October 12, 2021

NGUYEN | When Creativity Fades

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Sometimes, when I get caught in the tornado of Cornell’s nightlife, my brain kicks into autopilot. My eyes hunt for any and every escape route away from the dance floor. Away from the gyrating hips and the fog of body odor. I often find myself running to the bathroom three times in an hour. Or anchored on the side of the room, throwing together a mixed drink, zoning out in a sea of red Solo cups.

I’ve become a master at minimizing the amount of time that I spend on dance floors. I’ve always been hauntingly unmusical. While everyone else pulses to some imaginary metronome, my arms and legs feel heavy trying to move along to a beat. When I sing, my voice warbles like Nancy Pelosi’s. I’ve spent years trying to learn the lyrics to Super Bass, but I still can’t spit out those hallowed lines the way that everyone else in the world seemingly can. (I’m a pathetic excuse for a Barb.)

I wasn’t always so out of touch with music, though. When I was younger, a shiny Yamaha piano sat right past the front doors of my grandparents’ house. I hadn’t known how to play the piano then, but I remember summer afternoons spent banging away at those keys. Punching out random notes, and searching for some melody buried in that Yamaha. The hallway would fill with the sound of my songs and with my mom’s voice yelling at me to stop.

They feel like two entirely different people. The boy whose fingers were glued to piano keys, and the dolt who runs from the dance floor because he can’t move to a beat. It wasn’t that I was any less tone-deaf when I was younger — my self-taught piano skills were far from impressive. But I remember being fascinated and entertained by the chance to string together my own music. To build something from scratch, as unmelodic and jagged as the end-product might wind up.

I miss when childhood bursted with freedom like that. When creativity felt palpable, like this brilliant, uncontained orb of energy. It fueled a lot of my childhood hobbies. My head was constantly buried in the pages of a book, my fingers always reaching for a pencil, or Play-doh, or the plastic blue ukelele my uncle brought me from Hawaii. I liked to sketch out designs of my dream house, and I wrote short stories inspired by summer camp. I fed that ball of creativity every time I built, painted, composed, sculpted and doodled. And the best part was that it never mattered whether I was good at what I was doing. I created because I loved to, and that was enough.

But that creative energy tugged away from me as I grew up. I got an iPad in fifth grade, and I spent my time watching Youtube videos instead of racing through books like I used to. When I landed in middle school, my English teachers taught me the school-endorsed methods for writing academic papers. I got fed essay formulas (topic sentence, evidence, analysis, closing sentence) and forgot how my heart would race when I dreamed up ideas for a short story.

Creativity tumbled down my priority list. Was it worth it to make art when it wasn’t attached to a grade? Was it worth it to create when I knew I wasn’t destined to become a prodigy? I no longer spent my days writing or sketching or building. Slowly but surely, that glowing orb of creativity dulled.

When I finally found my way to Cornell, I felt lucky to be able to stand adjacent to creativity. I knew that the AAP kids had it. The Zeus workers, with their oversized tees and corduroy pants, seemed like they had it. But me, boy with little confidence and bland fashion sense? I did not.

So when I enrolled in ENGL 2810: Creative Writing last semester, I expected to be met with a mountain of writer’s block and a towering barrier to entry. But instead, for the first time in forever, I was permitted — encouraged! — to create what I wanted, all on my own terms. I piled words on top of each other, in ways I wasn’t allowed to in academic papers. I drew inspiration from Mitski lyrics and from Fantastic Mr. Fox, and I tapped into the creative alchemy that I was so infatuated with as a child.

I had shelved away my creativity for so long that I had forgotten I had ever had it to begin with. But as I scrawled ideas into my writing journal and typed out dialogues for made-up characters, I felt that glow of creativity light up again.

Life gets heavier as we grow up. It weighs on our creativity, presses it flat. And when it happened to me, I didn’t exactly put up much of a fight. I figured that if I were destined for creative success, I could just wait — for free time, for the perfect moment, for a lightning bolt of inspiration to spur me into action. 

But, the thing about creativity is that it doesn’t strike like a lightning bolt. It isn’t just zapped into you. It’s built and it’s worked towards. It isn’t handed to any of us on a silver platter. It demands attention and time and dedication. It’s failing and fixing. It’s creating something mediocre then creating something beautiful.

I’m still working out the kinks on how I plan to take the reins on my creativity again. It’s a tall order: How exactly do we rebottle something that might feel too far gone?

I think a good first step is putting in a little bit of effort. The same way we work out to tone our muscles and review flashcards to prepare for tests, there are ways to keep the creative juices flowing. Between classes and on weekends, visit the new exhibits at the Johnson or support student art at Tjaden. Take a class in creative writing. Or sculpting or screenwriting or art history. Host arts-and-crafts pregames and go to live concerts. Let yourself read books again. Let those books inspire you. Maybe type out a short story or two, and let them collect dust in your Google Drive (because sometimes, you just need to write for yourself, and not for a grade or for other eyes). Pick up some crayons or an instrument, and revisit that feral need for expression that took over when we used to color on walls and bang on pianos.

If you’ve felt your creativity start to fade, don’t stand idly by. Make the time, put in the effort and let your creativity thump back to life.

Niko Nguyen is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Fault Line runs every other Friday this semester.