Inspiration, not unlike nature, can swing from barrenness to fecundity with frustrating fickleness. And then there are the moments of despair when, in the midst of productiveness, you are still left barehanded. “Water, water, everywhere,/ Nor any drop to drink.”*
I recently finished the novel The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel, author of the wonderful Booker Prize-winning, best-selling, made-into-a-movie Life of Pi. It left me unsatisfied and confounded. Then I came across a review in The Guardian mirroring my feelings. The reviewer, Alice O'Keeffe, made an interesting observation:
Perplexed by this strange, faltering novel, I turned back to Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s 2002 Booker prize winner, to remind myself what the author is capable of. I was struck by this passage, in the “author’s note” at the beginning (the “author” is a character in the book, so the note is presented as part of the story): before “the author” began work on Pi, he tells us, he was trying to write “a novel set in Portugal in 1939”, but he abandoned it, as “there comes a moment when you realise that… an element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story… your story is emotionally dead, that’s the crux of it.”
At a time when I was struggling with a short story of my own that had “an element missing”, it gave me pause. I had been writing this story on and off for a couple of months, in idle moments snatched from work days, housewifery and visitors. My brain was buzzing with ideas for other stories, poems, and paintings, but I wanted to focus on this one story and get it done, before moving on to something else.
I had been reasonably pleased with my writing and after a stalemate on how to craft the ending, had had a brilliant idea that would nicely tie in with the theme and give the story more depth. It would be sharp and thought-provoking and right on target. Or so I thought.
When I started rewriting the story, everything collapsed. It was like dough that had been near perfect but was now ruined by overworking. It was a mayonnaise-in-the-making to which you had added too much oil in one go. It was a fresh watercolour painting in which the colours were becoming dull and dirty from overpainting. A poem that in rethinking had slipped form its tightrope and came crashing down.
It was, in other words, a mess.
In the midst of all that creating, I was left bare-handed, bare-hearted and depressed.
Ever hopeful, I will not delete my story, although I probably should. For the time being it will go in the drawer of delinquencies, where I keep my half-formed, crooked specimens like the formalin-jarred teratologies of an avid embryologist.
It is small comfort that a novelist of Martel’s stature can suffer similar gestation woes. Learning that the Queen of England has a headache does not make yours any less painful or at least annoying. It is just one of the paradoxes of a creative life, “the agony and the ecstasy”.
It is what it is and one learns to live with it. I would rather have aborted art than no art at all.
*(from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
When my mom built her cob house in 1999/2000 on a shoestring budget, she coined a phrase for something she had been practicing for a long time already – creative poverty. It is the ability to come up with creative solutions for problems that would otherwise be solvable with a lot of money. With a budget of ZAR45,000 (about $4,000 in today’s terms) to build a living space with attached art gallery, she was going to need it.
The decision to build with cob was part of the solution. It is an ancient building method using a mixture of clay, sand and straw, not unlike adobe but without the need to make bricks first. Once you have a solid foundation, a timber framework, and a roof, you just fill in the walls like a child with playdough.
It was a DIY project like no other. Window frames and doors could be sourced cheaply as second hand building material. Old windscreens made interesting windows, as did fragments of glass recycled into lead glass windows. Coloured bottles built into the walls brought both light and beauty. Shelves, basins, nooks and crannies were shaped out of the mud itself, adding timber or ceramic where needed.
It was one big art work growing out of the earth itself and out of my mother’s bottomless well of creativity. Best of all, you could add on as you pretty much pleased – a nook, a niche, an extra window – without too much consideration for the building plans.
Poverty and similar instances of limited resources (material, knowledge, time or distractions) often seem to stimulate creative thinking. It is when you have forgotten the camping kettle that you will devise a topless beer can for a billy. When you don’t know how to cook an omelette, your experiments might lead you to a soufflé. When fossil fuels start killing your planet, you come up with innovative energy alternatives. The legendary measure of a (South African) man’s greatness is the number of things he can fix with a piece of wire (bloudraad).
Creative poverty takes the fragments of a broken tile and turns it into mosaic. It is the knack of turning an oops into a wow. But it is also the courage to stand up in the face of limitations and stake your claim. It is throwing your bank statement to the wind and the angels and the gods, drawing a line in the dust with your big toe and saying: Dig here; we’re building a house.