I had no idea how she had turned to spinning and creating beautiful mugs and bowls out of circuitous touches on wet clumps of clay.

I purchased one of her mugs and we reunited yesterday morning. As I drank a bold, black roast from the hand-crafted mug, she explained that the BFA program she was in at Salisbury University, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, encouraged her to break out of her major and broaden her creativity with other art forms.

She beamed. Creating pottery is a very spiritual experience for her, and she’s opening her own studio — in addition to getting married and moving. These are the very things that “get in the way” for most of us. Ruthie, however, breathes deeply the oxygen provided by her creative acts. She has discovered a spiritual relationship with art, and  is now helping others bring creativity into their lives as an essential component to being.

This idea of creativity, of clay, of words being our oxygen reminds us that we need to recognize the powers and benefits we are afforded when we create daily. I know that I, like Lacey, cannot imagine life without words any more than I can imagine life without oxygen.

Create. Breathe. Live. Thrive. Let creativity be a priority in your life, one that fuels your domestic and professional acts and responsibilities. We are all born creative; it is our charge to nurture it at all costs, across our entire lives.

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