Is creativity a black art?

Charon-by-Gustav-Dore‘Where do you get your ideas?’ It’s the question every writer dreads. The truthful answer is usually, ‘I don’t know.’ I prefer to take it one step further. You see, I don’t want to know.

I’ve often wondered if it’s possible to teach creativity. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that it isn’t. Oh, you can teach technique. You can teach a budding artist how to blend colours on a canvas. You can teach a budding musician how to work the keys on a piano. You can teach a budding writer about narrative structure and character building and why you should leave all your adverbs at the door. But can you teach the spark that ignites the raw materials, transforming daubs on the canvas or notes in the air or words on the page into things that burn? I’m not sure that you can.

Full disclosure: although I’ve read the occasional book about creative writing (the best I’ve found is Stephen King’s On Writing), I’ve never studied the subject formally. I’ve certainly never presumed to teach it. I have, however, been writing professionally for over fifteen years. Unprofessionally, all my life. What I have studied is art and design; over the years, I’ve wrangled as many pictures as I have words. At art college, I learned a wealth of techniques from some fabulous tutors. I was inspired by other artists, both mentors and peers. Without them, I wouldn’t have come as far as I have (which is, be assured, not nearly as far as I would like, and just a fraction of the distance I have yet to travel). But are these the places where the creativity came from? I don’t believe it is.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting education in the creative arts is a waste of time. Far from it. There a thousand things you can learn, many of them very useful, perhaps even essential. Most importantly, formal study puts you in an environment filled with like-minded people, encourages debate and gives you the support and incentive to pursue your dream. My point is simply this: as useful as all that is, I don’t believe it’s at the heart of what you do.

If you’re wondering what is at the heart of it, the answer’s simple. It’s you. In my case, me. If you’ve any interest in writing – or any creative pursuit for that matter – you’ll know this already because you’ll have heard a thousand times that you have to find your own voice. That’s easier said than done. It’s at least as difficult as, say, answering the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

Creativity. Voice. The two words make an interesting combination, don’t they? In fact, once you start associating them, things get interesting. Even weird. Instead of asking ‘Where do the ideas come from?’ you start to ask ‘Where does the voice come from?’

As questions go, that’s just a little spooky.

I have a theory. Stick with me a little longer and I’ll tell you what it is. I’m not saying any of this is right, by the way, because there is no right. This is just what I believe. As to what you believe – well, you’re going to have to work that out for yourself.

If I assume my ideas are brought to me by a voice, that naturally gets me wondering who the voice belongs to. It can’t be me, because the words are quite plainly coming from somewhere else. But I can’t see anyone. Whoever they are, they must be somewhere very distant or very dark. Or perhaps they’re just round some unreachable corner. I can only imagine what they look like. A man? A woman? Something altogether inhuman? How can I know? It haunts me, this notion of a cosmic ventriloquist throwing his voice towards me from some far-off void, hurling ideas I will ultimately claim as my own, but which are in fact wholly alien, this notion that I’m not a creator at all, just a warm, fleshy antenna receiving broadcasts from some unthinkable beyond. Before you call the men in the white coats, let me assure you I’m not the first writer to imagine such a thing, and I’m sure I won’t be the last.

In the bright light of day, all that sounds like crazy talk. Of course the ideas are mine. Who else’s would they be? They’re just the natural product of all my experiences frothing around in my subconscious and occasionally sending little bubbles of inspiration up to the surface. Just because the process is mysterious doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.

But at night, in the dark, it feels different. Writing is an art and, while I make no particular claims about my own clumsy attempts to practise it, I do know that at any one moment I have a head crammed full of ideas, and a creative urge that won’t be denied. That’s when the art I pursue feels as mysterious as the night around me, feels as black the distant void in which the ideas I crave are silently spawned, and the voice sounds like that of Charon calling from the Styx with a promise to ferry me deep into a shadow-strewn underworld.

And, you know what? It’s the best feeling in the world.

Damn it all, I’ve ended up doing what I wasn’t going to do. I’ve told you where the ideas come from. Or where I think they come from. The reason I don’t know for certain – and don’t want to know – is that it’s a place I’m not meant to go. Everyone’s got a place like this, I believe, and everyone’s place is different, and that’s why creativity can’t be taught. It has to be learned from the inside. It’s a black art, and that’s where its wealth lies. Black is black because it contains every colour under the sun. Tap into it and all the colours spill out. Some of them catch fire and burn. Some of them are mine and mine alone.

And you know what? Some of them are yours.

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