Tag Archives: creativity

Taking care of your muse

For some people, a muse is a more abstract thing. It’s a way of naming the whatever-it-is that brings you inspiration. Druids often use ‘awen’ as a term, expressing the idea of a sacred flow of inspiration. People can be inspired by pretty much anything, but there are implications when the source of the inspiration is another person, or people.

Not everyone wants to be a muse. It’s a big word, and it can feel like weight, or pressure or responsibility. Getting excited about someone and writing them a poem doesn’t always play out smoothly. It can make slightly more sense in a romantic context, but even there, it can make people really uneasy. 

People don’t always recognise themselves in the things created because of them. That can be really unsettling for them. If you find you’ve done this it is really important to put in the time and make sure the other person feels comfortable. For the person with low confidence, there can be a sense of unworthiness, or that the person who is inspired doesn’t really understand how they are. Be gentle with your human muse, and don’t put them on a pedestal in a way that feels precarious to them.

If you’re making something because of a person, it is as well to also make it for them. If you can offer the fruits of your inspiration back in a way that makes your muse happy, you get something more sustainable. Casting someone in the muse role tends to work better when they can feed back and be more of an active participant in the process. If your muse has to stand there being passive while you do things, that can be really uncomfortable for them, through to full on objectifying. The traditional idea of the muse as a beautiful woman who does nothing in her own right, but inspires a man to create is really awful on this score and we all need to move away from it as an approach.

However you handle your relationship(s) with your muse(s) it’s really important that they do not feel used or exposed by what you do. How that works is going to be really individual, but if people feel disrespected or taken advantage of, they won’t stick around to inspire you. 

I’ve been around this from both sides. It is weird and unsettling to be told you are inspiring someone when you can’t see how that even worked. It’s uncomfortable if you are told you’ve inspired something and you don’t even like it, worse yet if what you’ve inspired is something you’ve told the creator you really don’t like. At the same time, when people have made things because of me in ways I can relate to, that’s been incredibly happy-making for me. 

There are a small group of people who are always on my mind when I’m writing, and I think they know what. Having the focus of writing for specific people really helps me, and I try to pick people who are comfortable in that role and who enjoy interacting with me on those terms. This is also a big part of why I like co-creating with people. When I’m working with someone, and we inspire each other and can both be energised by that, while being equally creative and equally invested, that works very well. It takes away all risk of there being the active creator who holds the power in a situation while the passive muse has to accept whatever happens.

Learning by doing

There are some things you can really only learn by doing them. The process of doing something when you really don’t know how to do it tends to feel exposed. In the beginning, you may be awful, which can be off-putting and might be very uncomfortable. How will people react?

Sometimes very experienced writers of essays, short stories and articles can jump straight into novel writing and make it work. For most people, the first novel is a hot mess you hide and never speak of. Until you’ve tried to write one, it’s hard to grasp what it takes to write a novel, and just how many ideas you need to make it to 60k words – which is short by book standards. It’s not until you try and write a book that you can really get to grips with how pacing works, and character arcs and themes. There’s a lot you can learn from reading, but it’s not the same as doing.

Playing music or singing with people when you aren’t working from a written composition brings similar issues. You can learn to play your instrument, you can learn songs, and there’s a great deal of theory that can be handy for this, if it suits how you think. You can only learn how to play by ear by doing it. You can only learn to sing with other people, or to join in by improvising, by doing it, and you have to do it with other people.

There are things about being on stage and interacting with an audience that you can only learn by experiencing it. This also applies to giving talks, being on panels and being interviewed. There are a lot of things you can learn by observation, but in order to learn how to navigate yourself through this sort of thing, you need practice.

This is why it is so important to have safe spaces where people can have a go. If the only spaces you can find are for professional people who already know how to do these things, there’s no scope for anyone else to advance to that level. Accessible, grass roots spaces where people feel welcome and supported as they learn, are absolutely essential. The only way we get people who are great at these things is if we support them while they aren’t great. No one comes fully fledged into their creative powers, everyone has to spend time learning and making mistakes.

If you’re an organiser, this is something you can factor in by creating opportunities. If you’re an audience member, your willingness to be kind and supportive is hugely important. Mocking people and knocking them down will stop people from becoming all that they could be. Kindness, support and encouragement helps people grow and develop. Often the single biggest issue for people putting their stuff out is confidence – nerves can mangle performances or stop people showing up. Help people build their confidence and you help them become all that they can be. 

It may be tempting to think that surviving setbacks and hard knocks is a good way of weeding out the wimps and only getting the really committed performers. This isn’t how it works. Confidence and determination don’t have any relationship with quality. I’ve seen some really confident people doing terrible things in public places and no amount of negative feedback will slow them down. It’s the more sensitive people, the gentler people, the ones already knocked around who suffer most from being put down. Those qualities are good qualities in a creator, and might be worth more than the ability to disregard all criticism. People learn a lot when you can tell them what you like about what they do.

Creativity for everyone

Money is not a measure of your creative worth. All of the creative industries are a mess anyway, so if you can’t make it pay, don’t take it personally. Creativity is inherently valuable.

Every single successful creative person out there (however you want to measure success) started out as an amateur. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being an amateur.

Success is subjective. You can set the terms on which you measure your own success. If I do something and it works for someone else, that’s all I need to feel it was worthwhile. Doing something and liking how it turned out is success. Seeing improvement in your own work is success.

Creative culture isn’t just about the big names and the people at the top. You only get the extraordinary professionals when they have room to grow. Grass roots arts are vital. Spaces for people to learn, flourish and develop are vital. Being part of those spaces, and providing joy and entertainment to other people, is a really good thing to do, regardless of whether you get to be famous.

It’s also perfectly ok not to want to be a professional. It’s totally valid to do things because you enjoy them and they make you happy. You do not need to be good. You do not need to have anyone’s approval or permission to do the things that enrich your life.

Creativity and delight go together. We should be able to do the things that make us happy, to make our own things and to be able to enjoy the things that other people make. Focusing on joy in this way is good for mental health, good for building relationships and for making our lives better.

Focus on the people who enjoy and support what you do. If that’s just you, this is also entirely valid. Focus on the people whose creativity you enjoy and whose work inspires you. Everything is better when we lift and encourage each other.

Creativity is all about joy, and putting beauty into the world and creating interest. Anyone engaged with that on any terms is your ally, and worth taking interest in if you have the time. The people who show up to criticise while making nothing themselves are of no real consequence and do not deserve your time and energy.

What you can imagine is always going to be better than what you’re able to make. This is not a thing to worry about. When you create, you also learn and grow, and that remains true no matter how good you get. It is ok to be dissatisfied and you do not need to hate your work when you can see how to do it better.

You are needed. Whatever you’re doing, whatever you make and however that impacts on the world, you are needed. Even if you don’t share your creativity with anyone else, the way it changes you is also important. And I hope, if you aren’t sharing yet, that you get to a place of feeling able to do so.

Creating is vital

Creativity is something we all need. It’s not just about making art, and it certainly isn’t all about making art for money. Nurturing a garden is a creative thing. Parenting, being part of a community, even just socialising can call upon us to be creative. Anything we do in the course of the day can be approached creatively and enriched by that.

For most of human history, we’ve engaged with each other around the things we’ve made, individually or together. Making and sharing food is a really powerful thing. Making clothing, shelters and essential things is really bonding, and sharing in this way puts people into powerful and cooperative relationships with each other. 

For most of human history, music, stories, art and dance were things we did together. This is one of the major reasons I’m worried about how AI ‘art’ is going to impact on us all. I worry about the loss of paid work for creative professionals, and I think we’re all going to be considerably poorer if we don’t have access to new ideas from creative people. However, I think the cost around our understanding of what art is, is already much higher.

Art where you push a few buttons and a computer makes you a picture or writes you a story doesn’t allow you to meaningfully share yourself with other people. How interested would you be in the fiftieth poem your friend has got a computer to write for them? How exciting is it if your sister has made her 700th piece of AI art? Why would you even care? The first few might have the merit of novelty, but that’s all they really have. It’s not the same as going to an event and listening to a poem your friend has written. It’s not the same as watching your sister grow as an artist, image by image as she learns her craft.

Creativity should be something we do for ourselves, and to share with other people. I want everyone to have opportunities to do that. I feel strongly that we should be using the technology to free up time so that people can spend their lives doing whatever they find interesting and rewarding. What is going to happen to us, as humans if instead we use the computers to give ourselves less scope to create in meaningful ways? What if we undermine this whole aspect of what it means to be human so that a small number of people can make a profit out of it?

Shared art gives us access to beauty and joy. It is however more than that. Creativity is how we express to each other what it means to be human and how we make sense of our human experiences. When we can dance and paint, tell stories and share songs we’re sharing references for how to live and what life is for. Culture is built of our shared ideas about what matters, what’s good, meaningful and desirable. What happens to us as people if we stop doing that and have machines do it for us? There are already too many pressures on too many people making it harder to connect and share in this way.

I think there’s a lot at stake here for us as a species. I think our compassion, co-operation and relationships are greatly enhanced by sharing creatively with each other, and that if, culturally, we start thinking that art and stories are things we make by feeding a few keywords to a machine, we’re going to lose far, far more than we could ever gain.

Celebrating childishness

“Supreme childishness in the name of “creativity”. The mind boggles.” I had this come in as a comment over on the Hopeless, Maine blog recently, and I’ve been reflecting both on the sorrowful nature of the remark, and what to do in face of it. Obviously I agreed, because silliness, playfulness and joy are very much what that site is for and I didn’t feel inclined to respond as though I was being criticised.

It grieves me that childishness is so often used as a criticism. To see the world through a child’s eyes is a wonderful thing. To want to play and explore, to feel curious and excited – these are qualities that enrich our lives. Often as adults, under pressure to be serious about everything all the time, we lose our sense of wonder. 

Then there’s the awful misunderstanding of what creativity means. What is creativity without play, without a spark of childish delight? Perhaps we should be thinking of the creativity of designing a more efficient production line or a better excuse to cover for political corruption? There are many ways of being creative, but where there is no childish innocence, no joy in the world, no desire to delight, what are we left with? Creative accounting, propaganda machines, marketing strategies… 

I’d like to be more childlike. Children can be incredibly trusting, and willing to think the best of others. Especially if they’re allowed to express themselves and feel secure and comfortable. Children are incredibly imaginative, and will be fearless about exploring ideas and expressing themselves right up until adults and older children start knocking that out of them. Childish creativity comes from places of joy and wonder, from heartfelt and unfiltered responses to the world. We can teach children and help them be wiser without having to turn them into joyless adults.

For those of us who have been pressured into sacrificing our silliness, joy and wonder… it’s not a one way ticket. Delight in the world is something we can create together, and we can support each other in doing that. Encourage people in their joy, even if what they do makes no sense to you – so long as it doesn’t harm anyone, why not? Don’t tear people down, don’t mock them for their delight – this stuff is all pretty obvious.

The more challenging question is what to do with people like the poor soul who left the comment. How do we give each other permission to put down the grim burden of having to act like a grown up all the time? How do we free each other from the idea that we have to give up on the things we used to love in order to be proper adults? One of the many good things about being silly, is that I can be silly enough to care about people who are intent on hurting themselves, rather than doing the sensible, self-protective thing of just shrugging and leaving them to it.

Nurturing Inspiration

Inspiration can seem like something that happens by magic. However, if you’re not acting because you don’t have that rush of inspiration, you may also find that it doesn’t show up. Inspiration often has to be courted and invited, and it helps a lot of you do that deliberately.

Find out what kinds of things inspire you, and then seek that out.  Live music does a lot for me, and so does reading. I read a lot of non-fiction so that I know things that can become the clay my inspiration turns into forms.

Decide what kinds of things you want to create, and learn about them. Learn the technical stuff, the skills, the forms. Again, this means that if inspiration strikes, you’re ready for it. Nothing is going to happen if I get a really good idea for an opera because I don’t really understand opera and don’t have the technical skills to write one.

Make time for doing the things, you have more chance of being inspired when you’ve got your guitar in your hands, or a notebook in front of you, or whatever it is you work with.

Also make time when you aren’t doing anything too deliberate with your brain. You can pair this with any gentle activity that doesn’t demand your concentration. Walking, gardening, domestic stuff, gazing at the sky, doing some unchallenging crafting… it all works for making the space where you can have those flashes of inspiration and develop ideas.

When you have a flash of inspiration, hang on to it and make time to develop it. It’s not enough to be inspired, you also have to act.

I think this is true, broadly speaking, for anything that looks like magic. There are elements of many things we do that can feel like a flash of lightning out of nowhere. However, in practice if you’re putting in the time – prayer, rituals, spells, conversations, research, etc then there’s nothing random or inexplicable about the inspiration that comes to you, because you have invited it into your life.

Creative collaboration

I love working with people in creative ways. I’m happier creating music with other people than performing alone. I love having writing collaborations on the go and being in spaces where people interact creatively and support each other. The Hopeless, Maine project has been brilliant for me in this regard because there are some awesome people inclined to be involved with it.

I’ve spent plenty of time as a solitary musician – I used to busk a lot when I was younger and had more stamina. I’ve written a fair few books on my own (more than a dozen novels, eight non-fic titles). I can create on my own, but I don’t get excited about it in the same way.

There’s an energy to co-creation that I get really excited about. When people really gel as co-creators, there’s this wonderful scope to be inspired by each other in a way that keeps the inspiration flowing. There are usually challenges, negotiations, compromises and a lot more figuring out to do when whatever you’re doing has to meet the needs of more than one person.

I think some of this is because I’m excited about relationships. This has always been a significant aspect of my Druidry, that it’s a consciously relationship-orientated path for me. I exist in relationship with the land, and in relationship with my ancestors of blood, land and tradition. As a creator I have all kinds of relationships with people who engage with what I make. I find the kinds of relationships I can have with people around shared creativity really appealing. I have no doubt this is one of the reasons I have a strong relationship with my son – we’ve sung together since he was small, and we still do.

When there are more people involved in a project, it’s likely to be more than the sum of its parts. Even if there are only two people, some third thing reliably emerges that is not simply the sum of the two people involved. There’s a magic in the sharing of inspiration and ideas, and what grows in that soil can be marvellous indeed.

I’m increasingly drawn to thinking about what we can do collectively, as communities, and as small groups or even in pairs. I’m questioning the individualism I encounter, and finding that the more time I spend doing stuff with people, the happier I am.

AI and the making of art

There are lots of things that need saying about ‘ so called ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and art, and for this blog post I’m just focusing on one thing. I’m seeing a lot of people claim that AI levels the playing field and allows people who are normally excluded from doing art to be able to make art. I think this is total bollocks, so here we go.

Creativity takes effort. It’s not about having a rush of inspiration and then being magically and swiftly able to make the thing you imagined. Every kind of creativity takes time. People who put genuine creativity into the world have spent years studying their forms, learning skills, developing ideas, practising, striving, messing up, starting over. Creativity is not held in some elitist way by a lucky few who are keeping everyone else out. Creativity is a lot of work, but being creative is available to anyone willing to put in the time.

Putting in the time is good. If you’re so excited about something that you want to be able to do it, then the process of learning is a wonderful thing. Investing years in something you are passionate about gives you joy in an ongoing way. Being able to pull something out of the ether, using a few words and someone else’s work won’t give you that. It might be briefly satisfying, but it’s not like having developed skills and understanding that allows you to really create.

Whatever kind of creativity you’re exploring, every time you make something yourself, you have an experience. You learn, grow, refine your ideas, find new things to reach towards. Yes, I could persuade a computer to make viola noises for me, but what would that give me compared to the day to day process of trying to manage the bow to get the best possible sound from the instrument I have? I’m not much of a visual artist, but there’s something exciting about being able to compare what I can draw now with what I was doing a few years ago and seeing how I’ve improved. 

Tools are good. I’m typing this, after all and I’m glad of the technology that allows me to share what I’ve typed. Nothing would induce me to use the AIs that claim they can write your blogs for you. I write because I want to develop my own thoughts, and I am at least as invested in the process as I am in having something to show at the end of it. Tools are good, but anything that offers you something for nothing is lying, simply. AIs do not enable creativity, they rob the people using them and teach little or nothing about what it takes to grow as a creator. It might be amusing to use in the short term, but there’s little satisfaction in that sort of process, as I suspect the people trying to use it will find.

If a short-cut takes out some awkwardness, that’s always worth considering. However, much of what’s good in life lives in the details, the experience and the process and the more we undertake to have done for us, the less room there is for our humanity and our souls.

Seeking feedback

If you have any desire to create for other people, then getting feedback is an important part of the process. Initially it may be the case that all you can do is bring your efforts to the people who you want as your audience, and see what happens. As you grow and learn, your feedback needs are likely to change.

No matter where it comes from, the single most important consideration with feedback is whether you can use it. There are plenty of people who hand out unusable criticism. It’s very easy to rubbish something. People who have anything of value to offer are able to give criticism in a way that makes it possible to do something productive with it. If there’s nothing you can usefully do with feedback you were given, you might as well ignore it.

While general audience feedback is good, there’s a lot to be said for getting more qualified and relevant insight. There’s not much point fretting over what someone who considers themselves ‘literary’ thinks of your genre novel. Paying attention to feedback from people who are working in the same areas as you, or actively choosing to be an audience for the kinds of things you do makes a lot of sense. There’s no hope of making something everyone will like, so it’s important to be deliberate about who you are making things for. At which point you might as well not worry about the people who are not your intended audience. 

As a case in point, I’ve had a few Christians turn up on the blog wanting to convert me. I am not for them, and they are not for me. Christians I can have conversations with about spirituality, morality and service – for example – are always entirely welcome. We don’t have to agree on everything to learn from each other.

One of the most problematic kinds of feedback comes from people who will try and make your work exactly like their work. This is especially a problem when you’re starting out and trying to figure out who you are as a creator. When it comes from people with actual or apparent authority, it can be persuasive. Anyone giving you feedback should be helping you be yourself, not trying to turn you into them. Trust your own feelings in this – if you don’t feel that someone understands what you were trying to achieve, you don’t have to take their feedback onboard.

Being able to offer good advice often depends on having a skills set. A person telling me whether or not they liked something is unlikely to result in my knowing how to do better. This is why a lot of authors will have other authors who read and feed back to them. I’ve had the pleasure of doing this for other people, and I have several author friends who read for me. I also have some wonderful test readers with wider experience, whose insight I greatly value. It’s good to have people I can take things to, especially when I’m struggling with a piece – which happens to us all.

As a creator, you don’t owe time and attention to everyone. It’s not actually feasible, and the higher a profile you have the more time you’ll spend hearing from people with nothing useful to say. I follow a number of high profile authors on Twitter, and some of them get a startling amount of abuse. I’m very glad not to have to deal with that kind of attention and I respect the kind of courage it takes to keep showing up in face of that. No matter what you’re doing, believing in your own vision is vital. Find the people who share that vision, the people who are fellow travellers and who understand what you’re about. The world is a big place and social media makes it much easier than it used to be for those of us who are more niche.

Bard life

This viola came to me maybe fifteen years ago, and previously belonged to another Druid. In its previous life, this viola went to The Albert Hall as part of Portsmouth Sinfonia, so it has quite a history of its own.

I started learning the violin when I was about ten – the two are similar in that the interval between the strings is the same, although the viola is lower. They have different clefs for musical notation so while I can in theory read for viola, I’m not very good at it! My brain was, for many years, entirely wired to the violin. However, for some years now the state of my shoulders has meant there’s been no way of playing a violin.

Being bigger, the viola requires a different hand and shoulder position, which is more viable for me. After some months of work, I’ve built up so that I can play for half an hour without too much pain. Relearning tunes on a bigger instrument with all the wrong muscle memory has been a bit of a fight, but I’ve got some of them back under my fingers and they don’t sound too shabby.

In the photo, is the viola in its new hard case. Getting the case is is act of faith and hope on my part. I should be gigging a bit this winter with a local folk outfit called The Jovial Crew – hopefully I’m ready and equal to that. Beyond that lies a project I want to use the viola for, but it’s early days and there’s a lot to figure out. Somewhere on the distant horizon is the vague shape of a third musical possibility for which being able to be out and about with a viola would be a great help.

Part of the bard path is about putting creativity into the world. Part of it is about the quest for inspiration so that you have something to share. The third key strand is about doing the work so that you have the skills set you need. All three are vital. I find it difficult to keep any of that moving without also having somewhere to take my creative output. An audience of one is enough to make it worth striving. What works best for me is having people to interact with, who can be motivation, inspiration and reward all at the same time. I’m really blessed with regards to my current creative collaborators – around music and writing alike. I get to do things with some tremendously cool and interesting people.