A large number of people end up as adults who have little or no sense of themselves as legitimate creators. This blog explores the idea of creativity in its widest sense (painting, dancing, felting, cooking, writing, poetry, film-making etc.) and starts with the question 'how do we inhibit and block our naturally creative response to life?'
Go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art no matter now well or badly is a way to make your soul grow for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get enormous reward. You will have created something.
This might sound like rather an obvious thing to say, but sometimes I'm amazed at how much simple looking goes on in the practice of making paintings. If you timed the amount of time I spent with a brush in my hand for a painting like this one, for example, you might see that the overall time spent literally painting was about 45 minutes. Compared to someone making a 6 foot oil painting over as many weeks, this seems trivial, and perhaps as if I should be 'churning them out'.
Ha! It would indeed be churning if I spent a day putting a number of those 45 minute sessions together and just kept painting most of the time. And, I've learnt, the paintings I would end up with at the end of the day would be completely different. Sometimes the first stage, like the first picture here, might sit in my room looking at me for a week, or even a month. It's as if the thing gets started, and then it says, well, you could just carry on without stopping, or you could stop and see what I have to say. I think I used to carry on without stopping much more than I do now. Now, I let the first stage sit there, and I look at it for days. I wait for it to say something to me, suggest to me what, of many possibilities, is most suited to happening next.
There's always the worry that whatever it is you like about the early stage will be obliterated as you proceed. That happened pretty much with this one. If I'd stopped at the lines around the dark blue centre, it would have been a more interesting painting. I almost did. But I wasn't sure. So I decided to take the risk of screwing up what I liked, and went ahead. And screwed up what I liked. That happens all the time. And then I think, ok sit with it some more, or do some more, it's screwed up now, so what the hell (this is a particular feature of watercolour, I guess, there's not a lot you can do to take lines or colours back...). Often it never really becomes more satisfying, but even if it doesn't, I usually learn about something I would never have decided to do. Like put so many black lines over a light area. I would never have decided to do that.
When I talk to other people, sometimes to other artists, I realise that there are as many ways of working as there are people. A lot of people seem to feel that they need more discipline. They get distracted from what they want to be doing, sometimes calling themselves lazy, though I always think it's more likely that there's something challenging about what it is that they want to do and that they're being unfair on themselves, labelling themselves like that... Whatever you call it, their default seems to be to avoid and to potter and to not get on with the things they really want to do.
I seem to have an opposite kind of psychology. I have to call in a psychology because, although I think it's very weird that emotions are classed as things of the mind, and I also hate the pathologising of the human condition that therapeutic approaches so often seem to indulge in, I nonetheless have to recognise that my patterns of engagement have deep 'psychological' roots. But that doesn't actually matter. Whatever the reasons, my default is to engage, to the point of becoming somewhat transfixed. The word 'flow' has been invented to designate a desirable state of creative immersion, which some people talk about as if it's an almost mystical state, a fleeting, often unattainable goal. But I fall into flow states at the smell of an oily rag, particularly if there's some kind of deadline involved. Which might seem to make sense, but actually isn't necessarily inevitable - some people seem to respond to a deadline by putting their head even deeper into the sand, until the very last minute, when they become suddenly crazed.
One of the reasons for my approach, I think, is that, having started life as an disengaged kid who left school early and partied from far too young an age, I eventually discovered the fruits of immersive activity. It was amazing what wonders seemed to result from a bit of application, first in the field of language teaching, then as a student, then as an academic. But I took it too far, for too long, and, most importantly, I immersed and concentrated and burned in response to things that I wasn't really interested in, apart from there being people involved (I like people), and latterly a lot of stuff that made me angry. A bad cocktail for the body - endless deadline-driven application, fuelled by anger and irritation.
Now that I'm out the other side of my body's finally putting an end to all that, I find that any kind of return to ideas of discipline, of list-making, of sitting working for hours, or of telling myself that I must do X,Y and Z, simply don't work. Where others are trying to discipline themselves into better routines, longer periods of work, setting goals and trying to push things into a new shape, my discipline is to learn to let go, to learn undiscipline; to continually take myself 'off the hook', and try to understand how I keep hanging myself up on that hook in the first place. To try to learn enjoyment and exploration, freedom and wandering, space and non-doing.
I think of this when I hear people in the creative world talking about the fire (that's a link!) that burns within them. It's a very common image for what motivates us to create, even when we get no recognition, no money, no applause. Something is pushing, something needs to be attended to, responded to. As fire, though, this pushing can also burn, as many creative lives bear witness to.
I nearly consumed myself in the flames of my desperation to respond creatively to the world. Now I can see that the consuming was at least partly the result of the call not being heard; of staying in the wrong place, creating and creating in response to constraints that I believed were freely chosen, but which actually were held in place by fear and insecurity.
My proper, right, creative life has finally claimed me. But fire doesn't work as an image for what motivates and feeds me now. It's more like a flame, a flame that was lit a long, long time ago, which I carried around in some sheltered space within me all of those years. I have an image now of my hands cupped around a small blue flame, like an oil lamp in cave, always there.
Rest is the conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be. Rest is not stasis but the essence of giving and receiving. Rest is an act of remembering, imaginatively and intellectually, but also physiologically and physically. To rest is to give up on the will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals. To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we put it right; to rest is to fall back, literally or figuratively from outer targets, not to an inner bull’s eye or an imagined state of inner stillness, but to a living, breathing inner state of natural exchange…