What Is This?
What we ask before every creative project
Nobody knows how to start anything.
“What is this?” is the question every creator asks at the beginning of anything. The novelist attempting to do something that’s never been done before. The inventor dancing with his own madness in the middle of the night. You and me with whatever ideas happen to be running through our minds today.
We make things not because we know what we’re doing but because we are overwhelmed by some primal desire to figure out the mystery. Whether we realize it or not, every creation is a mystical act and always seems to begin with a question.
I’ve made a lot of things in my life. Started a few blogs and podcasts. Taught a bunch of online courses. Done a number of live and virtual events all around the world. Collaborated on dozens of creative projects with all kinds of brilliant people.
My creativity has taken me to all kinds of unexpected places in work and life. I’ve spoken and performed on a few different continents and on hundreds, if not thousands, of stages. I’ve written books, poems, and songs and shared them with the world. Played in bands and started businesses and been in the room when big deals are being made.
And I never knew what the hell I was doing at the start of any of it.
That’s the point of beginning: to figure out what it is you are up to. It’s okay to not know. Good, even. The beginning of any honest endeavor is often marked by the inability to talk about it. Whether it’s a poem or a cure for cancer, if you can speak eloquently about it at its inception, you probably aren’t going deep enough.
Under the belly of everything, the Universe speaks in grunts and sighs, not well-articulated sentences and symbols. It’s a foggy haze we are trying to penetrate—one that connects to our guts more than our minds—and the mosaic reveals itself piece by piece. Every time I put fingers to keys, I am reminded of this.
A word or two on This
So, what is this? A newsletter? A blog? A community? I wish I knew. All I know is that it feels like a fresh start, which is what I am always after: to begin again so that I might see the world from a slightly different vantage point.
Eureka comes for us all in both unique and similar ways. We relax into a certain state of being, maybe after a cup of coffee or half a bottle of wine, then go for a walk or take a seat outside.
Suddenly, It hits us. We see something we never saw before. Not like this. A bird. A tree. Some glint of light refracting through the window. And we wonder, was this always here? Is it new—or am I? We never know for sure, and that’s the magic. We keep meeting the world and its inhabitants like this and are compelled to make something out of it. That’s why I create: because I am inspired by novelty.
I wish I could tell you where we’ll go together on this journey of ours or even what we’ll do or for how long. If I knew that, though, I wouldn’t be starting this—I’d be finishing it.
I’ve never trusted anyone who had a perfect vision for what they were creating or what they’d end up doing in life. Anyone who is quick to say “this is what I’m doing and here’s how it’s going to turn out” must be selling something.
My aim here is not to knock on the front door of your consciousness and ask if you’d like to buy some words. I don’t want to hawk my wares, going from “door to door” with the latest tactics to get inside your home and show you my free samples.
I want to be the kind of writer who sits on a park bench, scribbling furiously at his notebook, on a mission even he can’t explain. I want to not notice when you creep up and gaze over my shoulder to get a glimpse of the words on the page. And may it be a surprise when you steal a scrap or two from my secret journal and run away before I can catch you, hiding it under someone else’s doormat, where it sits for a season before blowing inside one night after a large gust of wind.
I don’t want to try to say something, is what I’m saying. I want to find the “right words,” as Kerouac pined, and know that they are simple. A good writer is always searching for the right words and never happy until she finds them. Often, they don’t come.
This is what haunts us, the Ghost I am referring to: We are all chasing something that most of us know nothing about. And we are all afraid it’ll only ever be a noise in the attic we never had the courage to investigate.
Annie Dillard wrote that anything you save for later turns to ash, and that seems. The call of any creator is to keep making things, not to make any sense of what you create. Just dive down deep into the ocean of awareness and see how long you can hold your breath. What I know is that most days I wake up with an question in my mind, some thought that begs an answer, without the slightest clue where the urge originated. On a good day, I start writing.
In this search, we are not guaranteed the finding, but we cannot stop the searching. That would mean death, which is antithetical to all things creative.
I am often wondering why I am here and what to do with my own existence. I don’t know. That’s why I write. To find an answer, or at very least dance with the question a little longer.
There is no end
Once, while hiking with some friends in the trenches of the desert mountains of Utah, I took a sudden left turn while my friends continued on a more predictable path. One of my companions attempted to chase me down and bring me back, but I was moving at such a pace that he couldn’t catch me. He later said, “I knew you were after something out there and weren’t going to stop until you found it.”
If I had to name it, I wouldn’t have been able to do so. It was a compulsion, a curiosity, a “what is this?” kind of question.
What was at the end of this trail? Surely, others had seen it. As I passed fellow hikers, I inquired, “What’s up there??” The most anyone could tell me was that they all turned around at a certain point with nothing to report other than, “It just keeps going.” This only made me more curious and determined to find the end.
As the crowds thinned and my hunger for answers became insatiable, I came upon a man and a woman and asked the same question. “For us, it is,” the man said with a smirk. I had to keep going.
At one point, I threw my walking stick on to a rocky ledge that was higher than I could reach so that I was required to summit it. Not knowing how, I began to find some footholds and make my way up the fifteen-foot-tall boulder in the middle of the stream I was wading through. My body was moving in ways that were faster than thought. Step here, grab there, push like this—and somehow, I reached the top… only to see that it did, indeed, just keep going. The trail continued without any end in sight.
My search ended at a waterfall, a point other hikers must have found at some point. But that day, it was just me and the water. The stream continued after this point, of course, on and on ever so gradually up the amber-orange mountains. But I knew this was the end, for me.
As if summoned by some ancient desert spirit, I discarded my pack and shirt, setting them both on a large rock, and ran right into the waterfall, dropping to my knees as if in prayer. As I sank slowly into the silt that had been pummeled by millions of gallons of water over the years, I began to weep. What had come over me? I still don’t know.
The water cascaded over my head, a baptismal cleansing of sorts, washing away my boyish need to know and initiating me into a wiser way of things. There were no easy answers at the end of the trail, only the defiance of nature that would not come to a tidy conclusion—and this experience right here, begging to be noticed.
Every creative act is a prayer
The mystic and the artist are on similar quests, only working with slightly different tools. They want to know what This is, if It is anything at all, and what must be at the end of this very long trail called life. Whatever “answers” come can rarely be articulated. They are ineffable. Similes and metaphors and brushstrokes on canvas are our best attempt to describe what we find.
If you’ve ever made anything, then you know what I am talking about. Something, at some point, wakes you up and gets you moving in a direction. It might be a thought that arrives from out of nowhere. “Maybe I’ll start working with clay,” you think one weekend. Or, “Today is the day I become a marathoner” you tell your family one early afternoon before you leave the house in your new sneakers.
And then, you just start moving. Towards what, exactly? Who knows. But there is a calling, one that feels both sacred and mysterious. When it speaks, how can you not answer? Give it whatever name you like. The most appropriate moniker I can come up with is the Ghost.
If you know this longing I speak of, the unquenchable thirst for the end, the desire to know what all This is, then…
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