A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
In my ‘other’ life as an artist, I make collages. I cut words and images from magazines and arrange them into tiny worlds on a card backing. Many have an inherent narrative, and each has its own atmosphere. An Olympic swimmer balances on the back of a skeleton horse, serenaded by a fat man blowing a giant horn. A child gazes out from her nest of open-tongued lilies, while black hounds bark 'This Is Now'.
When I first began making them, I’d work diligently within the card frame. But gradually, it became important to allow images to ‘break out’ of the frame. In one of this week’s collages, a pair of turtles swim outwards, their flippers sweeping air; a swallow hovers above and a sheaf of wheat grows through the frame and out. For me, these are messages from my creative self: it's time to return to the wild.
Writers and artists – indeed, anyone in the act of creating – are not domestic creatures, even though we may spend vast tracts of time in the domestic arena, hunched over the laptop or the canvas. We are not made to live within the confines of society's expectations of us. We are made to live free, in the wilds of the imagination; we pad through the brush of the eccentric, the idiosyncratic. We are the outsiders looking in.
We begin life as unfettered creatures, our ideas and inspirations running free. Full of life, full of our ideas and full of ourselves in the very best sense.
Then we begin to learn. And the process of learning, whilst necessary for improvement, may also run the risk of becoming a process of domestication, or, more precisely, institutionalisation. As we learn ‘how’ to write, we become - quite rightly - aware of the parameters set by the industry we’re aiming to write for. We learn that adjectives and adverbs are anathema, that we must Show rather than Tell. We learn that Publisher X only looks at novellas and that Agent Y will only take a synopsis of at least five pages. We learn that Paranormal is the new black, and that Angels are the new Vampires. All good information. However, too much focus on such parameters can cause them to mutate into walls, then bars - and these can, over time, cause us to shrink, to wither into something a little less than we are. We begin to become careful, too aware of what ‘they’ out there require of us. Our writerly eyes become dull with the effort of ‘fitting in’, of doing it right. Our roars become muted. Our coats become dry and matted as the rejections drop through the letterbox.
And our writing becomes good, but bland. Unfaultable, yet somehow without life. We have become tame.
Rules may well help to shape us into better writers, but they are a process to pass through rather than an end to be attained. We would be foolish to commit to them for life. There's a time to move beyond the rules, to break back out into the wild, to find that unique voice or concept or whatever-it-is that defines us as an individual in spite of the accepted norm.
The irony is it’s these flashes of wildness in us that are what can propel a book into the stratosphere. It’s the wild books that win the Booker – or which crash, like Icarus, into the sea of rejection. That’s the risk.
Back in my thirties, I read Women Who Run With The Wolves by storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and again and again since - it's now almost fallen to pieces. It's a remarkable book about creativity, and I heartily recommend it to anyone seeking out her (or his) wild, forgotten side. One line stands out for me:
"I love my creative life more than I love cooperating with my own oppression.'
Because, surely, that's what it's about, this thing called creativity. Yes, we must learn. Yes, we must be aware and mature. But please may we never forget the unique, who-gives-a-fuck side of ourselves who will otherwise call to us forever from whatever wild place it inhabits, longing for our return.
As poet David Whyte puts it:
"In a sense, at crucial and difficult thresholds in our life, the part of us that is most at home is the part of us that for most the time has no home at all. The part of us that lives outside normal rules. We have a gleam in the eye; we look to the edges of things; no-one really knows what we are up to; we see with the eyes of those who do not quite belong. We are dangerous again, and glad to be so."