Discovering creativity

I have never considered myself to be a creative person. I did learn to paint before I learnt to write and went on to be one of the weird arty kids in High school, however I was so isolated that something like creativity never really occurred to me, I just did what I did, biding my time and trying to survive and never really gave it much thought beyond the knowledge that I could never think up the incredible artworks I saw in the collection of vintage Omni magazines and my father’s airbrush art books that were so much of a defining feature of my youth. To be honest I never really gave my creativity or lack thereof much thought until not quite a decade ago when I came to the conclusion that I am not a creative person. I have always been very technical and very practical and certainly emotionally stifled which are pretty much the opposite of creative, I also have a horror of the kind of flighty tie-dyed spontaneity that is a hallmark of traditionally creative types. The root of all my designs in the past has been in history and construction and up until recently I referred to myself as a pattern-maker rather than a designer.

I went from high school to a brief stint in art college where I was equally criticized for not been creative enough and for not following the rules which was incredibly confusing and a definite no-win situation. Needless to say I did not do well and left after two years.

It was in college that I discovered that I am not a lateral thinker, I struggled with projects where I was required to do mind-maps and come up with dozens of concepts for a project, it always seemed a waste of time when I could rather assess the situation and do one or two designs that really worked. I do however have a huge amount of envy for people who are conceptual lateral thinkers such as Ben, my partner who just bubbles up with ideas, each more amazing than the last because my thinking works in one of two ways, it is either completely linear or it has the chaos of a mouse navigating a maze on a bungee cord.
When I work by the former process, I make beautiful minimal gorgeously fitted garments, when I work by the latter, whatever I am making looks like the incomplete bastard child of Monty Python and Salvador Dali.
The upside of this type of thought process is that I am a very good problem solver and am almost completely unflappable in an emergency. Add my volatile temper to this and I am your perfect frontline in a zombie apocalypse!

My designs have never been confections dreamed up and sketched out waiting to be released like many other designers, they have all originated from a structure and are then embellished with fabric and finish chosen for the way it accentuates the structure. I have had people argue that this is a form of creativity, however I disagree. It is about as creative as the botanical illustrations that I paint. Sure they are beautiful, but they are a purely technical exercise, and nothing particularly original.

This linear technical methodology never bothered me, it was how I worked. It was how I had always worked. It never even occurred to me that it may be a problem until about five or so years ago.
It was at that point when I realized that I was bored. I also realized that I didn’t particularly like anything that I made but I was in the middle of a rather long writer’s block and a just as long depression, besides I had a design formula which mostly worked. However like small Tupperwares of forgotten leftovers, although, or possibly because I ignored it it started festering.

Now the problem with realising that you have a problem is that it tends to eat away at you until you do something about it. The problem with been a technical practical person with a problem is that you dissect the problem, lay the parts out in neat little rows, dissect the parts under a microscope and then put them back together again in the same order hoping that they will work properly now that you’ve given them a good clean and airing. Of course this makes it all worse since you don’t realize that the problem isn’t with the parts themselves so you take them apart again and lay them all out neatly in front of a psychiatrist who tells you that what you need is a holiday and to stop worrying about them. So you pack them up neatly and put them into storage while you do some reasearch.

I spent the next few years researching. I spent thousands of hours looking at images of incredible designs and artworks by hundreds of people then dissecting them to work out what made them brilliant. I read every biography and autobiography I could get my hands on about brilliant thinkers and artists trying to work out that spark. Each thing I saw and read just made me more despondent and eventually I just gave up. I didn’t want to think that I wasn’t capable of more, but I also had no way to take it to the next level.

Then late last year, I followed it to the root. It is quite terrifying how years and years of small seemingly unrelated comments from others can make a huge impact on your later life. It is no secret that I was very badly bullied physically and emotionally throughout my childhood and teens however it wasn’t the obvious bullying that has stayed. I worked through the beatings and sexual assault years ago. What I had never managed to heal from was the insidious little comments and jabs that I didn’t even really notice amongst the brute force. The salt encrusted pinpricks that originated not exclusively from cruel class mates, but from family members, teachers and later on from partners and acquaintances. The thing is that when you have lived your life in pure survival mode, ego and self confidence don’t really feature. You figure that you have those things because you are alive, but the instant you feel somewhat safe, you relax long enough to find all the broken parts that have slipped through the 150 000km service plan.
What I was sitting with was a lifetime of other people making little comments that generally started with “you could be…” or “you really should.” There are also the well meaning and saccharinely worded versions that basically come down to “that is not ok, there is something wrong with you” that were aimed at my dress sense, my interests and my sense of self from a very early age. And so I became so good at burying things that I believed it was my choice and after a long time, I forgot what I buried or that it had ever even existed.
Once I realized this, it was shattering a dam wall. It wasn’t that I was not a creative person, it was that I had spent so long hiding any original or imaginative thought for fear of the repercussions that I didn’t even realize that I was doing it.

Three weeks ago I did the first purely imaginative drawing that I can remember doing. It was bloody scary. I stared at the paper working up the courage to start for days. It is still so fresh that I procrastinate and panic for as long as I can get away with and every time I pick up a pencil, I need to remind myself that actually I can do whatever I want, this isn’t about anyone else. I also remind myself, albeit less frequently since it is pretty much ingrained into my psyche, how disasterous it was to restrict myself. It doesn’t make it any easier to do, but a lifetime of practicality has made me a master of reason, so it is that much harder to talk myself out of doing things anymore and hopefully with time I won’t need to.

For the first time, I am putting myself and my work out there with no shield,  and it is scarier than a three year old’s birthday party. I know that there will be criticism, some people are not going to like what I do, and that is ok there will be plenty more who will love it, and most importantly I feel right about what I am doing.


One thought on “Discovering creativity

  1. Dear Arwen
    Being a designer, following briefs and merely thinking I am creative as I solve the design process, gives me a small glimpse of your struggle with creativity. I was tearing my hair out last year when I looked at all my work and nothing came from the soul. Not. One. Piece. Practical solutions, according to all the design rules and what I know works in this world and what clients would accept without fuss. I have but one client that need all the creativity I can dream up and it is absolute torture to try and scrape from an empty bucket. So I started sketching. Forcing myself to do one 10 min drawing every day. Just for the sake of not drawing or creating for a client. Only for myself. I’m on day 14. I’m not seeing the creative floodgates opening, but I know I will start hearing a drop or two. Time. Courage. Self-respect. Endurance. The struggle is real. We just fight it on different planes. We have your back.


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