Creativity and Rust

That’s the guitar my mom gave me in 1999, when I got back from two years in China.

She’s a Fender. Her name is Van, after Townes Van Zandt and Camper Van Beethoven.

When I got back to the States, I took some guitar lessons and played about 45 minutes a day. I learned a bunch of chords and some very simple fingerpicking. I got comfortable enough that, when my dad gave a talk for the high school where he’s a teacher, I played a song before and after.

But when I moved to Boston in 2000, even though Van came with me, I just didn’t play her much. There was too much else going on: finding a job, stage-managing a crazy huge theatre production, and entering my first serious relationship.

Also, you need tough fingertips to play guitar, and mine quickly became uncallused. So it always seemed like too much of a commitment to get back into it.


But over the last couple weeks, I’ve busted out my guitar again. Maybe it’s the energy of fall, or maybe I’m jealous of the fun I see musicians having when I go to live shows.

My goal is to take some singing lessons, using the guitar to back myself up. And then maybe some guitar lessons. And then maybe a songwriting class. And then, the Holy Grail: Open Mic Night somewhere.

Last night I wrote most of a song. It showed me the universe of what I don’t know about composition, music theory, and lyric writing. It doesn’t even have a bridge yet. Does every folk song need a bridge?

The funny thing is, when I picked up Van again, I realized that I’d gotten kinda good at playing, back 14 years ago. I didn’t recognize that at the time, but as I look up the chords for songs I used to play, it’s obvious that my 45 minutes a day created some ability. How could it not?

This happens a lot. If you work out every day, then take a long break, then try to get back into it, your body will feel old and stiff. Same with speaking a long-abandoned language. You can feel how rusty the gears are. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth the effort to clean them off, lube them up, and get the bike on the road again.

But the things we practice become our identity.

It seems like my mission in life lately is to prove that I’m a creative person, with the guitar and the screenwriting and the enormous collage I’m making. I go through periods where I doubt my own creativity. And that’s a deep, painful doubt–like doubting that I’m a good person, or doubting that I’m loved.

Hopefully as I keep practicing these creative things, some rust will come off the gears and there will be as much pleasure as effort.

I wonder if part of my urge to be creative is because I’m not planning to have a kid. Do humans have a finite amount of creativity, which they can pour into parenting, writing, running a business, whatever?

Or is creativity a quality some people have, and some people lack?

Playing Guitar in China

Painting by Seth Minkin.

When I was teaching English in China with the Peace Corps, another volunteer who was leaving passed on to me her cheap Chinese guitar and a book of chords.

This was a great gift. Our town was quiet, and our lives as volunteers were pretty isolated. If we weren’t going out with our students to sing karaoke, or grading homework, our evenings stretched out long and often lonely.

So I started learning to pick out some songs I missed from back home. Anything American took on an otherworldly beauty to us, because we couldn’t access it. This was 1998–not much Internet, no laptops or tablets, few cell phones. So being able to play “Me and Bobby McGee” or “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was comforting.

Even better was when we’d meet up with other Peace Corps volunteers in another city. One of them had a mandolin, and he and I would play together and sing. I’m sure we sounded goofy, but it felt wonderful. Harmonizing must trigger dopamine release or something, because it’s one of the best feelings out there.

A year later, my term of service ended. On my last day teaching my favorite class, I played a Chinese pop song for them. It’s about saying goodbye to your friends, having a drink before parting ways.

My students were used to me playing simple folk songs for them in English–singing is popular in Chinese classrooms, even for college students, and we often used it as a teaching tool. But they’d never heard me sing in Chinese before.

Usually my students were vocal and enthusiastic. But I noticed as I played and sang that there was dead quiet in the classroom. When I finished and looked up, most of the students in the room were crying.

The lyrics go something like, “Friends, you’re leaving soon–let’s empty our glasses. The blue sky opens out above us. Our feet hit the path away from this room, where we’ve been so happy together. Drink up, friends.”

Having moved my students to tears was one of my proudest achievements of my two years in China. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t enjoy making people cry! But those tears were sweet, not bitter. By singing to them in my imperfect Chinese, I showed them that they mattered to me.

Chinese people have long memories. I hope some of them still remember that moment. I hope I always will too.

OK–this was supposed to be a post with some Important Guitar Updates from Boston, circa 2013. But I guess that’ll have to wait until next time…