Snow-envy is easy when you’re not the one shoveling a path through five-foot drifts or having to thaw door locks on a car.
Even so, when the photos arrive, sent along by friends determined to gloat or complain about their shimmering worlds, I’m surprised by how quickly I become transfixed. Glinting in the sunlight, piled high along fenceposts and streets, whorled into intricate, complex patterns against window and shed, the still-pristine drifts of freshly-fallen snow dazzle my eyes and my imagination. Always, they make me envious.
My envy is partly nostalgia, the remembered pleasure of snow angels and sledding. But snow also stirs to life a favorite fantasy – the possibility that life might be willing to grant us, if only occasionally, a perfectly clean slate. By reducing the physical world to the twin realities of sunlight and shadow, snow creates an illusion of purity and simplicity, tempting us to imagine a human world equally free of complication and regrets. Watching snow cover the remains of desiccated autumn with a blanket of perfection, it’s easy to imagine life’s disappointment, pain, conflict and loss blanketed with similar layers of beauty and peace.
Thoughts of disavowing a cluttered or complicated past in order to experience such a pristine future are deeply appealing. Even children understand the relief and satisfaction that come with being offered a fresh start. Adults can be no less eager to turn, and begin again.
When writers seek a fresh start, their longing for an empty slate, for the opportunity to wipe away stunted paragraphs, unfinished sentences and untidy piles of words becomes almost visceral. A desk piled high with false starts, orphaned phrases and errant thoughts can lead to suffocating frustration. Some call it writer’s block. Writer’s boredom might be equally apt. A certain ennui sets in, a stifling lassitude, a distaste for one’s own thought so severe it tempts travel down the path toward that particularly noxious dead end called “I don’t have anything original to say.”
Granted, originality can be tricky business. Foregoing concern for originality in an attempt to “write what appeals to the masses” sometimes leads directly into the heart of literary tract housing, those subdivisions of publishing where rows of bland, predictable and stolid manuscripts reach off to the horizon. On the other hand, writers determined to be original in every detail and at all cost often produce the literary equivalent of a purple house with green shutters and gargoyles on the roof. It’s memorable, but not necessarily attractive. Striking a balance, speaking with a voice both memorable and appealing, is one of the most difficult things in the world.
Anyone who’s attempted to please a thesis advisor knows how difficult originality can be. When the pressure is not merely to publish, but to publish something which never before has been, difficulties abound. The search for a “completely original” thesis – an academic blank slate, if you will – leads to a continual narrowing of focus. As the old joke has it, candidates who say more and more about less and less eventually say everything about nothing at all. Even in academia, that isn’t creative originality, but quirky irrelevance.
Dealing with these intertwined issues of creativity and originality becomes even more difficult when we allow ourselves to reject the constraints of history. Just as every bad decision, every false start and each thoughtless choice in life has lessons to teach, so also every wrong word, every half-baked sentence and every inadequate description that shows up in our writing is more than a mistake. We may face blank pages, but we ourselves are not blank slates. Errors and omissions function as vibrant parts of the creative process, and whatever use we make of them – even if we choose to set them aside – helps to ground us in the history of our own work.
Equally critical is the fact that we are embedded in a history which far exceeds our own. Always, there is the temptation to reject or ignore that history rather than allowing its richness to enliven and sustain our work.
Believing our words to be purely our own, unsullied by the contaminating presence of those who came before, is at best an innocent conceit and at worst a heartbreaking delusion. Rejecting our indebtedness to past artists and writers, attempting to wipe the slate clean of every influence or unwind every tendril of literary relationship in the pursuit of a spurious originality is simple foolishness.
Truly creative work always is grounded in the words of other artists and writers, the interpretation of critics, the assorted imaginings of dreamers and the tattered and fragmented realities of our own lives. The words, the history and our tiny bits of life are the givens. Their shape, their pattern and finally their resonance and truth require nothing more than rearrangement by a skillful hand and an attentive heart.
For rearrangers of reality, the kaleidoscope becomes the perfect tool. Holding it up to the light, turning it this way and that, watching its random scatterings of color and light is as captivating and compelling as the sight of falling, drifting snow.
Rosabeth Kanter, a specialist in strategy, innovation and leadership for Harvard Business School, understands the power of kaleidoscopic images. “Creativity,” she says, “is a lot like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. You look at a set of elements, the same ones everyone else sees, but then reassemble those floating bits and pieces into an enticing new possibility.” In the same way, writers are called to hold reality up to the lights of intellect, imagination, and creative passion, turning it this way and that until words fall into place and their newly-formed patterns sparkle with beauty and meaning.
Reading over my own writing from past years, recalling the birth of phrases and the awkward toddling of words like a doting parent, I see the paragraphs and pages not as static and sequential, frozen in time and forever fixed, but vibrant and alive, broken up and fragmented by circumstance, tossed up and falling out, a confetti of meaning both perfectly familiar and terrifyingly unique.
As February ends and the snowmelts begin, it’s time to gather up these scattered words and make a fresh start into the muddy, rutted spring. This season, it’s time to forego the blank slate and seek a more kaleidoscopic vision. It’s time to give life a turn.