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Creating for Joy

 I've always been really fascinated by outsider art: art created by people on the fringes of society, totally removed from the traditional art scene. One of the very best examples lies in the California desert: Salvation Mountain.

(I should warn you: this blog post is full of portals into the great wikipedia wormhole)

If you've read or seen Into the Wild, you might recognize it. Last month, I road tripped through the California desert and was lucky enough to see it – and touch it, and climb it, and roam around inside it.

Salvation Mountain is the dreamscape of one man, Leonard Knight, who made it from bales of hay and plaster, of tree branches and donated paint. He worked on it for 26 years, before being admitted into a nursing home just last year.

Like other outsider artists, Leonard Knight's intention wasn't recognition: to win awards and get written up in all the big time arts magazines. In fact, he won an award from the Folk Art Society of America – and the certificate is now embedded in an unassuming spot inside one of the mountain's caves. It wasn't for money, that's for sure. Rather, he created for God, of course; and for beauty, and for joy.

Whether you're religious or not (and I'm not), there's a very real spirituality to the place, and to this man's journey: spending a third of his life living on of the most barren landscapes on earth and covering it with color.

You can guess where I’m going here: it's a lot like taking a blank page and covering it with words.

As a writer, so often my thoughts are overrun by Thoughts: of publishing and audience and advances and promotion and agents and publishers and submissions and market and saturation and competition and oh my god, I won't have a 2013 book. They're Thoughts that creep in around the edges of my days, occasionally my nights, and almost always during the actual act of writing.

In some ways, they make us more accountable; they drive us to write better and more uniquely, to second-guess tropes and clichés, and of course, to write books publishers want to buy and readers want to read. They are important, and considering them is the way I get my words read by a large audience of others, which has always been the point – but not the only point.

Because each of these Thoughts (publishing and audience and advances and promotion and agents and publishers and submissions and market and saturation and competition and oh my god) are like mini bursts of paralysis; jolts of I can't do this, how can I possibly, this will never work. When the paralysis stacks up and sets in – well, my words aren't necessarily frozen, but the joy often is. Or rather, joy is replaced by stress and anxiety and worst of all, that deep-gut sickness, the sense I'm losing my grasp on something I've always loved the absolute most.

Back to the desert. Salvation Mountain might have been the largest artwork I saw on my desert trip, but there were many others. Like the East Jesus sculpture garden in Slab City, an unincorporated village of the fringiest of fringe folk who live their lives off the grid.

Paintings on ruined buildings on the coast of the Salton Sea.

Almost everywhere I went, front yards strewn with scrap metal dinosaurs, rebar foliage, horseshoe palm trees, fragments of poetry painted on the walls. Splashes of joy and color glowing against the desert backdrop. Of course, it all reminds me of Burning Man, that desert festival that owns my heart and explodes with art – including in the very emptiest reaches of the desert playa, two miles from Black Rock City, artworks maybe only a handful of people will see.


The majority of these desert artists don't create for the massive, nebulous Audience – but for whichever pilgrims make it that far out. And for the joy – the joy of manifestation, joy in the knowledge that they brought something beautiful (or weird, or startling, or wild, or all of the above) into existence.

This isn't a suggestion to be satisfied with the simple act of creation, because I know that's not enough for me. I want my art seen; I want my words read. It's my career. But that's not all it is.

Maybe I'm silly, but I believe writing and artmaking really are magic powers. Ones we are lucky enough to sample, to wield and appreciate even as we build our skills. When writing and artmaking becomes a duty, a commodity, a responsibility, a job, and worst of all, a stressmaker – it's so easy to forget the magic. And when the magic's gone, so is the joy.

Deserts like these remind me of both.

Even though the Thoughts will always be there, when we're aware of them, we can sift through them – and find the magic and joy they mask. Because when it comes to writing, there's magic and joy in so many places. In the serendipity of the dialogue. In action and adventure! In settings that sing. In turns of phrase that tug your breath. In the astonishing alchemy of bringing imaginary people to life. Maybe even in creating pieces only for you, sometimes – for an audience of yourself.

We can create for that other Audience too. But let's also create for our own happiness.

Let's create for the simple beauty of transforming nothing into something.

Let's create for joy.

Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. Thank you for this post. It's beautifully touching-- both Knight's work and your words. I'm ready to create (with joy and love).

  2. I love this post. The pictures are fantastic. But what I really needed was to hear that just writing is enough. Thanks!

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  4. Always good to have that kind of reminder from time to time about writing, to just let the scene unfurl as it's going to without worrying about what any audience might think or whether or not this scene is good enough to stay in the book. Just let the writing flow.

  5. Kir this is just what i needed to read right now <3


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Item Reviewed: Creating for Joy Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard