One afternoon as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling and recovering from a near-brush with heatstroke, an idea for a short story popped into my head: What if a teenager in, say, the year 2039 started railing against climate change in the voice of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield? Good idea? Bad idea? I was too tired to get up and write it down. Besides, ideas for stories, poems, novels, and screenplays popped into my head all the time along with odd thoughts about scientific theories (which I wasn’t qualified to evaluate), new recipes no one had ever tried before (probably for good reasons), and benevolent ways to get the neighbors’ dogs to stop barking.
I had never been short of ideas. As I lay on my back listening to the whir of my trusty black Vornado fan, I had files on my laptop that contained forty-four single-spaced pages of ideas for novels and short stories, 177 ideas for poems, and 45 ideas for filmscripts; not to mention some thirty notebooks dating from 1966 to the present crammed with more ideas along with multiple, handwritten drafts of almost all my poems–published and unpublished—and plot outlines for all my novels except the first two (Immersion and McCarthy’s List), which had emerged spontaneously from some part of my brain that seemed to store plots the way my Great Aunt Ebbie had stored pickled watermelon rinds in glass jars in her root cellar.
I’d had written enough screenplays to get into the Writers Guild of America West and had had fourteen novels and eight collections of poetry published, snagging a place on The New York Times Bestseller List and some honors like a PEN Award, a Women’s Spirituality Book Award, The Eric Hoffer Award for Best Book Published by a Small Press, and First Prize (with a co-author) in the 2022 City of Angels Women’s Film Festival for Best Short Screenplay.
So where has all this stuff come from? I wondered. And if I figure that out, how can I share that information with other people—not as a “how to” book, because plenty of good how-to-be-more-creative books have already been written; but as a what-the heck—is—creativity book? In other words, a book that would help people find their own personal paths to the place I’ve long believed is a universal source of ideas, not only for poems, novels, and screenplays; but for everything from art to astrophysics.
For several years, I had been wanting to leave something useful behind me. I had been given a gift that I hadn’t asked for, and I wanted to share it. I wanted to try to describe in words how inspiration comes from a place where words don’t exist. I wanted to explain what creativity was.
As I sat up, took a drink of cold water, and flipped off the fan, another idea popped into my head: To do all that I needed to write a book about creativity. In fact, Creativity would be the title along with some kind of subtitle that I’d figure out later.
I figured I could write this book because it would be short. I was almost certain creativity—or at least my own–came from a single source. How did I know that? Well, because I’d seen that source first-hand on four to six occasions of the kind you never forget—four to six occasions when I nearly died.
I stood up and walked over to a window and looked out at the front yard. The sun was setting, casting long, translucent red shadows that fell into patches of shade like shards of a shattered stained-glass window. I could see a scrim of pollen dusting the windshield of my car and heat rising in almost invisible waves off the pavement.
It was heat that almost killed me, I thought. Not the heat of the sun, but the heat of those high fevers I used to run: 106.8 degrees; 107 degrees; once as high as 107.1. I should have gone into convulsions. I should have had brain damage. But I didn’t. Instead, I’m alive. I’m looking out a window. And I really have been given a gift.
Thanks to those fevers, I’d seen a world without words. I’d seen it as unified and infinitely diverse both at the same time. And since I was a child, I’d been able to go back to the place where those high fevers took me to come up with ideas, because that place was the source of creativity.
Before I go any further, I need to make something clear: I’m not saying those fevers gave me a glimpse of life after death, nor am I trying to start a new religion based on the visions of Mary Mackey (although half a dozen Rolls Royces would have been a nice perk). The good thing about the source of creativity is that as far as I’ve been able to tell, anyone can access it once they know it’s there. You don’t have to get malaria or a bad case of flu or even eat half a dozen spoiled shrimp in a small Mexican town where the nearest doctor is seventy miles away and the phones don’t work.
I turned away from the window, sat down at my desk, picked up a pen, pulled out a sheet of paper and made a list:
- Write a book about creativity
- Explain what creativity is
- Describe how the source of creativity is hidden in plain sight
- Figure out a way to help/inspire people to find their own paths to that source
I put down my pen, read what I’d written, and felt a stab of doubt. What a grandiose plan. Who was I to even try this? How would I find the words? Would anyone even be interested?
Oh, what the hell, I thought. I might as well give it try.
Wiping the sweat off my forehead, I picked up my pen again, and added another item to the list:
- Take a cold shower
I’d like to say that, after I dried off and got dressed, I immediately sat back down and started to write the first chapter of Creativity, but that wasn’t what happened. After I brushed my hair and pulled on my shoes, I tossed the list into a drawer with some other ideas the way you throw an unmatched earring into a box thinking you’ll find a mate for it someday.
The problem wasn’t that I thought it was a bad idea, but although I’d had a lot of things published over the years, I’d also had a lot of things rejected, particularly when I was younger and just beginning to send out my work: Five novels. Countless short stories. Even Cat Magazine had rejected one of my early poems.
I hated rejection. It always made me want to curl up in a ball, swear off writing, and try to think of some honest trade I could take up like tile setting or plumbing. And rejection was where I figured I was headed. What editors in their right minds would publish a semi-mystical attempt to describe in words the wordless source of creativity?
That list of ideas for a book about creativity could have lain in that drawer until I died, and someone threw it into a dumpster along with my collection of old pens and plaster owls. Okay, I’m kidding about the owls. I never collected them, but you get the picture. I figured the whole thing was a non-starter.
But I was wrong. In 2021, Sandy McIntosh, the editor-in-chief of Marsh Hawk Press—a man who was definitely in his right mind—asked me to write an essay for an anthology he was publishing in print and online called On Becoming A Poet: Essential Information About the Writing Craft. And what, I ask you, is more essential to the writing craft than creativity?
The essay I wrote for Sandy, which I called “Fever and Jungles: On Becoming a Poet,” was my first attempt to describe the source of my own creativity. It was published in the Marsh Hawk Anthology in 2022. A bit later, the press decided to publish several stand-alone books about “how outstanding poets found their start as writers,” and I was asked to write one of the books in the series.
Leaping on the invitation, I pulled out my original list, smoothed out the wrinkles, reread the essay I’d written for the anthology, and started writing. After much revision and silent contemplation salted by occasional moments of frustration, I finished Creativity: Where Poems Begin, a short 100-page mixture of prose and poetry in which I describe to the best of my ability, what I believe creativity is and the gentle path I follow to—and which I hope others will be inspired to follow their own paths to—the source of all inspiration.
Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Creativity by Mary Mackey
it lifts me from my bed
in an ascending spiral
whispering my name
over and over
like a disappointed lover . . .
Mary Mackey, “105 Degrees and Rising”
from The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams
There is something different about me, something profoundly physical yet not obvious. It’s not a mental or physical disability or even what my health plan calls a “pre-existing condition,” but from the time I was six months old, it has been powerful, recurrent, and one of the main things that has made me into a poet.
Put simply, in a way that doesn’t begin to explain it: I run high fevers. Very high. Near-death-experience-high fevers. This does not happen all the time. Yet, in the course of my life, on seven or eight occasions when I fell ill with a sore throat, flu, measles, food poisoning, pneumonia, or something else that ordinarily would only have sent me to bed with a box of tissues, my body temperature has suddenly climbed to 107 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps on one or two occasions even a bit higher.
107 degrees F. (42 C). Let’s pause and contemplate the implications of that number.
Brain damage and death occur if the body’s temperature stays above 107.6 for an extended period of time—say twenty-four hours. At 106? You can experience fever-induced convulsions. This can even happen at 104 degrees. In fact, if your temperature is only 103 (39.4 C) for three days or more, it’s considered serious enough to warrant a visit to the doctor.
I nearly died from a high fever just before my third birthday. I remember the experience well because it was the first time I saw how thin and bright the world could be. I remember lying on a green couch in an over-heated room. It must have been winter, because frost coated the windowpanes, and snow lay on the bare branches of the trees in big lumps. My mother had given me a bottle of Coca-Cola on the principle that I needed to take in more fluids. My temperature must have been somewhere between 105 and 106 Fahrenheit because I was already experiencing that wonderful, detached floating feeling I always get above 105.
As I lay on that green couch, a warm golden light—the kind you only see for a few moments at sunset—flooded the living room. My parents moved toward me so slowly that I could see their clothing billow out and collapse in an invisible wind. Bending over me, they lost their faces and floated toward the ceiling like huge birds. The Coke bottle on the coffee table multiplied into dozens of Coke bottles, which flew up and circled in a huge glassy aura over their heads.
Light weaved around the molding and splayed across the ceiling like spilled glue. Behind my parents’ heads, the golden light turned into a veil composed of long, multi-colored ribbons that danced in an invisible wind. The veil expanded, consuming the green couch, the blankets, the windows, and my parents. Suddenly it parted, and I saw trees with red and gold leaves (impossible because it was the dead of winter), and little children holding out their hands and calling to me to come play with them.
I couldn’t have had much of a vocabulary at that age. Nevertheless, words streamed into my mind and came out of my mouth, combining and re-combining into entirely new things. I believe this was the moment when I was given the gift of poetry.
What Reviewers Have Said About Creativity
“In Creativity, Mary Mackey takes us on a journey to the mysterious place where creativity begins. Her quest makes this a book for anyone who wants to explore how ideas and bursts of insight come, not just to poets and novelists, but to us all.” –Mara Lynn Keller, PhD, Professor Emerita, CIIS
“Sensuous, compassionate, and utterly unflinching.” —Jane Hirshfield
“What I like about Creativity is that it doesn’t pretend to be an explicit work of instruction, a how-to for poets. Rather, it is a crisply worded narrative . . . that puts up a spirited resistance to easy classifying, and that is its consistent lesson for the developing poet or novelist—find your own off-road, meandering route to creativity.”Poetry Flash Magazine
“It is difficult to resist the temptation to compare Mary Mackey to Elizabeth Bishop.” –The Huffington Post
“I read this book with giddy pleasure.” Scene4 Magazine
“Mary Mackey is a national treasure.” –Tulsa Book Review