My Dream of a Creative Life Is All About Freedom
21st century creative struggles don’t work for me
I was on a trip to Japan when I saw a small, fleeting vision. It was more than a decade ago now, but I’ll never forget it. A well-dressed man in a cafe, sat upright and alert at a wooden table. I remember him clearly. I saw him through a window — just a glance as I walked by on the street. He was turning the pages of a small Japanese book. Perhaps he was a poet or maybe a novelist. I like to think so anyway.
I remember it because the night before I stayed in a Buddhist monastery on top of a sacred mountain above Kyoto and I was on the lookout for a lesson from my experiences. What I dreaded was anything ambiguous, anything that would turn this adventure into less than a revelation. Yet, being too much of a tourist, that was precisely what I got. The experience left me feeling uncertain. I wondered how the monks at the monastery could live such an ordered routine, sombre and stern, rising at 5 in the morning for silent prayers and going from there. As I noted somewhat despondently in my journal, “Living nothing but ritual from dawn til dusk — is this really the right way?”
Then when I saw the man in the cafe, I knew that I had a vision of an alternative vocation. The way the man was passing his eyes over his book, looking so consummate — and therefore so alive — was really everything I was looking for. His demeanour was motionless, but I saw an individual whose life was in full-flow.
What did the man in the Japanese cafe represent? Undoubtedly, I was responding to the suggestion of a contemplative mind, for I admit I am a complete sucker for any hint of intellectualism.
I’m also sentimental for the idea of a metropolitan wanderer with an existential burden. I mean, a bearing that is not hurried or over-eager, nor too interested in success or money or fame, a person whose thoughts turn to poetry before science for their answers.
For me, these are varieties of freedom that are so imperative to the creative life. Artists need to be able to see and think about the world in order to reply to it.
Which is why the case of the English writer Lawrence Durrell rings out so beautifully. He described crossing the threshold into his artistic sensibility when, on a trip to Athens in the 1930s, he slept under the eaves of the Parthenon: “…on a night of a full moon I managed to steal up onto the flanks of the Greek Acropolis with my sleeping bag, there to lie in the shadow of the caryatids.”
It is also why, as I was reading a fascinating review of the recently published letters of the poet Sylvia Plath, I was struck by an excerpt from one of her journals which posed the flip-side of the ideal:
“Yes, my consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars — to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording — all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”
At this time in her short life, Plath was exploring her sense of creative destiny. Possessed of an extraordinary determination to acquire the writer’s life, she was also aware of the restrictions placed upon her by the society she lived in.
The poet Baudelaire used the term flâneur to express the demeanour of a creative type of city wanderer. In a French the word means ‘lounger’ or ‘saunterer’; Baudelaire turned the flâneur into an idealised figure who represented all that was vivid and vital about living in the burgeoning city environs of 19th Paris. In Baudelaire’s own words of 1863:
“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. […] We might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”
A flâneur is an urban explorer, you might say, or a connoisseur of the street. Few artists exemplify this more than Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894) whose portraits and street scenes of Paris express all the “flow of life” that Baudelaire celebrated. Caillebotte made his debut in the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876; his paintings attend to all the details of idling recreation and social etiquette that his upper-class background had tutored him in.
If the flâneur presided over the spectacle of ‘universal life’ then it goes without saying that such a person must have had the freedom to access those places. It is interesting to note, then, that 19th century Paris remained a highly codified society; one that, like many European cities at the time, existed under certain conditions of etiquette about who could move where and when. In such a way, I realise that my ideals of creativity agency rely somewhat on the myth of universal freedom, to which women and other subjugated groups had only partial access.
Caveats aside, it’s hard not to feel that these romantic ideals of mine are under threat, especially if you consider that the 21st century version of the creative life is as much about networking “strategies” and productivity “hacks” as it is about losing oneself in the folds of the imagination. The fact that we live in a global village — to use Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic phrase — can undoubtedly inspire, but it can also wear down. Within these global communities it is not difficult to find others whose powers of productivity are ridiculously prodigious and whose voices, logically enough, stand out above all others.
They are the paradigms of success, so that it can sometimes feel that the only true precepts of creativity are “Be prolific” and “Never slow down”.
For me, speed has never been my best asset. Nor do I don’t want to hurry my inspiration. I want to take my time, to sink in, to draft and redraft, to learn slowly but surely. My dream of the creative life is all about freedom, and I’m not yet ready to hand myself over to the tenets of 21st century creative struggles.
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