Tuesday, 29 December 2009


In the flier I made for the Artists Way study group, I used a quote from Julia Cameron which uses the idea of 'dreams'. It's interesting that I chose this, because on the whole I find the correlation between the need to create and the idea of 'dreams' quite problematic. I think I liked this quote because of the idea that people might actively be striving to be 'grey, controlled and dreamless'. And I liked the idea that despite our best efforts to be grey, something vital and burning might nonetheless be  insisting within us, refusing to stay buried beneath that pile of winter leaves...

A lot of the creativity books talk about 'your dreams'. I hate this. The idea of  'dreams' links into disapproving cultural discourses which express their cynicism with phrases such as 'she's a dreamer', 'oh, that's just a dream', and 'when is he coming to come back (down) to reality?'. These discourses express, and create, the assumption that life is 'really' difficult, disappointing, and limited. Anyone who believes otherwise is 'away with the fairies', or perhaps unfairly privileged ('it's alright for him, he hasn't got children...').

But dreams are really no different to imagination, and we all imagine our lives into being every day. How could we  become 'a provider for the family' or 'a hard-working researcher' if we had not at some point imagined this as a way of being, perhaps even as a life that we freely 'chose'? 

The dismissive discourse of 'dreams' provides the censoring mind with an effective stick with which to beat down those things that rise up in the night, or hover at the edge of our vision.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Talent and effort

One of the problems with the 'talent' model, which I mentioned in my first post, is that it can make you want almost instant results. You may know, logically, that you have to practice something, or develop a skill, but when it actually comes to trying to do that thing, the critic in your mind jumps in more or less straight away, wanting to know something like why the thing you're tentatively trying to do isn't 'better'. If I'm supposed to have some kind of talent for this, your mind says to itself, why does this drawing look so bad, this note sound so out of tune? 'I can''t do cartoons', I hear myself say to myself, as if cartoonists come out of the womb readymade.

The biggest problem for adults and children is that everyone wants quick results. They don't realise that you have to work at it. They have to spend time at it and be patient. It's a commitment'. (McNiff, 98:18)

We know this is true if we look back at whatever we've developed capacities in professionally. Work conditions force us to keep at something because we have to make a living. The problem with activities which we officially label as 'creative' (though of course there is all sorts of creativity involved in our professional lives... ) is that they tend to be relegated to small corners of our lives; corners which get squeezed and invaded by things we regard as more important. I wonder now at the fact that I thought that writing an academic paper was more important than learning how to sit quietly in front of the old apple tree in my garden looking at the form of its branches against the winter sky.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

What's pushing?

I'm still thinking about that lost post, the one that considered the history of my relationship with my violin as an example of how the mind sabotages a natural desire or capacity. What is the urge to do something like try to make music? Why did I give up at 12, 18, 25, 32 and 49, but feel sufficiently drawn to it to start all over again from the beginning at 17, 22, 31 and 43?

If the urge is strong enough to keep returning, despite it being less and less likely that I'll ever 'achieve anything' with it, why is it not strong enough to insist that I plunge in completely and sustain involvement without all this stopping and starting?

The blocking is very complex, involving many different aspects of mind and emotion. But the desire to make music itself seems even more mysterious.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Where do things come from?

Following on from my last post about the mind interfering with natural capacities of creation and response, this morning I wrote a nice little post which tracked the ways in which my mind had interfered with my capacity to make music throughout my life. Then I went to attach the image, and Explorer closed down my browser, eating my post for breakfast.

For a while I thought about writing it again, while the ideas were 'fresh in my memory'. But when I came to try, they seemed to have gone, leaving only a dull little pit of disappointment in the centre of my chest. Why were those ideas able to come out so smoothly, connecting to each other, feeding each other, linking together into a growing coherence only an hour ago? When now they've vanished into the mist of this cold, wintry morning.

If I'd been writing an academic paper, I would have had to try to conjure them up once again, cursing all the while about lost time and wonderful ideas that would never come again. But the beauty of this blog process is that it doesn't have to work within those sorts of constraints. I thought about Sean McNiff, and others whose books on creativity I'm reading, and how they often refer to mistakes, and responses to mistakes. In my painting at the moment, I'm explicity exploring/allowing chance effects, unexpected material realities. Sometimes I set things up deliberately to work together randomly, sometimes a 'mistake' happens, and I incorporate it into the image. So why, I thought, can I not work with the mistake of my browser malfunction. Instead of trying recapture, recreate, something which has already been made and has fallen back into the ether apparently without trace, why not use what happened as a stimulus for something else?

As well as making me think about mistakes, the other aspect of the malfunction that interested me was why I couldn't write the ideas again. I thought of Stephen Nachmanovitch's (Free Play, 1990) definition of what some people call 'intuition':

Intuition is a synaptic summation, our whole nervous system balancing and combining multivariate complexities in a single flash. It's like computation; but while computation is a lineal process, going from A to B to C, intuition computes concentrically. All the steps and variables converge on the central decision-point at once, which is the present moment.

Reasoned knowledge proceeds one step at a time, and the results of one step can, and often do, overturn the results of the previous step - hence, those moments when we think too much and can't firmly decide what to do. Reasoned knowledge proceeds from information of which we're consciously aware - only a partial sampling of our total knowledge. Intuitive knowledge, on the other hand, proceeds from everything we know and everything we are. It converges on the moment from a rich plurality of directions and sources - hence the feeling of absolute certainty that is traditionally associated with intuitive knowledge (40)

This description of intuition links in my mind to the idea of emergence, an idea which is probably going to come up in future quite a lot here in relation to thinking about creativity. When all these things are working together in the way that Nachmanovitch describes, there seems to come a point when something suddenly just pops out, whole. What pops out (an idea, a realisation, a sentence) hasn't been constructed, it hasn't been 'put together' in any systematic way. One minute there's just swirling stuff, a multi-dimensional awareness in the mind which could go in any number of directions, and then, suddenly, something crystallises out of this stuff, and becomes a form.

Things that emerge like this are always, in some sense, unique. The 'rich plurality of directions and sources' which converged at a specific moment to produce my first post will never converge in quite the same way ever again. I can try to reproduce the conditions which I perceive to be present when the first thing emerged/was created. But there were all sorts of elements in the mix which I wasn't aware of, most of which were beyond my control. On top of that, the processes involved in producing the first thing, and the ideas and expressions that popped out along the way, have now themselves become part of the new 'plurality of directions and sources' which I would be drawing on if I tried to write my post for the second time. Sometimes, of course, this could help you to make a better post. But it would always be a different one.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

It's your mind's fault...

I've always been interested in creativity, though I'm not sure when I started to think about it using this word. The first time I began to think about it in my adult life was probably when I was working in a language school on the south coast of England, which had a very original and inspirational in-house trainer, Adrian Underhill http://www.thornburyscott.com/tu/underhill.htm ; http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/43/4/250 ;  http://uk.linkedin.com/pub/adrian-underhill/16/819/ab3. Every Friday he would run a short workshop designed to crank open our minds about what we were doing in our classrooms. He would show us how to get students to generate rhyming couplets out of thin air, or how to make a sentence from each student turn into a complete lesson. A simple image or text, he seemed to be saying, had seemingly endless possibilities, if we could only learn to let such possibilities suggest themselves to our minds. I left for my next job in North India thinking that I could now work with anything or nothing, but in fact relying much more than I realised at the time on a small green book full of ideas I had learnt from working with him and others in the school.

Some years later, I shifted my professional attention from the needs of newly-arrived refugee adults from Tibet in India, to those of highly motivated young female trainee interpreters in Tokyo. By this time my confidence that I would always know how to respond had begun to drain away. I wrote to Adrian, and the gist of his reply was as follows: 'Some day, if you're relying on recipes alone,the recipes will run out. The only way forward is to learn a way of approaching things which will take you beyond recipes and formulas, making it possible for you to tap into your own inexhaustible supply of ideas'. This wasn't exactly what he said, but he seemed to be saying that there was something different from the ideas I had faithfully copied into my little green book; some way in which ideas could begin to generate from a source of their own, if only I could find out how to do this.

I then remembered discussions we had had in that early training about a book called 'The inner game of tennis' (Timothy Galway), which got its ideas from an earlier book called 'Zen and the art of archery' (Eugene Herrigel). The tennis story ran like this. A man was practising his tennis serve by serving into an armchair on the other side of the net. He served again and again, and every time his ball missed the chair. In the end, in utter frustration, he hit one last serve towards the chair, not even looking properly at where he was hitting it, saying, 'I've had enough, that's it for today'. When he turned round to go, he saw that the ball had landed smack in the middle of the chair.

The idea here seemed to be that you can often do things much better than you think, and that the act of trying, the involvement of the mind in the sense of conscious intention, was actually a hindrance.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

This blog

There is a tendency in British culture to assume that creative expression is restricted to an anointed group. Though everyone creates freely in childhood, the idea of 'talent' (you've either got it or you haven't, and most of us haven't) soon begins to get a grip on our minds. The result of this is that a large number of people emerge into adult life with little or no sense of themselves as legitimate creators.

This blog will explore the nature of creativity in its widest sense (painting, dancing, felting, cooking, writing, poetry, film-making etc.). Its starting question is 'how do we inhibit and block our naturally creative response to life?' I'll be ruminating on my own past history of 'blocked creativity' from the perspective of books and articles which offer different perspectives on this question. I'll also be reporting on the processes and ideas which emerge in the context of an 'Artist's Way' (Julia Cameron, 1992) study group which is beginning in January, 2010.


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