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  • Writer's pictureJan Carroll

Love Note to Struggling Creatives

While my clothes wash in the laundromat, I sit outside in my car, listening to music. The car faces the laundromat, its front almost all glass. Grooving to the music, I notice I can see, in the reflection of the window, birds (actually behind me in the sky) flying across the change machine, which sits ready to spit out quarters in exchange for dollar bills. Clouds, nonchalant, drift through the juxtaposed scene. It’s beautiful. Poignant. I wonder how many people, all over the world, notice incidents of beauty like this they acknowledge to themselves but never talk about, that proclivity never nurtured into a full-fledged creative life—or even a half-hearted one! I remember how I used to, years ago, ache to fan those flickering flames of creativity within me into something I could talk to others about, into a way to connect with others regarding our shared human condition, the euphoria, the dread, heat, ice—you know: life.

A few nights later the Nova episode on black holes teaches me every galaxy has a black hole at its center, an “infinitely dense space from which nothing can escape,” one of the show’s scientists says. The Milky Way’s is called Sagittarius A*. The sci-fi-like stereotype of black holes is as ruthless consumers, ingesters of any nearby “debris,” destroyers of anything that strays too close to its gravitational jaws. That at the event horizon, its no-return-path edge, space itself is bent and time altered. A young astronomer pipes up enthusiastically, “But, they also shape galaxies” and he declares that these great engines are “lock boxes to the secrets of the universe,” holding so much to yet learn.

Two days pass. I watch the movie Loving Vincent, which beautifully and creatively explores the last days of Vincent Van Gogh’s life using several of his paintings—animated. I’m surprised to learn he died so young (thirty-seven) and only painted for nine years, but I’m shocked he painted at least 800 paintings in that time, as he was treated as an outsider and a weirdo and was bullied and misunderstood. I hadn’t expected to, but I cry at the end (as the song “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” is played) that at the end of his life he struggled so, though he had his brother’s devoted love and a few true friends. His words appear on screen: “I want to touch people with my art.” The next day I talk about it with my son, who has seen the film too. He wonders, as I did at the laundromat, how many other people then or in other times were painting or creating in new astonishing ways but never—even posthumously—ever had their work seen or appreciated. We talk about the Dr. Who scene where the doctor brings Van Gogh to our time to see a crowd of people admiring his work as it is displayed in the Orsay Museum in Paris. We decide to believe that somehow, somewhere, Van Gogh did eventually know, because we so much want that for him.

At the beginning of the Nova episode a caption had been added, saying “This program first aired in 2021, before the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope,” implying that “truth” changes. As one of the featured experts says, “We have to rethink everything over and over as far as what we know about the universe.” They go on to explain that it was once conventional knowledge that when something entered a black hole, there was no escape, that nothing ever came out of it. But Stephen Hawking’s work showed that because a black hole has a faint but observable energy signature, it’s probably true that what is inside a black hole somehow “correlates” with what is outside of it. How is not yet certain, though various hypotheses have been floated and continue to be studied. Hawking’s words are shared: “Black holes ain't as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole, both to the outside, and possibly, to another universe. So, if you feel you are in a black hole, don't give up. There's a way out.”

You, like every galaxy, harbor at heart a black hole, like every human too you are destroyer, consumer, but you too have the potential power to shape matter, to positively influence other astronomical entities. Maybe you think you’re a jumbled mess inside sometimes, the event horizon where ego meets world distortional, warping space and time, making “reality” hard to define, often hard to navigate while others seem to stay in orderly orbit, seem “fine,” unbothered. You may feel like the gravitational pull is stretching you into a very long string one atom wide, the math of gravity and the math of quantum physics not “adding up.” Your day-to-day experience full of deformities and annihilations of various kinds, but also cultivating and fostering explosive light jets of new creative potential reaching out into what seems like empty space but is really, well, life, waiting to interact with you.

One woman who knew him said Vincent painted every day, no matter the weather, even in pouring rain—and one day she took him an umbrella. He loved to paint. He needed to.

I had to learn to do the creative work for the love of it, to keep my eyes open, then, for opportunities to share it, and whenever one did come along, to step into it, hopefully with humility, the light of grace granting the measure needed, remembering that mostly the poems are given as a kind of medicine to me. To write as a way of loving myself first, then move outward from there. Toko-pa Turner’s “Black Sheep Gospel,” in her book Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, says, “6. Send out your signals of originality with frequency, honoring whatever small trickle of response you may get until you reach a momentum. 7. Notice your helpers and not your unbelievers.” If anything in this essay speaks to you, I highly recommend her book!

Perhaps you could benefit from rethinking the “truths” you’ve been told or have been telling yourself about creativity in general and your own in particular.

Maybe it doesn’t hurt to cultivate a thick skin too. Bill Mallonee, in his song “Skin,” about Van Gogh and about the creative life, says:

Now look, if you're gonna come around here And say those sort of things You gotta take a few on the chin Talking about love and all that stuff You better bring your thickest skin Sometimes you can't please everyone Sometimes you can't please anyone at all You sew your heart onto your sleeve And wait for the ax to fall You there with the paint box You there with paper and pen Me, I got this blunt instrument I'm gonna play on 'til the end

I wish I could go back in time and tell these things to Vincent. I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self. I suppose it’s something one has to live through, though, to learn the hard way. But just in case the advice might hit home, I am telling you now. I love the creative in you. It’s worth loving. Take good care of it. Be willing to rethink your “truth” again and again. My fellow creatives hoping for resonance, aching to be recognized, to be seen, to be heard, I’m thinking of you. Now, go take your medicine—create, and create, and create! Vincent would want you to. Stephen would too. So would Toko-pa. So would Bill.

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