By Matt Steel
29 August 2021
In your mind’s eye, picture a bustling city street. The rumble of cars. Strains of pop music from a boutique. The laughter of children bubbling up from a playground. Leaves and forgotten shopping bags dancing in the breeze. The pungent smell of exhaust. A woman in heels click-clacking along the sidewalk.
Look down beneath your feet and peel back the layers of concrete and asphalt. Maybe this is an old city, with cobblestones or bricks beneath the pavement. Below that, crushed gravel. Go deeper through soil, pipes, wires, forgotten catacombs, crumbling remnants of bygone eras. Dig further through packed earth, all the way to bedrock.
Then, when you least expect it there’s air, warm and damp. And in this deep place, there’s a river. The current never stops flowing. The river has always been there, undergirding the city. If you could map the sub-terrain of our planet, you’d find the river circles the globe many times. But few people know about this river and the secrets carried in its dark waters.
Gary pulls another surfboard from the bed of his pickup. This one’s for me. All eight feet of it are the color of an aging beluga whale. No logo, no decoration at all. The deck’s coated in a layer of sand-riddled wax; the rails are uneven. The single purple fin could steer a sailboat. The thing looks more like a gently-used bar of soap than a surfboard.
“I shaped it myself.” His voice is both proud and self-deprecating. “Thing’s ugly, but it floats. Hop on and I’ll show you how to paddle.”
On my fourth attempt, I catch a wave and feel the board rocket forward. Rising awkwardly to my feet, I watch the water speed past. The wave takes me all the way to the sand. Laughing and shaking with excitement, I tuck the board under my arm and head back out for more.
I can’t stop grinning. Gary pushes my brother into a few waves after me. He’s smiling too but later tells me, “It was pretty fun. I might do it again.” I, on the other hand, am hooked. It’s a revelation. The feeling of glide and flow; each wave a singular creation; the strain and solitude; the interplay of color and light; the endless sky; the sight, sound and smell of it. I’ve never felt more alive.
That day, the visceral power of the sea planted a seed of peace in my heart that I still carry. I knew that somehow, I needed to find a way to live my life in tune with the waves.
I’m working with my business coach, Peleg Top, and I’ve almost finished a 21-day challenge. Each day for the past three weeks, I’ve written and designed a poem in 21 minutes. The rules are straightforward yet oddly specific. Once I’ve scribbled out the words, each poem is to be typeset on a 7″ square in black and white, using one font and no other decoration. Use a different font family for each poem. No edits after completion. I send a pdf to Peleg and move on.
Some days, I wake up with an idea rushing through my brain and can’t jot it down fast enough. But most of the time, I sit down to write and draw a blank. The muse is elsewhere, guiding some lucky painter’s brush or whispering in a composer’s ear. But I have a job to do, so I pick up the pencil, square up to the page and write the first word that comes to mind. Then another word, and another. Before long, I’ve cobbled together a few rough stanzas.
Three or four of those poems were okay. One or two were beautiful. Most were hot garbage. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that I made something every day. I made it a habit. There was no time for my internal critic, that ruthless perfectionist, to barge in and tear my work to shreds. I was learning to create without caring. I was paddling out and working with the current. And no matter how good or bad the rest of my day had been, I carried a small, hot coal of contentment burning in my chest. I’d made something, and my reward was in the making.
A few weeks after the challenge ended, I received a package in the mail. Inside was a small book, with a white cover and the title centered in thin sans serif type:
by Matt Steel
I flipped through the book, tears welling up in my eyes as I saw my work printed on the pages. It all finally made sense.
I called Peleg and told him this was the most thoughtful gift I’d ever received. He asked what I’d learned during the challenge. I reflected for a moment and shared a lesson for which I’m forever grateful:
Creativity is a current that never stops flowing. We simply choose whether to tap into it or not.
This is the river that flows right now beneath my home, your city, everything that has been and will be. This river is the creative energy of God, and anyone can access it. This is the origin of all great ideas. I believe in a God who is always on the move, always creating, always making all things new. His very spirit propels the current of creativity. I believe people are made in God’s image. We make because we were made.
Perhaps you don’t share these beliefs, or you’d rather ascribe this creative energy to something else. But anyone who’s been making art for a while will know we are not the source of genius. There’s an alien quality, a distinct otherness to a groundbreaking idea. Intuition isn’t the source; it’s merely the channel. Creativity wells up from somewhere else. All we can do is stand in its path with open eyes and ready hands.
If we cultivate the discipline to work and work on a regular basis, beautiful results will come. We see prolific output from people who’ve mastered the art of looking sideways, to borrow a term from Alan Fletcher, but how did these people become masters? They showed up, rolled up their sleeves and got to work for years on end. They kept working because love compelled them.
Creation is like surfing. To catch a wave, you put yourself in the midst of the ocean’s pounding heart. To reach proficiency, you have to get up early and get out there whenever there are waves. Rain or shine, boiling heat or bone-freezing cold. You’ll be terrified. You will fall, fall and fall again. You’ll get caught inside and tossed around like a ragdoll in a washing machine. You’ll get hurt – hopefully nothing a few stitches can’t handle. You’ll paddle for thousands of waves and miss them, only to see another surfer just down the line take off and draw looping arcs for fifty yards or more. You’ll sit through flat spells, eyes glued to the forecast, ears pricked for a change in the wind. You’ll wait for the perfect wave only to find out when it comes that you’re in the wrong place. But stick with it and you’ll catch a wave, rise to your feet, feel the water rushing beneath you as you weave in and out of the pocket, the wave’s power center. The French call this feeling La Glisse – the glide. The best part: you can take it with you. And I can tell you from experience that it ripples outward and imparts equanimity and levity to your relationships with other people.
In the beginning, you’re at odds with the ocean. But over time, you learn grace. You learn poise in upheaval.
So it is with creativity. We sharpen and grow with experience, eventually becoming experts. But having access to the creative current doesn’t make you unique. What makes you unique is that God made only one of you. Your very essence is profoundly valuable. You have the incredible opportunity to thank your Maker by creating something else in return. What makes you great is showing up and doing the work every day.
Creativity is scary until we say yes to it. And even then, it can still scare the most seasoned professional. What if the ideas don’t come? What if nobody understands it or people hate it? Am I a charlatan? Should I quit before anyone notices? Hell, I’ve been designing and writing for a living since 2003, and I still feel afraid every time I start a new project. But fear can point us toward the thing we must do. Is there something you’re itching to make? A project that won’t stop tugging at your sleeve? Pay attention – the source of your terror might be the work of your life.
In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield captures the importance and urgency of creating with courage:
“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.
“Do it or don’t do it.
“It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
“You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.
“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
The way I see it, the choice before you is clear. You cannot, you must not wait for the muse to show up. When you choose to show up and fill your days with practice, a body of work will arise. And occasionally, the muse will come rumbling across the horizon, rear up, shoulders gathering for impact as her crest begins to foam and hiss. You’ll be in the sweet spot. One-two-three-four strokes. Push off. Land on your feet. Fins engage. Draw a line. Fly.
· § ·
Though I’ve spent most of my life away from the ocean, I still surf whenever the chance arises. These days, I get to paddle out a few times a year. Surfing is hard. It’s humbling. Although I’ve been a surfer most of my life, my skill level is intermediate at best. Nevertheless, my time in the ocean has been deeply enriching. After years with long stretches between waves, I’ve learned a patience born of devotion. The lessons of flow, poise and play have been taking root in my heart all this time. Surfing teaches me to appreciate every droplet and vista, work with the current, bend and flex as life changes shape, meet risk head-on, find grace in slow summer ripples and punishing winter storms.