When I was a little girl, I was told that I was quite good at drawing and I was pretty proud of myself. When I was 7 or 8, I asked my mother to draw me a picture of a horse. And I can see her now – she just moved her pencil across the page and there was horse. I couldn’t believe it. And, I also realised that maybe I wasn’t as good at drawing as I thought. There’s no way I could have done that. I was so disheartened and disappointed. But we had a talk, and she explained how she’d gone to art school and she’d had many more years to practice – long before I was born. I can imagine – had it not been for that chat – I might have put away my pencils, given up and never drawn again.
And I remember going to an exhibition of art a few years ago. It was by the Victorian painter Alma Tadema. His paintings are exquisitely precise, often luscious depictions of scenes from the classical world. But in the last room of the exhibition was a final incomplete painting – the last he was working on when he died. And I have to say, it was pretty rubbish. There were a few wonky brush strokes sketching out the basic structure of the painting. It made me realise that we often only see the finished product, polished to perfection and don’t realise the layers of experiment and backtracking that might have occurred to get there.
Even after decades of perfecting his craft, Tadema still had to face another blank canvas and start again somehow. It reminded me of something my mother used to say: ‘Fools and children shouldn’t see things before they are finished’. I think it’s from an old northern proverb: ‘Fools and bairns should never see half-done work’
In his interpretation of Rumi's poem ‘The Silk Worm’ Daniel Ladinsky wrote: ‘I can spin skies; I can be woven into love that can bring warmth to people’. Creativity is about magicking something into existence that was not there before. We can all be spinners of skies and weavers of love.
But it takes courage to be creative – especially if you have been wounded by childhood comments. In my work with creative groups or ‘recovering creatives’, I’ve heard so many stories of cruel teachers telling some poor child that they can’t sing, or they’ll never be good at drawing or something else. One young man did lots of drawing, sculpting and painting until school exams when his parents told him to stop and concentrate on his studies. When he came back to it in his late 20s, he described sitting staring at a lump of clay, not knowing where to start. Yet he still expected to be just as proficient with sculpting as he was with other skills in his adult life.
We need courage and we need to encourage each other when we encounter these kinds of obstacles to living a truly enriching life.
A few years ago, I read about the four stages of creativity, or problem-solving, attributed to social reformer and founder of the London School of Economics, Graham Wallas. I have been intrigued by the concept ever since: Preparation, Incubation, Inspiration and Verification.
Preparation is about researching the problem, gathering the right information.
Incubation is a wonderful word; it gives you permission to mull things over, to mulch down your ideas. I do a lot of this. I thought it was plain old procrastination –
but now I understand it as a recognised psychological stage of the creative process! I can feel overwhelmed by all the possibilities and I have to close my eyes to prevent myself from being bombarded by any more information or stimulus.
In Ladinky's interpretation of the poem ‘Expands His Being’, Meister Eckhart says: ‘Enough talk for the night.He is labouring in me; I need to be silent for a while, worlds are forming in my heart.’
And after all the ruminating and mulling over, almost out of nowhere comes the inspiration. I feel giddy when I am struck by what I think is a great idea – be it a song, a sketch or a possible solution to someone else’s problem. It can feel like ‘worlds are forming in my heart’. Appreciating art, listening to music, walking through woodlands can all be religious experiences. But I regard the act of creation as a religious or spiritual experience as well. Knowing that you have created something that wasn’t there a few minutes ago, for me, is evidence that something greater than myself is at work.
The final stage is verification, where we get to test out whether our design or solution actually works. When I worked as a toy designer, one of my tasks was play-testing – taking the designs of other colleagues into a school to try them out with the children. Other designers hated doing this. Perhaps they feared that their good idea would be rejected. But without trying things out and testing, we can’t ever know if we’ve done a good job. In the process of verification, we need to have the courage to be vulnerable. To lay open our tender ideas to the scrutiny of others takes great courage I think.
I recently heard an interview with the acclaimed set designer Es Devlin. Her bold designs push the limits of what is capable, technically – for example, pouring rain onto a stage which is surrounded by electrical equipment. It takes courage to follow your creative instincts when all around you say it can’t be done.
With the advance of technology, it is easier than ever to create music as well as design – whether you have had years of training or not. I think people often cherish the music of their youth, and may dismiss whatever the current trend is as ‘useless noise’ which I do not mean to do. But despite technological breakthroughs, there is no substitute for passion.
I bought Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album ‘So’ when I was just starting secondary school and I remember school friends thinking Peter Gabriel was a bit naff. Having watched a documentary about the making of ‘So’, I now fully appreciate the effort that was put in to make it such a special album.
It’s fascinating to learn of the attention to detail, how the band to get just the right mix of sounds for each song. Ingenuity is in evidence in many different ways and it took courage to keep going despite the inevitable challenges.
The song ‘Don’t Give Up’ is a duet between Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush inspired by photos of depression-era America. It has a haunting bass riff and American bass player Tony Levin explained how he achieved it: ‘I was looking around for some dampening material, foam rubber or something,’ he said, ‘and I had my 2-month old daughter with me and my bass case was full of diapers. I put one under the bass strings which dampened the heck of them and later Peter dubbed it the “Super Wonder Nappy Bass sound”.’
And as one artist inspires another, American poet Anne Sexton inspired Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Mercy Street’. He spoke about building the feel for the song using different instrumentation and production techniques so that the sound reflected the world Sexton had created through her poetry. Sexton wrote a poem called ‘42 Mercy Street’ and Gabriel’s song is a story about Sexton as she exists in her poetic world. I think the opening lyrics from Gabriel’s song fit with this idea of creativity and courage:
Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
are the dreams all made solid
are the dreams all made real
all of the buildings, all of those cars
were once just a dream
in somebody's head.
You may have heard of the rap music artist and producer called Jay-Z. (He’s also famous for marrying the singer Beyonce Knowles!) He is one of the most powerful men in the music industry with a net worth of over $1 billion dollars. But, as you can imagine, Jay-Z wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He grew up in Brooklyn and got involved in drug dealing at the age of 13. He never thought that his situation was unusual, because anyone who became successful never returned to his housing estate to share their wisdom. He says: ‘If anyone made it, you never knew it. That's why I've always said that if I became successful, I'd come back here, grab somebody, and show him how it can be done.’ Jay-Z started rapping and developed his entrepreneurial skills by selling records on street corners out of the back of his car boot. He gained a following and, disenchanted with the small-time record label, he set up his own record company eventually launching a range of clothing and buying a stake in a popular basketball team. As a savvy businessman, he is clearly money-driven, but this shows how he channelled his talents, creativity and ingenuity in a different direction to his peers in order to achieve great success.
For me, I feel the connection between creativity and spirituality when I am in the middle of the design process, but most strongly afterwards. I draw something or write something and put it away for a while. When I come back (especially if it turns out to be quite good) I don’t even recognise my own work. It is as if some other hand is at work through me. Meister Eckhart says, ‘Every act reveals God and expands His Being.’ And at that fizzing and mind-expanding heat of the process, I feel the ‘worlds are forming in my heart.’
What worlds are forming in your heart? Whether they are dreams of great achievements or tiny acts of kindness, they are all up for grabs, yours for the taking. You just have to take the first small step and, as you may have experienced before, once you begin to work on something you really believe in, wonderful things start happening. People come into your life to help you, or you suddenly find just the right tool for the job, the right word, the right piece of music.
I am reminded of words attributed to Goethe: ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’
This article originally appeared in the 21 January issue no. 8051 of The Inquirer newspaper. For more information and to subscribe, visit: www.inquirer.org.uk
Download a printable version here: