THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Jazz musicians, painters, writers and all artists have their own approach to creating.
Last week I described what my version of the creative process should look like. It starts with getting away from your comfort zone, getting up from the couch and entering the first stage of exploring. Then comes the important part of the process, taking careful note of the things around you, looking, listening and exploring.
We have just returned from a road trip which took us to the mountains of central Pennsylvania. This was once coal country and still looks like it. Like Detroit, the character of the town isn’t evident until you get to know the people.
One of our destinations was the former coal and railroad town of Shamokin, PA, where my father’s mother and father grew up. When my grandparents lived there, the town was prosperous and filled with thriving businesses. It is no longer thriving.
Today 7200 still fill the single family homes tucked into a valley that is now surrounded by forests. The coal fields have almost completely given way to nature. The town’s white houses are mostly grey and and show the signs of low cost repair. The front porches are often used as storage space for neglected couches and tattered red, grey and blue American flags. The average selling price for the good housing stock in this high unemployment town is $38,000. If you just pass through this community, only viewing the town from inside your car, you will be left with a sense of hopelessness. A brief glance will leave you with the thought that there couldn’t possibly be much of a future hanging around Shamokin. Yet the place continues to be occupied by some genuinely nice people who are pretty happy to be there.
OBSERVING / GETTING OUT OF THE CAR
It would be easy to zip past a lot of good stories if you didn’t take the time to stop and spend some time talking to the good people of Shamokin. We had a recommendation to visit a small neighborhood restaurant for breakfast. We spent some time talking and grinning with customers and our waitress, non of whom reflected the grayness of the weather nor the grimness of the town. There was a lot of good natured banter and heaps of comfort food. I sensed that these were people who knew how to handle hardship, and I left with an image that they were going to be all right. That is what I observed, and maybe that is the reason so many residents are still around.
In 1993 Michael Decourcy Hinds wrote about Shamokin for the New York Times. His observations remain pretty much like what Shamokin looks like today.
To create his story Michael got out of his car and actually spent some time with the people of this distressed town. This is an example of observing, the second stage of the creative process. Here is a little of what he found.
In a Gritty Town, Hope Outlives the Prosperity
“Against all odds, pine trees have taken root on the black mountain of coal mining waste that looms above this small city in central Pennsylvania. The people of Shamokin have also put down deep roots, holding fast to a bleak place despite a harsh economic climate. It is a triumph of time over adversity.
Shamokin is a sleepy place where people sit for hours on their porches. The most prominent building downtown is an abandoned shoe factory with a copper clock tower and six stories of broken windows. Residential streets, with names like Anthracite, Carbon and Coal, fan off the downtown area, up into the hills whose coal has scarcely been worth mining for decades. The mines and mills were not locally owned, so there are few big houses in town.
By objective measures, Shamokin (pronounced shuh-MO-kin) is a dying town. The coal and textile industries folded up years ago, unemployment rose, and most of the young people fled. Shamokin started as a mining camp in the early 1800’s and reached its peak population of 21,200 in 1920. The coal mines gave out in the 1930’s, and the textile mills and shoe factories began losing out to foreign mills in the 1970’s. A quarter of the 9,200 residents here are over 65, a demographic fact apparent on any street on any weekday,
Their city is poor: the median household income is $14,500, and 21 percent of its residents live in poverty.This is a place that is now far removed from the prosperity it once enjoyed from the mines and mills.
To visit Shamokin is to be reminded of how the bonds of place and family can sustain a community as it grows old and stares into a bleak future. People dismiss the notion that their city could wither away. They talk about living in homes built by their grandparents and attending churches their families helped build.” Michael Decourcy Hinds
Michael created his piece by first getting off the big road and getting past the messiness of Shamokin. He visited the basements of churches, shared meals and learned that many of the long time residents were ” Doing pretty good here” and “Getting by.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF LOOKING AROUND ONCE YOU ARE THEREEveryone has an artist’s ability to see the beautiful and meaningful things around them. We don’t always see the same things when we look closely, and some things are better off being seen at a distance. It is important to see what is in front of you and not what you hoped to see. An artist gets a chance to create what he wants to say later in the process. At times an artist sees things that are sometimes overlooked in a busy life, they get the habit of seeing, listening and discovering. It will all be used. Come and listen to the results at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café.
THIS WEEK AT THE DIRTY DOG
June 6 – June 9
Walt Szymanski will bring his artist friends into the Dirty Dog and tell us what he has been observing of late. Don’t be surprised to be surprised.
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