Monday, March 09, 2015

Explaining Writing to a non-Writer

I've been blessed with a lot of non-writer friends in my life. I'd say that non-creative friends were my default in reality. Partly this was from where I was growing up, in a school and village where creativity was seen as decidedly abnormal (the school was particularly anti- creativity). Then at university, the "college" system at Lancaster meant that my best mates were studying engineering or physics or economics; not necessarily non-creative in their own way, but distinctly non-imaginative. Yes, they consumed culture, but they didn't make it. As I then worked as a computer programmer for 9 years, I was definitely an "outlier" in that world. Forget all that stuff about "get your kids to code" as being a creative discipline, the majority of programmers are not imagineers, but problem solvers. Because my own creativity has been very much at the right-brain end of the spectrum - making things up, flights of fancy, being more about the idea than the craft (I will come to that) - the differences with even some of my more creative friends has been profound.

With an old programmer friend visiting this weekend I mentioned my continued writing/music and he's known me nearly 30 years so he knows its part of me, but he was absolutely uncomprehending about the "need" to be creative as its something that's not at all in him. Yet he likes music and science fiction and films and art galleries....just has never had any desire to be creative himself. In the 70s and 80s you could get away with that in schools, though I'd thought that things had changed over the years at least with a broadening of the idea of creativity (rap music as valid as classical etc.), but we keep hearing that the liberal arts are being squeezed out of schools in favour of more vocational works.

Any way, we'd had a couple of glasses of wine so I tried to explain my creativity to him. I said that I though there were two axes (science types like graphs!), one of which has CRAFT at one end and IMAGINATION at the other. So my sister, who is a classically trained musician is very much at the craft end, but has rarely, if ever wrote a song; whilst I, who can't play for toffee, has been songwriting for thirty odd years. The sweet spot of course would be somewhere in the middle - a good musician writing good material. But there's also another axes I think - so imagine this as two pieces of wood nailed together like an X - which is about content, which is about what you write. Some people writer purely from the heart - i.e. if its not about them or happened to them, they can't imagine it - whilst others write from the head, e.g. researching a subject that particularly interests them in some way or another, or taking an idea and writing about it. Again, the sweet spot is probably in the middle - taking a subject that interests you (think of Kazuo Ishiguro's tendency to take big themes, but within them have more minor, personal keys, about love, family, memory, loss) - and personalising it in some way.

So explaining writing (or art or music) to a non-writer (artist, musician) this seems quite a useful way of putting things. It also says that someone who isn't creative might well be if they find a reason - e.g. my friend is a care worker working with the seriously disabled, there might be a time when he wants to articulate what he sees in some way, and perhaps abstract art might be a way of doing this - but that it might not necessarily be in the same quadrant as myself.

As a Pisces I'm always expected to be creative and dreamy, but there's always been a tension between head and heart in my work - I'm emotional and analytical (which explains how I ended up in computing in the first place, but also explains why I left) - and in reality I've always written from the head not the heart: part of this, I think, is making up for my perceived deficiency in craft. Writing is different than art or music, in that the facility for it is comes from the "head" - from "learning" - rather than pure instinct/ability. We all (or most of us) verbally communicate; not so many of us sing or paint. I suspect, though I may be wrong, that growing up as an incredibly imaginative child in a world that didn't really value the imagination (and rarely nurtured it, outside of my parents supporting for my strangeness!) meant that I had to overcompensate on the logical side - I had to find a justification for what I was doing, which took me into writing more analytically.

I think this is partly why I still like writing and making music, as it feels instinctive, purely imaginative, whereas in prose and even poetry, I'm constantly weighing up between the imaginative me, and the intellectual me. I rarely feel comfortable with "first person" in this sense, and if I like the confessional mode it is that strand of intellectualised confessionalism that you find in Lowell or Bishop, or going back, in Donne and Herbert. The frame in which my creativity works best needs to have at least some structure to it.

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