Writing from the Heart: ‘Who’s Tom?

Everyone was a creative 6-year-old.


In 1997 I was the recipient of the Artist in Residence award at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Prior to my interviews with the board and the director there, I had never been to the Gardner, and knew nothing about Isabella. Plus, museums always made me tired.

The only thing required of me in return for this great honor was to give little talks about writing to fifth graders on field trips from the Farragut, Lawrence, and Tobin schools. And one big talk to the members of the museum.

The kids were a piece of cake. I told them about the first poem I ever wrote for my mother when I was 6. I explained I have a sister named Margie, and that I have no brother. And then I sing-songed the poem for them:

Happy birthday to Mom to mMom

from Margie and Nancy and Tom and Tom.

I let the words sink in, and then I described my mother’s reaction. I said, “My mom looked at me, looked down at the card I had made for her, and said, ‘Honey, um … who’s Tom?’” I told them how I remember rolling my eyes, like, What is her problem, and that I said rather belligerently, “It rhymes with Mom.” And then I said to the kids, “So what do you think my mother did?” And before they could shout out their guesses, I said, “She clapped her hands delightedly and smiled and said, ‘Ohh! Of course.’”

“Now, kids,” I continued, “if she had put me down and said, ‘But you can’t do that. If there is no Tom, the poem doesn’t make sense,’ she would have taken the joy right out of the whole experience for my little 6-year-old self. And creativity is so much about joy and not worrying about what people will think. It’s about the doing of it, not the end result, the thing.” I told them that writing was about process, not producing a product.

I loved hanging with the kids, but looming over the whole month of my being in this magical place was the talk I had to give to the members, the grownups.

I wrestled with choosing a topic that would be interesting for them, something they could relate to and something I genuinely cared about.

I was so nervous about the speech. I kept thinking, What am I doing here? I’m not an expert. I didn’t go to Harvard. I’m not a bestselling author. I’m not even a lousy-selling author. It’s a fluke that I got this in the first place.

I spent the first three weeks worrying. Everyone kept telling me the audience was going to be filled with blue-hairs. And then it hit me. Blue-hairs, schmoo-hairs. Even if the members are fuddy-duddies, they were fifth graders once. They might even be the ones whose creativity got squelched by some bad aunt or a mom who didn’t validate them like mine did.

A week before the scheduled talk, I bumped into someone I had known from college, and when I told her what I was doing at the Gardner, she said, “Oh, you always were creative.”

Later that night I kept thinking about what she said, and how people always say things like, “So and so is so creative,” as if creativity were something only special people got. Like having a photographic memory, or being particularly coordinated. Or being tall.

I have always felt that everyone is creative. That we actually are creating all the time. We’re like buzzing little creativity machines, constantly imagining and thinking and moving ideas around, and designing our environments, picking out our clothes, cooking leftovers, cutting our kids’ hair. Even our individual signatures are expressions of creativity.

So that night, I titled my talk, “I Know This Woman. She’s So Creative.” And I decided to have an imaginary conversation with Isabella over tea about just that subject. Right up till the moment the people were filing in and taking their seats, I still wasn’t sure if my speech would resonate.

My heart was pounding, and I looked out at the audience, and even though they didn’t have actual blue hair, they were a very conservative bunch.

I gulped and it hit me. Wait. What am I teaching here? That creativity is what we naturally do. That it’s about process, having fun, and not about making a product. And not caring about what people would think. This talk was not a product. And my breathing slowed, my heart regained its rhythm, and I began.

I actually did almost the identical talk I had done with the kids. Except it was Isabella and me having the imaginary conversation. Isabella argued with me, and said, Creative genius was a chosen thing. And I said, Forget genius. Just creativity unto itself. It’s what we’re made of.

And at the end, I had convinced Isabella to my way of thinking. (Of course, since I was in charge of the make-believe exchange.)

And together we told the folks to go home and write a poem and not worry if it was good, to paint a watercolor, or get some clay and make a little being with curly hair, or no hair.

But not to worry, we said, about the end result. It’s about process and the fun you’ll have creating. Because we know you. You are that woman (or man) who is so creative.

And lo and behold, I (we) got a standing ovation.