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.
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
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.
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