Sewage and Saccharin

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The warm sun baked the pavement under my shoes in Chittagong’s dusty, yellow heat, and I looked at the old man lying in a puddle on the sidewalk about 15 feet in front of us. He was naked except for a ruined pair of shorts, and his rough, dark brown skin looked more like a filthy, crumpled canvas draped over nothing but bones than the flesh of a real body. Behind him was the cement railing of the sewage-filled canal that ran behind our house, so there was no real way to get around him without stepping into traffic. My mom turned toward the street, looking for an opening so we could cross. I kept looking at him. 

His long hair and beard were matted with what I took to be his own shit. I guess It could’ve been mud from the canal, though. Wouldn’t have made much difference in the smell. 

I was 10, and we crossed the street so we could walk on the other side. I thought of the story of the Good Samaritan, and how I wasn’t him. I thought how whoever the Good Samaritan helped probably didn’t smell so bad. 

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7 years later, I drew a picture of that old man. It got me an “A” in my Grade 11 correspondence art class. It also made me think about where that man might be. Dead, probably.

I thought of how I fell into a sewage gutter once while playing tag with the other kids after church, how I lay stunned in a puddle at the bottom of that cement trench, “canal mud” mixing with wet blood in my hair. It occurred that as a kid I was nearly as skinny as that old man, really. I had nicer clothes though. And I had a mom to wash the blood and shit from my head in the church bathroom sink. 

The blood kept coming long after my mom washed the mud away, but luckily I had that friendly nurse who lived in the flat under the church, who brought out a first aid kit. And I had that lady surgeon, travelling through Asia by motorcycle, who happened to stop by that night for the church service. She sewed up my head on the nurse’s kitchen table, and I was good as new.

After the stitches were in, we probably still went out and bought chicken tikka from the barbecue stands the way we did every Friday night after church, and all was good in my life as I gorged on the flesh and bones of a creature that had to be more well-fed than that old man was. 

As I thought over the mental picture of myself crumpled over in the bottom of that sewage gutter, I started to see myself in that old man. It made me stop remembering him as a sack of stink and bones and instead, as an alternate version of me. Somewhere deep in my head, a gear went *click*.

I’d like to say making that connection between myself and the old man made him become more human to me. In a way, it did, but, mostly it made me become more human. 

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The parallel visuals I recognized between myself and the old man might have been superficial, but making the connection was important, because ultimatelly it lent me a glimpse of deeper truth. 

We think and feel with variety and complexity because we see, hear, smell, taste and touch that variety and complexity in nature and culture, and in our interactions with other people’s minds and craft. Yes, creative flow is mostly drawn from abstractions, but it is abstraction of what’s been absorbed from our world. It’s a mingling and extrapolation of the truths and impressions and deceptions and outright perversions of experience. Creativity is breadth making depth. 

Only when experience collides with unconnected experience does an idea form, birthed by conflict and common ground. It awakened me. It can awaken you. It can give you an idea for something new; it can make you a different person (for better or worse) and allow you to produce things you could never otherwise have thought of. 

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We’ve all experienced this creative awakening to one degree or another, and it’s addictive, especially when it’s your job to be creative. But the resulting, continual thirst for inspirational fuel can also lure us into a trap. We can start to depend on downcycled inspiration. 

I’ve found that my creative concepts can only go as deep as I’ve already gone in my absorption of the greater environment around me. Interaction with all possible angles of space and time and argument is what gives richness and nuance of creative expression, so if my ideas are shallow, it’s almost certainly because I’m drawing from shallow experience. And of course, even where I’ve experienced deeply, memory of experience fades. 

So, when I reach inward to draw from “the well” and come up dry, I run to the easy fix — the shared scrapbooks of our social web. I flit across flickring pools of images and ffound artwork, tumblring streams of words and gif animations, and as I do this, my brain is either moving within that shallow experience and cultivating equally shallow creative capital, or it’s delving into those merely as portals to a richer thing that I’ve already experienced in more fullness.

A tidbit of media can either be a memento, triggering deeper experience and therefore deeper abstractions and extrapolations and revelations, or it can be a mere postcard, doing little more than making me frustrated and jealous. 

Getting inspired takes getting out of your seat and out of your head. It’s in that same large world outside that all of the greats of history lived and walked and created, and it’s there that you’ll meet things solid enough to sustain your creative spirit. Until we’re rooted in deep breadth, the addictive tidbits of experience our favourite media outlets funnel at us are just saccharin in place of sun-ripened fruit. Whatever you’re baking won’t be good unless you can draw from what’s real. 

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So my resolution is this: stop chasing digital saccharin. We can’t experience it deeply enough to find revelation. We’ve got to go into the real world among imperfect places, hurting/hurtful people, stupid logic and awful situations. We must flounder, stretch, breathe, argue, and absorb. It may not be pleasant. In fact, if we’re really getting out there, it definitely won’t be entirely pleasant. But then, and only then, will you have the raw fuel needed to create something really worthwhile — and more than that — to live a life worth your while.


This piece was originally published as Issue 8 (2011-05-24) of the Read & Trust Newsletter (now Read & Trust Magazine). So, if you liked this, you might want to subscribe.