Discover more from The Clearing by Katherine May
For your stray attention this weekend
Some of the many faces - and feathers - of creativity
Briefly: Báyò Akómoláfé and Amy Jeffs on How We Live Now | Members can watch the replay of my book club with The Shift’s Sam Baker, discussing Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica | Edinburgh Festival appearances on 15th August with Sam Baker and 16th August with Kerri ní Dochartaigh
When I start to write a new book, I look for the signs. There is, as I said in this week’s newsletter, a certain clustering of ideas that I’ve come to recognise as a book forming. There is also the onset of a dreamy state, a sense that nothing else matters. Usually plagued by a thousand diversions, I am suddenly laser-focused, impossible to distract. I am liable to cancelling my diary, to sneaking off to my study to scribble in my notebook. Something is imminent.
Another sign is that I become obsessed with the creative act itself, feeling desperate to come into contact with other people’s practices and processes. I am looking, I think, for a sense of recognition; to hear the internal mechanisms of my own mind described and demonstrated. I want to feel my commonality with creative people working across diverse media, all of us applying the same toolkit to completely different projects. Creativity is, after all, a certain atmosphere. It’s hard to describe. You know it when you sense it.
Perhaps for that reason, I have been drilling my way through the podcast Song Exploder this week, drinking in the voices of songwriters, producers and performers who dismantle their songs into their component parts and explain the lineage of each fragment. I have absolutely no idea how to write a song - and no desire to learn, if I’m honest - but I recognise so much of my own process in these episodes. What strikes me over and over is how the project morphs across its lifespan. You set out to create one thing, and it becomes abstracted and warped until it’s something entirely other. The path is rarely linear.
(By the way, don’t be put off if you don’t know the songs - I didn’t know many of them either, because I am completely out of touch. It honestly doesn’t matter. Start with an artist or record you know, and then just keep listening. You’ll fall in love with some new songs along the way.)
One body of music that I do know quite well is the work of William Byrd, the 16th-century choral composer who created some of the most exquisite harmonies that have ever been sung. Four hundred years after his death, this brief biography draws out another key component of my own creativity: stubbornness. It is fair to say that Byrd did things his way. At one point, his salary as an organist at the Lincoln Cathedral was suspended for this very reason: “The complaint…was that he would play much too much when it wasn’t wanted, and he wouldn’t play at all when it was wanted.” As annoying as this must have been, I can’t help but admire it. Byrd’s work remains a staple for choirs across the world.
“Unfortunately it is well known that I don’t like all that many humans,” says Maggie Harrison, the winemaker whose unique approach is producing wines that leave critics in a confounded kind of rapture. Harrison’s wines reputedly taste like nothing else on earth, and her extraordinary ability to blend new flavours is attributed to her synaesthesia, making the process more like painting than tasting. Until I read this profile, it has never occurred to me that winemaking was a creative process - I thought it was largely horticultural. But here I glimpsed that mirror that I’m always seeking - that way of thinking that pushes out all the unnecessary noise, and focuses intensely on generating something new. And is also, perhaps, a little misanthropic at times, but only because humans are so distracting. Intrigued, I just looked up the wines she has for sale. £150 a bottle. Sadly, I won’t be finding out what a synaesthete’s wine tastes like any time soon.
But great work is made when we abandon our self-imposed constraints. For that reason, I loved reading Zadie’s Smith’s New Yorker essay about the novel she tried so very desperately not to write. To become an English novelist, she says, is to live under the eternal threat of writing a historical novel. But one figure in particular threatened to drag her into the past.
“Hanging over all this anxiety was the long shadow of Dickens. To be my age, bookish, and born in England was to grow up under that tiresomely gigantic influence. Dickens was everywhere. He was in school and on the shelves at home and in the library. He invented Christmas. He was in politics, influencing changes in labor law, educational law, even copyright law. He was the original working-class hero—radiant symbol of our supposed meritocracy—as well as a crown jewel of the English Heritage tourist industry.”
Having grown up on the street where he lived, I squealed with delight at this piece. In my experience, Dickens insinuates himself everywhere. But Zadie Smith is right: sometimes, creativity lies in a zen surrender to the inevitable. I can’t wait to read her forthcoming, Dickens-infested novel, The Fraud.
And finally, it’s important to remember that creativity isn’t just a human phenomenon. If I could offer one piece of creativity advice, it would be this: ‘Be more corvid’. In Belgium and the Netherlands, crows and magpies have begun to build their nests from anti-bird spikes, plucking them from rooftops and doorways and using them just like twigs. What’s more, they seem to understand their intended use: the spikes were mostly positioned at the top of the nests, where they could deter predators. I love everything about this: the recycling, the adaptation, the sheer sense of style, but most of all, I love the ease with which these birds can stick two feathers up to authority. All hail the crow!
OK, my laser focus tells me that I have a book to write. Back to work.
P.S. You can register now for these forthcoming members’ events to get the date in your diary:
August’s Creative Questions
21st August, 7pm UK
Register here: https://www.crowdcast.io/c/creativequestionsaugust
September’s True Stories Book Club with Erica Berry talking about Wolfish
28th September, 7pm UK
Register here: https://www.crowdcast.io/c/ericaberry