"Creativity Is Like a Warm Hispanic Woman" and Other Lessons Amy Poehler Taught Me

The sun was curving its way downward, behind the screaming billboards and massive shopping centers clamoring for space alongside the freeway. I was on my way home from an exceedingly long day of teaching. Granted, all of the days that I teach are long by virtue of the fact that I made a less than sound decision to cram all four of my writing classes at two different campuses into one day. It starts in the copy room at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 6:00 p.m. when I then have to brave rush hour traffic on the 405 from Irvine back to Long Beach. In spite of it all, I was in my happy place because I had survived another day and was now listening to NPR inside the comfort of my Matrix.

On this particular episode of Marketplace, the host, Kai Ryssdal, was interviewing comedian, Amy Poehler. He asked Poehler—who, in addition to staring on Saturday Night Live is author of a book currently rated #1 on the New York Times Best Seller’s List—how she can handle the stress of juggling work and family and still be so creative. She said the following:

“Creativity is like a warm Hispanic women who makes delicious food for me. She smells great, she makes me laugh, she tells me I’m beautiful all the time, and she has a really young son that I get along with.

“Your career,” Poehler continued, “is like a bad boyfriend. Your career will never call you back, it flirts openly with other people, it’s never going to marry you, it likes you most when you ignore it. Those two things are very separate.”

I turned down the dial on my radio and spent a few moments absorbing these brief analogies, slowly becoming convinced that Amy Poehler was some sort of comedic shaman and psychologist all wrapped into one.

My mind flashed back to a vision of myself four years ago, suitcase in hand, ready to take New York City by storm. I’d heard a rumor that Madonna originally moved to New York with nothing more than $6 in her wallet, which I found oddly inspiring. It never occurred to me to check the validity of this fact, but I did hold on to it like a talisman and grew excited over the prospect that since there was certainly more than $6 in both my wallet and savings account, I was already off to a better start than Madonna had been.

I want to say that my view of creativity at that time was of a warm, nourishing, life-giving place—much the way Poehler describes the Hispanic woman’s dinner table. Yet, the “bad boyfriend” who resembles career very quickly starting showing up in the evenings and inviting himself to eat with us. After being in New York for several months, it became difficult to distinguish the difference between the comfort and happiness of my creativity and the fickle, demanding nature of making it a career. The two merged together. They became one in the same until the bad boyfriend took prominence. He spoke louder than the Hispanic woman and sounded more convincing, freaking me out about money and whether or not anyone would ever buy my book, and what on earth I was doing at the age of 30 trying to be an “artist” when I should be acting more responsibly and opting for stability so that I could one day raise a family. As Julia Roberts tells Richard Gere in one of my favorite scenes from Pretty Woman, “The bad stuff is easier to believe.”

In desperation, I began trying to write a book proposal even though my primary concept for the book itself wasn’t yet finalized. I created stressful and unrealistic time lines, and eventually gave up when I didn’t meet them. I got to the point where I wasn’t writing; I was stalling and distracting myself with anything and everything else. I took a class on the ins and outs of the publishing industry through NYU Extension. I heard Zadie Smith was reading at the Barnes and Noble up the street, so I walked several blocks, bought a copy of her latest book, and waited in line to have her sign it.

“About how many hours a day do you spend writing?” I asked her when it was finally my turn.

She paused for a moment, looking to the sky and calculating in her head. “Four,” she said. “Yes, it is. It’s four.”

I considered this a magic formula, and vowed that I too would write four hours a day.

Except then I heard that some writers I followed on Twitter were hosting a networking event with authors and literary agents and editors. Surely I needed to attend. That was more important than actually writing, right? Even the most talented people are nothing without connections. So I went and hobnobbed and added several key figures to my social media network. All was well until they started asking me what exactly my book was about. How far along was I?

I leaned against the bar and glanced at the sweaty beer bottle in my hand. I didn’t quite know what to say.

Years later, I am now in the process of starting to write again, of redeeming my view of it and of creativity—Amy Poehler style. The New York City distractions are gone and my schedule has opened up drastically since it’s winter break and I’m not teaching.

On certain days, the “bad boyfriend” has seemed like a distant memory. I’ve been typing and journaling and completing exercises from this incredible book called Your Life Is a Book. The authors suggest everything from creating a detailed time line of your past on a long scrap of butcher paper, to writing via candlelight while listening to Baroque music. I’m trying it all and I’m freaking loving it. I’m at the wooden table. I’m eating homemade tamales and drinking sangria and enjoying the company of Senora Creativity herself. The bad boyfriend is still miraculously missing, as I am not worrying so much anymore about success or money or fame or impressive Twitter followers. But yet, there is still something dampening the mood, making me want to leave the table and find excuses not to come back.

That something, I’m finding, is actually me. It always has been.

Even in the most ideal situations, I am still faced with myself. Scrape away teaching, scrape away money problems, put me in a room where all I can do all day long is write, and I guarantee it’s not going to be utter bliss the whole time. Instead of writing, I’ll make excuses. I’ll stall, pick at my cuticles, and search the fridge for something to snack on even though I’m not hungry. I’ll decide I need more “inspiration” and thus read someone else’s writing rather than doing my own. I’ll search the internet, make to-do lists, daydream, glance at the clock, go back to picking at my cuticles. Each day is a vigorous wrestling match as I both long to write and fear it simultaneously.

In the New York days, I ran from my fear of writing. I hid from it, denied it, masked it with a bunch of smiles and hopeful anecdotes. I wondered if the fear’s very presence in my mind meant that I wasn’t a true writer. Maybe I was a fake, a fraud, a poser. Surely, the Amy Poehlers of this world didn’t feel this way.

But what if they do sometimes? What if it isn’t important either way because my journey is my journey and it doesn’t really matter what everyone else’s looks like? What if hiding from fear is actually the worst thing I could be doing?

Now, in this little creativity vision Poehler has blessed me with, today and every day after, I am vowing to face my fear head on. I am inviting it to the table and pouring it a glass of sangria. We’re getting to know each other, which isn’t always pretty. But with every meal we share, I find that it’s quite helpful. It’s good. It keeps me from running.