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