Precise joy

Precise joy

“I don’t believe that only sorrow

and misery can be written.


Happiness, too, can be precise:


Doctor, there’s a keen throbbing

 on the left side of my chest

 where my ribs are wrenched by joy.” ~ Edward Hirsch

Maybe it’s the cliché of the artiste starving in the garret. Maybe it’s because making creative work is challenging. But, somehow and often, people talk about their creative lives as some kind of travail. Social media is full of writers bemoaning their writer’s blocks, or the head-banging frustration of editing or rewriting content that doesn’t quite feel right. Similarly, people who act, paint, compose, or invent shiver in fear of being denounced as idiots and impostors. So many of us feel that our flights of inspiration fall down to earth with an ignominious clunk when faced by the cold hard reality of teasing our ideas out of our imaginations and into some kind of tangible process and output. As a creative mentor I often talk to people who are frustrated because they don’t think they are being as creative as they could be for [reasons]. And now lockdown is finished (or, depending on where you are in the world, nearly finished) and no one wrote King Lear.

It’s good to get your worries and anxieties off your chest. And great if, in the process of doing so, you discover that you aren’t Robinson Crusoe. But does talk of being creative or of making creative work or developing creative process always have to be negative?

Have you noticed that when things go right people will tell you curtly that they are ‘good’ or ‘great’ and that’s that? But when things go wrong, these same people with deliver a monologue, detailing their personal failings in rigorous and colourful detail. Delivering these monologues can be highly therapeutic and, as a professional listener, I encourage people to do it. But why can’t we invest the same energy and avid focus on detailing the things that delight us. Especially within ourselves.

A person with thought bubbles coming out of their head
Cover art by Rebecca Stewart

‘Especially within ourselves.’ There’s the rub. We have been coached into believing that to be humble or a good learner or to cultivate grown-up levels of self-accountability we have to favour focusing on the negative rather than the positive. And failure, perhaps, does have a natural pull on our attention given how much it hurts and nags and prickles us.

A disproportionately solid diet of negativity does nothing for our sense of resilience or our boldness, and creative work needs both. Surely being reflective about your creative work in the service of being accountable for your attitudes and behaviours means being honest and avoiding bias in self-assessment. And as undesirable as it is to be too soft on yourself, nor is it useful or healthy to be too harsh or gloomy.

“Happiness, too, can be precise.”

It’s important to put an equal amount of energy and focus into the parts of our inner lives that give us joy. That – shock, horror! – we might even like about ourselves. A way of sending this energy and attention to these parts of ourselves is to find ways of expressing or articulating them, even to within the privacy of our own minds, with precision. If you find it all too easy to complain about how non-creative you are or the ways in which your creative output falls short, balance this out with challenging yourself to identify what it is that you do ‘right’. And in terms of creativity, this ‘right’ will look different from person to person and situation to situation. It could look like playfulness, joy, comfort, hope, stimulation, satisfaction, groundedness, or fun.

Get precise. Find that part of yourself that does create, or which yearns to, and describe it in specific and vivid terms to yourself. Bask in the way it makes you feel. The self-recriminations or doubts will come, and you will need all your resilience and boldness to deal with them when they do.

I have devised thought-exercises and simple word-games as conversational prompts for me to use in mentoring dialogues or workshops to encourage people to explore and articulate their creative skills and identities. I decided to write them down and share them. The result is Relate: A resource for connecting to your creative self. You can buy it here.

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