One More Wave

Finding and channeling creativity

By Matt Steel
2 Jan 2016
10 min read

In your mind’s eye, picture a bustling city street. The rumble of cars. Music saunters over from a nearby shop. The laughter of children bubbles up from a playground. Leaves and forgotten shopping bags swirl around in the breeze. The pungent smell of exhaust. A woman in heels click-clacks 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 is crushed gravel. Go deeper through soil, pipes, wires, crumbling remnants of bygone eras. Dig further through the 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 that the river circles the globe many times. But few people know about this river and the secrets carried in its dark waters.

August 1993

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. There’s no logo on the nose, no decoration at all. The deck’s coated in a layer of sand-riddled wax. The rails are uneven and the single purple fin could steer a ship. 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 the 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.

May 2012

I’m working with my friend and business coach, Peleg Top, and have 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 were straightforward yet oddly specific. Once I’d scribbled out the words, each poem had to be typeset on a 7" square in black and white, using one typeface and no other decoration. I had to use a different font family for each poem. No edits after completion. I’d email 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, lifting 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 down the first word that comes to mind. Then another word, and another. Before long, I’ve cobbled together a few rough verses.

Three or four of those poems were okay. A couple of them were beautiful. Most of them ranged from meh to utter shit. 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 was left with 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:

21 Faces
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 me what I’d learned during the challenge. I reflected for a moment, and shared a lesson for which I am 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 source of all great ideas. This is the fountain of life. 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 that people are made in God’s image. We make because we were made. I can think of no greater evidence for the existence of Someone Else.

Perhaps you don’t believe in that sort of thing, or you wish to ascribe this creative energy to something else. But anyone who’s been making art for a while will know that we are not the source of genius. There is an alien quality, a distinct otherness to creative ideas. Intuition is not 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 doing it because love compelled them.

Creation is like surfing. In order to catch a wave, you put yourself in the midst of the ocean’s pounding heart. To become proficient at surfing, you have to get up early and get out there whenever there are waves. Rain or shine, boiling heat or marrow-freezing cold. You will be terrified. You will fall. 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 will 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 surf forecasts, ears pricked for a change in the wind. You will 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 into the lives of other people.

In the beginning, you’re at odds with the ocean. But over time, you learn grace. You learn poise in the midst of 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 special. What makes you special is that you were made and you exist. Your very essence is profoundly valuable. You’re also special because 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 on a regular basis.

The answer to ‘how’ is ‘yes.’
– Peleg Top

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 things 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 do the work and practice on a regular basis, a body of work will arise. And occasionally, the muse will come screaming around the corner and barrel right through you with a brilliant idea. When she comes, you’ll be ready.

· § ·

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. But my time in the ocean has nevertheless been deeply rewarding. After years with long periods of time 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 is teaching me to take change in stride, to work with the current rather than against it, and it’s teaching me agility. Surfing and poetry have blended together to form a powerful elixir that fuels my day job, colors my perspective, and reveals joy in the most unlikely places.

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