Why the poet’s garden may be a jungle, the artist’s house a mess and why writers often live on noodles
A couple of years ago, a friend expressed puzzlement at why we had stopped making our own wine and beer. It had been so much a part of our lives that at one time I considered starting a small business. A quick look at the complexities of licensing law put me off but for many years I spent countless hours picking fruit, fermenting petals and enjoying the alchemy of turning a pile of elderberries into a deep red beverage that tasted just like vintage port. Our scullery in our Norfolk rectory was stocked with barrels of beer and cider, and we experimented with recipes using raspberries and even heather.
And then it stopped. Not overnight, but over a period of years and I know it baffled those of our friends who had seen it as a part of us. Neither of us were big drinkers, except when we had company at Christmas and other times; we enjoyed the process of creating the products possibly more than we enjoyed drinking them.
I used to be a great gardener. Not one of those neat particular sorts, but one who sought out unusual and dramatic plants and every garden I planted had a deeply sensual aspect, filled with scent and taste and texture and eye-catching form and colour. Not any more. You could lose a tribe of fairly tall pygmies in our vegetable patch this year.
Once upon a time, I was also an imaginative cook, taking ingredients and experimenting and creating new taste sensations. I used to love exploring ethnic foods and trying to recreate the flavours at home. I used to bake our own bread from scratch and made my own jams and pickles. Nowadays, when left to myself, I eat noodles and whatever is in the fruit bowl.
So what changed?
It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what changed. They were all things I enjoyed doing. I was good at them; they gave me and others pleasure. It certainly wasn’t boredom.
When I was brewing wine and gardening and experimenting with food, it was during a time when my writing was of less importance to me. Indeed, for many of those years, I had turned my back totally on the idea of being a writer. I defined myself in different ways.
But in 2003, after a move to the Midlands, I’d found myself caught up in a narrative in my head that wouldn’t go away and became so insistent that finally, at the latter end of October that year, I began writing. I wrote obsessively for seventeen days and produced a novel of such complexity and brilliance I still to this day wonder where it came from. From that time onwards, writing became my North Star.
Around that time too, I bought a book by Julia Cameron, called Walking in this World, a sequel to her best-selling The Artists’ Way. I worked through the twelve week course and found it revealed some powerful secrets of my own soul. I convinced a close friend to do the same and while she found it interesting, at the end she said something that has haunted me to this day. “I don’t think I’m a creative person,” she said.
The problem is she had confused creativity with the most obvious examples of creativity in action: art, poetry, writing etc.
Every human being alive is brimming over with creative energy. It’s a part of being human. But that does not mean every single person is an artist, a poet, a chef or whatever. Far from it. Those are areas where the creative energy has been focused and honed and worked with.
There are two things I have discovered about creative energy. The first is that creative energy is completely neutral. It doesn’t care whether it is used to create the Mona Lisa or whether it is used to colour co-ordinate pegs to clothes when hanging them on the washing line. It doesn’t care whether you use it for writing the next Booker prize winner or writing rude words on a toilet door. Like electricity, it can be used to power wonderful things or it can be used, like the electric chair, to murder.
The second thing is that creative energy is finite in the sense that every day can only contain 24 hours, each day can hold only so much creative energy. Many of us who have day jobs have discovered that when we get to the weekend when we have the time to explore our creative expression, there is nothing left after a busy week. When my daughter was a baby, I spent a lot of time and some money researching the perfect sippy cup for toddlers and trying to design one that fulfilled every need. I also spent time trying to find the perfect fold for nappies for every different stage of babyhood. So when I had time to write, I simple didn’t have the creative energy to do much. And when I did begin writing properly when she was small, other things had to give way. Keeping a tidy, attractive house, entertaining guests, producing imaginative food all went the way of the dodo. They still do, when I have a writing project on the go.
I can bet that you are now thinking of some fabulous god/goddess of creativity now who seems to be able to do everything and still write/paint/garden to perfection. They have either learned to prioritise their creative projects and maybe delegate some tasks to others, or else their interpersonal relationships are in dire straits. Maintaining close relationships is also something that uses our creative energy, and some people take more than they give in this area.
In essence I believe that we need a greater awareness of where our creative energy is going and a much greater sense of its value. I don’t believe that it is a totally finite resource in the sense of being able to use it all up in one great enterprise or by simply squandering it. It’s something that is renewed every day, in some measure. That said, I do think it is worthwhile to review at intervals where it is going and assess whether we might use it better. If you find that it is vanishing without trace, swallowed up by life and by the day job, then you are faced with a dilemma. It may well be that the leftover energy is actually being consumed by other acts we don’t always consider creative: choosing clothing, shopping for Christmas presents, planning holidays.
For myself, when my teaching job is in full swing and I have a class I engage with, there is a strange thing that happens. The energy I put into creating lessons that meet the students need is somehow paid back by the students’ reactions. They spark my imagination. But other times, I feel I am wading through treacle and a class is non-responsive to the creative energy I had put into it. This is when it’s wise to withdraw and use tried and tested methods created by someone else and save my energy for where it is better received.
Learning to identify and understand where our creative energy goes is a valuable lesson because if it is finite on a daily or weekly basis, then if we have work we feel is valuable, then allowing ourselves to pour out energy on things that don’t matter is robbing ourselves of our own resources.