Monday, February 28, 2011

Creativity and "The Northernness"

If you've ever read C. S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy (which I had to for a class in college--these days I'm nowhere near that ambitious in my spiritual literature) you might recall a concept he calls "the Northernness." When Lewis was young, he came across a headline and an image in a book that inexplicably filled him with a sense of longing of the profoundest kind--"a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity…almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that…I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country." He named this visceral emotion "Northernness" and, deeply inspired, wrote a poem on the spot (which, with typical self-deprecation, he in retrospect essentially called garbage).

Though I remember very little about the rest of Surprised by Joy, I have never forgotten the Northernness because I, too, have had experiences of it--almost impossible to describe, those rare moments in life when a pin pricks the universe and you feel utterly transported, standing on holy ground. The stillness of a frozen lake in winter; a first discovery of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry; the moon rising over empty desert. The other reason I recall this concept so clearly, though, is that Lewis goes on to discuss later in the book his disappointment in the course of life that this mystical emotion or experience, the "old thrill" seemed to become rarer and rarer. "To 'get it again' became my constant endeavor; while reading every poem, hearing every piece of music, going for every walk, I stood anxious sentinel at my own mind to watch whether the blessed moment was beginning and to retain it if it did. …But far more often I frightened it away by my greedy impatience to snare it, and, even when it came, instantly destroyed it by introspection." This, too, I have experienced first-hand. The desire to capture a moment of mysticism can overpower the experience of mysticism itself and thereby tarnish it, obliterate its natural occurrence. Still (and forgive me, I can't find the reference in the book) I remember Lewis going on to say essentially that the desire for the Northernness is, in a sense, the Northernness itself. In other words, even if we're not being struck by these thunderbolts of awe on a regular basis, and even if we feel lesser and lower for having lost the ability to consistently have such experiences, it is our desire to have them that matters, that attests to their existence and our connection to them.

Lately I have been feeling this same way about creativity. Anthony and I have long talks these days about how much we want to be creative people. He wants to write and perform music; I want to write something, create something--I just don't know what. Neither of us feels inspired at this time in life. We repeatedly attribute it to the constant stress and drain of having two small children and another on the way, not to mention work and church and sick parents and selling our house and moving into another. (As I mentioned in my last post, this window of life feels like a bit of a holding pattern.) But I've come to relate this situation to Lewis' summation that the longing for the Northernness is the Northernness. Meaning that even if Anthony and I are not currently living out our potential as creative people or are not currently feeling that creative spark very much, it doesn't mean we've ceased to be, deep down, creative people. The desire to create, in essence, is enough proof for me to keep believing that we are creative people. Not that I want to sit around making excuses and clinging to this claim of creativity with nothing to show for it. After all, I am also a big believer in what Anne Lamott calls the "shitty first draft"--as in, sometimes, you've just got to park yourself down someplace and crank out something, anything, and go from there.

Hence this blog post.

Regardless of how I feel (or don't feel), how inspired (or uninspired or unmotivated or just plain lazy), the show must go on. Though the longing for creativity represents the genuine creativity underneath, I've still got to sit myself down and create. So, in the midst of this gap of boredom, I've determined to make at least a weekly habit of creating, be it a collage for a friend, a nonsensical comic strip, or...yes, even a blog post. The "shitty first drafts" will continue until morale improves. ;)


  1. Interesting thoughts, Sarah. Yeah, I wish we could have more of those moments, grab and hang on to them. But I guess it's like spring. You can't really appreciate it fully until you've gone through the long cold winter without. (But here I am saying this to someone who lives in Arizona! :-] )