Today we celebrate the federal holiday of Columbus Day, although October 12 was the actual day of the first sighting of land after almost 2 months at sea. I’m always amazed at what those early explorers accomplished. At Charlestowne Landing (near Charleston, SC), I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.
In our creative lives, we may have to set off on a tiny boat. We might wish we had different resources, but we start with what we have. Sure, it would be nice to attend that MFA program or to have the job that only has a 2-1 teaching load (do those exist at an entry level anymore?). But the good news is that we can make our way across a wide ocean, even if we have less resources than others. All we need is a smidge of time and the resolve and self-discipline that it takes not to waste that time.
Important journeys can be made in teeny-tiny boats. It's better than staring longingly out towards the sea.
We often think that starting the voyage is the biggest hurdle. But once you begin the journey, the hard part may be yet to come. I've often wondered if Columbus and other explorers ever woke up in the middle of the night and said, "What am I doing here? I could have just settled down with my sweetheart, had a few kids, watched the sunset every night while I enjoyed my wine." Of course, back then, a lot of options were closed to people, and that's why they set off for the horizon. No job opportunities in the Old World? Head west! Sweetheart left you for another or died? Head west!
Maybe we need to just set sail, knowing that we're going to be out of sight of land for awhile. Maybe we need to get over our need for safe harbor, for knowing exactly where we're going.
It's easy to feel full of enthusiasm at the beginning of a project. It’s far harder to keep up that enthusiasm when you're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but your instruments and the stars to guide you, with no sense of how far away the land for which you're searching might be.
Maybe we have a manuscript that we feel is good, but no publisher has chosen yet. Maybe we have a batch of poems that seem to go together, but we have no sense of how to assemble the manuscript, while at the same time, we know we need to create 20 more poems. Maybe we have a vision of the kind of job that might support our creative selves, but no idea of how to get to where we want to be from where we are.
I'm guessing that many of us have similar feelings during our creative lives. We start a project full of enthusiasm. Months or years later, our enthusiasm may flag, as we find ourselves still wrestling with the same issues, even if we’ve moved on to other projects. We can take our cue from the great explorers of the 1400s and later. It’s true that we may feel we’re making the same explorations over and over again. But that doesn’t mean we won’t make important discoveries, even if it’s our fifth trip across the Atlantic on a tiny boat.
I keep thinking of the ship's logs and the captain's journals, which Columbus kept obsessively. Perhaps we need to do a bit more journalling/blogging/notetaking/observing. Maybe it’s more calibrating or more focused daydreaming. These tools can be important in our creative lives.
Maybe we need a benefactor. Who might be Queen Isabella for us, as artists and as communities of artists?
The most important lesson we can learn from Columbus is we probably need to know that while we think we're sailing off for India, we might come across a continent that we didn't know existed. Columbus was disappointed with his discovery: no gold, no spices, land that didn’t live up to his expectations. Yet, he started all sorts of revolutions with his discovery. Imagine a life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox."
Still, the metaphor holds for the creative life. Many of us start off with a vision for where we'd like to go, perhaps even with five and ten year plans. Yet if we're open to some alternate paths, we might find ourselves making intriguing discoveries that we'd never have made, had we stuck religiously to our original plans.
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