In college, my friends and I draped ourselves over dorm furniture and jawed about each other’s personalities and talents. Bobbie was good at math and science. Susan read fast and had a great memory. Marilyn was outgoing and Doreen was mysterious. I wanted “sexy” but had to settle for “not afraid to talk to new guys.”
Julie, with hippie clothing, long blonde hair, and unique musical instruments, claimed “creative” and the rest of us let her have it. I would have liked to have been “creative,” perhaps even more than “sexy,” but I knew I was not.
I had little success in the arts. In grade school I gave up my flute almost as soon as I got it, due to lack of sound coming out. Later, in junior high, I got an “A” in art class, but only because I turned in my work on time.
In college I became a literature major and wrote decent papers about books by other people. My high grades came from analytical skills, not imagination.
If there’s one place that can stamp creativity out of you, it was my next stop: graduate school.
I was given a reading list of 200 books and sat in my apartment reading them and preparing for preliminary examinations for an entire grueling, lonely year. Exceptionally creative books, like James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” made me furious because I had to work so hard to get through them.
After I passed the exam, I knew I needed to be creative in choosing my dissertation topic, but after years of rules and requirements, this was as difficult as turning my head to face backwards. All I could think to do with the dissertation was choose something that would please my advisor.
I gained his approval, but I never got into the research. I never began to write.
Then I followed a boyfriend to Davis, abandoned my Ph.D., and started a new life. Over the years, I took a variety of jobs at UC Davis, jobs where I often evaluated other people’s creative efforts.
In my first job, I edited research articles. Later, I videotaped new teachers. Eventually I became a lecturer in the English department, taught composition and graded student papers. I liked teaching the best, and in hindsight I recognize it as highly creative work.
In the early 90s, I lost my teaching job and began casting around for what to do next. At first I stayed home with my young children, but I also signed up for a writing class. My first teacher gave me no special encouragement, but a counselor got me to sign up for a second class with a well-respected instructor from Sacramento City College.
One day she asked me to read aloud the paper I had written about an article of clothing. It was an unusual piece for me, about a nightgown I thought was sexy and which I saved in my closet for decades. When I looked up after I read, several classmates were crying. I couldn’t believe my paper had done that.
Gears shifted in my head. I wrote more.
A year later, I got the opportunity to write this column and I have been at it for almost 20 years. Strangers who stop me in the supermarket tell me I’m creative. The most frequent question I’m asked is, “How do you come up with a new topic every week?” I even think of myself as creative now, because I sit down at the computer with nothing in mind, and an hour later I find I’ve written a page of text.
Sometimes no text appears, but if I get out in the world, take a walk, go to a speech, listen to public radio, or interview someone, something comes up and I’m back at my computer, typing.
My guitar teacher recently said to me, “You just mess around for a long time and eventually you find what works for you, with your hands, your style.”
As I awkwardly pluck one guitar string and then another, it’s hard to imagine I’ll ever be able to do that.
But I don’t rule it out. Not anymore.
In college my boldness at meeting new guys was symptomatic of my eagerness to try new things, some of which were creative, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I wish that I and my girlfriends, sitting around the dorm room in our pj’s, had been kinder and more generous with the “creative” label. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long to revise my image of myself.
I know now that creativity is in me, as it is in anyone living, breathing, trying new things and making their way in the world.
I wish “creative” weren’t a label we think only some people deserve, because that’s not the truth.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org