On Not Being Able To Write

on not being able to paintAt the end of the 1940s, Marion Milner was a psychoanalyst who had been involved in a lengthy study of the ways in which children learn, and once the official report had been written up she decided to take time to consider a few private concerns of her own about the business of education. She decided to think about ‘one specific area in which I myself had failed to learn something that I wanted to learn’, and this was how to paint. Introspection was Milner’s preferred technique; she championed a state of ‘reverie’, or a kind of creative daydreaming, in which she let her mind off the reins to go where it pleased and made a careful note of the result. When she decided to tackle her inability to paint as she wished, she followed a similar sort of plan: ‘a way of letting hand and eye do exactly what pleased them without any conscious working to a preconceived intention.’ From these amateur sketches, she found she could deduce a great deal about the creative obstacles she was encountering, most of which seemed to indicate that we know very little indeed about ourselves – or at least the deep layer of the self from which creativity springs. And out of this experiment she wrote a fascinating book, On Not Being Able To Paint.

Marion Milner’s first discovery was that her stated intention to pursue what she found beautiful had nothing to do with the drawing she produced. Often the desire to capture an attractive woman on the underground or a beautiful, serene seascape, resulted in an odd caricature or an image of angry swirling clouds. Similarly she found that pictures drawn with correct perspective didn’t actually please her at all. There was, she realised, some upsurge of mood, some insistent and unknown desire at work infiltrating her creativity that would not be silenced, though she had no idea what to do with it.

Returning to her books about painting with these discoveries in mind, she chanced upon a highly significant phrase – that ‘painting is concerned with the feelings conveyed by space.’ Revelation ensued. Milner could see how ‘very intense feelings might be stirred’ when she stopped thinking about spatial relations in scientific terms and thought about what they meant for the way we organise both inner and outer worlds in our mind – how close or how separate things might be, how close or how separate we might want them to be: ‘the whole sensory foundation of the common sense world seemed to be threatened.’ As she looked at objects and their relation to one another with more honesty, she found that the outlines she had always considered the basic building block of her drawing were in fact false and overly simplistic. In reality, things were not so clear-cut. There were shadows and merging and blurring of edges, once ‘they were freed from this grimly practical business of enclosing an object and keeping it in its place.’

Thus the outline represented the world of fact, of separate touchable solid objects; to cling to it was therefore surely to protect oneself against the other world, the world of imagination…. I wondered, perhaps this was one reason why new experiments in painting can arouse such fierce opposition and anger. People must surely be afraid, without knowing it, that their hold upon reason and sanity is precarious, else they would not so resent being asked to look at visual experience in a new way, they would not be so afraid of not seeing the world as they have always seen it and in the general publicly agreed way of seeing it.’

She came to the conclusion that: ‘genuine vision as an artist needed a kind of courage that was willing to face all kinds of spiritual dangers.’

I found myself translating Milner’s adventures in painting into the experience of writing. I tend to think of writing as an exercise in extreme vulnerability; there’s nothing like showing something one has written to another person to know what it is to wince and cringe. Always, humiliation threatens, more so than is reasonable. But if painting is concerned with the feelings conveyed by space, then writing must be concerned with feelings about understanding – both how we understand the world, and how we ourselves are understood within it. The telling of any story is based on those foundations, and it cannot be avoided.Those moods that rose up and troubled Milner’s pictures, turning them into something quite different, infuse every sentence that we write. Something very private, and something that we might not always have agreed to put on public view, becomes nakedly visible.

How tempting it must be, then, to cling to the solid outlines Milner talks about, the ones that common sense agrees upon, the ones that are currently validated and approved of. How tempting to create a clear cut world and fill it with block colour that gives nothing away, and which creates not a piece of art but something childish and almost ugly. Art is nothing if it is not paradoxical – beauty is never where we might expect to find it. What risks we have to take to let the madness of reality in – the shadows and the blurred lines, the colours that do not seem to be there when we look, but which make the image spring to life on the page. And most risky of all, to allow ourselves to be seen, in our full messy humanity in a way that is perhaps truthful but not sanctioned by our vanity.

Milner talks about the necessary illusion of perception – the belief that what we see is an objective world, when it is determined by our inner lives and the dreams that populate it. If we want to be able to paint or write or create art of any kind, then it seems to be important to embrace the more difficult truths of subjectivity rather than run away from them.


36 thoughts on “On Not Being Able To Write

  1. One of the most important thinkers I have come across. I read her still and the newly published work. Thank you for this.

    • You are welcome. I am always surprised by how few people know about her. She remains an inventive and continually intriguing thinker – hopefully a few more might be tempted to read her now!

  2. Absolutely yes; progress in many things (real, incredible, paradigm-shift progress) comes from taking potentially huge risks and having the insight/confidence to know that you might succeed. I’ll always be a middle-of-the-road physicist because I’m not prepared (actually because I am not talented enough) to take real risks most of the time. Probably my only significant contribution (to particle physics) came as a PhD student when I suddenly realised that the background I was measuring “independently” of the main analysis route where ~ 100% signal events were being used, did in fact contain quite a lot of signal too. I was able to provide a semi-independent measurement of the charm production cross section (for 360 Gev p-N interactions if you are interested). Perhaps as a scientist of some youth and lowly position in the hierarchy I was more prepared to take risks than I am these days (I have taken risks in other areas of my life in ways I didn’t when younger, but that’s another story).

    • I remember standing outside the door that let us in to High Table at a college where I was a JRF along with my friend, N, a biological scientist. She was chatting about her day’s research with one of the dons who said ‘That’s what’s lovely about your area; you get these beautiful little insights’. Innovation, creativity, whatever you like to call it, is by no means bound to any one field of endeavour. But from all the reading I’ve been doing lately, it’s clear that it requires a huge amount of energy and engagement to reach that exulted point. And yes, it is often a risk. It may well be more or less the case that risks are favoured the older you get in art, and the younger you are in science!

  3. I wish I could use my introspection better. I find that my problem is that I get too self indulgent and on re-reading it sounds too oblique. Not in a good way, but in a too-specific-to-myself way.

    • Ha, I think that’s a problem that most of us share! It’s a really fine line in the sand between productive introspection and navel-gazing. Virginia Woolf is often heralded as a genius of introspection, and it clearly wasn’t an easy route for her, either!

  4. One of the many other important aspects of MM’s life and work is that she risked interpretating, trusting her instincts, after deep thought too, when ‘analysing’ (trying to truly understand) the scribbles and drawings of a very troubled woman over 22years!! She discussed these ‘scrawls’ and doodles with artists and friends until she uncovered meaningful truths about the woman’s inner life and real suffering. She had the patience and determination to keep on all that time, in effect leading the way for subsequent
    doctors and psychiatrists eg Winnicott.
    I’m afraid I can’t follow Dark Puss’ work above, it is beyond any knowledge and understanding I have, but his point about risk remains as he has obviously discovered experientially elsewhere.
    Did you know, Dark Puss, that MM was our neighbour until she died, even having a life’s work tribute in P Hill Community Centre?

    On Not Being Able To Paint was very influential in creative circles for decades after it was published. She used the pseudonym Joanne/a? Field then.

    Thanks so much again for this post.

    • No I didn’t know that, thank you for that interesting information. Does that mean I wonder (since you say “our” neighbour) that on occasion you and I pass each other in the street in NW3 land ?

      • Definitely, I had you marked out as nice looking man carrying a Barbara Kingsolver on K Henry’s Rd one day until he suddenly turned up on the back pages of the Sunday Times as some kind of investment banker. ‘Met’ you first on the pages of DGR. You’d certainly know where I live, opposite Bibendum.

    • Oh I am certainly a nice looking man! 🙂 A bit gothic in some of my tastes though you won’t be easily able to tell that if you see me. Perhaps we might meet up someday? Bibendum is one of my wine merchants.

      • Fine, Antony’s for coffee perhaps. Or perhaps you and your wife would like to be at my ‘surprise’ birthday party tomorrow. Be at Hampstead Meeting House for 5pm when I make an entrance with small grandchildren. I’ll know you both because I won’t know you.
        It’ll be a fun & eclectic party believe me – or I’ve been told.

  5. This is so interesting and fascinating and touching and true, I could write realms (don’t panic, I won’t, at least not here I won’t). But I’ve just ordered a copy of On Not Being Able to Paint and I’m looking forward to reading it. But I’m already feeling trepidatious (I think that’s a word?) about what I might discover about my ability to ‘Embrace the more difficult truths of subjectivity rather than run away from them.’

    • Oh that’s more my push-for-some-outlandish-standard-of-engagement sentiment than Milner’s. She is very good about just sticking with the thought or feeling and letting intuition rise up around it. Angela, I would absolutely love to know what you think about the book. If you get a chance, will you let me know?

  6. This sounds like something I’m going to have to read sometime! I thank you and curse you for adding yet another book to my tbr pile!

    I think she and you are right, the courage it takes to be a really good artist is so astonishing and hard. It is something we hardly ever think about or consider. At least I don’t.

    • You know it’s all quite mutual! 🙂 I am completely fascinated by the process people go though to reach their creativity and find something like this book quite hypnotic. I’m all for celebrating thinkers, innovators and risk-takers of all ilks – they are far braver than I am!

  7. Lovely post. You write so well about subjectivity. I love the idea that to be true to our creativity we have to be courageous. I’ve never really thought of writing as requiring courage but of course it does since unless we keep the writing to ourselves, we need to share it with others and that brings the risk of rejection and also not being heard and seen. I’m adding this to the list.

    • Doesn’t it take immense courage to write truth without which most writing is worthless? Courage to look inward as well as out and to do the work.

    • I think about how hard it is to hold onto one’s own beliefs in the face of common opinion, for instance – or even one insistent person telling me what to think! Though actually it’s probably truer to say that a good argument will win me over more readily. I do struggle to show my writing around. I’ve got used to the blog because I often feel I’m just writing to my friends. Editors and agents are quite a different matter… They can make me feel very cowardly! 🙂

  8. This is such an outstanding review, and the book looks fascinating – I too am going to buy a copy! I appreciated Carol’s comments too.

    This sentence really stuck out for me: ‘What risks we have to take to let the madness of reality in – the shadows and the blurred lines, the colours that do not seem to be there when we look, but which make the image spring to life on the page.’ I think that is terribly difficult, because you’re having to relinquish your senses and be guided by something else. Perhaps it makes the difference between good and great work.

    • What a fascinating comment, Helen, and you’re quite right. Milner does talk about that, about how strange it feels to let go of ordinary perception, and how odd the results are when she does. I think you’re right that the ability to do that can create something stunning. I would love to know what you think of this too!

  9. Pingback: Weekly Mind Cleanup | A Bringer of New Things

  10. I never find it difficult to write, but I always, always find it difficult to share with others. Taking up blogging has really helped in that regard but hasn’t truly solved the problem I have with vulnerability. Seems I might need to read Marion Milner one day (but not now, while I’m reading from my shelves).

    • Yup, know just what you mean. It really IS hard to share with others, and when you read the reviews on Goodreads, it becomes evident why… Readers can be excruciatingly mean. I could do with a thicker skin, I often think!

  11. How interesting! Working in-between visual and written art I find her points of view very enriching. Marion Milner is new to me, I’m so glad you introduced her!

    • I’m so glad you read this post, Sigrun. I was thinking of you while I wrote about Milner, and thought you might find her interesting. I’d love to know what you make of her ideas.

  12. What an interesting book this sounds! What on earth led you to it?? I find painting such an emotional rollercoaster (and seldom do it, but should try more) that I’d find this fascinating. Is it accessible to read, or is it scholarly?

    • Well it’s part of the research I’m doing for my crisis and creativity book (you may remember the essay on Dodie Smith is part of it too – from the half of the book dedicated to specific instances of crises provoking creativity). I think you would find it interesting, from what Milner has been saying so far. I found it very easy to read, apart from the odd paragraph here and there when she can plunge into psychobabble. But these are very isolated incidents (one in five chapters read so far) and nothing to worry about. I’d love to know what you think of it!

  13. All her writing is accessible, what slows me down in the best of ways is stopping to think through her insights, and this happens every time I reread..

  14. Dear Litlove
    If ever you need a boost or a reader then I’m open to requests. That is my bag/life – all sorts and I can send you physical evidence if you are interested. Writing, creativity – this is what I’m what I’m dedicated to. despite the evidence of this ill written message, brain still whirling after my fab party.

  15. Great, birthday stuff ongoing but I’m brimming with excitement re writing, literature, reading and family visits. Off to Italy on birthday family treat but always reading and more. xx

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