In the Behind the Poetry series, I am giving a behind the scenes view of how I take poetry from page to stage while interviewing some influential people and visiting some landmark places along the way. Subscribe and tune in!
Three years ago this month my first non-fiction book, Breaking Old Rhythms was released. The book chronicled the journey of my 20s and how through the broken rhythms of going broke, breaking up, and finding my calling I learned how to break my own old rhythms and follow the rhythm of God. I wrote about how watching deejays work, emcees freestyle, and salsa dancers rock the dance floor taught me about the ways of Jesus.
The ideas are waiting to get out. They are second graders raising their hands saying, “Pick me! Pick me!” in the classroom that is your brain. They want to go to recess, which means we need to give them a place to play.
Sometimes life steals away the moments we could be creative. Sometimes family and taking care of ourselves has to take precedence above letting that idea climb the monkey bars. Sometimes we don’t want to face the same trash-talking, bullying fear that plagues us every time we sit down to create.
Telling someone how to find their voice is like telling someone the exact moment they will feel comfortable in their skin. It just doesn’t work that way. Both journeys are piece by piece, a windy path of learning to care about yourself, what you think and say, which will in turn make you want to honor the voices and thoughts of those around you.
I started performing poetry when I was 17 years old, my last year of high school, after I watched the movie Love Jones. This year means I’ve been performing for half my life. What started out as hip hop-inspired free verse, mixed with the formal poetry I studied in college, has transformed into the mix of spoken word and monologue that I perform today.
Creative ideas are funny creatures. They are more like cats than puppies. They will most likely not jump up and down when they see you; tail wagging, wanting your attention. They notice when you arrive at the page/screen/studio, walk by you, rub against your leg, and then jump on the kitchen counter, then on top of the refrigerator and stare at you. Laughing. Proving to you that you will not control them.
I wish I were an idea pied piper. I wish I knew the special music, tune, tone to play to get an idea to come out and dance on command. Creative ideas require patience and wooing. If they sense desperation, that I’m pressed up against a deadline, or that I’m trying to reenact the magic that happened in some other creative time, the ideas quit on me. They sit on top of the refrigerator with paws crossed and stare at me, daring me to try and create without them.
Whether you are a poet, creative, leader, parent, student, or spoons player, here are some tips on what to do when the idea won’t show up:
1. Give yourself plenty of time.
I have learned to stop making unrealistic promises to people. The creative process takes time whether we like it or not, so we need to be fair to our ideas and to ourselves.
2. Be patient.
The idea is going to have its say, and sometimes it’s not going to have its say while you are sitting at your desk, pen in hand, with open moleskin. Sometimes the idea is going to have its say right as you are about to drift to sleep, in the middle of a meeting, or by interrupting a conversation. You are better off not forcing its hand, but riding with its rhythms.
3. Walk away for a bit.
In the same way muscles can experience fatigue, your creativity can experience fatigue too. Give yourself and the idea a rest. Come back in a day or two. Then the idea might be ready to see you.
4. Free write.
Take a word or two from your topic and time yourself for five minutes, riffing on those words as if they had nothing to do with what you are working on. This will sometimes give you ideas you can keep and even if not it gives your creative brain a new place to travel to.
5. Let the idea be itself.
Ever since junior high we have all been on a constant quest to be ourselves. To prove to people that we’re cool, awesome, hipster-y. The coolest thing we can be is exactly who we are without trying to become someone or something else. Your idea wants that same courtesy. Let your idea be itself. Eventually, it will sidle next to your leg, jump in your lap and let you know it’s ready to become a reality.