We knew John Fox’s wonderful writing before we knew the man, and we use his book ‘Finding What You Didn’t Lose‘ on our mindful writing ecourses. He works in a similar field to us – where the written word and healing overlap, and where the magic happens. We feel very privileged to welcome him to our series of creativity interviews today.
Welcome, John. What drives your creative work?
It feeds me with meaning and that gives me the ballast and joy of adventure and an even keel to journey further.
There is a calling as a service and to fulfill that calling is satisfying and expansive. There is a lot of fun involved, a lot of beauty. It is also driven or impacted greatly by broken-heartedness – but with the poetry, I carry an awareness that creativity allows for the possibility to break open rather than only fall apart.
What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself at the beginning of your creative career?
I’m in slight wondering with myself about this question — because I am not convinced that I know, would know, what to say to myself that would be useful! I am not sure I would want to clear up my challenges or even doubts with any “sage” advice. I want to learn to trust my own steps most of the way.
However… As far as my creative career I might go back to visit myself in Miss Watkins 2nd grade class and say “Don’t listen to that art teacher, Miss K. tell you “You will never be an artist.” I would further say, “She has no right to say such a thing to a 7 year old boy. I want you to have fun with art.” I suppose it’s Miss K. whom I would really like to talk with…tell her it was damaging to get that message so young.
I’d like to be a witness to my self, I’d like to learn from my self back then and love my self.
How do you keep creating when things get difficult?
I keep creating because difficulty is a catalyst for writing.
It is also okay to rest and breathe for a while. There is a spirit of creativity — rather than the direct action of creativity — by allowing oneself to rest and breathe I allow myself to compost what has changed, has fallen away, and in the process, recharge.
How does your creative work affect the rest of your life?
It seems to be all of a piece.
But if I understand “rest of my life” to mean friendships, leading a non profit I founded, other enjoyments like baseball, political interests, social justice interests, environmental interests, spiritual commitment, making my way through chores and all the particulars of my “to do lists” and daily errands — then I experience that creative work as something essential that helps me be interested in people, in how they are — in this planet as a healthy just place, and in that, I find that the purpose of living, when rooted in that creative/healing work, is well-worth the challenges that I and that we as a community face.
What is it like to send your work out into the world?
There is a joy in it, naturally, and a surprise.
The joy is to know that it makes a difference in people’s lives and the surprise comes from learning how. Surprise also in the fact that it happens at all!
And on another level it reminds me not to take anything for granted…especially knowing that it makes a difference, how it does that, knowing I had the courage to take one step and then the next in the creative process, for all of that, I am grateful.
What was the best advice anyone gave to you?
With regards to writing, in 11th grade I was applying to attend Boston University to study English/Creative Writing. That was 1973 before MFA programs. I sent some poems at that time to the Director of Creative Writing, George Starbuck. Mr. Starbuck had been director at University of Iowa which was renowned as a place for writers.
So I sent these poems, it seems almost ridiculously at that age. However, I got a letter back from George Starbuck on Boston University stationery and he wrote: “It takes a long time of getting to know someone before you can make helpful comments about their writing.”
Another poetry teacher at Bard College – I transferred there after two years at Boston University. I changed schools because the largeness of B. U. was overwhelming and also because the other premiere poetry teacher, Anne Sexton, committed suicide at the beginning of my sophomore year at B.U.
At Bard, Robert Kelly would say that people don’t write for two reasons: 1.) They do not want to write or 2.) Because they do not trust themselves.
I have appreciated these respectful and empowering statements. I suppose that I have spent a career focusing on the enhancement and nurturing of trust.
Then there is some life “advice” I want to mention. In the midst of a emotional and spiritual shattering over the amputation of my leg at eighteen, I was being helped by the spiritual teacher, Ram Dass.
Ram Dass and I were standing on the street corner at Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue at Kenmore Square in Boston. I was in a real state of meltdown, quite frightened, absolutely torn away from God, whatever I thought that meant.
Ram Dass looked at me directly and said with a deep fierceness, “You couldn’t get away if you tried.”
I didn’t know it at the time but in retrospect I understand him to mean, I had to live through my life. I couldn’t escape my life.
What helps you to pay attention to the world?
What helps me is not wanting to miss anything.
What helps me is loving it.
John Fox is a poet and certified poetry therapist. He is author of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-making and Finding What You Didn’t Lose: Expressing Your Truth and Creativity Through Poem-Making and numerous essays. His work is featured in the PBS documentary, Healing Words: Poetry and Medicine. John has brought poetry as healer to medical schools and hospitals through the United States. He has taught in Ireland, England, Israel, Kuwait, South Korea and Canada. John lives in Mountain View, California. You can find out more about his work at www.poeticmedicine.org.