Anyone who knows me, knows I like to write. There is just something about the creative process that I find satisfying—finding the right word, the perfect turn of phrase, the rhythm of the story. During last year’s COVID isolation I finished writing a memoir and a novel—my third and fourth books—but that 74,000-word novel did me in. It was like running a marathon. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t plan to do it again. I need to find a new creative outlet.
Thirty years ago, I fancied myself a woodcarver. I liked to create animals and accumulated quite a collection of wooden birds, mammals, and reptiles. In the early 1990s, I made a small Noah’s Ark for my wife as a Christmas present. My plan was to give her two, tiny new animals every year thereafter. I enlisted our three-year-old son Ian and we carved and painted the animals together. We amassed a collection many zoos would be proud of, from zebras to hummingbirds and elephants to meerkats. We finally stopped the two-decade-old tradition when he was grown. In fact, I stopped carving altogether. I had run out of room to store all of my carvings and ran out of friends and relatives to fob them off on. That’s when I turned to writing.
Creativity can take many forms, as we observed during last year’s pandemic shutdown. My wife is an accomplished painter. She spent some of her time in lockdown making art. Musicians who couldn’t play their instruments in a concert hall, played for their neighbors from the balcony. Baking supplies were scarce because folks were making cakes. Australians amused themselves by dressing up in costumes for their only outing of the week, taking out the garbage (or, as they call it, the wheelie bin).
One of the things that struck me during the pandemic creativity-binge was how much of our creativity is drawn out by bringing joy to others. Creativity comes from a combination of talent and enjoyment of the process, and it thrives in the presence of an appreciative audience. I enjoy writing these articles, but I also like it when people stop me in the grocery store to tell me how much they like reading them. Those cooped-up musicians in Italy who were playing Bach from their balconies probably listened carefully for the smattering of applause from the high-rise canyon of apartments around them.
Many of us have creative energy we scarcely recognize. We make creative COVID masks, we photograph, we bake, we write, we start a home-grown business, we even dress up like a dinosaur to take out the trash. It is part of the human spirit. And if you don’t know how to do something, you can take some lessons or you can YouTube it. That’s how I learned how to repair my lawnmower, refinish my wooden staircase, and change the cabin air filter in my 2011 Nissan Rogue. Creativity takes many forms especially if you can’t afford to pay someone else to do it.
Creativity is good for the soul and it runs in my family. My dad was a plasterer by trade but always worked with his hands. He grew plants, created a back yard smokehouse, designed a rockscape waterfall, worked on cars, and built a garage addition on our house. My own creativity runs in so many directions that I sometimes experience a kind of creative ADHD.
I created built-in bookshelves in my last three homes and a fireplace mantle in our current home. My wife and I constructed a shed, a fire pit, and dug a goldfish pond with a fountain. When hurricane Michael destroyed our swimming pool, we filled it in and turned the space into a formal garden—complete with handmade steppingstones and a giant urn bubbler. In the last couple of months I made a new furniture cabinet for the back porch and a set of giant Jenga blocks for my grandchildren.
Long before the pandemic, my father-in-law’s neighbors in Louisville, Kentucky let loose their creativity by turning an old tree stump at the edge of their yard into a Gnome Home. It was complete with a roof, doors, windows, and several gnomes doing chores around the gnome-stead. And the scene changes with the seasons and holidays. People are constantly stopping to admire the gnomes and take their pictures. I am sure that was the goal of the Powells when they created this inspired diorama.
Now that my father-in-law has passed away, my wife is repaying the help and kindness the Powells provided him by doing a painting of that gnome home for them. Her creativity has been unleashed by theirs and will likely bring them joy for years to come.
In the 1980s, early in my wood-carving years, I answered an ad in the newspaper from someone selling some woodworking tools. I was in the market for some chisels. When I arrived at the home of the seller, I was met by a woman who turned out to be the widow of a woodcarver who had recently passed away. She escorted me to his workshop where I picked out a few chisels from his collection. But as I self-consciously sorted through a dead man’s tool collection, I came face to face with an uncomfortable reality. Perched on the man’s work bench was a life-sized wood carving of a great blue heron. It was unfinished and still emerging from a block of wood, but it had a well-defined beak, head, and neck. It was beautifully done, and I found it at once humbling in its quality and inspirational in its beauty. Now, as I look back on that experience from nearly four decades, I see another message. That man was working on that bird right up until the end. His unfinished work left a piece of him behind for us to admire—a kind of unintended legacy in wood, still bringing joy to others. That is what creativity is all about.
That is what I hope for myself. I want to leave an unfinished work, whether it be a carving, a piece of furniture, or one of these articles. I want to bring pleasure to others by creating right up until the end. I do have an idea for another book. Or maybe I’ll dust off my chisels and make another pair of animals for the ark. But no, I need a new challenge—something I’ve never tried before. Maybe I’ll make a home for the gnomes that live in my garden. There are seven of the white-bearded little guys. I talk to them sometimes, one old man to another. Surely I didn’t imagine their faint voices early in the morning singing, Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, it’s off to work we go. Or maybe that final project is nearer than I thought.