Much as we think of it as a delightful quality, it is not easy to be creative. I’ve been reading up on author’s lives recently, and on the process of creative writing, and it’s notable how tortured, paranoid and emotionally complicated many writers are. Partly this is because many good writers start out disadvantaged in life. You don’t have to be abused as a child to write, but it seems to help. Well, to be fair, it seems to be isolated children who end up with the right skill set – overdeveloped imagination, extreme sensitivity, impressive observational techniques, and a generally rich and fertile inner life. That isolation may be for perfectly harmless reasons, but so many of the writers I’ve been reading about were dealing with difficult families, or marginalized by race, religion or genteel poverty. The position of outsider is a bit of a necessity for the genuine artist in later life; literature often critiques the society in which it is written, and to see that society clearly requires disengagement from it. Or an engagement that is dissatisfactory, upsetting or disempowering. There have been brilliant writers who lived completely within the celebrity culture of their times – like Truman Capote, for instance, but there was always something (like his sexuality) to make them feel apart in a disquieting way from the rest of the human race.
Or the alternative is the writer who writes directly out of the circumstances of his or her life – Scott Fitzgerald and Colette come to mind here; people who managed such peculiar and eventful lives that they could transfer them directly onto the page as they lived them. Inevitably, that takes its own special toll.
Then there’s the writer’s mind, both a magnificent asset and the enemy within. Boundless imagination sounds lovely, but it’s actually a nightmare. Most ordinary people’s minds are fitted with internal pressure valves that shut mental processes off if they become threatening, But not the writer’s mind which, after all, gains its strength from its ability to travel further and faster into the labyrinth of possibilities, to plunge the depths of sadness and rage, to inhabit all kinds of different, often disturbing situations. Since happiness has no story, writers are inevitably fixated on conflict and trouble; not for them the 80% of events that unfold normally and easily, no, they must be concerned with the sliver of life in which the unpredictable and the catastrophic occurs.
The ability to empathise and to be sensitive to the predicaments of others removes another set of essential boundaries for the writer. ‘Writers aren’t exactly people,’ Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘they’re a whole lot of people trying to be one person.’ And there’s something about messing with language that really destabilises the mind. I see this empirically with the students – the flakiest come every time from either the English department or Modern Languages (well, unless they are mathematicians, but maths at that level is considered a language anyway). Language orients us in the world, it solidifies our relationship to everything that surrounds us and constructs our sense of who we are. When we use it to create parallel universes and different mentalities or get deep into its meaning, exploring along the frontier of what has never quite been put into words before, something fundamental to sanity is being put on the line.
The very process of creativity is a sort of mental recklessness; creativity makes the brain whirr faster and faster, mimicking the patterns of manic depression. Creativity can be seen in many ways as a kind of overextension of the individual, a shifting through the mental and emotional gears into overdrive, that results in a verbal explosion of thoughts, images, fantasies, impressions, possibilities, and yet one restrained by accuracy of insight, elegance of grammar, an often depressing awareness of what life is really like (because optimists may be happier, but they are also more likely to be wrong in their life forecasts). It’s a kind of controlled psychosis, undertaken alone and without a safety net.
And then what happens to the products of this creativity? They are put onto a competitive marketplace, regarded by the bulk of the population with complete indifference or else torn to pieces by the minority who care about art. Think how hard it is for most people to accept they have made a mistake, or produced a poor piece of work, how damaging to self-esteem, how upsetting, particularly if others become aware of their failings; imagine how it would be if every office or factory produced a newsletter that circulated to the population at large damning critiques of named workers. There’d be a law against it. But writers, some of the most sensitive and unstable human beings, have to suffer public humiliation at the hands of readers/critics who are often thoughtless, prejudiced or even plain unfair. Nowadays, writers are encouraged to prepare themselves for this during any training they undertake. I vividly recall one course I took, in which the tutor had a wonderful time coming up with damning and contemptuous remarks about my writing. She thought she was hilarious, and I wondered what other educational process considered mockery and scorn as useful motivational tools.
Yet people still think of creativity as a fantastic gift, and the job of the writer as one of the most enviable professions. There’s something about the thought of having great swathes of space and time in which to express oneself that seems to unite a number of cherished fantasies. In fact, I think that the process of creativity can be an amazing journey, and a compulsive, obsessive one, too, as the lives of some of the most contented writers, such as Colette and Agatha Christie show. But the pleasure often comes at a steep price.
On that note, I will just add that there’ll be no posts this week: I have an article to write and the deadline sort of crept up on me. Back next week, presuming I survive the process. 😉