Is Responsibility the Enemy of Creativity?

fortunes raccoons

Last week, raccoons knocked over one of the trash cans. I had made chicken soup from scratch, and the local nocturnal carnivores couldn’t resist the bones. Among the scattered contents of the clawed-open bag, I came across something intriguing: the little strips of paper from two fortune cookies. There was no sign of the cookies themselves, which I had discarded intact. I imagined the scene that took place the night before: two satiated raccoons leaning back, cracking open the crisp cookies, and comparing the vague prophecies inside.

Who could blame them? It’s hard to resist finding out what a baked good has to say about your life. I dare you not to go to this site and open a virtual fortune cookie for yourself. (It’s gluten-free!) I clicked through a few:

  • “You will be called upon to help a friend in trouble.”
  • “You are cautious in showing your true self to others.”
  • “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”
  • “Love comes quickly, whatever you do.” (Thank you, Pet Shop Boys.)

The predictions, observations, recommendations, and aphorisms found in fortune cookies are ingeniously general; they can be interpreted as applying to almost anyone’s life. Even if we don’t take these messages seriously (with the possible exception of those who have played the “lucky numbers” and won), their allure reflects our desire to understand ourselves and to anticipate the future. Some people may seek this kind of insight through more formal divinatory tools, such as astrology, numerology, and the tarot. I recently had a meaningful experience in this regard.

I have written about Jean Haner before. She is an expert in Chinese face reading, an ancient branch of Chinese medicine. She also has the ability to read the patterns in a person’s birthdate. Several weeks ago, I submitted a written question to her monthly call-in show. As I had done for the previous several months, I asked what my date of birth said about being a creative writer. Unlike in previous months, however, she chose my question! Here is her reading, excerpted for brevity:

You’re talking about writing creatively. There’s a huge part of you that will resist that. It [that part] feels overly responsible; it feels like first you have to pay attention to the practicalities and making sure everything’s in order, so it can kind of block the creative juices. I think that a lot of your focus has been on that up until now, and what I want to do is turn your direction into the second major influence in your life, which is an incredibly creative person. I want you to open to that and allow yourself to do that. There’s some perfectionism here, there’s some issues of self-confidence and worry about—you think you’re not creative.

There’s such a creative person here. In order to let that girl come out, you have to be much more light-hearted about it. You have to allow yourself to goof up. You have to allow things to get messy. You have to be more of a free spirit. That’s a big part of who you are, but I think that you’re such a responsible person that you kind of shoved the creative girl to the side and focus on being responsible. We never have to worry about you being responsible. We always have to worry about you having fun. And you’re meant to have fun with your writing, with your life. The creative process in the beginning and for a long time is messy; you don’t know what’s going to come out of that. And you like things nice and tidy. And so you’re going to have to tell that girl to go stand in the corner.

When I played the full reading for my husband, he asked how long Jean and I had been best friends. Indeed, she had accurately framed my current situation as a conflict between the impulses of responsibility and creativity; specifically, my exaggerated sense of duty to various things in my life is keeping me from accomplishing the writing I know I am meant to do. But there’s no point in marveling at amazingly astute advice—you have to act on it.

I haven’t told the responsible girl to go stand in the corner. But I think I’ve engineered a meeting in the middle with the creative girl: a short-story-writing class that starts tomorrow.

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