Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Creativity, and the Safety of the Mind

            If you look at the top of this page, you will note that the subtitle of this blog — what I am taking as my mission statement, I suppose — is "on the life of the mind."
            It's an old phrase, one I came across when I was much younger, and I also discovered upon a search for the phrase that Hannah Arendt wrote a book by that title.  Which is appropriate, because I have a conflicted relationship with Hannah Arendt, and I like those things best with which I have a conflicted relationship.
            But for the moment, I want to talk about creativity, the mind, and safety.  I think I had creativity as one of the topics up for discussion on this blog, and I haven't gotten there much yet.  I recently finished Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, and I've decided to take her chapter titles as a (very, very loose) guideline for some posts on creation and being an artist.

            We all hear common threads in how various artists, poets, actors, dancers, composers, and other creative folks describe the creative process for them.  My process is, for better or for worse, violently connected to my intellect.  I have emotional responses to many simple pleasures, yes, but ecstasy rarely comes without intense intellectual exercise.  (Though the times when it does are glorious.)
            So the life of the mind is my life, or the one I am called to at least.  There is much heart here, as well, something some exponents of literature and art would doubt.  I've heard every insult that can be hurled at James Joyce and T. S. Eliot and Robert Browning and Thomas Mann and all the rest of the dead white males who were nonetheless brilliant dead white males.  To those who find their work overly-intellectual, demanding too broad a sweep of knowledge of classical myth and literature, I can only say — for God's sake don't read them.  Don't read them, since it obviously causes you pain, and the time I spend listening to you could be better spent reading Kant.  That's right:  Kant.  Even Kant would be better than people insulting the things I love.
            Which succinctly brings me to my larger point:  reading and writing and thinking have, since I was a child, been a retreat from the world of people.
            Recently I joined a philosophy discussion group, which has made me even more conscious of how intensely introverted I really am.  Everyone in the group, I think, is under the impression that I am quiet.  Suffice to say, I am not quiet.  What I am is abjectly terrified.  There are PEOPLE, for goodness' sake, and they're TALKING TO ME, and they want me to actually ENGAGE with them when we've only just met (albeit months ago), and I cannot understand why I didn't stay home with a book and a glass of wine.
            Add to this the fact that I was bullied when I was a kid, and that I grew up in a culture that has no idea whatsoever to do with poets and artists.  The safe place was in books.  In murder mysteries, where things cleared up simply and tidily.  In Wordsworth and Lewis and Shakespeare and Yeats' Ireland and the Grimms' Germany.  I know many people recognize this use of literature:  escape.  Escape from the rich kids rolling their eyes at my too-short pants; escape from the girls who accused me of a sexual precocity/anxiety they apparently recognized before I did; escape from the boys who tortured animals and found me more friendly-looking than all the other kids; escape from the religion that I loved and feared in equal parts.
            If anyone reading this can relate, it is because we are among those who almost can't help but be carried away by books.  Images, stories, romances, deaths, and the gorgeous, sumptuous words roiling through your brain.  And all without running any real risk!  This is so safe!  A safe, comforting retreat.
            Recently a friend and I went out for dinner and talked about how various people in our lives have affected our creativity.  Family, friends, enemies, lovers, teachers...  One of the most useful discoveries I've ever made about being an artist came in 2010 when I tried to do the Artist's Way the first time.  It all hinged on the word "weird."  I realized that whenever I started to write something, and I didn't know where it was going, and I didn't like where it looked like it was going, the phrase "that's weird" would pop into my head, and away went the project.  My friend and I discussed this and many other discoveries we've made along the way of being writers, and we also talked about how we tended to use literature as a way of escaping the pains of social interaction and intrusion.  When suddenly my friend exclaimed, "But if those voices from family and teachers and whoever are in there saying 'This is too weird,' or 'This is too sexual,' or 'This is too intellectual,' or whatever, then how safe is your mind, really?"
            Which is to say, not at all.  I hate drawing oversimplified comparisons to current events about which I know little, but the recent shootings in Newtown, Massachusetts demonstrate accurately just how unsafe the mind can be.  Families with suicides can tell you.  So can addicts, or just folks with a good old-fashioned guilt complex.
            It's scary in there, the mind.  Full of the past.  Full of fears, both well- and ill-founded.  Full of loathing and nausea and so, so grasping.  Full of...well, you.


  1. Wow, can I ever relate to this. All of it. (Okay, except for the girl parts. There, I can only offer a stretch of the imagination toward empathy. No actual street cred.)

    There really is no escape, is there? I will still look for escape in books, in writing, in Bach and candles and good pens in my little room. But you're right, it's really not safe.

    It seems like there are two general things going on internally: the voices of others, and the nature of the mind itself, particularly the subconscious. It's not just that the voices of other people followed you to your hiding place, it's also that the hiding place itself is bad neighborhood.

    I don't mean bad neighborhood in the common urban sense. A creative mind is like a delta. All the rich soil from the hills around it has flowed there, contributing to the fertile landscape that already existed from its birth. The seeds that get planted in it can sprout into the wildest new strains of vines, unheard-of fruits. And yet you can sink into the thick mud. It's not unlike quicksand. And the things growing there can choke you, overwhelm you.

    What do you do about this? You can keep yourself safe, I suppose, through sheer repression. My Norwegian Lutheran childhood knows a lot about that. But you're not likely to ever let anything grow in your delta if you choose that paved-over path.

    There's a great line from Tom Waits that goes something like, "If I exorcise my devils, my angels might leave, too." Not creating is not an option, for me, for you I'm sure, for lots of us. The only choice, then, is to live with the danger.

  2. Hi there Terra Leigh,

    I lurk on your blog quite often without commenting (creepy, eh?) but I wanted to throw in my thoughts on the topic you've chosen here since, well, I can relate to what you've said. There are many reasons I read so devoutly and I would be deceiving myself if I tried to claim that escapism was not one of them.

    For me, though, creativity is a little different. I began to see through reading deprivation (as you suggested I might) that reading is one way I cower away from the impulse to create; it's one way I shirk my responsibility to myself. I'm not saying that reading is a bad thing. I will always love to read. But for me, I am in danger when I hide from my creativity. My mind becomes a toxic place when I read or do any other thing while I should be writing.

    When I sit down to write and meet with a brick wall, it's my own voice I hear, telling me, "Who am I kidding? There have been hundreds of thousands of books and poems and essays written that are far better than anything I'll ever come up with." And that is how I sabotage myself. I am my own monster.

    If I can push past that voice and write anyway, that is when my mind begins to be a safe place again.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Man, am I ever familiar with the phrase, "There have been hundreds of thousands of books and poems and essays written that are far better than anything I'll ever come up with." I remember at one point when I started re-reading Shakespeare in my twenties. It was funny, because William Shakespeare was hands-down the writer most responsible for making me want to write when I was a teenager. But then, in my twenties, it had the opposite effect. I couldn't get over how he'd already "done everything."

    Now, though, I have to say that I think that's both true and not true at all. It has all been done before. Actually, the myths - Eastern, Western, African, Native American, Aboriginal, Middle Eastern...take your pick...they all already did everything, probably better than Shakespeare even, and there's not even a single author to attribute anything to. But then again, I'm often surprised by how often my brain generates something that I can't find a particular precedent for. I remember reading something years ago that pointed out that the word "original" means that something is an origin. That doesn't mean absolutely nothing about it has been done before; I think the only artists who would do that sort of work would have to be insane or so socially dysfunctional no one could glean anything from their work. But I think simply being an origin is something to shoot for.