Creativity–how to find it and keep it going (without being stuck in a bathroom) and other musings

Today, I woke my teen son by holding the below draft of a life-sized doll up to my own face and doing a jig before his full length mirror. It garnered a smile so perhaps my Natsumi doll will be the bad cop to my good, and I’ll bring her out to deliver any unwelcome news/herald my son with nagging reminders for the day. In our home, monster-like dolls are the natural consequence of living with an ADHD parent who is overflowing with odd impulses to make things. Life can indeed be joyous and full of madcap adventures when you have ADHD or, in my son’s case, have a parent with it. (I have elsewhere written about the considerable drawbacks of said parentage, i.e, believing your mother has typed Daniel Moynihan train station into the Uber app to catch a train but discovering too late that she’s, in fact, selected the Daniel Moynihan courthouse, located miles away. Curses to those responsible for naming two nyc landmarks after the same man!(Relatedly, curses to the imp who decided to name one New Jersey train station, Penn Station! Some ADHR-er has surely fallen prey to this trap)

The start of my strange, monster-like large doll of Riverdale classmate Natsumi Yamada, my only friend in the fifth grade. My long-term goal is to have a pop up exhibit about my efforts to be more Korean, featuring many large dolls in different settings, Korean food for the audience to eat and a full sensory experience. That is right now competing with my blog and of course writing a comic mystery novel set at my private high school in the 1990’s. How does one have time to do everything in one life?

These past two weeks, I’ve noticed a marked withering of my pre-frontal cortex (the brain’s center of imaginative thought), no doubt explained by my scheduled monthly detox from Vyvanse. During my Vyvanse break, which seems necessary because there’s a study showing that long term use can lead to cognitive defects, I am impotent, seemingly only capable of tapping at my keyboard, deleting my words and bitch-slapping myself for wasting precious evening time. How I pine for the sensations the drug gives me–the heat of a tightly wound brain and its steady beam of creative thought (instead of the usual strobe lights inside my head). As Nick Cave, an artist/musician I admire, has said, creativity is a battle, not something passive where ideas just fall on you as you sit comfy on a cushion; he’s spot on; after a night of writer’s block, I feel angry and depleted.

How I feel when I have writer’s block (drawn in ball point pen a while ago).

I didn’t grow up surrounded by creative people so they hold an undeniable mystique. My mother is a child therapist who likes to read non-fiction mostly and discuss politics 24/7. She can’t draw, play an instrument, dance, write stories or do crafty things, which admittedly disappoints me. (But she has other strengths, xoxo). Her greatest fear is that one day I will give up my law job and become a mealy, dependent writer or artist. If I tell her, even now, that I am spending my evening drawing paper dolls of Koreans or sewing dolls, she grunts “whatever happened to reading?” In the past, when I’ve expressed regret at not doing something with my writing other than draft demand letters to derelict employers she will tell me the same story about her best friend’s daughter who works at a major publishing house but has almost lost her job once or twice, even at her high level. Her anti-Arts stance can lead to ridiculous show downs on occasion, i.e, the time not that long ago that I bomb-texted her 50 drawings I had done to see if she’d make one comment. (She ignored them). I am such a child still.

When I first married my husband, I was intrigued by his extended family who lived in a place that seemed about as exotic as it gets–Winnipeg, Canada (“the coldest big city in North America” my husband likes to tell people). Uncle George, a cheerful, winking man with a thick Hungarian accent impressed me with his frenetic presence and diverse skills. His basement was his idea hub where you might find him expertly sewing fabric bags to sell, bending his own metal keychains and/or fashioning a unique large yurt in his backyard for bug-free outdoor dining. At the time I thought, what a zany, outside of the box character like Belle’s harried inventor father in Beauty in the Beast. Decades later, tinkering around my quiet apartment as my family dozes, I realize the only things distinguishing George and I are age, gender, ethnicity and a spacious carpeted basement. I like to imagine that somewhere in the dark recesses of Korea, there’s a black haired, almond-eyed version of George who shares my DNA. If we are truly kin, he’s wearing dweeby goggles, carrying a blow torch and looking a touch touched by creative impulse.

I’ve spent a large chunk of my life trying to find my “people”–first by going to Seoul before I had children to meet my foster family who took care of me when I was a baby and more recently spitting into a vial for Ancestry.com. Ancestry let me down. Where I had imagined connecting with a herd of creative, quirky Korean birth relatives, I found nothing but a list of possible fourth cousins who live in Korea and the big reveal–I’m 100% Korean. Excuse me Ancestry? This is the best my $70 can do? My hair is like EXTRA wavy for a straight-out Korean. (See the photo of me as a little girl below. No perm involved!). I’m obvi proud of being Korean but throw one Translyvania or something into the mix. I’m nothing but an homogeneous sack! And more disappointingly, fourth cousins?!! You, my reader, are probably a fourth cousin!

me with my grandma Libby

The other ways I’ve tried to find my people is through enrolling in countless writers workshops, creating play-reading club or, least fruitfully, every very few years creating a Facebook/Meet up group for creative writing/art making that often heeds no responses or incites a lone stranger to share a killer-clown short story with me that FREAKS ME OUT.

Last year, my son found me a Facebook group for ADHDers; I sometimes read their posts and wonder: are these truly my people? (it’s hard for me not to be reminded of the classic children’s book Are you My Mother? See a cartoon image of myself wandering from a group of ADHD people, Korean people, Jewish people et al and asking them “Are you my People?). The question of creativity and its tie with ADHD is often discussed in this ADHD Facebook group as well as the pros and cons of taking drugs like Vyvanse. For those of us loving the creative focus Vyvanse brings, we wonder are there natural, less invasive cures for writers/creativity block that will not leave us addled seniors one day? What leads to creativity in general?

My latest passing fancy–drawing Koreans so that I can put them on vinyl and make them Colorforms. It would be fun to make settings based on popular Korean movies and shows, like that memorable modern house in Parasite. Endless fun.
I made a little cut out of my head and can place it on drawings of glamorous Koreans. Fun!
New craft project anyone? Air fresheners. You can paint and/or embroider images and then add scent. Your car will never be the same! Can’t wait to do this.

Picasso supposedly once said “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” The surge in arts and crafts during COVID lock downs/quarantine certainly suggests this is true. Boredom does, indeed, bring creativity. I remember a month that my mother and I had to lived in the Sheraton hotel in the West 50’s of Manhattan when I was a young kid, thanks to the generosity of a wealthy distant cousin who paid our tab during a time of need. My mother, a child therapist, would on occasion see a patient in one room while I hid in the bathroom and played in the empty bathtub. In the days before iphones and ipads, I was left to my own devices–a few colored pencils, a roll of tape and a few sheets of paper. It is in that tub that I completed over a few weeks a fleet of standing 3-D horse figurines with my limited supplies, toilet paper (to stuff them) and found pennies for their hooves that allowed them to stand. (My mother still has these figurines in a closet and they are remarkably in tact). But when I’m in a creative rut, how can I emulate this very specific scenario that encouraged me to not only be creative but complete a long term project–two great feats for someone with ADHD.

It is a known fact that isolation and removing oneself from one’s daily obligations/surroundings is helpful for creativity. See all the writer’s retreats/colonies that seek to draw artists and writers into the quiet of nature. (MetroNorth certainly agrees with the boredom theory of creativity as they have or used to have a great sounding writer’s fellowship where they’d pay you to take long train rides and write). However, this kind of get away to the sticks is rarely possible for me as a parent of two and a part time attorney etc. The closest thing I can probably achieve is writing in a quiet room of my apartment after the kids are asleep but that’s a poor substitute for being barricaded in a hotel bathroom! (My “quiet” room contains a t.v, drawers of art supplies, two baskets of fabric and is for me, anything but boring). I once briefly considered buying a Freewrite machine, that is basically an overpriced mini typewriter that has no ability to connect to internet, thereby ensuring “boredom” but more than one person marveled that I would blow money this way). But I am grateful I have a closet of a room in which to hide.

I recently turned to Netflix’s The Creative Brain, a one-hour show about how to spark creativity, hoping to gain some insights. Enter the show’s host, Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, who tells us that humans have evolved so that we have a large space between the part of the brain that receives input and the part responsible for output. He explains that humans unlike let’s say dogs, can see food and not just eat it but can react to it by drawing it or using it to make sculptures etc.(Clearly, this Dr. hasn’t seen that elephant that paints masterpieces with its trunk and a brush). Unfortunately for you and and I, Dr. Eagleman is a pretty lazy, “basic” interviewer; he landed an impressive roster of guests (e.g., musicians Grimes, Nick Cave, Robert Glasper, author Michael Chabon, architects, scientists, animators, etc) and fails to ask them questions pertinent to my life! For example, Mr. Cave throws our host a morsel, saying that creativity is a battle, but does the brain doctor host do the requisite follow up? (e.g., ask “do you ever have periods of inactivity and what’s your war plan?”). No, he does not. Dear man, don’t you want to know how Nick Cave steels himself against rejection? How does he balance mundane life tasks/obligations with his art making? What does he snack on/wear/listen to while he creates? How did he jump from music to making his gorgeous fabric sculptures? Did his family encourage the Arts or did he have to ignore their rantings of disapproval?

My drawing of a photo of Nick Cave and his cat

The best part of the show was seeing the “idea generator” that animator Phil Tippet shows off—scrapbooks with photos of objects he collected over the years, which elicit different feelings in him and inspire him to make monsters and other creatures for film. (Several other artists interviewed agreed that surrounding oneself with a broad array of stimuli-smells, textures, visuals, sounds–was good for creativity). I shall devote myself to making scrapbooks for each of my creative projects. Increase my inputs to increase my output!

At some point, Grimes opines that we must force ourselves to do things that feel wrong/makes us feel badly/uncomfortable in order to heighten our creativity. She’s surely not ADHD, because our kind tend to have a poor ability to stick with activities that are hard. Hark back to my sewing class in the garment district years ago where I quit after a grueling day one; wrestling with thread, that wicked bobbin and a spray of tiny pins left me mad, mad, mad.(My sad, lopsided, elastic-waist skirt wound up in a city garbage bin).

The show’s concluding tip that one must not be afraid of rejection, made me snort in derision. Fear of rejection is my life mantra. It probably makes sense that I became an attorney because it’s not full of the same overt rejection one faces in the Arts. Certainly my self esteem has always been paltry, which makes rejection hard to overcome. My therapist often reads my posts and uses them to springboard our conversations. She believes that the key to unlocking my writer’s block is to learn to accept and like myself more. What an interesting theory!

Me, finding the words of adoptee, Olivier Rousteing very relatable. I think I messed up the quote as he may have said “The more I know who I am, the more I need to know where I came from.”

Her theory does not work for Oliver Rousteing of the Netflix documentary Wonder Boy, for the young creative director of Balmain fashion house, an adoptee himself, appears focused and uber creative and capable of creating gorgeous, feted collections season after season despite his admission that he has trouble loving himself. As an adoptee, I watched particularly riveted as the film shows us this talented, successful young man surrounded by glamorous “friends” like Jennifer Lopez . How pre-maturely self-assured he seemed. Soon, this facade drops and we see he’s awfully lonely and unsettled despite the accolades and accomplishments. We learn, straight from him, that his self-esteem is tenuous. In scenes where he speaks about his search for his birth mother, the main plot of the film, he says (not exact quotes):”When you don’t know anything about your past, it’s hard to love yourself.” So he’s an example of someone with low self esteem who is a fountain of creative ideas. (But I still like my therapist’s hypothesis and hope she’s right that the more I accept myself, the more I’ll be able to finish my projects).

Watching Olivier, all restless limbs, finally review his adoption file after some hurdles, I related to his anxiety. In my twenties, I had the same chance to view a glimpse of my mysterious history–seated with a social worker in a small room at the Spence Chapin adoption agency in nyc. I’ll never forget the moment I opened my folder file and read the faded typewritten words (over and over); in my Korean foster mother’s (translated) words: “Soomee is shy, scared of men and does not like to share her rice.” One pretty adorable sentence that distilled my essence. Fourteen words to unpack in therapy and ponder endlessly. A gasp of information that made me feel sad and happy at the same time. (I was shy so much of my life, including around men and I do love my carbs!)

Wish me luck in this lifetime battle to be creative. I wish you an arsenal of tools in this war that must be waged! xoxo

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