Reflections on the Creative Process

This was written near the end of 2011. The Reflective Essay was one of the assignments given toward the end of my MFA. 

Pic borrowed from a google search result.

Nom.

Reflections on the Creative Process

 

I am the girl who eats elephants.

Or tries to at least.

 

When creative challenges strut past me, flexing their muscles, swishing their tales, flashing smiles and suggestions of personal fulfillment, nine times out of ten I will cave in. I just love a project. It doesn’t matter what sort of project as long as it requires that I stretch myself far beyond what I am capable of in reality. Need a percussionist? I’ve never played, but I’ll have a go. A loaf of homemade sourdough bread? Couldn’t be too hard to learn. A Masters degree in the midst of starting a family? Sure thing.

 

The idea of applying for, then being accepted into this MFA was too much for me to resist. I had a story I knew needed writing, and enough hard-earned wisdom to know I should invest in learning the craft. That was about it. I put together the application in less than two days, and before I really understood what I was doing I was at my first residency, a day after I discovered I was pregnant with my second baby. Some might say it wasn’t a well-planned decision. I think it was meant to be.

 

Toward the end of that first residency Xu Xi made a point about how one does not actually need to be in front of a computer or piece of paper in order to write, that much of her writing happens on the treadmill or as she goes about her day. This turned out to be the nugget of wisdom that would see me through one of the biggest elephants I ever sank my teeth into.

 

Writing pregnant was easy. Writing sleep-deprived whilst trying to figure out how to handle a colicky baby certainly was not. The last twelve months have been difficult, overloaded plates. Life is life, but this year was exaggerated: two young children, a husband realizing his own creative dreams, a building project, four part time jobs and a Masters degree.

 

It felt as though my propensity to nibble on the ear of a challenge escaped all reason as I now found myself frantically gorging on multiple elephants as if trying to defend a title in an eating competition. People ask me how I do it. I wonder the same. There hasn’t been enough time to reflect. The baby is 7 months old and we are still sleep deprived.

 

As I attempt to ponder this question in the free seconds between preparing meals, disciplining a toddler, washing dishes and using a pipette to suck the snot out of my sick baby’s nostrils, I find myself drawn more to the question of why do I do this?

 

For years I wrestled with the guilt that I had chosen to pursue a creative life instead of getting a real job. Hong Kong is not a city built for artists. Smart people keep serious day jobs and then spend some of their wages on creative hobbies. I have had to adjust my definition of Smart People. The creative life is not really a choice. I have tried to abort and bury many projects along the way, but that usually just leaves me standing uneasily amidst a bunch of rumbling graves.

 

I have adjusted my perspective on the creative process. I am taking a more philosophical approach now and asking what is the point of life/work/the things we all busy ourselves with? Hong Kong is a city full of extremely busy people. I am one of them. I resent busyness when it is caused by obligation to things I do not love, but when it is a symptom of a life full of meaningful fun, then busyness itself becomes something I love.

 

I have been putting much thought into the idea of playing to one’s strengths. I find the notion troublesome. I have heard it preached on international platforms, read it in books on leadership, been challenged with it by my ex-bosses in HK, and recently, saddened to discover Plato’s stance on it via @ Twitter: “One cannot practice many arts with success.”

 

I understand the concept- why invest in taking one gift from a level 2 to a level 4 when you could put the effort towards taking a more promising gift from a level 7 to a level 9? But I wholeheartedly reject the notion of playing to ones strength. Failure and discomfort is the birthing place of great art – the sort that people can relate to. Playing to strength is a strategy that minimizes the possibility for failure.

 

 

I endeavor to read Plato, in order to be able to fully converse with him on this matter. I want to know his definition of success. I don’t think it is the same as mine. I am also told that Julie Cameron has something relevant to say on this matter, but she is going to have to wait until I have finished chewing on what I already have in my mouth.

 

I have spent years of my life envying people who are really really good at one or two things. I am not one of those people. I am a little bit okay at a lot of different things. I have come to accept this now, mostly as the result of no longer having the emotional resource to fight it.

 

I found that the times I have tried to shelf all but a couple of my inclinations in the name of playing to a strength or two, I have wound up miserable. I don’t dabble on a whim. I do it because I feel that I have been entrusted with an idea, and it is up to me to make something of it. It is almost a duty. If I turn a blind eye to those duties, I end up feeling depressed and unfulfilled.

 

There are some people in the world who hold such regard for the idea of excellence that they simply refuse to attempt something unless they are more-or-less certain that they will be happy with their outcome. I understand this and cannot argue against it because I have seen these people excel numerous times. What I will acknowledge though, is that I do not possess their same level of self-control. If I catch the thought of auditioning for a Masters Degree in Jazz Dance into my head, there is little that can stop me from trying, even though my chances of success are limited, so that at least I can know that I tried. We won’t go into that specific example right now though. I think there are just two different types of people – two different ways a human brain can be wired.

 

The disadvantage of my wiring is that I am very familiar with failure. Again, that’s not meant to sound heroic in any way. Anyone who has actually failed at something important will know that it is not an enjoyable experience, nor one from which it is easy to recover. The advantage is that I have enjoyed the process of trying new things, and have also developed some wisdom from experience, but most importantly, I feel, some tenacity.

 

I wonder if everyone only focused on their strengths, we would miss out on the awesome experience of uncomfortable stretching, and that thing that happens thanks to 2 Cor 12:9 where God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness? I’m no theologian, but my lay interpretation of this verse is that if I’m too strong then I don’t leave much room for partnership with the divine – for me, the source of all creativity. I honestly don’t know if I’ve got that muddled or out of context in some way, but I am most open to discussion.

 

I am not suggesting that mediocrity should be given the right to some limelight – that would not be fair on the work produced with excellence. I am saying that if someone feels that they want to try to develop their skills in areas of level 2-6 abilities, then why not just let them? I can say for sure that with or without the chance to get on stage, or publish, or sell art or whatever, I would still be doing what I do simply because I get uneasy when I don’t. If I do get given the those opportunities then how nice, but I think that life is more fun if we just get on with doing what we believe we were made to do, as long as we aren’t hurting anybody, regardless of audience size or response.

 

These are my reflections on my own creative process. If my circumstances were different perhaps I could lock myself away in a tower like Montaigne, for the rest of my life to contemplate it all. It sounds very nice but I am not Montaigne and our three-bedroom family flat in Discovery Bay does not have a tower.

 

The conflicting advice I have received since ‘coming out’ as a writer (and entering into the great conversation that is literature) is much like the conflicting (and usually unsolicited) advice I often receive as a new parent. Cloth nappies? Naked potty training? Bottle? Breast? Reject conventional form? Strip it all down? Elaborate? Bring more humour in? Take myself more seriously?

 

I have to consider the options but ultimately find my own way.

 

If I were to write a manifesto I would say that I will not fear the influence of other artists, but trust the authenticity of my own voice. I consider myself a genuine artist. As I plug away at my writing and all my other projects I believe that I contribute to changing my city into a place where creative souls can exist for the long haul. I will courageously accept the fact that my context does not allow for creative monogamy, but charge forth regardless, knife and fork in hand. Yes, that is all I can do for now, and enjoy it I will.

 

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Spare Rib Syndrome

Recently I have allowed myself to dream big dreams again.

Then I got scared. The dreams are too big and greedy and likely to embarrass me when they don’t work out.

I decided to put them on the shelf; at least, that’s what I was telling people I was doing.

In fact, I was shoveling dirt onto them as they lay in the grave I had dug for them earlier just in case. I said had to “shelf” them because I have young children and my husband needs me to be available to support him. These are not bad reasons. Raising my babies is the highest calling I will ever have in this life. Playing a supporting role in my husbands dreams is a part I have always felt not only comfortable with, but truly my authentic self in. So, when I got scared and began hedging my bets and weighing my options I felt sure that no one would question my reasons for the “shelfing”. No one can argue with the young kids excuse. I mean reason.

I went to church this afternoon totally unaware than my careful construction of excuses was about to be wrecked. Church, my church, was one place I safely assumed would affirm my need to shelf. However, not today. Today was the day that Founding Pastor (and my father in law) Tony decided to courageously speak a life-injecting word about the value of women. He was supposed to be speaking about social justice but according to him social justice must begin in our hearts and in our church home, and our attitude towards gender injustice. His words soaked into the parched dry ground of my past-hungry for affirmation, exhausted-from-multitasking feminine soul. As tired and afraid as I am, those words will not return to him void.

The children are asleep, one is coughing. I will probably have to get up to settle someone a few times tonight. My eyes are heavy but dammit, I am reaching towards the shelf, to pick up the shovel and begin to unearth those dreams again. God help me.

It’s Complicated

That’s no lie – it really is.

First off, I hereby acknowledge my failure to listen to the little voice of truth that whispered in my ear “this isn’t going to work” the second I typed the words in my last post:”I’m going to blog every day”.

Good, now that that’s out of the way… 

I’ve been having some thoughts… they have been percolating for some years now, and I haven’t really known how to even broach the subject…

No one likes a raging feminist.

One of the things I liked about my new faith when I ‘came out’ as a Christian at the age of 15 was the fact that, for the most part, Christianity seems to condone a sense of inequality between the sexes.

I liked the idea that a girl should do ballet, wear makeup, grow up to become a mummy, and then make food in the kitchen and wear dresses and all…I think this is because my mum has never been what most would consider to be a traditional mum. Mine worked hard, has been the director of her organization forever and is well respected in her professional field. I resented this growing up because I never had anything good in my lunch box.

Somewhere around the ‘believer age’ of 13, having been married for about 4 years, I took a job at my church, where my husband and also my father in law also worked. It was explained to me that our church supported the notion of couples ministering as couples, but that due to limited funding I would not be paid a decent salary nor would I be allowed to work in the same area as my husband because we couldn’t afford to double up roles and there were many other things that needed doing. At the time I saw no problem with this. I worked at church for 4 years before I started feeling like something was not right.

Before I go any further, I need to say that I have been committed to my church, The Vine Church since I was 15 years old. That is not in question. I love it and I love the people who make it happen. I don’t agree with the way everything is done but this is not meant to be an attack on any of the wonderful men I have in my life. Remember, it’s complicated.

Anyway, toward the end of my stint as church staff I realized that although all the boys I’d grown up with were fast being rebranded as Pastor thisorthat, I was never going to be given this title. We do have a female pastor in church – as many might expect, she is the Children’s pastor. We have even had a female Elder, we have female worship leaders and females are welcome to preach from the pulpit, although the statistics on how often this actually happens are not overly helpful. 

‘Why don’t we have more women on the platform?” I ask from time to time. 

“We would love to,” Comes the response. “But there aren’t many suitable candidates around right now.”

I was not in a good place when I left my job at church – I was working through mental things, my father died, I got pregnant and had a baby, and I honestly had no sense of what I was meant to be doing.

Motherhood came along and I pushed all the feminist-flavoured questions to the back of my mind. 

Yesterday I was in town buying some soy formula for 16mo Dylan. It just so happened that OBE Rob Glover,  someone I respect very deeply was in town, two doors down from the formula shop, holding a meeting for the board of trustees for his charity, Care for Children. I was pulled into the meeting and listened happily as the people around the table and on the conference call introduced themselves – high powered men, every one of them.

Again – I have NO problem with any of these guys. 

As they all took their turns it dawned on me that I was going to have to say hello and explain myself too… I wasn’t sure why I was there, and as the wearer of many hats I didn’t know what angle to go with…why was I there?

“I’m a writer”

“I run Handmade Hong Kong”

“I’ve just finished my Masters and getting ready to do a phd”

“I was responsible for coordinating the 50-person trip to CFC’s BeijingHQ back in 2008”

“I’m just a mum”

or…would it be…

“I’m Tom’s wife and I’m here to represent him.” 

Tom is quite highly sought after, and so he should be. He is very talented, he is at the head of the pack in terms of what he does here in HK/Asia. But not only that, he is an incredibly valuable team member/leader. He is very tech savvy and practically minded with a generous dosage of creative foresight. Anyone in their right mind would want his input.

What I am trying to work out is, where does this leave me, and how do I do both of these things:

– avoid competing with/resenting him

– avoid giving myself up completely and becoming ‘just a wife’

From what I’ve observed, it’s very easy to go to either extreme. In church culture I fear that there are many wives for whom their wife/mother role becomes the path of least resistance. I’m sure many of them are deliriously happy in that role, and again, if that is what God wired them for, then all power to them. 

Other women might set themselves against the idea of becoming a supporting role, and even shelf the wife/mother option for a bit/forever. 

This recent article says it nicely – you can’t have it all

At this point in the thought chain I begin to lose track of what I’m talking about… what’s my problem? A feminist has to have a problem right?

I guess my problem is that I’m beginning to face up to the reality of the fact that I’m living in a man’s world, and indeed, and even a man’s church. I can see the path of least resistance beckoning me on, but there is a little raging feminist inside me threatening to break out. It’s not actually that I’m mad. I’m sad mostly.

I don’t think that, in my world anyway, any men are purposely creating resistance in some areas (and therefore paths of less resistance in other, less valued areas). I actually think it’s what starts as a harmless boys’ club, and evolves into something simultaneously hard to pinpoint yet almost watertight-impregnable. Like the popular crowd in high school – they are just enjoying their cool fun stuff so much they don’t realize how left out the losers are feeling, or how valuable the input of those losers could be if they could all just play together.

Here’s where the complication steps up a notch, and may even be accused of bordering on hypocrisy,or contradictory at the very least: I think we ladies are the weaker sex. I think it takes a very strong and very generous group of men to step aside and allow the girls to shine too. 

I can see why it doesn’t happen as much as it should. Women can really suck for many reasons – we can be, and usually are very complicated, emotional, talkative, needy, sensitive, jealous, insecure, fallible creatures. But, we also have a lot of value to offer, and more than any of us really know. 

I actually agree that operations, events, teams etc can work much smoother and more harmoniously with less estrogen… this is where keeping it guys-only is indeed the path of least resistance…least drama anyway. But, that low-drama path just doesn’t sit right with me. Somewhere in my feminine spirit I long to see women doing things: Awesome things, and ordinary things that usually default to the boys. Am I just complaining because I wish I would be asked to lead/preach/sing? No. hand on my heart, no. I’m not after another single thing to add to my plate. Too busy unraveling the current mound of spaghetti.

When I can’t find a strong woman role model anywhere I look, week after month, after year, I begin to die a little inside. Something says to me, why bother? Who cares? And I start the process of checking out.

If men are the stronger sex, and I’m ready to argue that they are (I love them), then the reason there aren’t many strong female candidates around right now is probably because the dominant sex is not proactively making room for them. It sounds whiney, I know, I know. But this is the whole point, girls generally don’t compete well on the same level as boys because girls are not the same as boys. If given an opportunity to contribute even though they whined instead of competing for their place, then they will often deliver something valuable that few men possible could – because girls are not the same as boys.

So, what am I saying here? What’s my problem? I’m not entirely sure. This one is still in the sketching phase. I’ll color it in slowly once I’ve done some more thinking. It’s really very complicated.

Bleh

The morning started with me waking up to the glorious realisation that we had all slept through the night! This is an increasingly rare phenomenon in our household, ever since the arrival of my little lactose intolerate bundle of baby boy joy. He’s now 15 months old and between taking FOREVER to figure out what his problem was, and teething, and numerous other issues, we’ve not been having much sleep.

As a new mum the first thought to rush into my mind upon waking naturally at any hour after 6am, is “has someone died? Is that why no one’s crying woke me earlier?” I realized this morning that the new-mum thing had worn off. I snoozed for longer than I have in ages and then realized Layla, my 3yr old was snoozing in the bed with me. Soon enough little Dylan came toddling in and we all enjoyed some cuddles in bed. Dylan found a ball on the floor and started rolling it around, then fussed as the ball lodged itself under my bed. Layla, the ever-loving and helpful big sister rushed to his rescue, but took us all by surprise when instead helping Dylan, she vomited all over the poor little guy.

Layla proceeded to projectile vomit for what felt like an eternity as I screamed for Eden (our live-in helper) to come and take Dylan to other bathroom as I waited for Layla to finish her business and then got her hosed down in my bathtub. It was a most dramatic 3 minutes.

I work from home. My workload was already piling up to an uncomfortable level due to the fact I’d been shuffling Dylan between three different doctors’ appointments yesterday. I had a lunch appointment booked in with a professor at City U that I really didn’t want to miss, so I jumped at my Mum’s offer to spend the day with the kids. She walked through the door about five minutes after the spewing incident and the kids settled into joyous play with her (she is an early childhood expert and pretty much on par with Disneyland for my kids).

I managed to spend an hour in my room/office catching up with work, and then headed over to Kowloon Tong to chat with Prof Rocio Davis about the possibility of doing a PHD in the nearish future. Lunch was yum and the conversation most encouraging and inspiring. I’ll write about that later.

After a quick-ish stop at Toys R Us (where I bought a guilt offering for my kids for leaving them sick) I came home for a really nice afternoon of family time. I made a hair clip rack out of some old scraps lying around, watched two episodes of The Modern Family, and then worked on my website.

 

The reason I’m recording all this is that today I’m really struck by the truth that life happens and will continue to happen despite the fact that I would like everything to wait for me to get my act together, or step aside so I have creative space and time to really focus in depth on the stuff that I feel needs it at that moment. Ain’t gonna happen. My option will always be to shelf the things I want to do in order to deal with whatever is most pressing, or to find a way to fit in all the things I just know in my gut that I’m meant to be doing. Sometimes I will have to call in sick, and sometimes I will get the balance wrong, but I’m not going to stop trying to fit it all in.

The house still smells a little of sick, and I’ve failed to exercise yet again, but tomorrow is another day. I had to write this post because I’m tired of waiting until I’m ‘ready’ to write. I’m going to write daily. I just decided.