You may have to be a little crazy but you don’t have to be unsystematic and unstructured to be creative: it’s more accessible than that.
Scientists and engineers are creative—the successful ones—the ones who take risks and have their Eureka moments. Tiny specks of matter, immersed in life-supporting fluids in a Petri dish flourish into cultures, new forms: how is this different to generating a story? Architects, too, for all the technical knowledge and meticulous measurement needed for their drawings, can create functioning works of art. Gaudi was a master of structure, what he didn’t already know about the calculus of weight-bearing forms he discovered by observing nature and trying-out his ideas on working models. His precise and methodical mind didn’t stop his flights of fancy; his buildings work—he created spaces for living in.
So this essay has a bit of structure—spaces for thinking in.
I will write first about the creative environment—‘nurturing matrix’ is a more up-market phrase but is misleading, it is not always ‘nurturing’ that provides the Petri dish for creativity. Second, I will write about the creative process.
Both environment and process are entirely individual, there is no blueprint, but that also means my views, and yours, are as valid as any other and that should give us the courage not only to create in our own way, but to share as much of it as we find comfortable.
You probably expect me to say I was brought up with a love of stories from my grandmother’s knee, but this was not the case. My childhood was a disruptive period of always moving somewhere else and never having enough of anything; bedtime stories were not part of that existence, life was too hard.
Nor do I recall being given books of my own. But there was always a motley assortment of old volumes on a shelf or in a cupboard. They were boxed-up with the plates, clothes and bedding, trundled along to each new address and unpacked again with all the other detritus of family life that defines our homes. As a result, they were mostly invalids with broken spines, cracked covers and a page or two missing, but I was free to do what I liked with them. And yes, I confess to drawing in them sometimes, or weaving doodles between the lines of long incomprehensible words that looked to me like magic formulae.
It wasn’t that I had no respect for these books. I did. Though my private playground, they were special: their leaf-mould smell was like my secret den under the bushes; their hard, rough covers made the silky pages within all the more enticing. I loved them. Although the reason for it escapes me now, I remember being so angry and frustrated one day that I slunk off to retaliate with the wickedest deed of my young imagination: grabbing the only book that still had a loose jacket, I tore it right across the front, slowly, deliberately. I burn again with shame as I write this. Acts of violence are invariably self destructive.
As the years passed, I unravelled the magic formulae and found out that all those words were hidden doors into amazing worlds. Illustrations were a bonus but it was just as much fun ‘seeing’ my own pictures. Three books in particular have left indelible ink stains in that absorbent part of my brain where creativity lurks: a traveller’s account of Spain with a photograph of one of Gaudi’s grand houses—a fairy castle I peopled with my own characters; the discovery of the White Nile—if such things can be found, what might I find myself?; and a lonely volume 1 of an illustrated book on exotic birds—exquisite beauty I didn’t believe was real until years later.
This was my environment; it forms what I call the space-time dimension of creativity. Not necessarily a nurturing environment—more a ‘healthy neglect’—but it gave me the space to make discoveries for myself, and the time to respond in ways appropriate to my own development, from scribbling around the letters to deciphering the words, and finally writing my own sentences.
And this brings us to process.
Probably the greatest impact on anyone’s creativity is formal education and it’s often negative. Indignation still rumbles inside me when I remember my brilliant story of adventure and discovery in darkest Africa being savaged by the geography teacher because it wasn’t an essay. And that lightly veiled autobiographical account of family life—a little cynical perhaps from a 12-year-old but undoubtedly funny—marked down in English class as failing to be a composition. Schooling for me was a slow, persistent compression into subject categories and time slots; I spent my time tunnelling under fences—a desperate prisoner of conscience. My ink-smudged brain cells refused to ‘get in line’ and ignore their neighbours. I still get muddled with genre: life is not divided into romance, horror, or fantasy—real lives find it hard to keep them apart.
For me, the process of creativity requires connectedness—without strings attached. I am currently working on a book about storytelling which is interdisciplinary. What genre?—Every aspect of life. Which market segment?—Anyone who can read. For these reasons it is unlikely to attract a literary agent but I can’t do anything about that: my brain is a synthesiser, it’s just the way it works, that’s how I learnt to sense the world—buildings, birds and river banks collaborating in a unique creation of their own.
This, then, is the third dimension—connectedness. Tweeting recently on the wonder of communicating with anyone, anywhere on the planet—not even knowing where people are when they email or tweet—I described the internet population as moats of dust floating in the atmosphere. Our attention drawn first to one amorphous group then another as a search or a tweet throws a beam of light across their path. We are all connected but not anchored—no strings.
Ergo, my dimensions of creativity are space—to fill from the inside; time—to inhabit that space in different ways as we grow, and connectedness—freedom from other people’s conceptual boundaries.
Trish Nicholson is a non-fiction author and writer of some award-winning short stories. Four of her stories have been accepted for publication in anthologies. She is a keen photographer and uses only her own pictures on her website. Trish likes to vary her weekly blogs, which include book reviews, stories and writing tips among other topics.
In between writing she runs her Relaxation Therapy clinic and plants trees. Her background is in social anthropology and management training. Together they led her to spend 12 years working on aid and development projects and research in the Asia Pacific region before settling on a hillside in New Zealand. She lives in the ‘winterless’ Far North, just inside the sub-tropics where the sun shines even in winter and they pick oranges between showers.
Trish is currently working on two writing projects: a book on storytelling, and an illustrated e-book—a ‘bite-size’ travel book on a spectacular religious pageant in the Philippines, released by Collca later this year.
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