Guest Bloggers

Creativity as magic

Michael Shapiro’s latest book is a winner.

Below is an excerpt from the introduction of The Creative Spark: How musicians, writers, explorers, and other artists found their inner fire and followed their dreams.

It reminds me of an important message for every one: We are all unique and have our stories to tell. No one else can tell your story. Only you can.

From The Creative Spark by Michael Shapiro

Something magical happened as I completed this book. One evening just before sunset I was in our backyard watering the planter boxes. On a stem of parsley I noticed a startling pattern of color, concentric rings of orange and black dots. Looking closer I saw the segments of a swallowtail caterpillar and could identify its tiny feet. For the next few days the caterpillar chomped on the parsley plant, absorbing energy for the next stage of its life. I placed a stick in the pot, at an angle to give the caterpillar a place to hang its chrysalis.

The caterpillar’s appearance felt like a message from the universe. For many months I’d been working on transforming interviews I’d conducted with some of the world’s most creative people into a coherent set of chapters. I’d distilled the essence of these interviews into a tonic of ideas about the creative process. And I’d written biographical introductions that sought to put each person’s life in perspective and offer insights about the sources of his or her art.

As I write this, on 2019’s summer solstice, our adopted caterpillar (my wife has given it the gender-neutral name Jordan) is undergoing a miraculous transformation into a butterfly. During the past week, we’ve watched the caterpillar turn into a chrysalis that matches the color of the branch from which it hangs, its striated brown camouflage the antithesis of the colorful creature it was just a few days ago. Yet it’s what is happening inside the chrysalis that is truly astonishing.

The caterpillar is dissolving, using enzymes to digest itself. It’s being broken down into nonspecific cells that can be used for any part of the butterfly. Yet some “highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process,” according to Scientific American. Each of these constellations of cells is programmed to build a specific part of the butterfly. There are imaginal discs for wings, for eyes, for legs, for every part of the butterfly. Typically, after about two weeks, a yellow-and-black swallowtail butterfly will crack open the chrysalis, dry its wings in the morning sun, and fly off seeking nectar.

Why bring up a caterpillar in a book about creativity? First, because it offers such a rich metaphor, and the name “imaginal discs” suggests that making art depends on imagination. And to prepare for its transformation, the caterpillar needs to first feed itself, just as a musician or author must absorb the thoughts and influences that come from songs, books, conversations, memories, and observations. Many creative people seek to isolate themselves, cocoon-like, to escape the relentless drumbeat of popular culture so they can hear their own voices.

“What I noticed at an early stage was that the writers I admire are living a long way from the world,” the author Pico Iyer told me. “The great originals are originals because they’re living outside the received conversation, outside secondhand words and secondhand ideas, to some extent living in a space of their own where they’re able to hear their deeper self and come up with things completely outside the norm. I think that’s why they really shake us.”

Isn’t that what we crave in this era of information overload: songs or stories that really shake us and offer new ways of seeing the world, of hearing ourselves, of feeling, on a soul level, our deepest truths? That’s why I’ve chosen the 31 creative people in this book. They’re original, pioneering, dynamic, and insatiably curious. The authors, musicians, and others profiled in these pages could coast on their earlier accomplishments, but every one has continued to seek adventurous new avenues for igniting their creative spark.

Of course, seeking solitude to hear one’s inner voice doesn’t mean we should shut out those who came before us. As Iowa folk singer Greg Brown says, “I feel links back to a time that not much is known about. Songs, poetry, whatever you want to call it, that urge, it just goes way, way, way back there. And that’s a good connection to feel to life. It’s hard for me to imagine life without that.”

Back to me (Marlene) 

I hope you can spend 15 minutes a day (or longer, if you can) and write your story, as only you can.

Meet Michael at the launch of The Creative Spark.
Nov 9 at 4 pm. Book Passage in Corte Madera. 

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