The Creative Process

“Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist as a grown up”

Pablo Picasso

Painfully addictive and yet beautiful, the creative process is different for everybody.

As Picasso says, we are all artists. I know I was born to write but those who come to it late in life soon become drawn into its powerful ‘otherness’.

“The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.” George Bernard Shaw

Writing adds a dimension to your life that you cannot always see until you do it. Brain to pen, thoughts in your hand, concepts on paper or screen and translated back to become real. It’s magic. Some people say it’s miraculous, that it is God at work, that writing or painting or creating is a spiritual experience.

A Big Responsibility

The thought is frightening. It’s frightening enough to make you stop short of ever making a start. But make a start you must, you know it. There will be no peace in your mind until you’ve attempted to express something, even if you don’t know what to say, or whether to write it, paint it, sing it or play it to an audience.

“How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” E.M. Forster

It doesn’t help to hear so-called experts talking highly of painters and writers and playwrights who’ve “got something to say” and you look at their masterpiece and wonder quite what. You see the artwork of great painters like Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian, installations by Tracy Emin or Damien Hirst – only to look upon them and say “What?”

Believe me – you’ve got things to say and by getting that pen moving you’ll start to find out what they are. You have to find your way of working, whether it’s with a pen, a typewriter, pencil, computer; the side of the phone book, the back of a shopping list, a pristine new notepad or a perfect white screen with a spell-check and thesaurus at the click of a mouse. It won’t be easy, but you can make it easier for yourself – if you’ll accept that pampering your creativity is a worthy cause.

Brought Home and Privately Yours

You can write in weird and wonderful ways, observe the world and quietly write what you see. It might be fictionalised reality, but seen from your standpoint, with your unique eye and in your own words, it will say something to your readers that’ll give them one more viewpoint from which to understand.

“I wish I were more at home with writing. I can go a year or two or three without picking up my pen and I’m perfectly content. The minute I have to write I become neurotic and grouchy and ill; I become like a little wet, drenched bird, and I put a blanket over my shoulders and I try to write and I hate myself and I hate what I’m writing.” said Edmund White, American novelist and author of the acclaimed A Boy’s Own Story (1982).

I was lucky enough to be brought up by an artist and learned to understand the necessity to accommodate the neurotic, grouchy and ill side of the temperament. The only time it would surface was when life and circumstances stood in the way of my parent’s Creative Process. Unfortunately for me and for the rest of the family, that was quite often.

Accommodate Your Destiny

You either grow up to do as your parents did, or you do the opposite. I hope I do the opposite – I recognise my need to create and try to engineer everything to ensure my Creative Process takes precedence. Lack of confidence and lack of being accepted by the art establishment curtailed my parent’s artistic focus.

“I don’t believe for a moment that creativity is a neurotic symptom. On the contrary, the neurotic who succeeds as an artist has had to overcome a tremendous handicap. He creates in spite of his neurosis, not because of it,” said Aldous Huxley.

This man may well be famous for his experiments with drugs but he created numerous stories, poems, novels, plays, travel works, historical studies and academic essays.

“I loathe writing,” says Muriel Gray. “It’s hard, hard work, like digging the roads… ” she says in her interview with David Mathew in The Third Alternative, no. 27.

You’ll probably know her as a TV and BBC Radio presenter but of writing she says, “There’s no comparison to broadcasting work which is basically money for old rope.” Writing is her passion and, it seems, her reason for living.

Pain is no barrier

“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” said Thomas Mann.

James Baldwin said he does a lot of rewriting. “It’s very painful.”

All writers and artists talk of the pain but if you’re wise you’ll accept that it’s going to be painful. It has so often been compared to giving birth that it’s hardly worth mentioning – but when you’re pregnant, you know, it’s a hell of a relief to experience that pain; and look at the beautiful reward!

It isn’t funny to have to put up with any pain at all, and to have writers’ block when you know you want to do it; but there are so many jokes about it. This one sums it up for me:

1ST WRITER (at a cocktail party): I’m working on my new novel.

2ND WRITER: Neither am I.

Quoted from Private Eye in The Writer’s Chapbook, ed. George Plimpton.

Find a Way

How do you accommodate your need to create? How do you make it least painful? If it’s ideas or a starting point you need then go to the Triggers chapter, or Therapy, or find your voice in Write with Style, or even in the zany Experimental ideas.

Perhaps it’s the place and the company you keep that curtails your outflow? Teachers of old who stood behind you to pounce on your mistakes have a lot to answer for. But you’re free of that now and only have to be wary of imposing your own inhibitions.

  • J.K. Rowling sat in a café to write the Harry Potter books. Maybe it was to keep warm and topped up with coffee but your reason might be different: if it works for you, do it.

  • Brenda Crowe wrote ‘Play is a Feeling’ and ‘Living with a Toddler’ sitting up in bed: not because she was ill or working at night, but because it was the best way to keep her feet warm.

  • Julian Stockwin writes the Kydd series at his desk accompanied by an ancient piece of mariner’s rope, which wafts the subtle fragrance of the deep sea.

  • Jack Kerouac would kneel to pray before starting to write his novels (On the Road, 1957; The Subterraneans,1958 et al) and in essays he outlined a philosophy of writing that refused all revision and was akin to improvisational jazz.

  • The poet Philip Larkin would say he never went out, while Nadine Gordimer thinks writers should do plenty of ordinary things to keep in touch with life. She says, “The solitude of writing is also quite frightening. It’s quite close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch.”

Love It or Hate It

“I love writing,” said P.G. Wodehouse. “I never feel comfortable unless I am either actually writing or have a story going. I could not stop writing.”

He was the author of the Jeeves Series and very successful in musical comedy, theatre, and Hollywood.

This quote is encouraging for me personally. At a recent workshop I found myself – in an automatic writing exercise – writing and then reading aloud: “I only feel well when I’m writing.” This produced gasps from a quarter of the other students. They were people who were still hoping to find out why or how writing can change their lives for the better.

Now before I make the mistake of offering the creative process as a religion, I think I will assume that my readers know they do want to write, but haven’t yet decided on their niche. We look at this with some general ideas in Genres.

Do Your Own Thing

There is nothing unusual in wanting to do your own thing.

Lawrence Durrell says this: “It doesn’t really matter whether you’re first rate, second rate, or third rate, but it’s of vital importance that the water finds its own level and that you do the very best you can with the powers that are given you.”

Lawrence Durrell was a poet, travel writer and prolific novelist; and not to be confused with his brother Gerald who wrote of animal life and owned a zoo at Jersey.

Reading the candid comments of other writers is an eminently useful way of endorsing your urge to write.

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” Ernest Hemingway said.

He was one of the greatest short story writers of America and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. This is bestowed for ‘the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency’ and was awarded for The Old Man and the Sea, first published in 1952. “I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers,” he said. Have a go with Creative Frolics and see if you can see what he means. I think I can: you’ll see I have a tendency to cross the paths of painters in some suggestions on the Experimental page.

Finding your niche, your style, your way of working, can only be done through time and experience. Writing a diary and writing vignettes gives you a body of work that will be an endless supply of material to adapt or rewrite – along with many embellishments and an ever-strong urge to extend your vocabulary.

What of the Process, once Established?

I regard myself as an organic writer. I encourage my students to write organically – as if the first sentence is a stem, and from that will grow roots and shoots, flowers and seeds. It is sure to grow if you plant it as words on paper or screen.

I write stories and plays (including tv scripts and screenplays), and the odd poem, in between the mainstay of creative non-fiction, which you’re reading now. All can be written in an organic way.

For the record: what are my writing habits? I write words and half-sentences in notebooks, between doing other things; I start early, in solitude at the computer or just at a table. I break to make myself tea (eight cups a day). I do housework and cooking between paragraphs, and scribble beginnings, usually, in bed in the dark.

I think the creative process is all about making connections, and building upon them. (See Visualise for more on this.) There’s the ‘What If – ?’ game; but by building simple tentative connections into something bigger, there’s a worthy point to be made. I rely on dreams and on the half-sleep images that dwell in my head. They conveniently solve problems for me. Yesterday I was wondering how to explain my difficulties with defining Visualisation for this text. Overnight I dreamt about the picture that I tried to paint, long ago, called Rhapsody in Black. Today I’ve used it to illustrate the problem: my memory, my connection, was already there and I had to find the right place to use it.

Try any and all ways, methods, outlets and keep at it. Experimental; Vignettes; Genres. The creative process that suits you will make itself known and you’ll come to respect it. This way, your writing will command respect as well.