Quick note: on creativity and “creative people”

This morning, in my travels through social media, I stumbled into a discussion about creativity and what it means to be an artist. Much of it rang true: that it’s increasingly difficult to make a living purely from your art; that success or failure in your chosen art form is tied in to a deeply personal sense of self and self-worth; that creating can feel as though it is essential to your life. Yup.

However, there was also a note to some of the comments that made me feel very uncomfortable – the idea that being an artist is something mysterious and ineffable and special, that “the average office-worker” just can’t comprehend. Underlying this sort of attitude is a number of assumptions, all of which are (in my view) utterly busted:

– That nobody who works in an office could have a deep, personal, important connection with their work. (I’ve had an office job which involved doing outreach for the transgender community, something I’d already been doing for free as an activist; another friend of mine currently has an amazing office job recovering and recording the lives of people who lived through WW1 and she is working on making public erased histories of women and people of colour; yet another works on improving services for survivors of abuse and violence… working in an office environment does not equate to doing a job which is meaningless or dull – and even if it did, you are more than your job – see next point!)

– That “office worker” and “artist” are mutually-exclusive categories. (Does my bill-paying day job stop me from being an artist? Does it unpublish my poetry, undo my performances, cancel out the hours I dedicate to my writing?)

– That there are Creative People, and Non-Creative People, existing in two separate and essentialised categories.

This last one is a real sticking-point for me.  I do not think this is a useful division to put up. I think that there are some people who have found a medium (or several) that works for them, and it’s a medium that is generally recognised as Art by the society in which they live, and they have either been encouraged in it or fell in love with it enough to work on it without encouragement, and they’re public about their relationship with it. And then there are people who don’t meet all these criteria – but that doesn’t mean they’re not creative.

I firmly believe that all people have the potential to be creative. And I say this not just as a point of ideology, but from the perspective of someone who once spent a significant amount of their spare time running art classes for little kids. There were kids who didn’t want to talk much, or who zoomed around the classroom and wouldn’t sit down, or who tried to pick arguments with their peers and teachers: but all of them, at the end of the day, made something and had fun doing so. From my experience,  I think it’s the case that little kids are much less self-conscious about making art than older people: it’s only once they get older, and some of them have been encouraged and some have been shut down, that you start to see people who are put into the category of “not creative”, whether that’s because they’ve been told they’re not talented enough to succeed and so they stop trying, or because their creativity is expressed in a medium that isn’t seen as “proper art”.

But creativity is (and should be) for EVERYONE. And some people come to it early, and some late, and some not at all – but I just do not believe that there are people who have absolutely no creative spark in them, somewhere.

Edited to add: while it’s about maths rather than the arts, this article about children being praised for “gifts” vs “skills” feels very relevant, in terms of the discourse of innate ability and there being people who “have it” or don’t.

Also, when I finished writing this entry, I didn’t really have a pithy final sentence with which to make a final flourish, but I think this Twitter conversation with Goldfish has provided it:

@goldfish: “On Creativity & Creative People”  @hel_gurney is spot-on about there being nothing magical about artists
@hel_gurney: .@goldfish Or perhaps, that art is a kind of magic that anyone can do 🙂 Thank you lots for your tweet and comment!
@goldfish: Yes – that’s a much better way of putting it!

So there we go: art is a kind of magic that anyone can do. Go forth, and find new spells to learn and love.

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In the writ(h)ing tentacles of the Verse Kraken: fairytales, the Tempest, writing on skin

(Sorry for the title – I couldn’t resist…)

So, a lot has been going on for me lately, but in this blog I’m going to write about one exciting thing in particular – Verse Kraken.

Verse Kraken describes itself as a ‘journal of hybrid art’, and the first issue was launched on Thursday at an event in London. The editors, Tori Truslow and Claire Trévien also organised a three-day residential writing retreat, at which I had an absolutely amazing time (and wrote an incredible amount of fairytales).

So – first off – if you want to read the first issue of Verse Kraken, the online edition is here. Each issue collects responses to three ‘spurs’: in this instance, a silent film version of The Tempest, a short fairytale about a girl transformed into a fish, and a photograph of the heavily-tattooed Maud Wagner. Collaboration and hybrid forms are encouraged, and the use of spurs rather than a single theme allows a lot of variety (translation and adaptation are amazing things for creativity!) while also retaining some amount of cohesion. My own submission – a visual poem about how bodies and skin can be ‘read’ (and misread), inspired by the Wagner photograph – didn’t make the cut, but considering the high quality of the magazine, I don’t feel bad about that. (Although if anyone can think of another publication it might work for, please drop me a line!) At the launch, we also got to see the offline edition – rather than a traditional magazine format, it’s a little box of treasures, with text and image individually presented as tiny booklets and prints, and a CD with the audiovisual contributions. It’s a lovely way of organising the pieces – like the online hypertextual version, it allows the reader to browse without having a particular order dictated.

Dana Bubulj and me, with our ephemeral tattoos (and a rather nice shadow effect).

Dana Bubulj and me, with our ephemeral tattoos (and a rather nice shadow effect).

The launch event featured readings from the first issue, as well as some more interactive elements. James Webster offered temporary tattoos with kraken-themed fragments of poetry on them, which proved immensely popular by the end of the evening – see attached photo of me and Dana Bubulj showing off our newly-decorated skin! (I’m currently really interested in the poetics of skin, and writing-on-skin and art-on-skin as ways of changing how the body is read, so this was an unexpected treat for me! The temporary tattoo is still around, and last night at the FWSA Conference 2013 (where I was performing with Lashings) I had a few people wondering whether the words across my chest were ‘real’ or not! I’m sorry to have missed Claire O’Callaghan’s paper at the conference, as it sounded like it had interesting things to say about tattoos as ‘challenge’/ ‘provocation’ with regards to the male gaze… But anyway, I think a post about skin is something for another time!) The Verse Kraken launch also held an ‘ekphrastic poetry/art challenge’ with a physical copy of the first issue as a prize: audience members were invited to treat the readings as ‘spurs’ of their own, and spend the interval creating responses to them in a different form. I was very pleased to win this, with my response to James Webster and Dana Bubulj’s ‘Bound’ (a curse-poem about the imprisonment of Sycorax, based of course on the Tempest spur). For posterity, here’s the piece of five-minute flash-fiction that won me a box of kraken treasure:

My father said, “don’t go out at night. The wild woods on this isle would set you shrieking. The trees there whisper, tendril-torn, gnarled like ancient flesh. In one of them a witch sleeps.”

My father said, “the howling sobbing child you think you see is but a wraith. He is the substance of your bad dreams. But still, upon this isle, dreams may have teeth. Stay safe. Stay in the cave.”

My father said, “no need to touch the books. They are but dusty-dry sheafs of words that have nothing to tell you. Your grubby hands might stain them; and besides, they are not yours to read. I may show you some pictures if you are very good.”

My father said, “dear girl, if nothing else, you will be safe.”

All the words I knew were the ones he had stuffed into my mouth. But my dreams beyond language dragged me from my bed, our cave, the safe side of the isle. I awoke scrabbling at the roots of a crooked tree. My fingers ran with blood – nails torn, the bark bleeding too. In speech without words, the witch was calling me, and I would come.

I whispered to the knotted trunk, “I am here. Teach me.”

I didn’t give it a title at the time, but retroactively I think ‘Miranda’s Dream’ works as well as anything else. Like Webster, I’m very interested in the backstory of The Tempest – probably even more interested in it that the contents of the actual play! During my MA year I wrote a 15-minute script (in iambic pentameter!) which explored that backstory – it was going to be put on as part of the ‘Shakespearian Shorts’ show put on by the university drama society, but unfortunately cast illness prevented this from happening. The Tempest is definitely something I want to come back to, though – I think that looking at the interactions between Prospero/Miranda/Caliban/Ariel are really fruitful for thinking about the divide-and-conquer methods of kyriarchy. I’m very excited by Sophie Mayer and Jacqueline Wright’s film project, The Storm, which is coming out of their Verse Kraken piece ‘How To Curse’ – a lesbian Caliban! (Oh, and while we’re talking about female Calibans, here’s another recommendation: Kate Tempest, ‘What We Came After’. Kate Tempest is one of the first slam poets I ever saw, and I adore her work. This video is less loud and raw and ragged than her live performances – qualities which I absolutely love – but the poem remains incredible.)

So, now onto the other exciting Verse Kraken thing – the writer’s retreat. It was the first creative retreat I’d been on, and it was perfect. After a week containing my last days officially working on All About Trans, the debut performance of Fanny Whittington at the Oxford Fringe, speaking at ‘Being Ourselves’, and some high-intensity personal stuff – well, spending three days living in a quiet farmhouse with a small group of creative people was exactly what I needed. It was a perfect mixture of relaxing and hard-working: expressly having no job except from writing seems to be something that really works for me, so I’ll definitely be making an effort to set aside days/weekends again in future. The surroundings were utterly beautiful, the pool was surprisingly conducive to creativity (we all did a lot of thinking about mermaids…), and there was (in my opinion) exactly the right balance between structured workshop time and free time to relax or engage with our own projects. The workshops were very creative, encouraging us to engage with different senses, media, and sources – and there was also a weekend-long project that paired us randomly to work on collaborations. (I worked on a short and spooky screenplay with Jacqueline Wright, of the aforementioned lesbian Caliban project!) I’m unsure how much detail to go into about the workshops – I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone who might go on a future one! – but basically, it felt like the equivalent of a full MOT for my writing-brain, with its focus on unlocking as many different ways of being creative as possible.

I think the best thing that I’ve taken away from this retreat is the idea that I don’t need to just wait for inspiration to strike – it doesn’t need to be primarily bursts of late-night manic-creativity where I need to write this amazing idea down now now now – but rather, there’s a tonne of enjoyable ways of getting myself into the right mindset for writing other than those bolt-from-the-blue moments, and that inspiration can be taken from unlikely sources. Or perhaps, the best thing I’ve taken is the reminder that I can write passably good things very quickly – I hadn’t really written poetry or fiction on a tight time limit for years, and those moments of being put under time pressure in the workshops resulted in some things that I’m really quite proud of. (Had it not been for these workshops, I’m not sure how confident I would have been in my ability to write flash-fiction at the launch!)

While I don’t normally post my poetry online, I’m going to make an exception for this next one. In Claire’s workshop on form, we were asked to spend 10 minutes transposing a poem from one form to another. From the poems we were given, I chose Eaven Boland’s long free-verse poem ‘Amber’ – it’s a beautiful autumnal poem about mourning and loss, and it’s readable online at The Atlantic magazine – and adapted it into sonnet form.

This plastic gold which grieving trees once wept,

which I now hold, which in its heart is holding

the feathers, leaves, and seeds which have long slept:

is honeyed sunlight, slow-dripped and enfolding.

What reason knows: the dead have left the living.

Those who have passed shall not be seen again.

Clean gulps of air – the sky, bright and forgiving –

our meetings here have moved from ‘now’ to ‘then’.

Yet in the flawed translucence of the amber,

the ornament that you once passed to me –

the life that froze, the insects, vines that clamber –

all that which breathed and moved is there to see.

Though you are absent from this fine September,

I hold you as in amber, and remember.

Other fruit of the workshops included more poetry of various kinds, a map of my childhood imagination (that was a fun workshop!), some fragments of a short story, and the seed of an idea that became another mermaid-focused fairytale. Unlike ‘The Girl and the Mermaid’, this one – I’m calling it ‘The Mermaid’s Wish’ – is much more of a direct reply to (and deconstruction of) the famous Andersen tale, as well as being about embodiment and the often-coercive nature of gender roles. All of my free writing-time went on the fairytale collection – as well as ‘The Mermaid’s Wish’ I wrote two more stories (plus the collaboration with Jacqueline, which (given its subject) may well end up in the collection too). A bit of polishing after the retreat and I think they’re done – my fairytales project is growing, and I’m really excited about it.

So, basically – many thanks to Claire and Tori for their awesome work on Verse Kraken, which has been challenging and inspiring me (and many others) to new creative heights. Long may its inky tentacles continue to ensnare us. 😉

Another fairy tale – “The Girl and the Mermaid”

Yesterday evening I wrote another story for the collection of fairy tales I’m putting together. I am inordinately proud of it.

It’s called “The Girl and the Mermaid”, and it leapt into my mind almost fully-formed. I wrote it all in go, and although there’s going to be a little bit of polishing, it’s pretty much complete. I’ve shown it to a few people so far and I’m really pleased with the reaction.

I love it when writing feels like that – the way the words simply fall out onto the page, because everything just works and it’s more like describing something that’s already there. As in the quote attributed to Michelangelo all over the internet – “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved til I set him free”.*

So… I guess I’d like to express a strange sort of gratitude to the various illnesses and circumstances that conspired to leave me at a loose end yesterday evening; and a very definite gratitude to CN Lester and Tori Truslow, for all the discussion of mermaids that made this story click into place in the way it did.

And just now, on a walk around the village (before the sun goes down and it becomes very definitely too cold for me to go out while sick instead of just probably too cold) – the seeds of another story for the collection started germinating. I feel proud and excited and a little bit scared – but writing regularly again is a wonderful, wonderful feeling. (And walking through the village in the sun without any electronic distractions is something I need to do more often. Walking and listening to the rhythm of my feet and the small sounds of the world around me seems to feed my ability and desire to think and write: and on that topic, I’d like to recommend Rebecca Solnit’s incredible book Wanderlust to everyone reading this. Mostly because the last time I recommended it to everyone was a few years ago now – so, yes, stop whatever you’re doing and go read Wanderlust. 😉 It’s nominally ‘a history of walking’ but it’s so, so much more than that.)

So – more writing. The collection is taking shape. And I can’t wait to read “The Girl and the Mermaid” aloud somewhere.

*I hate quoting without a proper source – so yes, I did go looking for the original, and found this.