Creativity: Thursday Thoughts

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Creativity:
Thursday Thoughts
Kingsbrae 15.1

15 June 2017

The KIRA experience has been very kind to me. It has enabled me to spend time writing and thinking without the necessity of worrying about the daily rituals and necessities of everyday life. In addition, the daily conversations with the other artists in residence have kept my mind focused on the process of creation and this has allowed me to study how I am creating. As many on this blog have noticed, I have been very productive during this residency, and there are several reasons for it. I would like to share some thoughts and ideas with you.

Journal: On 2 March 2017, I received an e-mail telling me that I had been accepted for the arts residency at Kingsbrae. As most of you know, I keep a journal and write in it every day. On 3 March 2017, I started my Kingsbrae poetry sequence. I began by reading the entirety of the Kingsbrae web page and then watched the Kingsbrae Garden videos online. Then I began jotting down in my journal poems and snippets of poems, creative thoughts, metaphors, images,  and ideas. By the time I came to Kingsbrae, I had 90 proto-poems in place. Since they were taken from photos and videos, and were not written in situ, I saw them as prototypes, rather than as the real thing.

The Journal as Poetic Quarry: I look on the journal as a poetic quarry. It contains many stones, some tiny, some larger, some useless, and some very precious indeed. One part of my poetic journey here at Kingsbrae is to go back over these stones, turn them over one by one, discarding the dross, and concentrating on the precious material that has lain there waiting to be re-discovered. Now that I am on site, it is easier to distinguish between those essential words, the ones that really count, and the lesser words, the ones that can be dismissed. This sifting process needs time and thought, and that is exactly what the residency has given me. Writing tip: keep a journal. Mark in red those passages that contain seeds of poetry, images, metaphors, rhythms etc. Return to them when you have the time to do so. Time and space are essential: a time in which to work and a space in which to work. Without these two things , we are lost as writers. ‘I don’t have time,’ you think. Ask yourself: ‘what is more important than a little time each day, spent on yourself and your writing?’ As writers, we MUST indulge ourselves with those two little gifts, time and space. An hour a day is more than enough: find that hour, use it. Ten to fifteen minutes a day is enough to keep us ticking over: if we can’t find that ten minute space, then we are unfortunate indeed.

The Revision Process: As I develop as a writer (and believe me, I am still developing), I realize that the ability to recognize good writing is one of the most important skills that we possess. Re-reading is one thing. Distinguishing the great (oh yes, there are great thoughts and metaphors in those journals), from the good, from the average, from the futile and meaningless is a key skill. All of us have wasted precious time on an idea that just didn’t work. We have worried at it like a dog at an old bone, drooling, gnawing away, growling at ourselves and the bone, getting no nourishment. Leave those ‘dead’ ideas, those ‘dead’ metaphors. Move on to the good ones asap. Our writing time is precious: don’t waste it. Learn to recognize the good and workable from the lesser writings that waste our time.

The Creative Process: “What is this life if, full of care, / we have no time to stand and stare?” This is the first line of one of W. H. Davies’s poems. The Kingsbrae Residency has given me time to stand and stare. It has also given me time to sit and stare. Emptying myself of the daily drudge, I have been able to allow light and inspiration to enter my mind and fill me with creativity. I have discovered that there are ways to do this: meditation, an open mind, an emptiness within that slowly fills, and, above all, carpe diem, the ability to recognize that moment and seize it and exploit it. None of the above is unique to me. If we are at all creative, we are all faced with a simple choice: to develop our creativity or to let it wither. Most of us are too ‘busy’, in the worst sense of the word, to allow ourselves the time we need to create. This is a process we must reverse. We must return to self time, thinking time, emptiness time, metaphoric creative time.

The Value of Art: The modern corporate businessman’s mind is of the type that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. As a result, we have the tendency, as artists, to fall into the ‘price’ mold rather than the ‘value’ mold. If we do not stop and think, if we do not find the time to create, if we do not search for the absolute values that are represented by our art and our creativity, then we count the pennies, add up the costs, and look at the price. Nobody said art was facile. Nobody said that creating the time and space in which we could create would be easy. This residency has convinced me of one thing: that without that time and space, we are nothing but drones, workers, lifeless puppets, going through the motions as other people pull the strings, lacking the spiritual wherewithal … We must stand up for creativity, for being different, for doing things differently, for being ourselves. We must stop being digitalized consumers and become, or continue to be, active, thinking creators. The world needs creativity and art. It needs people who stop and think. It needs people who think differently. It needs artists and creators. It needs us. What we do as artists and creators is precious and valuable. Never doubt it. Never forget it.

 

Freedom

 

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Freedom

We are all so lonely,
locked in our cardboard castles,
no view beyond the battlements,
save for the wild lands, the forest,
from which the enemy might come.

Wild beasts, we cage ourselves
in our isolation and bang our heads
on the bars we built to protect us.

Sometimes, at night, we ascend
to the topmost turret to observe
the stars that dance above us,
tracing our lives in their errant ways.

And is this freedom, the night sky,
with its wayward planets, trapped
in their overnight dance and weaving
our futures, for ever and ever, amen?

Warning: Raw poem … written last night at 8:0-8:30 pm (according to the notes in my journal) and  typed out this morning. “Beware the jaws that bite, the claws that snatch …” And be wary of that which lurks beneath the forest’s dark and is never seen in the light of the sun.

 

People of the Mist 11

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8:00 AM

… the sky is a sharp blue guillotine, poised between twin roofs … a winding metal staircase … a caracol … a snail-shell cork-screwing up to the roof garden … a butterfly in the grapefruit tree opens and closes its painted wings with their wide-open peacock eyes …

Tim went up the stairs to his apartment and sat back down at the table.

Betrayal: the word shocked him and he meditated for a moment on its multiple meanings. He opened his journal and thumbed through the pages looking for a recent conversation he had shared with Alonso, the historical anthropologist. He sighed as he found it and started to read.

… early morning … Sunday … I was on my way to church … I walked through empty city streets … I was lost … I gazed from side to side … closed doors … barred windows … an old lady dressed in black emerged from a doorway in front of me … a lace mantilla covered her face … she carried a basket full of bright wool … I wanted to go to the Church of San Vincente … “This is the way to San Vicente, isn’t it?” I asked, pointing in the direction I was walking …  “Yes,” she said, and started walking in the opposite direction to me … I continued on my journey but I was still lost … I met a second lady … she walked towards me leaning on a walking stick marked like a slide rule with numbers and measurements … “This is the way to San Vicente, isn’t it?” I asked her … she nodded and walked right past me following in the tracks of the first lady … still lost, I stood there doubting … a third lady who looked like the local hairdresser approached … she was carrying an open basket with knives and razors and scissors within it …“This is … can you … will you tell me how to get to San Vicente”  I asked. “Of course,” she said. “Follow me.” … I turned and walked with her in the same direction as the first two ladies … we turned one corner, then another, and there was the church of San Vicente … I slowed down and the third lady went ahead and joined the other two ladies of whom I had asked the way … they seemed to be waiting for me on the church steps … so I walked up to them … I opened the door for them … “All roads lead to San Vicente,” they said in chorus … and they went inside … I sat down on a pew at the back … I looked for them … but there was no sign of them in the church …

I asked Alonso, my anthropological friend, about this weird behaviour. Alonso has a vast store of archived knowledge and seems to be able to locate the strangest facts and discover whatever hidden truth lurks behind almost everything.

“It’s simple,” he told me. “You’re a North American. No native person corrects a man of European descent. You said ‘This is the way to San Francisco, isn’t it?’ and the first two ladies said ‘Yes, it is.’ They’re not fools. They’re not going to put their heads in a noose and correct you by saying ‘No. It isn’t.’ And remember, the older they are, the more steeped they are in the traditional customs. Now, you addressed the third lady in the correct fashion and she gave you the correct answer. That’s what life’s like around here. You must learn to accept the culture and to ask the right questions. Otherwise, in your innocence, you might get misled.”

Tim sat at the table and thought about the day that lay ahead of him. Then he picked up his pen and wrote.

… evening … Monte Albán for the ceremonies and the dances … a dance group who dance native legends by torchlight …. something they say I mustn’t miss … this morning I must go shopping … more mescal … more groceries … must go to the baths …. not the Baños de Oaxaca … those other baths, I forget their name, on Reforma … Alonso told me they were good … and clean … no tourists … all locals … up by the Post Office … Alonso wants to take me to Mitla … late this morning … or early this afternoon … before we go to Monte Albán … it’s going to be a very busy day … I’d better sort it out …

He looked up. Then he stood, walked into the kitchen and looked for the mescal.  None left. He went back to the table, sat down, picked up his pen, unscrewed the cap, and continued writing.

9-11, shopping and los Baños;

1-4 Mitla, with Alonso;

5-8, Monte Albán with Alonso;

8-11, procession with a castillo and dancing

… it’s going to be a tight squeeze to get it all in … I’d like to go back to the cathedral … just to see if that man who looked like my father turns up … if I go there I can walk to Santo Domingo and listen to the old lady who stands alone at the altar and sings … such a beautiful voice …

“Yes,” Tim announced to the room in a loud voice. “I should just be able to manage it, provided Alonso arrives on time.” He stood up, pushed the chair away, clicked his fingers, and started to dance.

Writer’s Block: Wednesday Workshop

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Writer’s Block

Every day, well, almost every day, I meet people who tell me that they cannot write anymore. They have abandoned their current project. They sit in their work space and stare at blank screens or empty walls. They have come face to face with the dreaded Writer’s Block.

While some consider Writer’s Block to be an actual illness, others flaunt it like a flag or a badge of honor:

“Don’t touch me — I’ve got Writer’s Block: I wouldn’t want you to catch it.”

“I’m having a bad week: I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

“Sorry, I can’t make the writer’s meeting, I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

According to Wikipedia, “Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Throughout history, writer’s block has been a documented problem.”

We have probably all experienced the sensation of being unable to write, unable to think, unable to continue. As an academic, I found that something similar happens frequently in examinations with young students whose minds suddenly go blank when faced by a white page and an awkward question. This form of Writer’s Block comes at the most unfortunate times. Students need to be switched on just when their minds switch off. And something similar happens to writers.

Examination Block can be overcome. In many cases careful preparation for an exam will reduce or eliminate examination block. These preparations may well include correct note-taking and relevant revision procedures. There should be no last minute all-night study the night before the exam and a good night’s sleep, proper food, and water are essentials. Appropriate physical exercises before the exam starts are also useful as these make the heart beat and the blood flow. All these things prepare both body and mind and free the student for that most important task: the struggle with the blank page and the awkward question.

Will a similar set of preparations work for those who suffer from Writer’s Block?

In order to answer this question, I would rather take a different approach. Instead of seeing Writer’s Block as a physical / mental presence that stops us writing, why not look at it as an absence that can be overcome? What can we call that absence? Personally, I look upon it as an absence of creativity. If the creativity isn’t there, then writing creatively won’t happen. So what do we do?

Let us define creativity. For me, creativity is the expression of the creative principle that dwells within all of us. It is there, within us. We may suppress it or we may let it be suppressed. We may ignore it or we may deny it: but it is still there. It is always there. Sometimes it is beaten out of us; or we think it is. But it is still there, beneath the surface, waiting to be called on. The Roman poets spoke of it as Deus est in nobis … the god that dwells within us.

Creativity, for me, is like a river that vanishes underground and then reappears: it will be back.

The most important thing in my opinion is what you do when you’re not writing, what you do when you’re faced with that wall of blackness, what you do when you stare at that blank screen and nothing makes your fingers dance on the key board.

Here’s what I do. I make up my mind not to force myself to be creative. Forget about writing. Do something else. Ignore all idea of Writer’s Block, or the End of the World, or the Imminent Disaster of not being able to write. It may take a mental effort, but forget about it.

Now do something else, something positive. Different people respond to different stimuli. Here’s what I do.

(1) I read books
I read other people in their creative moments. I love reading people who write in other languages that I speak and read, because my own mind tries to recreate their images, their stories. This re-creation is a form of creation in itself. New words, new ideas, new combinations, rise to the surface of the mind, like bubbles on a river.

(2) I color and draw
As any who have seen my drawings know, I cannot draw. However, I can take a line for a walk. And that’s what I do. Then I color the spaces I create. My friends thought I was wasting my time and I believed them until I read one of Matisse’s sayings: “My ambition: to liberate color, to make it serve both as form and content.” Voilà: I have my raison d’être. Nature abhors a vacuum. When you create a space, color and meaning rush in.

(3) I take photos
The capturing of a moment: a sunset, a new bird at the feeder, deer wandering through the garden, a black bear visiting, rain on a spider web, sunlight through a prism, a cat made out of cherry stones … the re-creation of the moment is the creation of the memory. More bubbles flow on the surface of the stream.

(4) I go for a walk, look at nature and the world around me, people too
It is incredibly important to do this. A visit to the local coffee shop, a walk around the super-market or corner store, a seat in the park on a sunny day … just be yourself, believe in your existence, watch things as they happen, relax, look and listen, empty yourself, let the world flow back in … look at the ducks on the lake or the goldfish in the tank … more bubbles on the water, more ideas floating down the stream …

(5) I listen to music
De gustibus non disputandum … we can’t argue about taste. Where music goes, each person must make their own choices. The music I like fills my mind, relaxes me, flows out when it ends, takes my mind for a walk and leaves … a vacuum … into which dreams and colors, words and ideas, build like clouds …

(6) I cook
Cooking has always relaxed me. Sometimes the repeating of an old recipe helps clear my mind. Sometimes I have a need to invent something new. Hands and mind occupied, the secret, sacred underground river of creativity flows on …

(7) I sew
Last summer, an unexpected event led me to join a quilting group … oh what fun … a man quilting among a dozen women … I learned so many things … so many different ways of looking at the world … so many concepts that I would never have dreamed of on my own … Sewing runs in the family: I still have my grandfather’s sewing kit … darning and sewing needles that served him for two years before the mast … that darned his socks as he survived in the trenches of the First World War … it bears his name and I use it with pride … and what memories arise in my mind as I choose the needle … his needle … the one that will lead me into the next adventure, be it quilt, button or patch …

(8) I keep a journal
… and come hell or high water, I write in it every day and have done so since 1985. That’s 31 years during which I have scarcely missed a day. The writing maybe banal, it may be nothing but a note on the weather or a comment on a sporting event … but it’s there … a vital challenge to the idea that Writer’s Block can take me over and stop me writing. This journal is 95% drivel … maybe more … but bobbing along the stream of words are ideas, verses, rhyme schemes, choruses, stories, flashes of inspiration, jokes, memories, magic moments, falling stars, … the secret is to catch these falling stars, to recognize these rough diamonds and to return to them and polish when the moment is ripe … and it will be, sooner or later … for bubbles are buoyant and will lift you to the stars.

(9) Free Writing and the Creation of Metaphors
I also use the journal for free writing and automatic writing. These techniques, drawn from the Surrealists, allow the mind to wander at random. While wandering, the mind creates an interior monologue or a stream of consciousness that in fact turns up a series of delightful metaphors that can be polished and re-used at will. When I use this style of writing, I am reminded of Dalí’s saying (again and as always, from memory): “I don’t know what it means, but I know it means something.” My own theory of metaphor is that the metaphor is defined by two (sometimes more) points and rather than settling on one or the other (as in a simile), the mind moves and flickers sub-consciously between the two extremes so that meaning is sensed, but rarely can be grasped or stated in definitive terms. Thus, the marvelous line from André Breton, quoted by Mr. Cake,  “The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow” has, according to my theory of metaphor, four defining points, namely, wolves … clothed … mirrors … snow. All four of these defining points creates an image, a very personal image, in the reader’s mind. The mind moves quickly between each defining point and meaning is lost in the rapid shift from image to image. Quite simply, “the hand cannot grasp it, nor the mind exceed it.” This means we have to return, as readers, to the unconscious level where the metaphors were first created. Then: “when we no longer seek it, it is with us.” This same analytical exercise can be performed for each line of Breton’s poem. When we indulge in free writing, much of what we write can be abandoned. The secret is to recognize and rescue the little gems we so often find.

(10) I believe
Through all this runs a thread of belief … belief that the black cloud of despair will not win. The Writer’s Block will go. Creativity will never be not lost. It is there, beneath the surface, always ready to be contacted, waiting to rise and take you over again. And all too soon and quite unexpectedly, one form of creativity slips into another and the creative writing (it never really went away because of the journal) comes back.

Writer’s Block: it does exist. It’s how we deal with it that’s important. Creativity rules: forget Writer’s Block and let creativity and the multiple ways back to creativity grow and flow. Sooner or later the clouds will lift, the sun will return, the block will unblock and the words will flow again.

Remember the words on the Roman sundial: Horas non numero nisi serenasI count only the happy hours. And remember: the clouds will lift, the sun will return.

Trust me.
And believe.

Comment:
I first posted this entry on 17 August 2016. Since then it has received a number of hits and comments. Today, I have revised it and tightened it slightly, but the main ideas remain the same. I will try and continue with my Wednesday Workshops on a regular basis throughout 2017. Wish me luck.

People of the Mist 2

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People of the Mist
6:00 AM

… dream worlds circle outside the window in a starry sky where two moons float …  inside the bedroom, grey scalpels shaved from black obsidian inscribe red gashes on white-washed walls … the slashes turn into tulips that scrape sharp fingernails across the paint and send blood scuttling down to the floor … against a background of granite and trenchant shadows, twisted dancers, themselves old warrior kings bend themselves into pipe wire shapes as they struggle to escape their carved imprisonment … around and above them, the temples of Monte Albán tower and threaten … high priests in long black robes gape at the sky from their sanctuary in the observatory as three young women walk at an angle up the pagan temple steps … when they reach the top, a moonbeam holds them in its spotlight and they wax with the full moon’s beauty …  the doorway to an unclosed grave opens its crocodile jaws and three women descend the temple steps, ageing as they walk … they enter the tomb’s dark mouth … an old man in a faded suit follows them in … the grave swallows them and buries them in the hidden depths beneath the mound …

Down below, in the courtyard of Tim’s residence, the handy man tumble-dried a TV ad in the washing machine of his song sparrow throat. He gargled with gravel and churned stony lyrics skywards until they grated at Tim’s bedroom window and tried to drag him from his dreams.

… dream shadows back themselves into a cul-de-sac, a wilderness of harsh black scars … Tezcatlipoca catches Tochtli the Rabbit by his ears and throws him against the second sun that sizzles in the sky … his sharp teeth burrow, burying themselves deep in the fire’s red light … the second sun loses its fire and turns into the cold stone of the moon …  Tochtli’s face, the rabbit  face of death, simmers in the moon’s dwindling pool … a white rabbit, pursued by death’s hounds, scampers down a narrow escape tube through the deep dark tunnel of an earthen throat that allows him to escape from the hunter’s teeth …

… with a clicking of claws, knitting needles come together to lift the dreamer outwards and upwards towards death’s golden guillotine floating in the sky … the moon sharpens its knife edge on the keening wind and sets the dreamer’s blood tingling from toes to head … the dreamer desires to be free, free from those nightmares, those nocturnal visions that rise up from the past and stalk him as he lies in bed … he longs for the alarm clock to shuffle its pack of sleepless hours and to waken him with its piercing shriek as it tears him from these winding sheets, these grave clothes in which he lies … he  waits for the sun to shine into his window … he wants it to waken the bright jungle parrot that sleeps in the yard so that querulous caged voice will scatter night’s drawn curtains of clouds and drifting dream ….

The first waves of sunlight broke over the houses and Tim’s dreams began to fade. As the new day dawned the black bat of night flew back to its distant cave. Light fell, in the yard below, on the parrot’s cage where the bird clung to the bars, and “¡Loro, loro! I’m a parrot!” the caged bird shrieked at the sky.

New visions crawled out from the vellum codex left open last night on the table and red and green gods with black and white masks crawled through Tim’s drowsing mind. He linked them together with lines and arrows and made a silent vow that his life would never again be scarred by their furrowed frowns and secretive smiles.

The day’s first rocket climbed its ladder of sky to fizzle and smash at the gods’ front door. A second rocket extracted him like a tooth from the socket and drew him fully into daylight. The third explosion sounded much closer and a fourth rocket soon surged skywards. The fifth and sixth rockets were two fiery giants with arms reaching up to claw with their fingers at the sky.

Tim thought about getting up to see if the rocket delivery mailman was one of his neighbors, but last night’s mescal still swaddled him in lullabies and he couldn’t get out of bed.

… whoever the man is, the half-dozen rockets he has purchased have been expended now and he’ll soon be home ... maybe I can roll over and go back to sleep …

As Tim thought this, he heard the swoosh of the seventh rocket.

“Seven,” he said out loud, sitting up in bed.  “That means five more. Nobody buys a dozen rockets, unless it’s something very special.”

Tim pulled back the sheets and swung his legs out over the side of the bed. He looked out of the window. Down below him, in the street, his friend Alonso, the archaeologist, walked side by side with El Brujo, the witch doctor. Alonso held a bunch of rockets in one hand while El Brujo opened and closed a box of traditional Oaxacan wax matches. Alonso readied a rocket in his right hand and El Brujo scratched match against sandpaper and applied flame to the rocket’s blue paper. With a flash and a whoosh, the rocket soared into the air.

Alonso and El Brujo stopped, looked up towards Tim’s window, and waved.

“Come down and join us, Tim,” El Brujo called. “We’ve got a surprise for you. There’s something we want to tell you.”

Tim saw three women and a man in a suit turning the corner at the end of the street. The shadows they cast in the rocket’s red glare were those of sinuous worms slithering along the cobbles. Tim shook his head in disbelief and moved away from the window. A sudden nausea gripped him. He went to the bathroom, gagged, knelt before the toilet bowl, put two fingers down his throat, and threw up. Six wrinkled worms swam round and round leaving a thin, yellow smoke trail in the flush’s whirlpool.

Tim got to his feet and hurried back to the window but the street was empty. Before he could turn away, rockets number eight and nine climbed out of unseen hands and soared upwards to knock in mockery on the doors of the celestial gods.