Creativity and Craziness – Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach, Image supplied

This pop-up event, especially added to the programme because of the sell-out popularity of the original, had many points of departure from everything else I have thus far experienced at the fest.

In a dark cavernous room with a bean-bag strewn floor, somewhere down several flights of stairs at Aotea Centre, married couple Jeanette Winterson (of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit fame) and Susie Orbach (of Fat Is A Feminist Issue fame) were going to “riff with each other and the audience on the subject of madness and creativity.” There was to be no presenter. May the best interrupter win!

Why be happy when you could be normalJeanette kicked off by asking the audience who thought they were creative. Up went the hands (mine too it must be added). Then, who thought they were crazy, another sea of waving arms (not me – I have no truck with this latest fetish for thinking one is somehow special because of being nuts. Most people are bog standard normal from what I can see). Then who thought they were both.

And we were off.

Here are some of the provocations flung our way (and backed up by reading and research I must add):

  • All children are born creative – Winterson
  • I don’t agree retaliated Orbach – the potential for creativity is always there, but for it to develop it requires the gap between the parents (caregivers) and the child to be filled with opportunity
  • Creative work is a lie-detector – it forces you to face your truths – Winterson
  • There is no one true self, there is an adaptive self with kernels of truth – Orbach
  • Therapy is the most creative act that I ever engage in, creativity is not only about making things, it is about the relationship with yourself – Orbach
  • It is a myth that you have to be crazy to create, creativity is actually on the side of mental health – Winterson
  • The internet has exploded the ease with which knowledge can be achieved – Orbach
  • The internet is the democratisation of shite – Winterson

All this happened conversationally with little relationship revelations: who dyes her hair, who can’t stand bright lights, who would never eat on stage. Even though they often disagreed, interrupted one another and are completely different people – there was a palpable respect, acknowledgement and pride in one another’s achievements. There was attraction, there was love.

Towards the end I found my mind returning to that phrase “riff with each other and the audience” and I pictured my darling husband and I up on that stage. I played around with that notion for a bit. Then I shut it right down. Bottom line truth and spoiler alert here:

I cannot abide being interrupted!

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Beautiful Burlap

I need a hobby. A creative hobby. I am feeling the “desire to be a clothing designer or an artist (one who doesn’t draw or paint or sew)” to quote Heidi Julavits in The Folded Clock: A Diary.

Cover of The Origami HomeThe library seems the logical place to look for inspiration to set me on my true creative path. But I don’t think just taking books home and being daunted by them will do it.

The Origami Home – exquisite but, honestly, the instructions. “Fold the left, right and lower edges in. At the same time, fold in the corners (a).” At the same time? Are you joking me?

So no to origami miniature design furniture.

Cover for Burlap BoutiqueBurlap could be the answer to my hobby needs. Beautiful Burlap: Cute Accessories to Create and Stitch and Burlap Boutique: Charming Accent Wreaths and Home Decor. ‘Cute’ and ‘charming’ – a bit off-putting, but my front door is worryingly bereft of an accent wreath and burlap sounds more forgiving than origami paper. Also it is a very pleasing word. Burlap. Much better than Hessian. Or Sacking. Are they the same thing? On to the For Later shelf they go.

Cover of Viktor Wynd's Cabinet of WondersA recent mover from the For Later List to the In Progress shelf provides some hope that I can become creative with very little effort. Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet of Wonders has thrilling chapters such as “The Collector as Artist”, and its even better companion “On the Joys of Mess”. Apparently finding and installing is as creative as actually making.

According to good old Viktor, “Collecting as an art form in in its own right is rarely given much thought.” So endless fossicking through every second-hand shop that presents itself is creative. Who knew?

I’m still going to investigate the burlap though.

Zentangle your way to happiness

Cover of Joy of ZentangleI first came across zentangles when I was searching through the library new titles lists. I was fascinated. Could there really be an art form I had never come across before?

Well, yes there is. Zentangling is new, it’s fun and (truly) anyone can do it.  It’s a simple process. You take a pencil, draw a frame, add a string then fill in the spaces with ‘tangles’ or patterns using a black ink pen. There’s no rubbing out. You have to trust your intuition and let the design evolve in its own way – very Zen. The results are striking and it’s easy to produce a good looking piece of artwork in a short time.  I guess you could call it doodling with purpose.

Zentangles have been developed by calligrapher, Maria Thomas, and her Buddhist partner, Rick Roberts. One day Rick observed Maria drawing background patterns on a manuscript and noticed she was in a calm state of well-being similar to that achieved through meditation. The couple decided to develop a system that would bring this good feeling to others and zentangles were born.

You do need to become a Certified Zentangle Teacher to teach the system correctly. There are beautifully textured cards to tangle on, micron pens and pencils to buy through the Zentangle website but if you’d like to give zentangling a go without investing more than a couple of dollars – grab a notebook, a black pen and one of the titles available at Christchurch City Libraries. These books will teach you the basics and set you on the path.

I’m Zentanglethoroughly enjoying the process. I’ve heard of many creative types who’ve struggled to produce any work recently. If you’re like me and are finding it hard to concentrate, this may just be the way back to the creative zone. Limiting colour and size simplifies your choices and you never feel the need to produce something impressive or ‘worthy’. Time disappears and each line takes on its own dimension and purpose.

A zentangle is a puzzle of your own creation and only you know how to solve it. Highly recommended creative escapism.

Crazy toasters and mad scientists – do we need them?

Search catalogueI have a theory that creativity is fostered best by an environment which allows for individual experimentation – even when it gets a bit crazy.

I come from a long line of eccentric scientific types and have an older brother who loved to experiment with things scientific and technological. He was always trying out something new or figuring out how something worked. Tolerance for his experimentation included putting up with some odd results. He fixed the toaster for us once using the only spring he could locate, which happened to be a bit strong. When you put the bread in the toaster you took two steps back and waited to catch the finished product when it was flung several feet in the air.

Perhaps the author Alan Bradley lived in a similar household. One of my favourite characters in crime fiction is a young girl called Flavia. She lives in a crumbling pile in the English countryside, largely unsupervised due to her mother’s death. The books are mysteries – she has a habit of getting involved in police investigations, but her great passion is the abandoned laboratory she has discovered in one wing of the house. Here she experiments with chemistry and educates herself about science.  Her big sisters tease her mercilessly and she has consequently developed an enthusiasm for  poisons which she fantasizes about using to get her revenge. The books are full of equally eccentric and clever characters and are a lot of fun.

Imagine my interest then when I read Oliver Sacks autobiography Uncle Tungsten. His family were scientists, including both his parents and an uncle who made tungsten filaments for light bulbs. In his household, elements like tungsten were things for which one had a passion. Oliver lived in a large house and had his own laboratory. Amazingly he experimented there unsupervised, unnoticed – except for the occasions when he caused an explosion. The landmarks of his youth are the moments when this led him to  understand a new scientific principle. The result was somebody who approached his field with curiosity and creativity

To answer my own question then – yes I think we do need to let the mad scientist in our children out. It’s the people who are creative and push the boundaries who take our society forward. What do you think?

The Plateau of the Puzzled

Find "Kickstart your creativity" in BiblioCommonsYou can bet your bottom dollar that Vincent van Gogh never had to resort to the self-help section of a local library to kickstart his creative spark. But I find that after the low of the lurching and the relative high of the house move, I have hit the Plateau of the Puzzled. This is a high, arid wasteland in which, as far as the eye can see, no flicker of a new idea exists.

Whatever has happened to my creative spark?

Unlike Vincent, I have ransacked the 153s  in my local library for books with titles like Kickstart your creativity  (a Kiwi book – great fun and well worth a look). And I can tell you with authority that the basic message is this: creativity, like genius, is 99% hard work and 1% the clever stuff that you were born with.

I know this is true, as I once seriously improved my drawing skills by following Danny Gregory‘s “draw every day” programme in his excellent book The creative license. And in a wildly “synchronicitous” single day last week I stumbled on two articles that consolidated his message.

The first article, in Frankie (one of my favourite mags – always bursting with new ideas from the trendily geeky) tells of a young artist who, for an entire month, drew everything that she was about to eat and then used the drawings to wallpaper her kitchen. Of course her drawing improved a whole heap but, more importantly, so did her figure!

On the same day and at the complete opposite end of the magazine spectrum, in The Oldie (June 2011), there was an interview with an artist who did a nude drawing of his wife every morning for 63 years. I bet there were days when she wished she had married an engineer.

So there it is then, no matter what your creative desire: Just Do It! But how about you, what do you do when you are creatively all plateaued out?

The Guys That Draw

CoverThis session with Dick Frizzell (Dick Frizzell: The Painter, John Reynolds (Certain Words Drawn) and Ian Wedde was one of the most relaxed and unassuming sessions I have attended so far. I took it as a good omen that in a sea of arty black, the man who sat in front of me wore a brilliant pink and orange striped shirt – and it was.

No doubt about it, the art boys and the word boys come from two different galaxies. Both Frizzell and John Reynolds have however achieved a remarkable crossover in the art books they have just produced. They have turned books about art into art works in their own right. The art book publishing world will never be the same again. Reynolds referred to this as getting ahead of the pack in terms of  biographical writing by “starting the distortion process on your own terms”.

Reynolds introduced a theory that I think every librarian will buy into. He maintains that proximity alone to great art works or books or objects of beauty will cause “the molecules to twitch”. All you have to do is be in its presence or “rub yourself against it” and the benefits will accrue. This is heartening for all of us who have looked at customers streaming past everything that libraries have to offer to sit glued to their facebook page on the computer. This does not mean that we have to push the users against the books Dean, or hide the computers behind piles of classics but rather that just being in the library environment itself could be life enhancing.

The final masterstroke for me was when Frizzell revealed that he is involved in the branding of the up-and-coming Rugby World Cup in 2011. For the first time I find myself looking forward to this event!!