Charles Johnson on creativity and self-liberation

Charles Johnson Quotation

“I think we liberate ourselves through creating.” ~ Charles Johnson

Last week my husband and I took Amtrak’s Hiawatha service from Milwaukee to Chicago to spend a day at the Newberry Library.

On the first part of the journey, I read an interview with author Charles Johnson, whose novel Middle Passage won the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction (“Charles Johnson Reflects on His National Book Award-Winning Novel and More,” by Robin Lindley, Writer’s Chronicle, February 2017). I had thrown the magazine in my tote bag and flipped to the first article, not knowing it would be just what I needed, when I needed it.

For the rest of the train ride, I looked out the window, occasionally taking video with my phone, and thought about creativity.

How some people seem born to be creative.

How creativity is in their bones, in their breath, in their soul.

How easily a creative calling gets confused with public acclaim and success.

How we hesitate to admit the creative vocation, even to ourselves, especially if we don’t have creative products deemed worthy of a life of creativity.

How Viktor Frankl wrote that creating a work is one way to discovery meaning.

How living a creative life is about, most of all, openness to all of life’s experience.

How by not accepting a creative life nor actively exposing ourselves to creativity in its many forms on a regular basis, even—and perhaps especially—when life feels upside down and sideways, we betray our very selves.

“If you love creativity, then your work naturally makes you learn about other creations and how other people have done it. So you want to expose yourself to as much art as possible: black, white; east, west; past, present. You expose yourself to all kinds of art and you learn—and grow constantly in your craft—because you’ve seen all of these creations that are our human inheritance.” ~ Charles Johnson

“Solving a problem by depicting it visually or in a story is how I live my entire life today. I can’t imagine living a life in which my mind is not engaged in creative problem solving.” ~ Charles Johnson

See also

To Red State Family and Friends: Why I’m concerned for us all and not whining

See also Medium version

At his press conference with British prime minister Theresa May, the president said this:

“I happened to be in Scotland at Turnberry cutting a ribbon when Brexit happened and we had a vast amount of press there. And I said Brexit — this was the day before, you probably remember, I said Brexit is going to happen and I was scorned in the press for making that prediction. I was scorned.

And I said I believe it’s going to happen because people want to know who is coming into their country and they want to control their own trade and various other things, and low and behold, the following day it happened and the odds weren’t looking good for me when I made that statement because, as you know, everybody thought it was not going to happen.”

However, in June he had arrived in Scotland for the ribbon-cutting ceremony the day after the Brexit vote, and his comments to the Fox Business Network when asked about Brexit before the vote were, “I don’t think anybody should listen to me because I haven’t really focused on it very much.”

Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things one week post-inauguration, and that’s the point. Our newly elected president was rewriting his role in history extemporaneously on an international stage—emphasizing that he was scorned by the press for a prediction he had not made—and it is already business as usual. All politicians make campaign promises they don’t keep and have big egos and put spin on their policies, but this is something different.

We already know we can’t trust what our president says. Is this really okay?

I moved from my home state when I went to college, from a rural South Dakota county with a population of 6.9 people per square mile (and a poverty rate of 44 percent) to the fifth largest city in the midwest. I did not move back and will always feel a little guilty about that (a guilt shared by many who leave small towns and farms). My heart is in both worlds and always will be.

Road to family farm
The road to and from my family’s farm in Todd County, South Dakota


To my red state family and friends, you and I most probably voted for different candidates in November. We have some (okay, maybe many) different visions for the future, different priorities, different experiences.

I am not trying to convince you to change your political party or even to understand my point of view, but I do want to try to explain why my concerns about the next four years are neither partisan in basis nor sour grapes.

As much as I might disagree with many Republican policies, I accept that a change in political parties means a change in political power. I get that, I really do. This is not about rehashing the election or who voted for whom.

What concerns me are the authoritarian tendencies of this particular president, regardless of political party. That leaves me feeling helpless and at times terrified.

Running a business, even a global business, in which one is ultimately the only person in charge and accountable to no one is very different from heading one of three branches of government and being accountable to a broad public. That’s not to say that someone can’t make the transition from business leader to effective governance, but it is not necessarily going to happen and can’t be bought. It’s a different kind of leadership.

The president stated repeatedly throughout the campaign and after that he is smarter than experts on any given topic, and he is acting on that belief. For example, Fortune reports that the administration’s flurry of executive orders have been “drafted with little input from the relevant government agencies. Almost all of the headline-grabbing orders were seen by experts to have some clear or potential conflicts with existing laws.” One law professor said “the rush of orders without careful review makes errors likely.”

The chaos and confusion caused by the recent travel ban indicates lack of care (and caring). Is this really okay?

Early in the campaign, I began to read the work of Sarah Kendzior, an expert in authoritarianism. As I read, I kept my fingers crossed that she was wrong. In March of 2016, she published an article at The Diplomat about “what Central Asia’s spectacular states can tell us about authoritarianism in America”:

Spectacle is not all Trump’s proposed America and the Central Asian dictatorships have in common. Trump’s vision of America also supports a restricted press; persecution of devout Muslims and ethnic minorities; totalized control of government through a sequestered elite (Trump refuses to name potential partners and advisors); incredible wealth with little transparency concerning its accumulation (Trump refuses to release tax returns); and paranoid recitation of enemies both foreign and domestic, who are said to threaten the “greatness” of the state – and its leader. These are the standard characteristics of dictatorship, practiced in many countries around the world. But there are more distinct parallels to Trumpism to be found in Central Asia.

Kendzior, who stresses that we all deserve better than what she fears is coming, regardless of whom we voted for, has been unrelenting in her warnings, and many find her arguments alarmist, but what if she’s right? Remember that this was written even before the Republican nomination:

There are vast differences, of course, in the spectacle of Central Asian presidents and that of Trump as an elected leader. It is hard to envision him receiving the adulation to which he – and Central Asian leaders – are accustomed in the U.S. Congress, or managing to get his punitive and persecutory policies passed into law. But the motto of dictatorship is ‘It can’t happen here.’ Time and time again, it has happened – Trump’s likely GOP nomination being only but one recent example of the formerly unthinkable put into practice.

It is irresponsible to rule out his rule. The greatest and perhaps most depressing difference between the Central Asian and Trump models is the latter’s rise to power. When I asked an Uzbek friend to compare Trump to the Central Asian leaders, he replied: ‘Dictatorship is something that was done to us. But you – you’re doing this voluntarily?‘ Read more (emphases added)

Authoritarian leaders expect the press’s role is to make them look good. In just the last week, press secretary Sean Spicer said that negative press coverage is “demoralizing” to the president, and Steve Bannon told the New York Times that the media should “keep its mouth shut.”

In other words, prop up the president and silence the press. Is this really okay?

I do try to go outside of my bubbles, to listen to podcasts and read articles not only by people with whom I agree but from a variety of perspectives, and I urge everyone to do the same. While I don’t expect Fox News fans to tune into MSNBC, there are many Republican and conservative voices who are willing to be thoughtfully critical of the new administration.

A good example is Charlie Sykes, who for years had a radio talk show in Milwaukee, where I live. Sykes does not stoop to ad hominem attacks, describes himself as a “contrarian conservative,” and is not afraid to question his own party or speak up. He has just begun co-hosting a new national public radio show, and his first episode, with guest George Will, is online at Indivisible. You might not change your mind after listening, but you will have heard from two people with deep ties to conservatism and who have the interests of the Republican Party at heart.

Even as I write this, I despair over the gulf that divides us. Several months ago, I opened Facebook for the first time in a while to look for photos from a marriage celebration, and saw in my newsfeed a copied-and-pasted post asking readers if they had ever, among other things, “shaken hands with a Muslim Girl Scout” or “seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life???? The answer is no, you did not. Just ask yourself WHY???”

My heart sank as I felt the chasm of the political and cultural divide that so many people have tried to describe. By one of those strange coincidences in life, the wedding celebration I had attended the day before was for a Muslim woman who was not only a Girl Scout but who volunteers and makes the world and, yes, our country a better place by her very presence, whose family exemplifies good citizenship as well as any family I know, whose siblings I am honored to have taught and call my friends. (It is also important to note that Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and other populations do not have to be exemplary citizens—how many of us are?—to be valued.) Yet, even though words are my bailiwick, I lacked the verbal skill to describe how different my own experience has been from that status message, how wide and deep the chasm felt.

Likewise, I’m not confident I have explained myself well here. But I have to try, even if only for myself.

I am not telling anyone what to think or believe. I only hope that we hold the president accountable. That we don’t trust that he or his spokespeople or one cable news network is giving us the full picture. If members of Congress ever get to the point of seeing that our president is a political liability (that is, it will lose them votes in the future), they do have the authority to step in or at least exercise their own powers to push back. But they have to know that we the people are not happy, especially those who voted for him.

To everyone who has read this to the end, thank you (truly), and whatever your voice, big or small, please use it—with compassion and kindness, yes, but use it. The person next to you may be hungry for your words, and you could provide the courage he or she needs to speak up, as well. It’s a right we cannot take for granted.

So many passions, so little time!

“[E]mbrace your many passions. Follow your curiosity down those rabbit holes. Explore your intersections. Embracing our inner wiring leads to a happier, more authentic life.” ~ Emilie Wapnick

A Facebook reader messaged me recently about interests and personal growth: “I had many different interests and talents in my childhood so that was always a challenge to choose one among others. What solution do you suggest?”

If you are someone who—rather than searching to find a passion—is struggling to choose one interest or passion of many to pursue, know that you are not alone. You may be what Barbara Sher calls a scanner: someone who naturally has many interests and thrives when following many of them rather specializing narrowly.

Emilie Wapnick uses the term multipotentialite in her TEDx Talk, “Why some of us don’t have one true calling“:

When multipotentialites become interested in something, we go hard. We observe everything we can get our hands on. We’re also used to being beginners, because we’ve been beginners so many times in the past, and this means that we’re less afraid of trying new things and stepping out of our comfort zones. What’s more, many skills are transferable across disciplines, and we bring everything we’ve learned to every new area we pursue, so we’re rarely starting from scratch. ~ Emilie Wapnick

But how does one choose which interests or passions to pursue, especially as we get older and have less time ahead of us than in our rearview mirror? It’s easy to suffer from what psychologist Barry Schwartz terms the paradox of choice: we think that having more choices would make us happier, but it can instead lead to paralysis as we focus on missed opportunities of whatever we do not choose. The result is that we choose nothing.

The point is that the engagement and process are what aid our personal growth and satisfaction, not levels of achievement or outward measures of success or tangible products.

In other words, what is important is to choose something to start, and to remind ourselves that not being an expert or narrowly focused is normal for us. Learn more by watching Emilie Wapnick’s TEDx talk, below (the Facebook reader I’d mentioned wrote recently that “this video and the community of multipods is changing my life!”) and check out her website for multipotentialites, Puttylike.

Just Ordinary Citizens: The affection we feel for outgoing presidents

On the Morning Of

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I make no apologies for the fact that my main feelings today on the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States are of affection for the outgoing 44th. Maybe it is because the Obamas are my generation (like Michelle, I was born in 1964). Maybe it is because I found my political core—apart from my parents or friends or outside expectations—during President Obama’s terms. Maybe it is because our son was not quite of voting age during the 2008 election, so I felt a sense of proxy at the voting booth—I was casting a ballot for both of us—in doing what he could not eight years ago. Maybe it is because we had a First Family in the White House with young children whom we watched grow and mature before our eyes.

Presidential families do feel like our families, too. They enter our living rooms and private spaces and, in some cases, our hearts. Our current age of partisanship, of course, taints the relationship (this post will certainly be seen as fawning and will invite some snark), but the feelings are beyond politics.

When Amy Carter moved to the White House in 1977, she was nine and I was twelve. I read every article I could about her—what she liked, where she was going to go to school, details of her daily life. I don’t remember ever feeling as though I should not be fascinated by her and her newly public life, even though I grew up in a strongly Republican household and red state. I wonder if I were in those circumstances today, would I feel more pressure to act—to feel—differently simply because the president’s politics were not those of my parents?

Harriet “Hattie” Whitcher

One of my personal projects is transcribing diaries of my great-aunt Hattie, a woman of mixed heritage who lived in a rural reservation county in South Dakota. Her diaries, which she kept every single day from 1920 through much of 1957, are filled with mundane details of weather and chores but also her impressions on national and world events, especially presidential elections and transitions (read her entry about voting for the first time in 1920). As I follow politics on Twitter and listen to podcasts (e.g., you can hear Obama’s last interview as president at Pod Save America), I imagine her sitting by her radio, her only source for real-times news, drinking in every word, perhaps taking notes to use for when she wrote in her diary.

In 1953, Hattie was 71 years old when she wrote about the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the transition from Harry S. Truman (see bottom of post for videos):

January 20, 1953, Tuesday

A few clouds but some Sunshine. Men gave cattle hay in a.m. I listened to Inaugural of Pres. Eisenhower and Truman (Harry) going out at Noon, I guess 11:30 our time. Vice-Pres. Richard Nixon of California took Barkley’s place. Mr. and Mrs. Truman, Harry, Bess and daughter Margaret left Washington in Private Car of Pres. but just ordinary citizens for their home at Independence, Missouri. Ex. Pres. Truman was [to] give farewell as Train left Washington. I guess the Cheers they gave made Mr. Truman sad at Heart, one [day] he [will not] forget if he lived to be a hundred years, which he [is] going to be. His Office will be at Kansas City. I don’t know if Mo. or Kansas. I like the 2 small Rugs in Back Porch of varied stripes while I write in diary. I rest to admire these rugs.

Her heart is with Truman and his family, now “just ordinary citizens,” as they make their way home.

Similarly, my heart and thanks are with the Obamas today.

I am also struck by the final lines of Hattie’s entry, her meditative focus on the simple beauty found in her own home, her stopping her writing to admire two small rugs, almost as a way to ground herself on this very emotional day.

Life offers us meaning and beauty in unexpected ways. Yesterday, in my work as a book indexer, I was writing an entry for Freddie Mercury, which led me to think about my favorite Queen songs. I played “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which seemed a fitting tribute to our outgoing president. I played it over and over.

Don’t stop now, Mr. Obama. See you on the other side of the presidency.

Truman’s Farewell Address
Eisenhower’s Inauguration
Post edited slightly January 21, 2017.