Establishing Space for Creativity: Guest Post by Kevin Noble Maillard

Have you ever wondered what the process looks like of constructing a space for creativity to flourish? We’re pleased to welcome Kevin Noble Maillard, author of the celebrated picture book Fry Bread, to the Mackin Community Blog today. In this post, he gives us a sneak peek behind the scenes of one author’s life.

I have been searching for a private space where I can write, uninterrupted, uninhibited, and without excuse, for years. I live in Manhattan, so space is at a premium. The once-extra bedroom is now taken over by my children. The only reserved solo space that I could claim for myself is a corner of our mid-century sectional. Writing in my apartment is difficult because there is always something to do, both urgent and procrastinative: laundry; dishes; put my old pictures from college into photo albums.

I tried some co-working spaces here in the city that were rather interesting. Restaurants rent out their spaces during the day so people can work. There is Wi-Fi, power-strips, and lots of water and coffee. The surroundings are comfortable, but the prices can be expensive. When I write, I also like to speak out loud, and I had to be quiet. When my trial membership ran out, I didn’t renew.

I am not a fan of coffee shops because of the pressure to buy something. I do like the grand reading room of the New York Public Library, but it’s really cold inside and it’s not within a ten-block walk of my apartment. Sometimes, public courtyards in building lobbies are okay, but the good seats are usually taken by lunchers in business casual.

I finally found my spot at churches. These spaces are perfect for inspiration. Gothic architecture, stained glass, organ music, and long pews where I could lay out all of my things. I didn’t have to worry about them being stolen, because really, who would do that in a church? This was such a beautiful answer to my writing space problem. There is no monthly cover charge (but I would always bring a donation to put into the cash box). No worries about people coming in and having loud phone conversations about their boss, neighbor, or spouse. Churches are very safe, and they are meant to inspire people. The only problem is that they lock the doors to the bathrooms, so you really can’t stay for more than two or three hours.

This year, I broke down and rented my very own studio space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Finally, I had a place to work, without any excuses. It’s in an artist compound across the street from an abandoned scrap metal yard. It’s very much an office complex for creative types. There are writers, artists, sculptors, tattooists, and the occasional brow technician. My studio is small, but it has super high ceilings and hardwood floors. I spent about $200 on a desk, lamps, and shelves, and I bought a rolling chair from someone on Craigslist for $20. There is Wi-Fi, silence, and best of all, an unlocked bathroom in the building.

I painted one of the walls in my studio chalkboard green; actual chalkboard green. I bought three different kinds of chalk to write on the wall. It’s very freeing to write without permanency—much more so than typing on a computer. The words I wrote on the wall could be erased with an easy swipe of the hand, and I could write other suggested words in the margins. I love seeing all the scribbles on the wall, like a visual map of my mind when I am writing something for the first time. I prefer writing that way because it is unedited, in the sense that I refuse to defeat the merit of the idea before it even comes out. All the words get a chance to breathe before being brushed off the cutting board. I might even write a few word choices for each spot when I’m writing a poem, and I keep moving forward instead of going down the rabbit holes of self-doubt and second-guessing. I simply let it be a draft.

This does not come naturally to me. I went to law school, got a Ph.D in political theory, and I’ve been a legal academic for fifteen years. The nature of academia is a presumption that everything that you say is potentially flawed, and publication allows others to make those judgments about your work. Papers never go unchallenged. Someone else is always suggesting how your work could have been better, or how you did something wrong, or how you could have thought of something differently. It’s a constantly adversarial process where you expect others to tear your work apart.

I let all this go in my studio. First of all, there’s not enough room for even that kind of headspace. I wanted it to be a space of “Yes,” where I could experiment and try things about. It’s my own spot to take chances. I even brought in all of my art supplies so I could work on going with my impulses. I’ve found that painting is a way to free my inhibitions and learn from accidents. Spills can be useful, and so could awful color blends, drips, and run-overs. It teaches me to work with my own instinct.

I’ve had to re-learn how to write without fear and without excuses. I try not to think of the amorphous body of “No” that lurks over my shoulder, that questions every word choice, tone, and angle. I think of the people who will enjoy my words, and I think of the readers who will appreciate seeing themselves reflected in the pages. I don’t only write for myself, but I write for a community of readers eager for new content and fresh ideas. Pictures and stories that made it out of my mind, out of the studio, and into the hearts and ears of those who want them.