Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Creativity and primeval soup

I've been reading Ewan's post on creativity - where good ideas come from. And already from the comments there it's obvious that creativity underpins exciting practice in all manner of areas, whether it's marketing or micro-surgery. However, we all tend, I think, to look at the places we're most familiar with, and mine tend to the traditional.

In discussion with Mr B I pointed out that while he is a creative musician, I am not. I am quite a competent one, with a decent voice and an ability to read at sight and to interpret certain kinds of vocal line - but I don't write music and I don't improvise on any instrument. I do, on the other hand, create in the literary sense, with most of my most satisfying creative moments resulting in a poem with which I am happy. So I'm going to wander briefly down the process which results in the creation of a poem.

I sometimes find myself in a situation where I think: I'd love to write about this. I should write something about this place/experience/emotion. And nothing happens. It's dead. Or perhaps I produce a line or two or several - and discard them. Hopeless. So when does the magic happen? It happens when a phrase or a line suddenly comes into my head and demands attention. Here's an example. I was standing in Delville Wood on the Somme battlefield, a place filled with the resonance of the battle fought there, and a line came: "and birdsong in an empty wood". I actually said it aloud, sort of fixing it. A short while later, down another leafy avenue "and bluebells on the parapet". By the time a third line crept in, I knew I had to remember them and dictated them one at a time into my camera as I filmed the trees. That first line - which ended up as the final line of the poem - gave me the metre and the mood; the rest followed.

At the time, I wasn't thinking about writing or poems; I was thinking about death and loss. The rest of the poem came galloping out when I had a chance to sit down and think about it, but that first line had given it to me. So the creativity came from something over which I had no control, and I know from experience that I can go for months without having a single creative moment. But after the initial power-surge, as it were, what happens to the result is anything but random. All I have ever read, all I have ever worked on in language, these feed into the writing, providing me with word-associations, imagery, sentence-structures, line-breaks and so on. It's unconscious, in a way, but at the same time I'm aware of it.

The other thing I'm aware of is the need to keep reading and studying so that my own creativity is nourished. If I visit a friend who encourages me to read a poet I've never encountered, I can find myself suddenly bursting to write - perhaps because of an idea, or maybe simply a sense of liberation given by seeing a new style unfold. And that goes into the voice which, I am told, is now recognisably my own. Add to that the immense reservoir of language and image to be found in religion - not just religious poetry, though that's there too - and you have the basis on which creativity is fed.

Come to think of it: when I was teaching English, one of the greatest gulfs in the experience of the pupils, one of the biggest barriers which they had to overcome in understanding so much of English literature, came from the lack of exposure to religious experience and language in their lives. I felt I had to fill in so much background to make their understanding more complete that it was like having to explain why a joke was funny. So maybe the answer to the question "Where do good ideas come from" has to do with the quality of the primeval soup in the brain of the creative person - even though there will always be many more people who will simply interpret and recreate.

Just like me and music, in fact.


  1. Is there an anti-sectarian poem in there?

  2. That's the problem. I don't know! I have to wait and see what stirs ...
    there should be, though, shouldn't there?