What a Third Grader Taught Me About the Creative Life

Rotten bananas are the source of the most challenges I’ve had as a creative person, whether I’m writing words or making music. They’ve led me on far more than one wild goose chase, trying to force a piece to work when it just wasn’t going to happen. They’ve made me doubt whether there will ever be any blood oranges in stock again. And worst of all, when they’re the only items on the shelves for a long time, those bananas made me wonder if the market is worth visiting at all.

So why do I keep on keeping on? How can I get up and go back to my desk, day after day, even when there’s nothing but bad ideas for miles? How do I know that any good ideas will ever appear again?

The truth is that I don’t know. And that is the essence of this unique opportunity that people who have chosen to live creative lives have made for ourselves. None of us know if the good ideas will keep coming, or if they’ll dry up like a dusty riverbed one day and the whole thing will be over. Actually, no one, creative or not, knows what tomorrow will bring, but as writers, musicians, and artists of all kinds we make an active choice to look that beastly fear every day, right in the whites of its eyes and say: “That’s ok. I’m fine with this.”

I think that this takes a singular kind of courage and trust, for which we should give ourselves more credit. Often, in conversation, I’ve heard artists deride themselves, apologizing for what they perceive as shortcomings or failures. “I haven’t really written anything I like in a while,” they’ll say, or “I’m not sure how I feel about these songs,” or even “Oh, I wouldn’t show these to anyone.”

We need to acknowledge that the fact that we’re even present at the desk, piano, easel, studio, or wherever, is evidence of our bravery and faith. We have faith  that one day those blood oranges will be back in stock. We remember the feeling of that inspiration dribbling down our chin, how delicious and tangy the idea felt on our tongue, how fulfilled our belly was when we were done. We know that those sensations will return, if we faithfully do our part. If we just show up. Every day—or after a long hiatus.

Far from being a sign of failure, I believe that a willful indifference to the risk we may be undertaking is its own success. Every rotten banana I’ve come across (and there have been many) has taught me something, even if I showed it to a colleague or a friend in all its spoiled glory. It’s those moments of vulnerability that lead to the most meaningful growth. How, otherwise, would I know that the chorus of this song just sounds like another verse? How would I know that this paragraph is unclear, or that character needs more development? By showing up, by being open about my work, by doing the hard, hard work of believing, I raise the chances each day that something worthwhile will come of all this.

When I asked my student what she does when she doesn’t have any good ideas, she showed me her writing journal. Page after page was full of her careful handwriting. Rounded letters filled the lines in multicolored ink. She loves colorful pens. “I write every day anyway,” she said. Which is pretty much the best advice anyone of any age has giving me about living creatively. “That’s awesome,” I said, as she opened her book so that we could begin to learn together.