The human conversation

 An essay I once wrote about creativity. I’ve since changed my mind about some things but it’s still good.

Thoughts on being a creative being

I am sitting at the piano, chatting with Beethoven. We are talking across 200 years of history. I am engaging with Beethoven’s ideas, trying to follow his line of thought in the sonata I’m learning. He keeps surprising me. Sometimes I think I could do better, until a few bars later when I work out what he is driving at. I am partaking in a mysterious and marvellous conversation that transcends centuries, continents, culture and language.

I am fortunate to be a musician, able to unpack the elements of a composition, classical or otherwise. It is a privilege to be able to play the same notes that a master wrote hundreds of years ago. It is a window into the mind of someone who lived in a different age but the same world.

You have to engage with the arts. Passive observers will catch some beautiful moments but miss out on the great conversation.

There is nothing like the utter satisfaction of exciting new music. This year I fell slowly in love with a CD that grew on me and captured me. So much to chew on. So much to be challenged by. Music that disturbs you, follows you round. I return to this music again and again, then suddenly tire and need something else. There are moments when I think I’ve found the only music I’ll ever need. But I always need more. Just like I need morning as well as night. You can have your favourite time of day but you still need the others.

What is it about poetry, music, literature, film? They constantly lure and tease with the promise that they will satisfy your soul. A book that you want to hold and own. You buy it and love it and look at it on your shelf, but only rarely do you pull it down to actually read. Yet you could never throw it away. Its very existence is a pleasure.

The trick is to move between art forms. Moments of silence as well as widescreen 5.1 Surround sound. This is why I love poetry, because to read it properly I must wrestle with it. Only when I slow down can I engage with the mind behind a poem. Ben Johnson’s poem about the death of his son. Walt Whitman’s poem about a noiseless, patient spider. Robert Frost who is ‘one acquainted with the night.’ Billy Collins, the contemporary American poet. All of these people connect with me, show me a piece of their world, share their lives and their fears and their musings. I learn from their mistakes and their wisdom. I share their experience. That moment of connection for me is quite spiritual. There is something both terrifying and encouraging about meeting the mind of another human.

For me, poetry is a collection of moments that can’t be captured any other way. I can’t video my entire life, so I write poetry to preserve those small moments of being human. When a moment is distilled and concentrated into a single poem it becomes greater than the poem itself. Suddenly I am contributing to the great conversation.

All of this points me toward God, the Creator. Why else do I have such a need to create, to gobble up created art? If there is no God, then we create to fill the emptiness. But I don’t sense an emptiness. I feel that the universe is already overflowing with art, and the human soul naturally, desperately, wants to contribute.

We often mistake this impulse for ego, but really we are trying to express the wonder, the pain and the mystery of existence. So we create because there is a spark within us that was placed there by a creative God. We cannot help but create. Those who create to immortalise themselves have got it backwards, even though they create incredible works of art. It is not the artist, but the art itself, that is the genius.

Plus, genius is relative. What I think is genius, someone else thinks is a waste of time. Or offensive. Still, I must create, or I will self-destruct. The creative process can never be tamed, nor explained (despite my best efforts right now.)

Not all art is beautiful. It needs to be true. Truth in the sense of a good story well-told that hits home; a song that strips the writer bare for anyone who cares to notice. The integrity of the artist – artistic, not moral integrity. Art is about the human condition with all of its bumps and bruises. I am passionate about honesty, not piety.

Writing poetry is slow. I write a poem and it is utter rubbish, words that mess up an otherwise perfectly good blank page. (The scariest thing in the world is a blank canvas.) One small twist or scribble later, and suddenly I have discovered a gem. Or the germ of a gem. The potential poem, a glimpse of the hidden art. The hard work that follows is to translate it for others so they will be able to share the moment – or find their own moment.

I am skeptical of those who claim to get their poems right first time. The first draft is cathartic. It feels rugged and pure, but that’s not the place to stop. Now that the emotion is out of the way the next step is to apply your craft to make that emotion as potent as possible for the reader. Ironically, it requires some detachment to effectively critique and edit the poem. (Perhaps that is why artists often reveal more about themselves than we sometimes think is necessary.)

Most ideas need time to cook. My best work always surprises me. There is something deep at work here. Who can explain where ideas come from? I work and work and work at a poem. It is hard slog. I can’t get it right. Then one day the answer arrives and I have no clue where it came from. A poem finished at the beach on a Sunday afternoon is completely different to the same poem that is finished in the dining room on a Monday night.

Incidentally, this is why I don’t believe that God made the world in seven literal days (scientific arguments aside.) People who push the seven day theory seem to believe they are rescuing God from the indignity of slowness, as though God simply MUST have created quickly to keep his divine credibility. I think this position misses the creative point. I can’t imagine a creative god short-changing himself by waving a magic wand to create an instant universe. The pleasure of the creative process is in the process! If we truely are made in the image of our maker, then surely a god who takes millions of years to fine-tune his creation is much grander and bigger – and authentic – than an instant coffee god.

Look at the world around us: Nine months to grow a baby. The years of learning to walk and talk. A lifetime to explore how to be human. My own experience of creativity convinces me that God is a creative being and takes his time with it. The Big Bang was the first big idea: Bang! Then it had to be worked out to its best possible manifestation. If it is a poem it will take days or weeks or months or even years. If it is the universe it takes billions of years. The time taken is evidence of care and passion, not inability.

I need to create. I was born to create. Just as someone climbs a mountain ‘because it’s there’, I write a poem ‘because it’s not there.’ Even if no one else will ever see what I have made, I still spend a stupid amount of time to get it to my satisfaction.

I cannot not write. I must create. If not poetry, then music. If you take away my pen and paper I will tap rhythms on the table. If you take away the table I will scratch pictures into the wall. Anything to explore what it means to be human, to ask the questions, to celebrate life, to rage against pain, to join in the human conversation.

First published in the anthology This Side of the World, edited by Sue Emms and Jenny Argante.