This is a hard piece to start. I say that every time I sit down to write, but it’s always true. Creating isn’t easy! If it were, there wouldn’t be a million books written about it, and every interview with an artist wouldn’t include the question “What is your process?” But this one is particularly difficult, (a) because I’m typing it out with one hand while the other holds the three-month-old baby asleep in my lap, and (b) because it requires me to do exactly what I’m telling you not to do, which is to THINK. Because if I know anything about creative work, it’s that you can’t THINK it into being. Thinking is for homework, taxes and texting. Creating is different. It’s being possessed by a spirit of sorts. I’m talking vision, y’all, which to me means turning down the volume on your brain and listening to your GUT.
I’ve spent my whole life following my gut. It’s my head I can’t trust. My head is full of questions, self-flagellation, confusion. My gut, on the other hand, is my shaman. When I’m totally in tune with it, creation comes easily. I don’t second-guess it because it feels so darn righteous. It is the truest expression of my soul, and when it speaks to me I know it is right. There is no confusion.
I still panic every time I’m asked, “So, what do you do?” I wish I could say “I’m an actor,” “a banker,” “a chef.” I long for a tidy box to fit my life into. Here’s what I’ve got so far: I’m a artist, director, performer, writer, aerialist, activist, and mother. I’m happiest when I’m doing all of those things at once, and I see no reason not to mix everything up together: Why not express political ideas through song, dance, and glamour? Why can’t feminist statements be dreamy, beautiful, and grand? I’m obsessed with the human drama; I live to champion feelings and vulnerability. My work is usually done in collaboration with others. I like working as part of a community. I’m turned on by looking at our shared experiences through the Vaselined lens of magical realism.
In a culture that demands hard facts, clear objectives, and succinct job titles, that’s the kind of explanation that makes eyes glaze over even as they dart around the room looking for an escape route. At worst, people make me feel stupid, or like what I do isn’t important. “What do you mean?” they’ll respond. My six-year-old daughter even said to me, “You don’t have a real job, do you, Mommy?” (knife-through-the-heart, someone-kill-me-now moment). If you can’t tell someone what you do in two words or less, it seems, it doesn’t have value.
When I interviewed Lena Dunham for Lula magazine last summer, I asked that old question about her creative process. She said: “There is a specific feeling to writing when it feels good, like sliding into a very familiar sweater. I like to try and inhabit an old memory again. In that way, it works like an impossible time machine.” Yes! that is exactly what a creative vision feels like. It is the unmistakable feeling of YOU. Pay attention to this feeling. Learn how to recognize it in its early, prickle-up-the-spine stages.
You don’t have to have a very well-defined sense of WHO YOU ARE to feel it, either. No matter how much you grow and change, that “very familiar sweater” still fits. It is creativity’s best, warmest friend, because it is so specific to each one of us.
There are things you can do to conjure your personal familiar sweater when you need its warmth. First and foremost, you can target what you’re curious about and follow the path it takes you on. That path will lead you to your own personal genius. I am of the firm belief that everyone is a genius at something. Genius is not reserved for “special” people with otherworldly talent; but it is a privilege, because to access it you need the time, support, and wherewithal to dig down deep into your guts and pull out the gem of truth which is: What do you love? If you have the luxury to spend time contemplating this question, you’re on your way. Even if you don’t have the time, my gut is telling me that if you listen carefully, you will hear your gut crying out for the thing that you love. It’s the thing you can’t get out of your head. The magnet that pulls you along whether you want it to or not.
Creativity is often described as the muses whispering to us. I love this image. It’s old-time-y and romantic and dreamy. But the word muse has, historically, implied a kind of passivity. The muse doesn’t do anything; she (it’s always a she!) just is, and her very way of being is somehow inspiring to the artist (who’s always a he). She gives rise to ideas, but doesn’t necessarily have any of her own. Rarely is she seen as having any agency; her inner life tends to go ignored, as does her genius.
In the real world, there is nothing wrong with being someone’s muse, and nothing wrong with being inspired by someone else. But, speaking for myself, I know my work improved exponentially the day I realized that I was (and am) my own muse. When I am my own muse, I am empowered. I use the act of creating to know myself better, to explain myself to myself.
When I’m in creativity’s warm embrace, I can feel it, physically. My stomach flutters. My heart soars. My skin feels glowy and warm and buzzy. I feel like I’m in my body and in the moment, alert, listening, feeling. It feels like I’m vibrating at a higher-than-normal frequency. These are all signs that a truth is about to tumble out of me. Vision, truth, genius—these are physical, not mystical, experiences. They are your gut yelling at you to listen.
I remember, when I was in my teens and 20s, shrinking under the intense pressure to KNOW MYSELF. Adults were constantly nudging me to pick a label, asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, what I would study in college. It seemed like most people my age knew their calling already. I wish I knew then that there’s literally no reason to rush to conclusions about your identity. You guys are at the age where you have all the time in the world to get in the zone and find what you love. Find that thing that makes your body tingle because your truth is being pinched. Surround yourself with work that inspires you. Literally surround yourself. Sit at your desk or computer and make vision boards, pin inspirational quotes and images everywhere your eye can see. Stack books you love at arm’s reach. Underline the parts that speak to you and have them readily accessible. Drown yourself in the artists who speak your language. Play sad songs that carry the weight of the world. Sit down with all this, even for half an hour, and see what spills out. This is the muse in you whispering to artist-you. This is your intuition connecting totally random stuff and churning out truths that only you could possibly come up with. Over time, such moments of inspiration will fit together like puzzle pieces, and a clear vision of life will come together, bit by bit, in front of your eyes.
Back to genius. At the end of the day, true genius is usually that kooky, weirdo thing that everyone once questioned. Genius is the outlandish vision that we commit to following. Taking the machete to the weedy path of human experience and clearing a way for others to follow. It’s looking at the world in your own personal way and making that vision accessible to others. Genius is personal. It’s unique. It’s allowing your intuition to speak through you, until you eventually give it your own language. Go with your gut, and your genius will reveal itself to you. It will reveal you to yourself. You don’t have to wrestle it down. You don’t even have to fully understand it. Your vision is you, it’s this moment, it’s what will change those around you and will change the world. Each generation has the privilege of seeing things in a new way; your perspective, right now, is important. You see things in a way that my contemporaries don’t. You are the future! For crying out loud, get on your vision quest and shout your truths.
As I finish writing this, the baby is asleep in another room, and I’m vibing with a great snowstorm outside my window. White plumps of snow dancing in suspended gusts of unique and individual cutouts, each one hovering for a moment then rushing down to pillow the earth and delight my kids on their way home from school. Each one as individual as we are. As singular as each of our messages. Inspiration is everywhere. Surround yourself in it. ♦
Sarah Sophie Flicker is a performer with and the creative director of the avant-garde political cabaret troupe the Citizens Band. She is also a film director, a writer, an activist, a mother, and an editor-at-large for Violet Book. Her political/film work can be seen at Lady Parts Justice and Maximilla.com.