Zag On ‘Em: On Strength, Story-Telling, and Creativity

Artwork by John Pohlman (https://jopomo.carbonmade.com/)

Hello. It’s been a while.

In January, I posted my 2016 wrap-up, and I had big plans for my 2017 resolution post. I even had a word picked out for the year. But, as an indication of how 2017 would go, I never got around to writing it. 2017 exploded.

And now we’re halfway through 2017.

I look back and think, where did all of that time go? And then I remember. Oh yeah. I had the busiest and most stressful semester of my life, during which my best friend had a baby and was diagnosed with brain cancer. The semester ended, and I immediately went to Boston (for babies), then Waco (dog-sitting), then to Fort Worth (moving), and then to Tampa ( AP grading). All while teaching online classes and doing freelance work.

These are all excuses of course, valid ones, but excuses nonetheless. Life happens, we make decisions, and we carry on the best we know how.

But now we’re six months into 2017, and I’ve been thinking about zagging and creativity.

Most summers I fall deep into a very particular pop culture hole. This summer, I’m madly in love with three brothers from West Virginia who produce a variety of podcasts, the flagship being My Brother, My Brother, and Me (an advice show for the modren era). The McElroy boys and their goofs and their swears have kept me company while I traveled across the country and across town. In May, I even got to see them record a podcast live in Austin with my good, good podcast pal Sarah.

Each year, these boys discuss a name and a tagline for the year that will set the tone for the next 12 months. For example, 2016 was termed 20-fixteen, “building bridges,” which they acknowledged didn’t go  well. This last January, they had a long goofy conversation (as is their wont) about what to call 2017. Quickly proposed and discarded were 20-servin’-teen, “serve your community or SERVE your community,” and 20-raven-teen, “everyone gets ravens.”

Eventually, thanks to Griffin, the McElroy brothers landed on 20-serpentine, with the tagline: “Keep ‘em guessing.” In short, do the unexpected. Weave and wile your way through 2017. When they expect you to zig, zag on ‘em. It seemed a fitting response to the madness that was 2016, and listeners jumped on board (my internet best friend Lin-Manuel Miranda among them).

Well, six months in, and I keep forgetting to zag on ‘em.

My own personal word for the year was going to be strength, since I had spent the fall semester working out with my pal Rachel and using free weights. My arms were looking good, man. Then 2017 happened, and heck if I went to the gym once during the months of March and April. I did not. Truly, I was glad I didn’t write that post about 2017, the year of strength.

Halfway through 2017, my arms have lost most of their muscle tone. I’ve stumbled my way back to the gym in fits and starts, but I don’t feel much stronger than I did last year. Maybe that’s okay for now.

Another one of the McElroy podcasts I am listening to voraciously this summer while packing boxes and then unpacking boxes and getting on planes and getting off planes and driving to and from the airport is The Adventure Zone. It’s (ostensibly) a Dungeons and Dragons podcast, though everything the McElroys do is a variation on the traditional theme. I don’t feel the D&D label quite encapsulates the magic. For one, the three brothers play with their dad (who finds the multiple dice a challenge). Two, Griffin, the babiest brother and game master, has constructed a complex and multilayered story that has been building over the last three years. It’s just now wrapping up, and I’m just now caught up.

The podcast itself will hopefully get a blog post of its own at some point, but the story and the McElroys have made me think a lot about living a creative life. Griffin has written a beautiful story which has unfolded over 65+ episodes. He also does MBMBaM with his brothers, and he does a Bachelor/ette recap podcast called Rose Buddies with his wife Rachel (who is just as sharp and hilarious as he is). In his day job, he is a video game journalist, mostly making dumb Youtube videos for Polygon. (EDIT: Totally forgot the dude also writes original music for The Adventure Zone, which I am listening to right now while grading.) His whole life appears to be creative. He’s constantly making things, telling stories in many different ways.

Imbibing the McElroy family of products, and Griffin’s work in particular, has made me aware of the creative deficit in my own life.

I’ve been writing seminar papers, crafting conference presentations, and grading student work for four years now. In those four years, I’ve worked to plant secret echoes of myself in my work, and this last semester, I feel like I finally succeeded in subtle ways. I love the work I do, but I miss spending my time with stories, both my own and others’. I miss telling stories. I miss being creative, or maybe more accurately, expressive.

When I announced I was going to graduate school, my favorite professor–who had been one of my biggest encouragers and inspirations—told me, don’t let them take your passion for writing. And I said I wouldn’t. I was wrong, a bit. “They” probably didn’t mean to ruin it (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt), but my passion got very weak in the harsh light of the rules and regulations for traditional academia. Only write critical pieces. Don’t let yourself in. Don’t betray your façade of intelligence by showing yourself to be a person.

This traditional form of academia is changing, but slowly, and I don’t have time to wait until I get tenure to do the type of writing that gives me joy and satisfaction. See, my best friend, my strong and brave and powerful friend, has brain cancer, and she is fighting it like the warrior she has always been. But a fact has been made very clear to me.

None of us have any time to waste.

I just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which is about living a creative life. She says ideas are magic, that the muse comes to those who are ready and leaves behind those who are not. She says that fear will always come on the road trips of creation with you, but never let it drive or even touch the radio. She says that creativity requires bravery and thrives on whimsy and trickery.

Overall, she says that we are entitled to be creative, quoting David Whyte’s phrase, “the arrogance of belonging.” Because we exist, because we are here, we are allowed to create in whatever way, whatever ways, we deem necessary. Because creativity is necessary.

So, 20-serpentine. Zag on ’em. Create. Get those muscles working again.

My goal is to write more, hopefully at least once a month, and hey, start a podcast about all of these things and more (with a fabulous co-host who won’t let me quit). Who knows what else 2017 will throw my way, but I’m ready to tell some stories. I’m ready to find my way to creative strength, or at least a lack of creative weakness.

I’ve got six months left in 2017. Six months to figure out what that looks like. Six months to keep ‘em guessing.

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2 thoughts on “Zag On ‘Em: On Strength, Story-Telling, and Creativity

  1. Sara, keep at it. I am so sorry to hear about your friend and hope she wins her battle, intact. How about a book? Ready for that yet? I do get caught up in your writing and can read more and more.

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