Craving Creativity

blown-awayLately I have found myself both gripped and soothed by a particular genre of television, and happily for me there turns out to be a lot of it–in fact, since I brought it up on Twitter I’ve learned of many more options, which means that even at my current rate of consumption I won’t run out for months. The shows I’ve been binge-watching (as much as I can binge-watch anything in this busy time of term!) are all examples of what you might call ‘gamified creativity’: shows in which dedicated amateur practitioners of some art or craft compete through a series of challenges in the hopes of being recognized as the best of the bunch.

canadian-baking-showThe well-known Great British Baking Show is one such show; over the past few years I’ve greatly enjoyed both the original series and the Canadian version. I didn’t initially think about it as showcasing creativity because in some ways baking is such a practical and also such a non-negotiable skill: the cake either rises or it doesn’t, the bottom of the pie is either soggy or it isn’t. Watching Blown Away, Next In Fashion, and some of The Great Pottery Throw Down, however, has clarified for me that a big part of the appeal of TGBBS always was the combination of that practicality with ingenious concepts and creative designs and decorations. That’s what these other shows highlight as well: it’s not enough to be able to sew a hem (or a whole jacket), or throw a pot–you also have to come up with a concept for the project and execute it in a way that (if all goes well) sparks both admiration and pleasure. “Fit for function” is an essential standard on the pottery show, but if all your teapot does is pour, it’s not going to make Keith cry!

pottery-titleI’ve been wondering what it is about these shows (which have been around for years, after all) that is so appealing to me right now. Certainly part of it is that they are not particularly demanding to watch, and also that overall they are quite cheering: the very idiosyncrasy of the participants combined with their shared passion for their craft is just so heartening, so humane, at a time when there seems to be so much anxiety and inhumanity going around. These shows also celebrate qualities that are often devalued in the wider world, including not just creativity but also beauty, originality, and mastery outside the domain of the relentlessly technical and utilitarian. Sure, there’s something artificial about the competitions themselves (must everything be turned into a game show?) but I actually find the judging process fascinating: speaking as someone who recoiled from Elizabeth Gilbert’s “all that matters is that you made anything at all” pitch in Big Magic, I embrace the idea that it is worth striving to do something well, and that people who themselves have achieved excellence are entitled to weigh in on what that means. I feel that I learn something about the technical skills they are evaluating by listening to their comments, which in turn helps me appreciate related artifacts in my own world (such as my own modest pottery collection), and while aesthetic judgment is inevitably more complicated, here too I feel I learn from how the experts carry it out–much as I think we all, as readers, can learn from reading analyses of books by experienced critics, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.

turtle-toiletI think too that I am engaged by these shows because I have been feeling restless in my own work. What I feel, often, watching the participants demonstrate their plans and then do their best to carry them out, is envy. I think it must be wonderful to be able to do the things they can do–and also to be passionate about doing them, so much so that you never question why you are doing them and are happy to keep trying and trying and trying again to do them better. I especially envy the leap of imagination that takes them from “here’s the task” to “here’s my idea for that task”: bread that looks like a lion, a toilet that looks like a turtle. (That turtle toilet filled me with such irrational joy when it turned out so well! Who would ever think of such a thing? Who would ever make it? And yet isn’t it just delightful?) By comparison, my relationship with my own work is often much more uncertain, and the work itself–whether it’s teaching, grading, researching, or reviewing–doesn’t really feel creative, or at any rate it doesn’t really satisfy my vague desire to be creating something. That’s one reason I took that drawing class a couple of years ago–it was an experiment in bringing more creativity into my life, which I guess to me means bringing more art into my life–and it’s also the reason I still sometimes wonder why I gave up so early in my life on the idea of writing, rather than just reading, fiction.

three-guineasAnd yet there are creative aspects to my job. As I was starting to write this post, for example, I was also working on my class notes for some new (to me) material I’m teaching next week, including Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” and Three Guineas, both of which I’ve read before, of course, but which I’ve never assigned. This means that I have to come up with a teaching strategy for them, which means figuring out what story I’m going to tell about them: where I’ll begin, what background exposition I’ll include, what plot (for want of a better term) I’ll try to shape our experience of them into. I also think of book reviewing as a kind of storytelling: what might look to a reader of the review “just” like a bit of plot summary, for example, is actually a highly selective retrofitting of the book’s own elements in order to tell my story of what the book is about. The hardest part of writing every review is spotting that story and figuring out how to tell it (and one of the freedoms I most enjoy when writing blog posts, by comparison, is being able to discover it as I go along rather than having to shape the piece around it from the beginning).

shawlIs it because the building blocks of these particular processes are someone else’s stories that, for all the pleasures they really can offer, they don’t quite satisfy the craving for creativity in my own life, the underlying hunger for it that I am feeding with the vicarious experience of it offered through these shows? Perhaps. So what to do about that? I don’t particularly want to change up my approach to either criticism or teaching: I don’t much like criticism that crowds out its real subject (as I see it) with too much other stuff, and though I know my approach to teaching isn’t the only one (I have colleagues, for instance, who incorporate creative writing and other activities into their classes), it is one I believe in and feel comfortable with. I do have some hobbies–crochet and quilting–that give me the satisfaction of actually creating something, but it’s interesting that they are both (for me, anyway, at my limited skill level) pattern-following crafts; my self-expression in both is limited to choosing a pattern and choosing the materials. That’s not nothing, of course! (Also, crochet in particular is perfect to do while watching TV shows of other people making amazingly creative things. 😊)

Will I ever find the courage (not to mention the time) to try something else? What would it be? Would doing it badly–as I am bound to, at first and perhaps always–actually be rewarding at all? Could I ever shut up my inner critic long enough to just enjoy myself while I was doing it? (Here is where I wryly acknowledge that if only I could join in with Gilbert’s  celebration of the “disciplined half-ass” I would no doubt be bolder and maybe have more fun!) The only way to find out would be to try, I guess, as I did with drawing. Maybe I should get back to that — or maybe at some point I should try a pottery class. Or try writing something that isn’t about someone else’s writing…

 

Time Passes

lighthouseoupI’m reading To the Lighthouse for the first time. I know, I know. I also know that I should love it, because it is beautiful and moving and brilliant and original — and I sort of do, so far, except when I don’t. I am not a particularly good reader of Woolf’s fiction: it was only a few years ago that I finally read Mrs Dalloway, and I “succeeded” in that only when I stopped working so hard and let myself “fall under the spell of the language, which is beautiful and languorous but shot through with moments of startling clarity and, sometimes, brutality,” as I said at the time. The same is true of the language of To the Lighthouse, though at this point in my reading it’s that very languorous beauty that’s interfering, perhaps paradoxically, with my pleasure in the novel. It is making me impatient, faintly fretful, with its self-conscious artistry. The novel is not opaque, the way late Henry James novels are, but for all its meticulous attention to the mundane, such that everything everyday becomes somehow transcendent, it feels strangely detached from the reality it explores with such nuance.

These are just early impressions, and of a first reading, at that — and I’m also not finished the novel. So don’t think the worst of me! I will learn more as I read on, and more still as I reflect and reread. It’s a good thing, really, to read a novel that doesn’t fit easily into the grooves of my mind. It’s good for my mind, I mean. Already, To the Lighthouse has me thinking — not just about what I want from my reading and why, but about fiction and realism, about mothers and children, about husbands and wives, about lighthouses visited and not, literal as well as metaphorical.

The part I’ve liked least so far is Part II, “Time Passes.” But even though I found it excessively mannered, with its calculated parentheticals, it does wonderfully evoke both the long sweep of time and specific moments and details of change that seize our particular attention:

The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sand-hill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing-room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots.

Oxford“Time passes.” It’s such a neutral-sounding phrase, almost like a stage direction, one that requires all the director’s ingenuity to show us its truth without taking us through the whole chronology. It’s an obvious truth, one we’re all perfectly well aware of, but we feel it deeply only during what George Eliot calls “one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace,”

which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue.

The immediate context of that quotation is Mr Casaubon’s confrontation with the reality of death in the great 42nd chapter of Middlemarch, but that isn’t all that different, when you think about it, from our confrontation with the reality that time passes. You can’t stop it. It’s inexorable! It stops, for each of us, only with death, which is thus rightly pervasive in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.

Funny little things can really bring home the reality that time passes. I don’t mean just obvious chronological markers like birthdays. They do remind us, but they don’t surprise us: they just keep coming round again on their predictable dates. I’m thinking more about things like my embroidered series of Henry VIII and his wives. And if that seems like an unlikely connection, that’s exactly my point: when it occurred to me that it might be nice to do some work on these cross-stitched portraits again, I didn’t expect to end up contemplating either the relentless passage of time or my own mortality, but that’s what happened.

newstitches9You see, I’ve been working on these off and on since 1993. I was newly married then and still not quite accustomed to the amount of golf my husband likes to watch on TV every weekend. Since it was hard to get away from the TV in our small apartment, and it didn’t seem very friendly (or very practical) to absent myself from home altogether, I decided to take up some hobbies that would keep my hands busy and give me a sense of accomplishment while I watched golf with him. A long-time reader of Tudor fiction, I was also working on a dissertation about Victorian historical writing, including Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England— one way or another, Henry VIII and his wives had been in my life a long time. My thesis also included a chapter on the symbolic significance of needlework in Victorian historiography! So I was pretty excited when I chanced on a pattern in New Stitches magazine for Katherine Howard (wife #5, beheaded, in case you can’t keep them all straight). and even more excited when I realized it was part of a series and I could order the back issues, which I did. Over the next few years I completed four of the queens (Katherine Howard, Anne of Cleves, Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn). Just two wives were left, plus Henry himself.

After we had children, though, I found it almost impossible to work on these patterns, which are quite fussy and require both close attention and a minimum of interruptions if you’re not going to lose your place. Also, embroidering on white fabric means keeping your work area, your hands, and anything that might touch the work very clean: you can’t just put your hoop down any old place and grab it up again when you’re back. Even when it started to seem possible in theory to go back to these patterns in the evenings, I discovered that multi-tasking at the necessary level had become much harder: keeping track of the pattern and of the plot in a gripping HBO drama, for instance, was too much for me. The long and short of it is that poor Katherine Parr has been malingering in the drawer, barely half-finished, for years now.

IMG_0910What inspired me to take her out? Mostly that I’ve been experimenting with audio books for a while and though I do enjoy coloring as I listen, I thought I might get more satisfaction out of doing something with more tangible results, and especially out of finishing this series. I hoped that my current audio book (Eloisa James’s Three Weeks with Lady X) would entertain me without overtaxing my poor brain while I followed the design. And in fact it seems just right as a combination of activities — except that I couldn’t help noticing that since the last time I worked with the pattern, it has somehow shrunk so that it’s much harder to see! (Well, OK, actually my eyes have gotten weaker.) Also, the needles: were they always so hard to thread? So those were two blunt reminders that time had passed. And they got me thinking about how much harder this kind of finicky work is going to get as I keep aging, which got me thinking that I’d better not wait another decade before starting (or finishing) Henry and Jane Seymour, because even if I am very lucky and stay healthy and safe from accident or catastrophe — even then, who knows how much more time I’ve got to work on them?

Suddenly, I feel the truth of a commonplace indeed: time passes.

IMG_0912  IMG_0911

Update: Lest y’all doubt my Woolf credentials, here’s one of the bravest (for me) pieces I’ve written for OLM – a literary essay in appreciation of one of the great literary essayists. Or you could check out the entries in the ‘Woolf, Virginia’ category. I think she’s a genius. It just occasionally occurs to me that she’s not my genius.

Open Letters Monthly: The December Issue (With Bonus Crochet)

brattle

Once again we mark the beginning of a new month with a bright shiny new issue of Open Letters! And once again it shows off the range of readers and writers involved with the site.

We lead off this time with our annual Year in Reading feature (Part I, Part II). My contribution won’t surprise any regular readers of this blog, but there’s lots else to interest you: Colleen of Jam and Idleness (and now of Open Letters! hooray!) reports on reading time happily spent in 19th-century France; Steve Donoghue reminds us that for sheer physical pleasure, print books still beat out digital; John Cotter has been reading short stories that blew his socks off; Lisa Peet has been in a Jane Gardam phase; and that’s only for starters. Other pieces address Chagall’s Christian iconography, Doris Kearns Godwin’s The Bully Pulpit (that’s Steve again!), Michael Johnson’s extraordinary search for Solzhenitsyn, John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (that’s Colleen again!), Helen Fielding’s new Bridget Jones novel (me again!), the life and writings of Giacomo Leopardi, and more that you’ll have to click on over to find for yourself.

I was proud of myself for getting a review done during this fairly busy month. It became conspicous to me towards the end of the month that the real casualty is actually this blog: if I’m working on a review, it takes up a lot of the time I have for non-work-related reading and writing. So on the one hand, it’s a good thing to be turning out more polished pieces more often and building up experience writing more ‘on demand’ and less on my whim — but on the other hand, especially since it has been a while since I reviewed a book I was really enthusiastic about, it makes me feel a bit stifled.

Crochet
Look what I made!

In unrelated news, when I’m not reading, writing, or working (or reading and writing for work!) I’ve been trying my hand at crochet. I got it into my head to learn crochet a couple of months ago, on the theory that it might be something I could do better than I knit (I like knitting but have no head for patterns or fancy stitches, and after a while ribbed scarves aren’t that fun to make). I like doing cross-stitch but it’s fussy and hard to do when I’m very tired (which is when I stop reading / writing / working) or while watching old episodes of ER* (which is how I currently recuperate from too much reading / writing / working). I think I was right that crochet will suit! I had a rocky — or perhaps I should say a tangled — start, but I have more or less got the knack of the basic stitches now, and a couple of weeks ago I successfully completed a basic “granny square.” It probably says something about the ways in which other aspects of my life are fraught with intangible frustrations and deferred outcomes that I am so very pleased with learning how to make something I can quite literally hold on to – even if by serious crochet standards my technique probably has a long way to go. I’ve gotten very ambitious and started stockpiling coordinated squares for an afghan, to give my father as a Christmas present. I’ve warned him, however, that at my current rate of production it may be just a little late.

deptmtgcrochet
Afghan-in-progress!

*Speaking of ER, I’m realizing all over again what a good show it was — much better than Gray’s Anatomy. Are there other ER fans out there?

(Flickr photo of the Brattle Bookshop courtyard.)