Rediscovering Creativity Through The Eyes of a Child

GomaWe spent the afternoon at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), soaking up the 7th Triennial Asia Pacific Exhibition. There were stunning pieces and plenty of my kind of art: visual feasts that challenge social, political, economic and cultural mores. We ooo-ed and ahhh-ed in all the right places (the right places being different for all of us) and moved with the best kind of questioning wonder and amazement through the paintings and sculptures, the installations and masks, the short films and photographs.

But the most fun the four of us had at the exhibition was producing our own art it in the dedicated kids’ area: masks based on Hahan’s work, crazy family photos from Kazakhstan, Parastou Forouhar’s zoomorphic calligraphy animations*. We adults got into it more than than Mr D.

It reminded me of what Julia Cameron says in The Artist Way, that we produce some of our best creative works before we reach primary school. That we are at our creative peak at kindergarten!

Junking Notions of High Art

Society delineates between ‘high art’ and ‘low art’, ‘art’ and ‘craft’, ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’, ‘commericial’ and ‘cottage’. All arbitrary terms created by someone who wanted to sell something to someone and make a little extra dosh. And don’t get me started on elitism.

The thing with ‘high art’ though–whether it be a professional theatrical or dancing production, a gallery showing, scoring that illusive commercial deal for a book or album– the creation of ‘high art’ is beyond the reach of most of us. And it’s marketed as being beyond us… it is art made by experts, highly trained professionals who have dedicated their life’s work to doing what they do. Not nufties like you and me.

It didn’t start of that way for us though. As kids we are oblivious to this tripe! The older we get, the more we understand this dichotomy between ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (we see it in all forms of artistic pursuits—think the age old argument between literary fiction and genre fiction—high and low art!) and the more we feel separate from it.

We see it in the way ‘talented’ kids are singled out and nurtured, to the exclusion of others. We learn creative success is earned by a lucky few, and is not intended for everyone. Creativity is an exclusive club not meant for us.

What kids create is often seen as ‘junk’ or disposable (outside of their adoring parents and family members/close friends) in comparison to the ‘high art’ adults make. But childlike creativity is accessible, fulfilling and available to all (regardless of age) to engage with and enjoy. That’s priceless. Not junk!

A Life Time Ago

The best thing about my kindergarten was the old red telephone box in the playground (yes, I was raised on healthy Dr Who, just like my son!). When I wasn’t inside making phone calls or flying away to faraway lands, I was painting and playing in the coloured water trough, typing things on the typewriter. I loved glitter, the more the merrier (and I still have a soft spot for it now, especially when its going on someone else’s floor!)

I remember I made a magenta leather bookmark for my father, weaving leather strap through holes punched in along the sides. Dad used it for years and years and years. I also remember a dried flower collage on a cork coaster… it hung on the wall for years and years too.

Reclaim The Childlike Wonderment

childlikewonderThe pure joy of a child’s creativity is well within everyone’s reach. What we have to do is step up and embrace being kids again. It’s the best antidote to exclusivity of ‘high art’; to feeling beyond, frozen out.

We were all creative at kindergarten—cut and pasted, nailed, sewed, weaved, painted, constructed, coloured-in, sang, danced, played instruments, dressed up and put our dreams into motion through play.

Some of my most treasured moments are not on a stage in front of a paying audience but in a lounge room or front lawn in a semi-organised concert with my cousin and my sister. I remember many holidays dancing on a platform in our potato packing shed with just the dust and rats looking on (I can still remember several dance moves from the Footloose number we did!). And other holidays with my Nanna and Pa, making smiley faces on Marie biscuits from smarties, orange segment lollies and icing.

I wrote notes to Willy Wagtails on the back of gum leaves at my cousin’s and weighed them down with pebbles atop fence post so they wouldn’t blow away. I sang loudly in the toilet (my parents joked it was the acoustics) and when I got older, in the shower (they may have been right about the acoustics of small spaces!). From scraps of material I sewed Barbie clothes. I knitted jumpers for dolls from wool I scavenged.

My love of colouring-in lasted long past its age-appropriate used-by-date. The last colouring book I owned was of Ewoks during the summer of my last year at primary school in 1985.

As a teenager I bound my book reviews as tiny books with staples and gaffa tape, accompanied by hand drawn covers. All my assignments had colourful borders–one on my family history had a stone paved border that after page three didn’t seem like such a good idea, but I kept going with it. I sketched Wendy James and Patrick Swayze when I wasn’t scribbling stories. I skipped out on classic piano music to play jazz standards and old show tunes from organ books I borrowed from my Grandma. My friend Kim and I performed Chicago’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” for a school arts day. For drama a drew detailed character mock ups to accompany the scripts I’d written.

But the older I got, the more the other creative pursuits petered off until I was left with dancing and writing. Then just writing. Then nothing.

There’s No Secret Password

We make excuses for not doing the things we want to do. The things we know will make our heart sing; bring lightness and variety into the otherwise dull, monotony of life.

There’s all the excuses under the sun by the time we’re adults, not to be creative: I’m tone deaf; I can’t draw a stick figure; I have two left feet; I burn water. But as a four-year-old did any of that matter to you?

You sang loudly and off key, knowing only ever fourth word, but did it with gusto. You splashed paint on a piece of white paper or smooshed it between your fingers and smiled proudly when your folks unpegged it to take home at the end of the day. You danced the hokey pokey and it didn’t matter which was left of right. You poured pink water into weird shaped containers and created fountains and rivers, you formed up the best mud pies in the world with no thought to if it was under done or over cooked or if anyone else liked it but you.

As adults we need to embrace our inner child and re-approach creativity with the open-minded wonder of a four-year-old who doesn’t care what others think, who has all the time in the world to be absorbed and dissolved in colour, sound, movement and all degrees of imagination.

We need to step away from the awareness of  skill, experience, status, money, critical acclaim or any other of the external accruements that attach themselves to creative endeavours beyond childhood. It’s time to get back to basics: the simple act of doing something creative for the sheer enjoyment of it.

So, what did you really enjoy doing as a kid? Now go out and rediscover the joy all over again.

* Yes, that’s the goat I designed with the computer program!

Extended Reading: For more great reflections and ideas on rediscovering creativity dip into Adam Byatt’s three part serial:

  1. Reflection: Why Did you Stop Being Creative
  2. Resurrection – When To Shut Down a Creative Life (And When To Resurrect It)
  3. Recreation: Becoming A Creative Person Again
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The Next Big Thing: ELYORA

The front cover that accompanied Dan's beta reading copy.

The front cover that accompanied Dan’s beta reading copy.

Jo Anderton tagged me last week on The Next Big Thing meme. So without further ado…

What is the working title of your next book?

My upcoming novella is called ELYORA. It is the name it was first born as a short story under and will go to print as.

Where did the idea come from for the novella?

It began with a dream in August last year while we were on holidays in the Bunya Mountains. The dream included a woman called Eylora, a very weird house and a malevolent river. I twisted the woman’s name, and christened the town, central to the novella, Elyora.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s definitely horror, with a smattering of mystery and erotica thrown in for good measure.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’d be asking my readers this once the novella is released. I’m not a visual person. I have no idea.

Having said that, I did vaguely model the character of Benny on Angus Stone, the musician. It’d be a nice touch of irony to have Angus play Benny in a film adaptation!

And speaking of movies, it is my plan to write a screenplay for ELYORA next year.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Revenge is timeless.

To find her missing band members and make it out of Elyora, Jo must remember who she is and how she came to be there, before they are all sung down to the river.

Will your novella be self-published or represented by an agency?

ELYORA is set for electronic publication in a few short weeks via The Review of Australian Fiction. The novella will be one part of the special Rabbit Hole edition and will be a free download. No reason not to download and enjoy it!

I’m still debating as to whether I submit it elsewhere for print publication or self publish the paperback.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The first draft of ELYORA was never completed. Pressed by a tight deadline, I began the second draft revisions without an ending, in a hope that I’d have worked out how the narrative played out by the time I reached there on the second pass over.

That said, the first 5000 words were disgorged in less than three hours when I came home from holidays. Then it sat. And sat. I took it from 5000 to 19000 words across the Saturday afternoon and Sunday of The Rabbit Hole, then added another 5,000 words to bring me to the point where I wasn’t sure what happened next.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m not sure I can compare it. I’m only a recent convert to the horror genre, and I read mainly short stories. Reading Kirstyn McDermott’s Madigan Mine definitely had an influence on the way in which I rewrote Jo’s internal dialogue, though we deal with the issue of possession in very different ways.

My beta reader Dan Powell said the original draft had a creeping unease reminiscent of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, but as I have yet to read it, I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to compare ELYORA to it (especially as Dan tells me the set up is vastly different to mine).

My partner, Dave, maintains it all sounds like The Cars That Ate Paris, from what I’ve told him of it. Again, I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t say. They’re both horror, have cars and based in small country towns!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As I said earlier, it was intended to be a short story but at 5,000 words I knew it was never going to be contained to even a long short story. When it was announced on the Saturday of The Rabbit Hole (June) that Review of Australian Fiction were interested in looking at any stories or novellas that came out of the three-day event in June I threw everything else aside and launched back into the world of Elyora.

New layers of ideas grew and melded to the existing narrative on each successive revision (of which there were far too many for the nutty deadlines I’ve been working under).

For example, I specified Ethan’s wife nationality as German on the 3rd rewrite, when I finally came across a folk tale and a monster that fit with the scenario I’d created. That in turned influenced what I named her (Eleanor). The German nationality also became a boon for the underlying premise of the story: ‘just what monster are you creating today’.

I have to give a tip of the hat to the 20-odd people who constituted The Elyora Brains Trust on Facebook. The Brains Trust gave the story Hal’s tattoo (and the accompanying story), the dashboard ornaments, the German terms of endearment and a bunch of encouragement at a time when I was flailing. My Dad helped me out with information on cars, clocks, fuel pumps and petroleum companies. My friend Susan gave me Fauna Bate as a band name when we were talking about it at school one afternoon. Last but not least, another friend, Kerryn, sent me a text message after a movie night we’d all had together saying: what if XYZ happened in your story… and gave me the ending I’d been looking for (but it meant a major rearrangement of the timeline).

What else about the novella might pique the reader’s interest?

ELYORA is set just off the New England Highway—between Armidale and Glenn Innes in New South Wales (the same road we take several times a year to visit my in-laws). If you’re travelling that way this Christmas period, or you know that road well, I dare you to look for the turn off to Elyora! You might want to think twice about taking it though.

UPDATE: ELYORA was released on the 21st December and is available now at Bookish–for free!

My blog feels like the place memes come to die. The idea is to tag five further people, but I am tagging just one (a combination to the age of the meme, the mess the last month has been for me–contributing to a lack of organisation and the time of year!)

Over to you S.G. Larner!