Tuesday, 7 February 2012

On Creativity

The kindly Miss Taconis was absent. In her place came Mrs Rogers, who we had never seen before. After morning break, she set us a task: to draw a picture of our families. Happily, I set to. My brother, my sisters, some flowers, our house, four windows, the grass in the garden and the bright blue sky, in its rightful place at the top of the page.

Mrs Rogers moved around the classroom as the children of Summerbee Infants quietly drew and coloured. Colouring was one of my favourite activities. I was so good at keeping in the lines. That, and mixing up powder paints to create shades that I didn’t even know the names of. The pleasure was in sitting with my brush and the eight-compartment plastic palettes, mixing and remixing, getting the consistency and colours just right. There was never a thought about how to paint, what marks to make; the picture always seemed to take care of itself.

Until, that is, Mrs Rogers appeared unexpectedly behind me. Silly girl, she said. The sky comes down to the ground. There isn’t a big white gap, is there? Shock bolted through me as she dragged her long fingernail across the paper in front of me, where the green of the lawn met the empty page. A shy, scared seven year old (a few months beforehand, I’d heard the story of Chicken Licken and been worried that the sky would indeed fall in), I was speechless. Devastated, in fact. I’d had absolutely no idea that it was possible to get a picture wrong. Of course, I knew that spellings had to be correct, and that there were right answers to sums and questions about capitals, but nobody had introduced me to the idea that pictures could be incorrect.

I sat at the table, silent. The other children still drawing, a gentle murmur of chat. I felt hurt, unfairly criticised, assailed. I picked up the blue crayon and sullenly coloured in the white space between land and sky. I looked out of the classroom window to see if the sky really did come down that far. Nobody had ever told me that my pictures were supposed to accurately represent the world; they had always been an entirely inner affair. Now, it seemed, the world could encroach on that, too. No part of me, including my imagination - my refuge - was safe from attack.

From that day on, I was reticent about drawing. The unselfconscious joy that I’d found in colouring, mixing and creating ceased to be. A couple of similar incidents in later school years compounded my reluctance. I convinced myself that I wasn’t artistic. Musical, yes; a writer, certainly, but clearly no good at art. The teachers had told me so, so it must be the case.

So did the wrath of Mrs Rogers bring a premature end to a nascent artist, or was I never destined to be one anyway? According to archetypal psychologist James Hillman, we are born with the seed of our soul’s unique creative potential fully formed within us. Whilst environmental influences may affect the extent and timing of the seed’s blossoming, they do not determine the nature of the seed. An acorn will always become an oak tree, however much it may wish to be a sycamore. Perhaps, if the calling to be an artist had been strong within me, I’d have overcome this hurdle. Perhaps it would have been the grit in my oyster, an obstacle inspiring me to greater artistic achievement.

Creativity, of course, is the nature of being. Life constantly creates itself anew, and so we cannot help but create, even in the simplest of ways. Another batch of biscuits, a new set of shelves; the physical manifestation of our ideas is a daily occurrence. We often don’t regard those ordinary, mundane acts of creation as creativity. That word is generally saved for endeavours that we regard as rarefied, special in some way, and often reserved for others who we deem to possess qualities that we don’t have. We may have the urge to write, or sing, or paint, but are held back by the voice that says, You’re no good at that. If you were, you’d be successful at it by now. As adults, we may feel foolish, clumsy or even slightly shamed when we attempt to express our creative selves in a new way, or in any way at all. We’ve forgotten how to play. How to just let something be, without interpretation, critique or forensic examination.

So, if we are to be our true creative selves, three components need to be in place. Firstly, that innate urge. We’ve all had experiences of it; an idea or calling just arrives. Sometimes, it shows up as a compelling interest or fascination. We may like to believe that we think up our thoughts, but we’re all aware that they just come to us. We can’t really claim responsibility for the interesting, creative thoughts any more than we can the less desirable ones. Secondly, some skill or talent is often required if the urge is to be made manifest. A musical inspiration comes to naught without the ability to write or play music. Often, we just need to begin. A few lessons in, with brush or keyboard or hammer and chisel, and we’ll start to see how. To quote Goethe, Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. And boldness, it seems, keeps the dissenting voices at bay. Thirdly, we need courage. It can feel risky to express ourselves, and it is tempting to take cover in non action, to pick up the television remote for yet another night. It takes bravery to make our uniqueness visible, to say to the world, This is me. To stand up to Mrs Rogers, and say, This is my sky, and I'm going to put it where I want to. It's time to get out the crayons. There is colouring to be done.