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Passionate musings on yoga, writing, creativity, and self-love 

Write Yourself Alive - Day 3

leslie stjohn

Writing Prompt: Think back to some of your earliest memories related to writing or creating, usually in your childhood.  How did the adults in your life nourish your repress your creativity? How did you first begin to consciously practice it?  

I used to decorate my father’s tall office door at the Game and Fish Commission. I wrote poems, drew pictures of witches, and probably the taxidermy animals I saw displayed in the basement: bears standing eight feet tall, claws grasping toward some unknown prey; deer clustered quietly in the corner, their white-tipped tails alert to my stirring; otters, ducks, even an alligator mostly hidden in the brush, its snout extended and silent as a rock. It sounds so scary now, especially given my sensitive animal nature. A suitcase. I remember being especially proud of my drawing of a suitcase. Where did I even see one? Dad traveled for work sometimes. National Wild Turkey Federation meetings, Boat and Safety Conventions, Montana and Colorado hunting trips. I guess his leaving, the black suitcase with ripping, red trim, made an impression.

I know I wrote poems, but I don’t remember what they were about. I loved the book Bridge to Terabithia for its magical fantasy; the ritual for words, story, clubhouse passwords. Even then, I knew the kids were playing make-believe; I wanted both the fantasy and the knowledge of the fantasy. I still do.

I wrote a story in which I created a Super-Duper-Shrinker-Dinker to reduce my body to the size of a cell that I might be injected into Garth Brooks’ bloodstream to blast the cancer killing him. I was nothing if not a dramatic, visionary, slightly morose child.

In high school, I fell in obsession with the love poems of Edna St. Vincent Milay. Her black and white portraits were elegant; her words, pretty pieces of jewelry that pin-pricked my heart—her love for a man, his love for her, her refusals, their absences. Poems of lust and loss. Nature and female independence. Small sonnets tidy on the page. Everything antiqued and otherworldly. I wanted to participate in that beauty.

So I tried. I wrote poems about romantic longing (still do), rain-streaked windows and sadness (still do), fear of and fascination with death (still do), the difficulty of embodiment—as a Christian, as a female, as an ice skater with an eating disorder… (still do, sort of).  

My affair with words continued in high school, college (I fell in love with the Romantics and my Romantics professor), and graduate school, where it got complicated because I entangled myself with a philosopher, who took all the words I knew and cut them into small ransom-letter letters, tossed them up into the air, and let the wind and snow catch them, scattering small a’s, capital L’s, and double oo’s, over churchyards, the Wabash river, the cobblestone street in front of the Knickerbocker, the long road from Lafayette to Chicago, and the longer roads all the way to California. That’s where I started to gather them back. That’s where I heard my voice on the page again. It spoke of the red-tailed hawk, an outdoor bathtub under grape leaves, and ocean piers where I made new vows to myself. This too is a creative act, to re-create oneself after one version of your life has ended and a new one is a vast ocean of opportunity and chance.   

Was creativity encouraged as a child? It was neither encouraged or discouraged. My parents supported my dancing, soft ball, and, later, figure skating. I was a performer who sometimes locked herself in her room to read Vampire trilogies and—they didn’t know—horror fiction. I was fascinated with vulnerable women and the dark men that “loved” and hurt them. Why, I wonder?  If they had taken my books, or talked to me about them, would I have made different choices. “What if’s” are as useful as swallowing pages of a book you’ve already read.

I’d say art was an escape (still is). My parents raised three daughters before me. They were under a great, black monsoon of debt. I went to Bible study. They didn’t have to worry about me—not pregnant, not a academically challenged, not dating the twenty-year old next door--, so I was often left to do my own thing. In this sense, my childhood allowed for my imagination to flourish—not because it was fostered so much as neglected. Art, stories, fantasy were a way of entertaining myself and making a place where I fit in. I didn’t have a treehouse, but I build one in my mind. Tescelena. I baked a sun-god from cookie dough, painted it gold. I had passwords that included the word emancipation and the color purple. I buried many keys, stones, cursive-scrawled letters in wooden boxes whose location only I knew.

A friend recently told me, “You are never not doing anything.” We are always creating. As children, as adults. How consciously we do this varies according to where we place our attention.

I started putting my attention on writing in high school, more so in college. I practiced writing in graduate school—many small offices, always facing a window, in Lafayette, IN. Even then, as I broke my lines and cured my clichés, I always felt like a fraud. If I am honest, this has been the one consistent feeling associated with art-making, writing in my adulthood. As a child, I didn’t care. I. Did. Not. Care. I just let my imagination go where it wanted to go. I got excited about words (still do).

If there’s one thing I’d like to give my child-self—the very thing I’d like to receive from her--, it’s the freedom to create without fear of being found a fraud. She knows she’s a creator, mostly a writer. Period. And now the falling leaves on paint-faded Victorian porches in Indiana. Now, the scar on his chin she could memorize like a hieroglyph.