Creativity as response to Western civillisation’s bludgeon

It was nice to receive some feedback from friends on my list of stories and the process of finding voice. It was also nice to be reminded of going back to the intentions of why I began cataloging some of these thoughts on writing as I come to the end of the PhD process and think about moving forward. One of the most useful comments was from a friend who reminded me that you find a writing voice by writing, whether dissatisfied with the pieces or not, and keep developing. So I am going to work my through these stories and pieces, aiming to complete one a week, and keep developing.

Something else I learnt from beginning to write these stories, many of which were inspired by my reading of Marion Milner as her words fluttered through that open-window in my story mind. At first, as with all pieces, the minute you begin on something the ideal in your mind, which is often in pictures, is then put to the test of your craft and talent to translate those story-images into something in the real world that can be shared. For some, the medium best to do this  is a film – and this is why film must be such an enticing medium to work in, because it most closely resembles the story images in the inner reality. For some it is painting, for some sculpting, etc. For me, writing. And immediately, from the very first word, from the very first opening up of this story’s voice, you have recognized and admitted the gap between the images in your inner reality and the ability to make them into something real to be shared in the outer, external reality of the world.

This is where, says Milner, many people stop. They cannot bear that gap, they cannot bear to be disillusioned of their fantasy, their inner image and idea. Her anger and frustration was turned, from the 1920s through to the end of her life in 1998, against the education system (and we see returns to this in Michael Gove’s soulless public exams) which privileges the rational mind’s methods over the creative, intuitive, inner reality. Education, Milner argued all her life, as an educational psychologist and as a rather difficult-to-place psychoanalyst, should help ensure individuals can build strong, resourceful bridges between the two realities, to live creatively. (And just as an aside towards a comment made by Eric Young, to remind us that we need a creative and soulful investment in narrative to help us remember that the idea that we live inside an economy, and our lives depend on that, is not the only story. h/t Sharon Blackie for this story). Or, as Milner said back in the 1940s, but which is relevant today:

how far does a general teaching method which gives marks for knowing and penalizes ‘not knowing’ objective facts, hinder the process of coming to know the psychic reality? How far does it help the child to realize the inner reality as process, if this realization does, in fact, require the ability to tolerate doubt and the willingness to wait in uncertainty? […] What are the results of the psychic reality knowing itself, not about itself, as something to discuss, but an act of perceiving in the living moment of ‘now’? We are only beginning to know a little, but there seems to be a continual enlarging of the horizons of experience.

I would take that further, and say the anger and frustration needs to be directed towards Western civilization (which is where Milner’s thought was leading her, and has led me) for the types of education it imposes on us as children. But not only in education.

My theory, I suppose, one I’m working towards in my PhD about the relationship between theories of mind, writing, senses of self, and creativity, is where also thinkers such as Lauren Berlant are working with their emphasis on fantasy and illusion in culture. The fantasies of ‘the good life’ that we cannot give up, even as those fantasies crumble around us and ruin our life systems, are dependent on the dominant Western civilization prioritizing rational thinking (e.g. scientific, positivist methods) over the artistic and creative (look at the cuts in funding for the Arts and Humanities). But also subtly and, in Foucault’s terms, productively (it ends up being pleasurable and productive for us to accept these social narrative constraints) Western civilization also manipulates our inner realities and our creative ability to think in illusory terms—that is, to dream to wish, to imagine—and channels all of these wonderful human abilities into practices that benefit not us, but those in power, those who own the means of production, those who have political strength, media ownership and capital wealth.

That is, our ability to wish and imagine and create illusions and fantasies in our inner realities (which could, if allowed and empowered, be used to live creatively for ourselves—to create art, to communicate compassionately, to build our own homes, to envision our gardens, to relate imaginatively) are instead channeled into ‘creating identities’ through extortionate and debilitating labour, through leisure pursuits (in the small amount of time we are given for it) and, most of all, through consumerism and its fantasies of the good life. Rather than create our own art, we purchase prints from Ikea, unaware of the resources we are using up. Rather than grow our own food, we purchase ‘Tesco’s finest’ for a £1 more than Tesco ‘basic’ potatoes, with the snazzy plastic packaging, even though they come from the same field. Rather than build a bridge from our own inner reality to the outside world, we accept what the outside world suggests is reflective of the inner reality it says we should have, fed to us by media, advertising, education, social norms. It is metallic-painted, alloyed, or plaid covered, or white-sanded, or in some other way pure, but just for us.

This is how I see Western civilization using people’s creative powers against themselves. By ONE: demeaning them as less important than rational, logical (male, white, western) thinking. And then by TWO: manipulating the weakened intuitive, creative unconscious into accepting what is given to the soul, rather than that individual creating their world through creative labour.

Which is why, then, I think (believe, yet?) that expressing and affirming one’s creative powers, when one’s creativity has a dual consciousness, as Steve Thorp says of Mary Oliver’s poetry, a consciousness that expresses connection to land and place, animals, care and compassion for the non-human, and to the creativity inherent in other humans, genuinely IS a response, and a radical, affirmative, humanly responsible reaction, to the ways in which dominant modes of Western living are deracinating the world.

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Storymindedness from a 21 Soul Angle

A month ago a writer friend posted about a challenge that she and other friends were taking: to develop at least one story idea a day for 30 days. Some great and all good ideas, and more than that, the perspective of seeing the exercise as one of ‘opening up a window’ in the mind to the possibility and potential of ideas all around you. (That age old question: where do stories come from?)

Her list was inspiring, as was the process. So I decided to give it a go as well. Some of my ideas came in spurts, however. Rather than do one a day, I sometimes had four or five in one day, and then none for a few days. That in itself was a learning point. The days when ideas did not ‘come’ were not days of blankness, but rather days when, as Marion Milner might put it in her book on creativity, On Not Being Able to Paint, my attention was ‘narrow and focused’, rather than ‘wide and waiting’. Her writing, in 1950 (and her books before in the thirties) pre-empted the psychological and neuroscience research we now have regarding ‘flow states’ of creativity as well as the benefits of daydreaming and absent-mindedness to creativity and ideas. (Freud got their first, of course. Or, as the now discredited Jonah Lehrer once put it rather beautifully if not totally correctly, Proust was a Neuroscientist).

My writer friend and her group tweeted each day on the hashtag #30days30stories. The discipline of getting the story kernel into 140 characters was also, clearly, very helpful, although that wasn’t a thing I took up on, as I was doing this for myself and my practice of bridging the connection between inner and outer worlds, the dream.

Rather, I took the opportunity to flesh out the ideas as I was going along, but what I did do, as much as possible, was stick to the formula that is at the heart of John Yorke’s Into the Woods and is known, if not understood, by writers everywhere, and is summarized by Cheryl Moskowitz as ‘every story has three components: a setting, a conflict and a resolution’. My friend’s list was really strong on this: simple pitches for stories that held not necessarily a beginning, middle and end, but certainly a setting, a conflict and the suggestion that it need a resolution.

And so I worked on the process of keeping my mind open to stories as I saw people in the street, read books and articles, overheard conversations (“So what if God has OCD?”) and listened to my own internal chatter but not to get caught in fantasy and rumination but to let those thoughts channel themselves into stories. It was a process of being story-minded, I guess.

And then, something happened. Continue reading

Under the big top

I started a proper engagement with the 21 Soul Module Two materials this week. I’ve been sitting with them for a while but not responding (certainly not consciously). Perhaps the part of the material I’ve been unconsciously sitting with for longest is the ‘egg’ – although it’s also a part I didn’t respond to directly in my drawings (see below) but am going to do so now.

In Steve Thorp’s module two material, the egg is presented as a metaphor for the self. There’s a story where the egg has an outside self, a whirling self, and the inner – the shell, the white and the yolk. An outside that protects, a whirling self that is both creativity and chaos, and an inner or middle self, which is the soul. It prompts questions about protection, about stillness, clarity, how stories come through from the soul. Are you overprotective of your own self, for example, thickening that outer layer against a cruel world? Is the whirling self too chaotic?

When I first went for coaching/gestalt counselling with Iain Mackenzie, another wonderful, gentle and mindful healer/helper, paid for out of the winnings from Sunderland’s Innovation in Teaching Award 2009, no less(!), one of  the first things we visualised was a landscape of lived experience that had smooth parts and bumps. One of the things that inhabited this landscape was a whirling, heavy black egg, that moved about, a little like the Vortex in the BBC cult classic The Adventure Game.

This whirling, black steel, heavy-as-lead egg, was the inner story: something I was afraid to crack open but which I carried around with me everywhere. It felt (then) impenetrable. The money (and courage) ran out for working with Iain, but that image of the egg stayed with me, as did the ‘lived landscape’ and the need for the ability to recognise the bumps (the obstacles) earlier than when right up against them, often when it’s too late and the anxiety has taken its grip—to be able to feel the landscape change earlier, and to then make better choices of how to proceed (or retreat).

So the egg has returned, in more places, at this time. I’ve just read Marion Milner’s On Not Being Able to Paint, and there is a significant appearance of her own egg in one of the formative ‘free drawings’ she uses to explore and understand her ‘pilgrimage’ towards being able to paint: that is, being able to understand the creative process and the fusing of an inner and outer reality that is necessary for access to the creative unconscious through ‘contemplative action’; which, as Emma Letley and others note, is also the process (when it works properly) of psychoanalysis that Marion Milner had recently trained in. Continue reading

Kiss the joy as it flies

It is a still morning. I’ve seen a pair of female blackbirds meet on the top of the telephone pole, and fly off together into the still moonlit, blue morning. A neighbour is up – I can hear the runoff water from their shower. The last of the Monoprix decaf is brewing in the cafetiere. I’ve slept fitfully after a few too many glasses of wine (Montepulciano and then Sauvignon, both vegan). My friend Chris is up early too, and we’re playing chess online. The window has been open all night and the air is clear and fresh and welcome, after the thunder-pressure. Misha, my cat, is sitting in the front room on the window sill, peacefully looking out through the smallest, cat’s-eye slit in the curtain, the neighbourhood snoopy that she is. I brush her. She pushes back at me. I leave her to get the coffee and open my laptop, only five hours after going to bed and committing myself to ten days without turning it on. But this is not work, today, and I have no fear of obligations. There is still doubt about if I am doing the right thing or not. But there is more love, and love wins out.

My mouth feels itchy and blotchy on the teeth, as I didn’t brush last night—the electric toothbrush K gave me is still in the wicker drawer in the bathroom. All night I have been thinking, sometimes dreaming, of the things that I cried about last night. My father, missing, and what I am still missing, that person to encourage, care for, teach me about life and growing up. And what he is missing: a son to help him continue to find a way to live into old age, a son to be proud of. And the other thing I was weeping about: the pigs in the trucks on their way to the meat-packers, boiling over in the 45 degree heatwave because pigs have no way to sweat to cool them down, so they are dying in agony in the heat; and the love and grace of the people from Toronto Pig Save and the other city Pig Saves who meet them at the traffic lights on the way to feed them water and watermelon to relieve them in their agony.

As it says on the Free from Harm website, the first and last act of mercy and kindness they will ever receive. The mercy and kindness I’ve been unable to show my father. The image of that cow in Farm Sanctuary’s video, newly born, literally seconds born, being dragged by the leg by a farmer away from its mother, the mother cow who ran after it, her young, her newborn, but who could not stop the farmer taking that cow and putting her into servitude, chained into a narrow milking cell for the rest of its life. The image of my father, homeless, bring dragged out of the shop doorway, a gutter. Continue reading

Knowing the worst, something wonderful

I once read Franz Kafka’s 267-word micro story ‘Resolutions’ a hundred times and was absolutely certain that I could write a whole PhD thesis on it, rather than the 5,000-word essay* I was tasked with during my Masters Degree. Having just read Marion Milner’s On Not Being Able to Paint, I’m almost certain I could spend the next ten years exploring its text, rather than simply referencing it in the PhD chapter I’m about to write. But good. That is what an object of study is meant to do: fascinate, bewilder, absorb.

Last night I created another found poem. It’s the largest yet, 40cm x 50cm, made up of four roughly A4 pictures and two articles, one from the London Review of Books on an architect from the 1930s and her work and life in Paris, and one from the New Scientist on physiognomy and recognising character in faces.

layout all

The process was a long one but worth it. After cutting the two articles into segments, which took a few hours, I then laid them all out, which took about another hour, so I could then begin to assemble the poems. I did this one at a time, looking for the pieces that would go together. This disassembling and then reassembling differently really teaches me a lot about language, phrases, emphasis, and the found nature of language, and also of its essential construction. As a writer, I find it an incredibly invaluable task. At the end, for the last poem, there weren’t many words or phrases left, or not that many that gave much ‘depth’ – rather, just very sparse words or phrases. And I had to construct from these. That I could still do so taught me about what I had left to work with, and the power of individual words together. The poems become, strangely, much deeper the less ‘depth’ or pre-built in meaning the cut out phrases held. Continue reading

Unknotting ‘self-awareness’

This mind itself, bound by its knots—if one lets go,
There is no doubt: it will be free.
—Saraha

What is this concept self-awareness? A simple response (I won’t say ‘answer’) came this morning as I was pondering the question during meditation—or rather, trying not to ponder on it, which, as Einstein attested to by taking a notepad into the shower, is often the way.

What I thought was this: Self-awareness as is it practiced in modern Western society is a concept that combines a very narrow definition of ‘awareness’ (a critical rumination aimed at improvement and progress of the ‘self’ project) coupled with a very narrow definition of what that self is (generally the social self).

I suppose that’s evident to many—it’s certainly at the heart of the 21 Soul process – and it’s probably something I’ve known before. What was different this time, however, was how I reached that response—through a shift in not only knowledge, but also (bodily) behaviour and feeling

An answer of sorts came in fragments over the last few weeks, almost like a small puzzle that I was, without realising it, putting together. Continue reading

Three Dreams: Social Life, Soul and Purpose

Three powerful dreams from the last week, that are all connected by feeling, sense, people and imagery. They’ve really struck me as very important dreams, coming back to this sense that I am at a critical hinge-point in my life. I have always dreamt very vividly, and for a while kept a dream diary, and analysed my dreams a lot (I also, at MA level, did a module on Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams). At university as a Sabbatical Officer at the students’ union I used to take over our morning meetings with my dream stories. I can remember dreams from 30-odd years ago as clear memories—Abbott and Costello and Frankenstein and the On Air Sign and the Cardboard Boxes and the Lobster; I dream of apocalypse, of school friends in school uniform, of the swimming pool with the shark, of Darth Vader as my father, of new loves kissing under table tops, of new worlds and compassionate aliens and of sentient Panda Bears getting their revenge on us humans for wiping them out, lots of Zombies, of fighting, always there is a lot going on in my dreams which feels very claustrophobic, I have woken up with sore ribs from laughing so much at my friend doing a news report off the back of an unruly donkey, woken up screaming from the demons trying to get into my house, sometimes can never lock the doors or windows to keep out the enemy, sometimes am in that same house with the deep level rooms that are filled with ghosts and which terrify me but which I know I need to face, sometimes the dreams are filled with blood and knives and attempts to defend myself and all I love, sometimes even the Devil turns up at the bottom of the staircase wearing sunglasses, saying ‘I lied’. And every now and then I’m flying, seated as if driving a car; and rarely, although never to be forgotten, I am playing football like a kid again, with a hope that the time for fun will never end.

The last three dreams over the past week have had a different feel. Gentle, in some way, but with their own frustrations and paralyses, but also some flirting, teasing, lightness, love, energy and strawberries. But in particular staircases, doors, elevators/lifts, and some form of new connections being formed as old ones are left. Most of all, they feel very much about Soul, about the relationship of Soul to the Social and to Social Purpose vs. Soul Purpose. Of finding what is quite deep down inside, and using that as a guide to living. So I thought I would share. Continue reading