I’m at our home in the country, surrounded by the silence of the snow laden woods. And I’m feelng like I want to do some painting.
In What We Ache For, a book about doing creative work, I suggest that it’s a good idea to have a secondary form of creative expression- something you enjoy but aren’t particularly good at so you don’t have to worry about deadlines or the quality of the end product. Sometimes I remember to take my own advice and prime the creative pump for writing by messing around with paint and paper. No one, with the possible exception of my husband Jeff, is ever going to see these slashes of colour and misshappen figures. Which is why it comes as a surprise to find that I'm struggling to get out of my own way and let the process simply unfold when I have a paint brush in my hand. (And if it’s hard to do with paint play, how much harder is it to do when I’m writing a story I hope will be shared?)
The thing about creative expression- like the rest of life- is that it’s hard not to have an agenda. I’m painting in part because I’ve been having particularly wild, wooly and vivid dreams and I want to open another route into the unconscious so I can deepen my understanding of what my psyche is trying to tell me. But I find myself slipping into literalism- painting images from the dreams. This is unsatisfying (I don’t draw well) and offers me very little new information. I already know what the image looks like. I want to open to the feeling of the dreams and see what comes out on the page.
Luckily I have two friends who offer me good advice on loosening up the painting process. Linda Mulhall, an artist in Victoria B.C., suggests that I paint in a water colour style- wetting the page and thinning the paint so control is not possible. A challenge for my meticulous side but it yields some interesting and unexpected results. Nancy Hill, a therapist and workshop leader in Chicago who has done process painting with Michele Cassou, suggests that I start with some representation of myself- ignoring realism of colour, proportions or details- since whatever the unconscious (collective or personal) offers, it will come to me through me. Nancy also sends me an email with a useful insight that applies to both creativite work and life in general:
“The process requires that we let go of our agenda. As long as you want something to be revealed, it is hard to allow the intuition to lead.”
Hmmmm. But I do want something to be revealed! And I probably have more than a couple of ideas about what that something should be or where I hope it will take me.
And therein lies the problem- not just with creative work of course, but with much of our lives. We have a hard time getting out of our own way and letting all the forces working on our behalf- our unconscious, our dreams, the divine, our hearts, the implicate order of the universe, kismet- to offer us what we need. We seem to arrive at many if not most of life’s moments full of agenda, wanting something, wanting to be better- more compassionate, more insightful, calmer, happier, more generous, more efficient, more productive, kinder, more conscious, wiser. . . . the list is endless and admirable. But maybe the real work is to acknowledge our agenda and remember that, given the complexity of the universe, we are limited in our knowledge of how to make what we think we need happen. If we cultivate a willingness to be surprised, to be aware of but not focused on our agenda maybe, just maybe, we will learn something we didn’t already know. And that’s when things really get interesting.
I am taking these words back to my painting now to see what emerges that is mysterious, to receive what comes and sit with it as a gift, a signpost, a symbol whose meaning may never be completely revealed. I won’t pretend I don’t have an agenda- the universe is not that easy to fool. But I will allow space for surprises, wlll step out of the way so I can follow the impulse that comes. Who knows? I just may see something I have never seen before.