I stepped outside yesterday and took a deep breath, trying to identify the lovely scent upon the air. Finally I remembered: The smell of tannin in wet, fallen leaves.
Fall is literally in the air. Here in Maryland, we're starting to remember what sweaters are for, and wondering where we put them. I set the thermostat on "heat" for the first time in months. I'm digging out blankets. And... I've made my autumn pilgrimage to the craft store.
Autumn always puts me into "crafts" mode. Suddenly I want to create -- not simply with my mind and the computer screen, but with my eyes and hands and a pile of intriguing raw materials that are just begging to be shaped into something beautiful. It's not hard to guess why; as a child, my Christmas funds were always limited, so most of my gifts were hand-made. But while the necessity to make gifts by hand may no longer be present, the pleasure in seeing something take shape out of no shape at all -- to see cloth form on the loom or the knitting needles, to transform a pile of glittering beads into an elegant necklace -- has not lost its pleasure.
Nor, I think, has it lost its benefits for creative folks. Now, in planning this editorial, I thought I'd be smart and go look up some articles online about the "cognitive benefits of crafting." I found plenty -- all relating to children and seniors. Apparently if you're a child, crafting unlocks all sorts of creative potential, helps you develop various cognitive skills and hand-eye coordination, etc. If you're a senior, it seems to keep one from shuffling off into oblivion quite so quickly. (In fact, I couldn't help get the feeling that these articles rather regarded seniors as just a different sort of child.)
But what about everyone in between? Personally, I believe that handicrafts have benefits for people of any age -- and especially those of us who focus a good portion of our thoughts and lives around "being creative." Handicrafts engage a different part of the brain, and a different set of cognitive tools, than we use in our daily stints at the computer screen. They require different ways of looking at things, different styles of thinking, different approaches to problem-solving. Instead of creating with words, we are engaging that part of our brain that creates with color, shape and texture. Instead of simply using our hands to type, we use them to manipulate, to build, to arrange. Instead of using our eyes simply to stare at the screen, we use them to evaluate colors and structures and decide, "does this look good with that?"
You're probably wondering by now what this has to do with writing. In my opinion, it has a great deal to do with writing -- especially when you consider how often the types of terms I've just used are applied to writing. As writers, we are constantly encouraged to make our words "come alive" -- to engage the reader's ability to experience sound, color, shape, texture. We seek, through our words, to give the reader sensory experiences -- to make our world so real that he or she can nearly see, touch and taste it. How much more might we enhance our abilities to do just that, if we find creative ways to indulge our own senses? The more we work with color, light, texture and shape, the less we have to "imagine" those things -- and the more genuine our words become.
But there is more to crafting than just gathering fodder for the written word. Honing any part of your creativity helps hone all of your creativity. Being creative makes you more creative. Expanding your creative boundaries means that -- well, you expand. Creativity is like a sort of reverse checking account: The more you draw upon it, the more you actually have. You can't "use up" your creativity; quite the opposite. The more you use, the more you gain. In fact, the one sure way to lose the "balance" in your creativity account is to refrain from spending it -- the more you hoard it and ignore it, the less able you are to tap into its resources when you need it!
There's another benefit I find to getting out the various handicrafts, and that is the pleasure of completing short-term projects. So often, our writing projects are long-term -- and even for short-term projects, we must often wait far too long for feedback. Crafts provide a feeling of accomplishment in the here-and-now: If it comes out the way we planned, we feel immense satisfaction. If it doesn't, we can take it apart and try again.
Finally, it seems to me that handicrafts give us an ability to do something that, for most adults, we find far too little time for: It gives us a chance to "play." Often, for writers, "creativity" can become synonymous with "work." We say, "I am working on my novel," not "I'm playing on my novel." When creativity is also a significant source of income, the work connection becomes even more obvious -- and restricting. Work is something we "have" to do -- and when something becomes an obligation, it often ceases to be a source of pleasure.
Crafts give us a chance to reconnect with the pleasure of creativity. Whether we're making gifts for loved ones, or creating décor for the home, or just knitting or scrapbooking or baking or whatever for the sheer pleasure it brings, it's reminding us that creativity can be fun. Our end products don't have to be works of art; they don't have to be very good at all. They simply give us a chance to play again -- to take joy in doing something for the fun of doing it, rather than the need to end up with a "perfect," or at least "marketable," result.
So as the days grow shorter and winter looms closer, here's my suggestion: Step away from the keyboard! Pick up a craft, any craft, anything that tickles your fancy -- so long as it's something that involves physical, hands-on, visual creativity. Make something -- anything! Have fun with it. You may just find that in the process, you're making yourself a better writer.
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