Way up here it’s crystal clear

So last weekend I figured out how creativity works.

On Saturday morning I was teaching my 7-year-old student like I do every Saturday morning. Her song at the moment is “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. She’d learned the melody and the words, so it was time for interpretation – injecting mood and story into the song, plus the dozens of other micro-decisions a singer makes about phrasing, timing, all that. Maybe we would add some gestures. Definitely we would build in dynamics. My friend Anne, who is a splendid singer, calls that process “inhabiting a song.” But sometimes when you’re 7, it helps to have some concrete suggestions, so to figure out the right mood for the song, I asked my student to imagine showing a friend something absolutely wonderful that would make their whole life better. I was about to add “like what if they had never tasted ice cream before?”

“Like singing?” she said.

I mean, this is a great kid anyway. She probably bubbles over with just as much enthusiasm when it’s her turn to wash the dishes. But to hear someone choose singing as the thing that opens up their world? Especially when I’m her music teacher? That just kills the sorrow. Just for a minute.

Then I went to the bluegrass slow jam like I do on Sundays whenever I can. I’ve been going for a few months, and I’ve gotten into a comfy groove of playing chords, singing harmony, and looking at my shoes whenever it was time for leads. I’ve learned a huge amount in that room about ensemble playing, harmony singing, the traditions attached to certain songs, and just the whole grand back catalogue of country music. In fact I’m in danger of going all fangirl and blowing what’s left of my cool whenever I talk about it. But there’s some extreme instrumental chops in that room, and I’m still new to guitar, so I never wanted to waste the real musicians’ time by trying to play a lead part until I saw other people push themselves to start picking leads there. I started pushing myself at home, and this week I finally stuck both feet in the water and played a lead on “I’ll Fly Away.” At the slowest tempo in history. And don’t get me wrong, I still suck. This isn’t The Karate Kid; I won’t be a bluegrass guitar blackbelt by Halloween. But still.

My friend Matt talked at writing group this week about the layers of learning a craft. At first there’s the difference between nothing and something – hey, I wrote my first story / picked my first lead / made my first pie crust. It might be a soggy blob of wet flour, but it’s a form, where there was nothingness before. Then we start refining our craft and our standards for ourselves shift upward and we go back and read that first story and want to file off our fingerprints and move to Nunavut where they don’t have Facebook so no one can find out we were ever beginners.

But that first time you create something where there was nothing before? If you’re lucky enough to try it in a room where no one will demolish you with shame? It will make you stupid with elation and people will ask if they can have a hit of whatever you’re on. For days you’ll be sneaking on YouTube at work to listen to every version of “Old Love Letters” and at home you can’t write because your guitar is sitting there smiling at you saying “let’s play.” It will make you feel like you can shake off the cold iron shackles on your feet. Or as I used to think it went, and this would prove my point even better, “gol-darn shackles.”