Alice Walker on Creativity
By Maria Popova
To wonder what creativity is is among the chronic perplexities of the human condition. We’ve dissected its four essential stages, outlined its five steps of idea-production, and expounded theories about how it works. And yet the nature of creativity eludes us, perhaps because somewhere between the myth and the mechanics lies the simple truth that the creative spirit flies by its own accord, is accountable to no one, and differs for everyone.
In this lovely short segment from PBS’s American Masters, part of a feature documentary, one of the greatest writers of our time — the prolific and Pulitzer-winning Alice Walker — reflects on the nature of creativity with a beautiful and culturally necessary antidote to the “tortured genius” myth:
Creation is really a sustained period of bliss — even though the subject can still be very sad. Because there’s the triumph of coming through and understanding that you have, and that you did it the way only you could do it — you didn’t do it the way somebody told you to do it, you did it just the way you had to do it. And that is what makes us us.
In her altogether superb 1983 prose collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (public library), Walker considers a darker aspect of creativity amidst a cultural context of oppression, as she contemplates what “creativity” meant for Black women two generations earlier, who stifled their muses as they themselves were being stifled by the gruesome grip of slavery — women who “were Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste” as they were being “driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release”:
What did it mean for a Black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.
How was the creativity of the Black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when for most of the years Black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a Black person to read or write? And the freedom to paint, to sculpt, to expand the mind with action did not exist. Consider, if you can bear to imagine it, what might have been the result if singing, too, had been forbidden by law. Listen to the voices of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, and Aretha Franklin, among others, and imagine those voices muzzled for life. Then you may begin to comprehend the lives of our “crazy,” “Sainted” mothers and grandmothers. The agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelists, Essayists, and Short Story Writers, who died with their real gifts stifled within them.
Therefore we must fearlessly pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers knew, even without “knowing” it…
Complement with more notable thoughts on creativity from Leonard Bernstein, Charles Bukowski, Ray Bradbury, William S. Burroughs, Ira Glass, Albert Einstein, Neil Gaiman, T.S. Eliot, and other cultural icons.
Published February 25, 2014