Handwriting and burnt cabbage: curious casualties of creativity

My house reeked of burnt cabbage a couple of weeks ago, and I have been forced to conclude that it is a bad idea to do any sort of cooking — even with a self-explanatory timed steamer — when doing anything artistic.

That night was marked by a foray into music arrangement. Probably around 10 p.m., I started to steam cabbage to save for later, made some peppermint tea and headed upstairs to finish an orchestral arrangement of “America the Beautiful.” (If you want to know how it turned out, come to the Evanston Civic Orchestra and Chorus concert at 7 p.m. on May 25, at Evanston Middle School.)

Anyway, between two and three hours later, I smelled burned cabbage. When I headed downstairs to look, there was a thick scorched layer of gunk on the bottom of the steamer. 

Now, I’d known it was done for awhile. I’d gone downstairs once or twice and knew it was done, at least intellectually. But in the throes of the creative process, it ... just didn’t seem that important. That intellectual knowledge simply didn’t translate to, “Oh, you should do something about that.” 

My thought process was something like, “Meh. It’ll be fine for an hour or two.”

Or maybe more like three. 

Time ceases to have meaning during absorbing projects. And besides, making sure harmonies are interesting and fit together is much more important than, I don’t know, taking the very simple step of unplugging the steamer. 

(To be fair to my priority list, it actually ended up being edible and didn’t actually break anything.) 

But the whole experience made me start thinking about how our brains work. 

Right brain tasks really do seem to separated from left brain tasks in a lot of ways. Oh, there are activities that combine both, but it seems like one set of strengths usually takes the lead, and it affects our priorities, creativity level, communication and organization. 

I’ve always thought I’m fairly left-brained most of the time. My favorite stories to write are meeting- and research-based stories where I get to either (a) just recount what happened in a way that makes sense and doesn’t take the full 3.5 hours to read that it took to gather the information or (b) find enough resources to make an in-depth philosophical and contextually-based analysis of a situation or idea. Also, it was pretty fun to make charts and graphs tracking the progress of the Wyoming legislative bills this spring. But those are often easier to write than feature stories, oddly enough, probably because it tends to require less creativity and storytelling. 

Schedules, routine, punctuality, to-do lists, deadlines and rules are pretty important to me, and if it’s not on the schedule or doesn’t have a deadline, chances are it won’t get done soon. 

But when the obsessive structure conflicts with flourishes and imagination (rare as that is), it brings a few side effects with it. 

Another creativity casualty for me is handwriting, which changes based on what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. 

I’m not talking little changes here. I’m talking everything from size, flourishes, slant, letter joins, general shape, neatness and even spelling and grammar — as in, English norms that I’m normally borderline obsessive about. 

Normally, I think of Oxford commas with nostalgia, obsess about where it’s OK to use prepositions and find description and accuracy fascinating. But add any sort of creative spark in there, and all of a sudden, things turn topsy-turvy.

I recently headed outside to start writing a story about a meeting. In three meticulous pages, my handwriting was almost universally unchanged: about four-tenths the height of a college-ruled line in my notebook, nary a spelling error to be seen (despite a few missing commas), careful alignment and formatting, round letters, close words, mathematical organization (including a coded header) and AP style. 

Fast-forward a couple of hours to my first violin lesson of the day, where I was teaching a student how to play a Disney song. Suddenly, my handwriting was large, messy, inconsistent, full of mistakes. I couldn’t spell perfectly normal words that I’ve been practically living and breathing for years. There were all sorts of random, hurried abbreviations. I couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life.

It doesn’t happen with all art. I do a lot of kinds of art with more order than originality — crocheting or knitting the same project dozens of times with no sign of getting bored and only changing the colors; drawing pencil portraits as precisely as possible; and playing mathematical music; and transcribing instead of creating.

Although on those rare occasions where I actually draw something (as opposed to trying to capture what I see precisely), the right brain is activated again and spelling suddenly doesn’t matter anymore. Ladies and gentlemen, may I proudly present cartoons with an alternative spelling of “afraid” as “afrad.” (Thank goodness for Photoshop, which can fix even permanent marker!)

But then again, how much does that really matter? Is it more important to spell everything right or be able to get a basic crochet pattern right when taking the safe and known path to success, or are some minor casualties worth the risk of learning something new and challenging ourselves? Sure, it’s safer to do what we know already or to take the path of least resistance, even in art, but then we lose out. 

We lose out on a learning experience, on the sheer satisfaction of trying and mastering something new, on the frustration but eventual victory when we fail again and again and again — and finally succeed. Because the longer a project takes and the more effort it requires, the more satisfying it is to reach every little milestone and eventually the big ones. To be honest, my favorite songs to play on the violin are the ones that took months of hard, solid work just to learn and memorize, never mind polish. Some of them still aren’t polished, but just learning those techniques and memorizing the pieces was an incredible experience. 

Maybe that’s the lesson here. Maybe burned cabbage and messy handwriting are just the casualties of letting our creative side loose and in challenging ourselves. 

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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