“You can only listen when the mind is quiet, when the mind doesn’t react immediately, when there is an interval between your reaction and what is being said.”
“For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after.”
-Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
This week some students and I are designing board games. We looked at some great examples (not Clue or Monopoly, or dusty things like that; Tokaido and Dixit and Sheriff of Nottingham), we talked about game mechanics, and then I expected something to happen. And it did. But it wasn’t much. Our ideas were sluggish, fumbling, incomplete. Then we sat in a loose knot, lounging on our chairs, looking out the window, and talked to each other about what we were trying to make–and suddenly there were so many more ideas. So many more options. So many more things to build.
I don’t understand when people say they “aren’t creative,” when they say they “wouldn’t know what to write” in a poem or a story. I want to start pointing at things, at people: “What about that, or that, or that, or her, or him?” There’s a cascade of somethings to think about, to write about, to learn from–more than I could ever follow in however many years I have.
I don’t understand, and I do, because I find myself at home with “no ideas.” I find myself sitting “with nothing to say.” Next time that happens, I want to remember that saying isn’t worth half as much as I think it is. Then I want to listen. Last week I visited a graduate program at the University of Illinois, and whenever I listened–to an archivist, to a professor, to a student who loves modern adaptations of Beowulf–I fell into another painting and walked around in the world inside, the world which, of course, was the one always around me, when I saw it more clearly and from another point of view.
Creativity isn’t about closing all the windows and making light from nothing. It’s about hanging the prism of your mind in the window, and weaving color with light. It’s about welcoming in far, far more than you’ll ever send back out. It’s about the silence, before and after, about the mind that doesn’t react immediately with its own assumptions, and so has the chance to listen to something new.