I’m dating myself here, but there was once a television show called “Thirty Something,” and I vividly remember an episode where Michael and Elliott — two men in the advertising business — were sitting around talking about creating.

After covering office politics and finances, Michael admitted something brutally honest, something that he said he couldn’t admit to anyone else, and something he said that kept him up at night with worry.

What if each of us is given a full tank of creativity, and when it runs out that’s it. What Michael feared was the day that he no longer had the ability to think creatively, to be original.

Then what?

Those of us who create constantly grapple with doubt and uncertainty.

If say you never had, then I’m calling you a liar.

I plan to write about that issue in future posts. I’m going to have some of my writer friends around the country — people who have written books, movie pitches and pieces for national magazines — weigh in with advice that I hope will help guide you on our journey.

That’s part of my goal of creating a creative community.

When I’m with these friends of mine, we often end up just like Michael and Elliott, coming around to discussing artistic inspiration.

What is it?

Where does it come from?

How to we nurture it?

I thought about that tonight when I returned from the coast where I spent a weekend doing nothing more than reading and thinking.

Take a look at that photo.

See all those dandelions, what so many of us call weeds?

A friend of mine taught me not too long ago something powerful about dandelions, and made me see them differently I ever had.

Tonight, when I spotted those dandelions, they reminded me of all our internal doubts and fears.

But look who’s in the middle of that photo: A neighborhood cat that loves to come over and sit on my lap.

I smiled when I saw him tonight.

He’s just like inspiration.

There, perhaps hidden.

But nevertheless there.




  1. Mark Johnson says:

    What you’re talking about feels very current to me. I’ve had some things fall through. And I’ve had one or two stories that I’ve just fallen out of love with. Often I’m working on one story and I can see the next one in the distance. It’s so comforting. Except when the next one isn’t there and all you see is endless ocean. Anyway, I’m trying to generate small stories until one of them leads me to the next big one. There can be a temporary satisfaction in small stories that don’t have earth-shaking news pegs. When I’m in a funk another thing I try to do is look for a piece of writing that I admire and haven’t read in a while. The two I’ve looked at recently are fictional short stories, both of which can be found on the Internet: “Math Class” by Seamus Deane and “Kansas” by Stephen Dobyns. Both remind me that there are writers out there doing great work.

  2. Tom says:

    I know exactly what you mean when you are in a “funk.” I, too, turn to pieces of writing that I admire. Or just put on Stevie Ray Vaughan and turn it up. Loud.


  3. Tom says:

    Mark Johnson, a fine writer and Pulitzer Prize Winner — in the comment below — said that he often reads writing he admires when he finds himself in a “funk.”

    He then sent me a story he has recently read: Math Class, by Seamus Deane.

    Thanks for contributing to the community, Mark.

    I am posting the story here:

    [Tuesday April 19, 05 @ 6:47PM]

    Every morning, at nine o’clock sharp, he came rushing into the room, his soutane swishing, his face reddened as if in anger, his features oddly calm. We would be ready with the thick tome of algebra open at the right page and as many questions as possible prepared in advance. He spoke nasally but smilingly. He had tight curls and glasses; but for the redness, he could have looked harmless. His name was Gildea.
    He sat at the high desk, raised on a platform above the class. He lifted his chin, closed his eyes and chanted:
    “Mental algebra. Ground rules. Well-known, but must be repeated, first for the sake of the brain-dead and the memory-less, who are in the usual staggering majority; second as a warning to those more fortunately endowed, but who take a litigant’s pleasure in claiming that they have not been told, that they do not know, that the rules are not clear. I lie awake at night, imagining for these creatures a condign punishment; yet I have failed. Does this bespeak in me a failure of imagination, or in them an unanswerable corruption? You may answer the question, McConnellogue.”
    “I’m afraid I cannot, Father,” replied McConnellogue automatically. This was routine.
    “Your sorrow is touching. Perhaps you do not realise the importance of the question. Harkin, be so good as to inform McConnellogue what a litigant is.”
    “A litigant is a person who creates disturbances by abuse of the rule of law, Father.”
    “Do you agree with that superb definition, McConnellogue?”
    “Absolutely, Father.”
    “You are litigious, McConnellogue, are you?”
    “No, Father.”
    “I shall test you in that statement. Are you more literate or more numerate as a consequence of my loving care, five times a week, forty minutes per time, McConnellogue?”
    “I am equally blessed in both respects, Father.”
    “Would you say that McConnellogue will go far, Heaney?”
    “I would, Father.”
    “Under what conditions would you say so, Heaney?”
    “Under the conditions imposed by the question, Father.”
    “Are you conversant with these conditions, Duffy?”
    “I am, Father.”
    “What’s your name, Duffy?”
    “Duffy, Father.”
    “Glad to hear it. Now, ground rules. We have here, in this venerable textbook, forty simple sums in algebraic form, to each of which there is only one correct answer. There are, in this room, forty boys. One sum for each. The coincidence is pleasing, We begin with Johnson, the strangelooking creature in the left-hand corner of the front row. He gives the answer to number one in no more than two seconds. If he takes longer, he will be deemed to have given a wrong answer. McDaid, the object next to Johnson, takes number two, and so on throughout the whole zoo-like assemblage we, in our politeness, call a class. However, if Johnson is, in McDaid’s considered opinion, wrong in number one, he, McDaid, does number one over again and gives the correct answer. If the person next to McDaid happens to believe that Johnson was right in number one, and McDaid wrong to correct him, he skips number two and does number three; whereupon McDaid must, if he agrees with this verdict, re-do number two. Equally, the person next to McDaid also has the choice to believe that both Johnson and McDaid were wrong in number one; if he takes this choice, he does number one over again. And so on. The choice enriches as one proceeds, so that by the time we reach that evolutionary cul-d-sac named Irwin at the back of the class, the choice will be veritably kaleidoscopic. If any sum is done wrongly by any preceding student, whether that be immediately or more distantly preceding, the student who observes this must do that sum correctly. If a sum is done incorrectly, the punishment is a mere two strokes. If a sum done correctly is incorrectly corrected, the punishment is four strokes. If the whole class misses a sum incorrectly answered, homework is doubled. If it misses more than one sum incorrectly answered, homework is doubled for the number of nights corresponding to the number of missed incorrect answers. If every sum is answered correctly, the sun will stand still in the heavens, and I will take up the teaching of a secure and sure subject, like religion. Right. Johnson, proceed. Two seconds from now!”
    Johnson began.
    “X equals minus two.”
    McDaid followed.
    “X equals three.”
    It went round , very fast. The row in front of me was into it now. Suddenly, Gildea intervened.
    “What number are you doingm, Harkin?”
    “Number thirteen, Father.”
    “Fair enough. Your decision. Next man. Two seconds only.”
    “X equals four.”
    “what number was that?”
    “Number twelve, Father.”
    “You consider it was wrongly answered, then?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “So Harkin should have done it again?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “I believe number twelve was correct, Father.”
    “And with that, all preceding number twelve, otherwise you would have repeated one of them?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “Next man. Not you, Molloy. You have just corrected Harkin. That squalid thing beside you. Is it alive?”
    “I am, Father.” This was O’Neill.
    “No exaggerations. Just give me your answer.”
    “X equals five, Father.”
    “And that is the answer to…?”
    “Number thirteen, Father.”
    “Ah. So Harkin was wrong to have done number thirteen and wrong in having done it?”
    “Just wrong in the answer he gave it, Father.”
    “Then number twelve was, in your opinion, done correctly?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “Then Molloy was wrong in correcting number twelve?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “So, Why did you not do number twelve again?”
    “It had already been done correctly, Father.”
    “But the man preceding you had done it wrongly? Ground rules state you correct the preceding error, right?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “Did you?”
    “No, Father, but…”
    “Quiet! What number are you going to do now?”
    “Number twelve, Father.”
    “X equals four.”
    “This was a correction of Molloy? Yes?”
    O’Neill had blundered and knew it. He just nodded.
    “Molloy, your answer was ‘four’, was it not?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “But that was wrong, I’m told. Now it’s right. Where are we here? Is this mathematics or chaos?”
    Silence. Gildea smiled.
    “The difference should be discernible, even to you people. Duffy, proceed, unravel the mess.”
    “X equals two.”
    “What number was that the answer to?”
    “Number one, Father.”
    “You think the first sum was wrong?”
    “Yes, what?”
    “Yes, Sir.”
    “Sir? Sir? Have I altered in appearance? Has my Roman collar become a tie, my soutane a suit of mouldy tweed?”
    “No, Sir.”
    “You insist on ‘Sir’?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    The class tittered and then went still.
    “A spark of wit; I enjoy that. it cannot go unpunished, of course. But to the point. The first sum was wrong, you say. So all since have been wrong?”
    “Technically, yes, Sir.”
    “Technically? Ah, a litigant speaks.”
    “Just ground rules, Sir.”
    “Were they, or were they not, wrong?”
    “Some were wrong in themselves, Sir. Some were wrong in that they were done before number one was corrected, Sir.”
    “Wonderful. A true litigant. You’re sure of yourself, Duffy?”
    “Absolutely, Sir.”
    “Right. Let’s start all over again. First man, first sum.”
    “X equals minus two.”
    “You stand by that?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “Duffy was wrong, then?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “All this trouble for nothing, then?”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “All agree?”
    “Yes, Father.” A chorus.
    “Right, Duffy. Compute your error. One wrong answer – two strokes. One correct answer, ‘corrected’ wrongly by you – four strokes. Eleven perfectly correct of undisputed answers cancelled by you on the grounds that they should not have been given when, in fact, they should have – forty-four strokes. Waste of time, six strokes. Playing the professional litigant, twelve strokes. Insolent mode of address, ten strokes. Moment of wit, six strokes. Can you add that?”
    “Eighty-four what?”
    “Eighty-four strokes, Sir.”
    “Right. We’re getting somewhere. You can add, you are learning your catechism, you are about to learn a lesson about the overweening confidence that has always marked you and your ilk. What is it that this soothes my heart like?”
    “Balm, Sir.”
    “A correct answer at last. Out you come.”
    “No, Sir. I was right. They are wrong.”
    “Oh, my. Oh, my. Duffy’s right, everyone else is wrong. I see storm-clouds gather. I see apocalypse threaten. We are all innumerate but Duffy. Harkin, do that sum again, on the blackboard this time. So we can all see.”
    “Harkin scrawls on the blackboard.
    “Can you refute that, Duffy?”
    “No, Sir.”
    “It’s the correct answer?”
    “Yes, Sir. To the wrong sum.”
    “The wrong sum? THE WRONG SUM? This is ecstatic. You surpass yourself. Explain, we’re all agog.”
    “I’m Doing Section B, Sir. Everyone else is doing Section A.”
    “And why do you choose B, when we all choose A?”
    “Because we did Section A yesterday, Sir. I assumed you did not want us to repeat what we already knew.”
    “Anyone else remember our doing Section A?”
    “Yes, Sir.” A chorus.
    “Did I specify Section B, Duffy?”
    “No, Sir, but you did not specify Section A either.”
    “How many strokes do I owe you, Duffy?”
    “None, Sir.”
    “Your opinion, not mine. Class stay in your seats. Do nothing. First boy I see do anything useful, two strokes. Duffy, leave the class. Class, homework doubled. Duffy, homework quadrupled.”
    He hunched over his desk, glaring. The door closed quietly behind Duffy. We stared into mid-air.

    Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark.

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