Guest Writer #5 – Lucy Alexander
Creativity and Mess
For a number of years I’ve been teaching a university writing course, at the end of which students must write an essay on their own creative practice. Each year I sit with a pile of papers (this year it’s a folder of downloads) and wish fervently that instead of grading these students I was writing my own essay. How do I practice? What about this idea of ‘writing and me’ that my students have to grapple with – what would I come up with if it was my assignment? I scribble ferociously in margins – or on track changes. I look out the window and blow on my hands to warm them up – which never works. And I wonder about why these habits become ingrained, a way the mind reflexes back and forth between pointless little acts that might make up a whole practice.
My productivity is low – as a writer, that is. I have 2 chap-books of poems and more in drawers and folders and cyberspace. I have an unpublished novel (what self-respecting writer doesn’t?) and a few children’s picture books doing the rounds of publishers – actually, I really should follow up on that, not write an essay…
As a person I have been quite productive in the last few years, or you could call it reproductive. My son is nearly 5 and my daughter not too far off two. I have a little one on board, as well. He’ll be along in a few months to distract me from the idea of productivity – which I’m not certain is all that helpful when it comes to a creative practice. (As John J. Plomp put it: ‘The one thing children wear out faster than shoes is parents.’)
How would it be if we went around measuring parenting the same way we might – in our very secret hours of the night – measure ourselves as writers, painters, musicians for instance. Can you hear that voice – ‘Well what have you done, really? You’ve just selfishly had two children. You made a meal, fed them, wiped up the debris from after their meal. You’ve done 3 loads of washing and picked up the toys that have been distributed all over the house? What kind of life it that? What are you thinking? Are you insane? This is no way to spend your time!’
Well, yes it is. And this brings me to the central notion I wanted to discuss about creative practice at this stage of my life. Mess.
It is everywhere, I know. Even if it often feels as if I try to contain it in my own small house, it gets out and spills onto the street and dangles behind me as I walk. You have your own mess waiting at home, or in the car, or behind the shed. Someone without mess – who would they be? They would have no identity, no stories to trail them. And imagine, the house is pristine, the garden immaculate – this could not possibly extend to their personal life. Their relationships must be in tatters – because they spend all their time rubbing zappo onto their kitchen sink.
But, I’m getting distracted: I want to talk about how we need mess as creative practitioners and also how in acknowledging the role of mess, we shape it, sculpt it and refine it. How, as a writer I try to keep in perspective the lovely overtones of mess, how it sparks connections that might otherwise never be made in the chaotic or random ways it brings different elements together. And also how mess allows a certain freedom, a break from the rules and regulations that govern (and do so for a reason, I must not lose sight of that) our ways of living and practicing.
I was driving home from an afternoon class not long ago, and the sun was all low and blinding in the traffic. On my way out from under the shadow of an overpass I noticed something leaning against a light post. It was triangular with a froth of white topping some shiny plastic. As my eyes adjusted back to sunlight I was convinced it was a roadside memorial – a huge bunch of white daisies to commemorate a lonely death. Before I could stop myself, the girl’s face was there in my mind’s eye, the crumpled white excel, the mother’s grief at the door with the tall police officer bending towards her afraid to touch. The traffic sped on, my eyes cleared, and glancing once more at my memorial I saw it was in fact no such thing. It was a bag of paper towels. A mess contained – a traffic hazard avoided. But, so vivid was my initial impression that when I saw it again the following day I re-lived the same reaction. That girl. I should really write about her. She’s a mess, contained in my own imaginary space.
Perhaps it’s the same at home – even though there are days where I think I’d prefer the dysfunctional interpersonal relationships to the chaos my children and life leaves me. The pile of keys and lego and blocks by the computer – what story would that give rise to? And the wrist bracelet among the pumpkin peels? The plastic animals balanced on the windowsill? Random objects swept together in the undertow of daily life. What do they give rise to? Will there be a day when I’m nostalgic for them? The sleeplessness? The pattern of rice (xes and ts and arrows) my daughter spreads across the dark table-top as she composes a song about sausage? Right now, I can’t quite imagine it.
And what storyteller really wants their stories neat? In 1984 Orwell had a vision of it – society functioning so well that there was no room for writers – until the underside was revealed. I have such a clear memory of reading about Winston Smith’s speck of dust placed on his journal. Is my notion of mess a dystopic vision – like Orwell, am I arguing that by creating order we act on ourselves and our work in the same way a repressive regime would act on a society? That as people who choose a creative pathway over all the others on offer there’s a sense in which we reject the imposition of order? We repudiate the thought police?
(Just look at the way those grains of rice spell out kisses all over the table.)
I seem to be getting somewhere… however, there’s the famous quote of Joan Didion in her answer to Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ essay, with her own:
‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking…’ (Didion, 1976) and somehow this almost seems to argue that we must make order out of the chaos. That as mess it is not clear in the mind until it’s down in ink on paper (pixels on pixels/rice on table…) Or, put another way by film writer Hal Hanson: “Writing is a way for me to organize the chaos around me. I can corral bits of the sloppy world into a clean white area measuring 8 ½ x 11 inches, where it is apprehensible.” (Hanson, 2008). In this sense to write is put in order. I wonder though if this is simply not acknowledging the messy process of gathering ideas, looking at the dichotomy of one random thought or object against another and finding those magical links between things? That is to say, the process of writing not the final draft.
Perhaps my own answer is somewhere in the middle of these two stern arguments: to say that as a practitioner I need my mess solidly surrounding me, tailing me, surprising me, inspiring me. However, there is a point at which my mind must make sense of the mess – seeing the flowers by the roadside, the tabletop messages made out of rice, the poems and stories everywhere I look.
Classics.Didion, Joan, “Why I Write” The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976.
Orwell, George ,1984. Erich Fromm (Foreword). Signet Classics, 1977.