Monday, November 11, 2013


Given enough time to get to know each other, the four of us would probably have had a useful and even inspirational conversation. But if you read face and body language in the photomontage below, you can get a pretty good idea of how the session actually developed. Ludmila Ulitskaya is the only one who looks at ease, perhaps because she spoke no English. Her Russian translator mumbled so softly that I could barely hear a word so I don't know what Ludmila thought but she had a sympathetic face. David Galenson held forth longer than anyone else in a manner that seemed defensive but perhaps that's because I didn't agree with most of his approach to the subject and perhaps that's because I'm deeply involved in, and perhaps also defensive, about the process of creation, while he is deeply involved in the theory he has painstakingly constructed about it. Pamela Ryckman had done her homework assiduously and tried her best to orchestrate the session but it was no easy task. It was more like a set of monologues than a discussion but if I look disgruntled perhaps that's because I was disappointed by the many empty chairs in the room - only about fifteen people in the audience.

But perhaps that's because many talks on different topics were scheduled at the same time on each day of the Forum and therefore people tended to graze buffet-style, wandering in and out of rooms to sample what was on offer. Understandable perhaps, but not exactly conducive to depth and concentration. That's a lot of perhapses ...Quisas quisas quisas: remember that old Latin American song?

I had written notes to prepare for the session but, as often happens on such occasions, I ended up improvising. It all seems far away already but since we're still on the subject, herewith my notes:

I've been invited here because I'm creative and I'm ageing. But I'm not going to say how old I am because a number, when associated with age, instantly brings up stereotypes which I want to avoid. If you've been a committed artist all your life you never reach retiring age - you just keep on working, trying to do better - or as Beckett said: fail again, fail better.

For me, creativity is a metaphorical room I have to enter in order to switch on the state of creativity: the state in which I can make objects that can be called artworks. I don't mean that I must perform some arcane ritual before picking up a brush or other tool, but there is a definite difference between this state and the ordinary state in which I do the shopping, cleaning, socialising, internet surfing etc. The creativity involved in writing is different: I can think of sentences to write while doing the dishes or sitting in a noisy café. But to fully engage in a process which will eventually end up as physical artworks, in whatever medium, demands a deliberate decision to enter and stay as long as possible in a space where anything other than the work at hand is excluded. I can't explain what neurons in my brain need to be activated but I do know that it is like tuning to a specific radio station and that I need complete silence in order to connect. 

One thing that ageing has done is to make me more aware that I have to choose to enter that state. It doesn't happen automatically just because I call myself an artist. I can decide to step into that room and make stuff (which may or may not be art) and keep on making more of it until my dying day, if health and energy permit. Or I can sit back and let age creep up while I'm surfing the internet, playing with my digital gadgets, watching TV, shopping and so on until suddenly I realise: hey, I'm old! I've got one foot in the grave and the other one is wobbling! 

But in my creative space I've got loads of time ahead because the child in me is still able to make discoveries and perhaps produce the best work I've ever done. It is still possible, as many artists have proved, that you can be an innovator, a rule-breaker, even when you're chronologically old. Creativity is about breaking or bending the rules and ageing doesn't necessarily kill one's inner rebel. Some will disagree, asserting that the brain ages and that's that. Well, even experts admit that, so far, little is known about exactly what goes on in the convoluted grey matter inside our skulls. So it may be that the brains of artists...ageing and aged....can teach the experts a thing or two about creativity.
Something else that ageing does is to prod me to shed, rather than to accumulate things and concepts, getting rid of anything that interferes with finding out what my own inner voice is trying to say.
And now a few more photos from the Deauville do. It was an eye-opening experience which I'm grateful to have been a part of and I will not forget the inspiring people I met or whose talks I heard - too many to mention and do justice to.

Mercy Oduyoye, theologian, Director of Women in Religion and Culture, Ghana



Roderick Robinson said...

Does entering the creative state automatically ensure good stuff? Or do you sometimes re-emerge profoundly disappointed? And if so, do you try and define what went wrong? Are there levels of awareness? If things feel dull do you persist?

I fear I distrust the first fine careless rapture. It's usually monaural which isn't the best way to tackle layered writing. Marvellous what one good sentence can do for one's optimism. Otherwise I go in guided by a proposition contained in a single sentence. "Here X and Y are going to argue about Z, both being conscious of A." Occasionally I break off to say to myself: I'm doing this because it's fun. If I had a million pounds I'd still want to do this. And even though this damned chair is uncomfortable I still want to do this.

Perhaps I'm suffering from Galenson's disease. Does my system sound painstaking? Generally if the sweat is visible it's because you've done it wrong. And solemnity is terminal

Dick said...

That's an excellent address, Natalie. I wish I could have been there to hear it, or whatever riffs on it you produced! As for the audience of 15, the problem with all such events is the paralleling of presentations. A shame that two of the speakers were hardly qualified to hold forth on the subject empirically! All in all, audience size notwithstanding, it looks to have been a thoroughly worthwhile experience.

Hattie said...

How strange. I can't get my head around this at all.
I'm glad you were there to report on what's going on in the world of creativity these days.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Roderick, thanks for engaging usefully and thoughtfully with this post. First of all, the creative state as I see it has no resemblance to 'fine careless rapture'. I only meant that it is different from my ordinary, daily mind-set and that I have to choose to move into it. Secondly, I did mention that writing-creativity is different from art-object-making (ie painting etc) creativity, at least for me.
Of course the creative state I have to choose to enter doesn't guarantee good stuff! Of course I can emerge profoundly disappointed! Of course there are levels of awareness and defining what goes wrong! Of course I persist if things get dull, as they frequently do! Either I expressed myself very badly in this post should read it again, my friend. Sorry if this sounds tetchy but, hey, where did I say that painstaking was bad? And where did I say that by creativity for me is an airy-fairy sort of bliss?

Tom said...

I must confess that my feelings do not chime with Dick's; more in line with Robbie's. It seems to me that it's a bit like sowing seeds, most get lost or do not germinate for all sorts of reasons. A few might just make it. Which ever way I look at it, I see a great deal of work put in which will largely slip away unnoticed because too much was crammed into too little time, or too much was spread too thinly over available venues. I do wonder sometimes just how the minds of these organisers actually work.

My hope is that those who made a worthwhile contribution, such as yourself, will have received some benefit from the experience.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Dick, it was indeed worthwhile and I didn't mean to imply that the other speakers weren't qualified to talk about the subject empirically. Each of them are creative, in different ways, but it was simply that this particular combination of disparate elements didn't manage to connect and the time allotted was too short to allow greater depth.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Hattie, my report is very limited and biased towards my own participation. I haven't said anything about the different sorts of creativity being practiced by so many women working on humanitarian projects in many countries - you'd have to go to the Forum website and watch some of the videos of the main plenary sessions over the three days of this event. If you'd been there with me, I'm sure you would have been a better reporter.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Tom, I agree with the 'too much, too thinly spread'. But the session I was involved with was only a tiny murmur in a programme mainly concerned with global issues very much beyond my own limited sphere. So from the perspective of people actively working on such issues and contributing solutions in that world, the Forum must have been a completely different experience.

Siona said...

I hope that's not the only piece of leopard print you own, because you wear those spots fabulously.

I would have loved to have been present at that panel-- monological or otherwise-- as "creative aging" is a topic I'm deeply interested in. (I do laugh at the framing of it, though. Aren't we all "aging" from the the moment we leave the womb? And how can aging be anything but creative?)

I loved the wisdom and reflection in your notes, Natalie, and love imagining the improvisations on them, too. Also, I would offer that in many cases aging releases, rather than merely "failing to kill" the inner rebel! Among women in particular I have heard from many who find a certain creative liberation that comes with aging, as they find themselves caring less and less about what others think of them.

The photos are a treat-- I love the step seating in the first, and the contrast, too, between the strict minimalism of the purple and white room and the lavishness and colors of the party.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Siona, apart from a scarf, yes, the sleeves of that shirt are the only leopard print I own. Ah, if only you had been present on that panel! I would love to have heard - or to hear now - your take on ageing (or aging, when across the pond) especially since you have a long way to go before anyone associates that word with you. But of course the process starts with the first breath we take. Yesterday's headline in the Independent was: An end to ageing? (about the research being done on the DNA of the so-called Peter Pan woman/child who just died.

Jean said...

I recognise so much you say here. Having spent many years organising big events as part of a job I once had, I concluded that any real benefits lay almost entirely in the informal contacts facilitated and not in formal sessions that were inevitably too many, too stage-managed, not conducive to real exchange...

And I love what you write about the creative space. It resonates deeply with my own increasing experience that I have to create with my hands as well as my head and eyes, to get completely absorbed in it (so currently making pretty pathetic attempts at painting - hope I can stick with it; I think I may).

Visual artists who can write so well about what you do are pretty rare, I think.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Jean, you've taken up painting! That's great news. If the acute sensibility demonstrated in your photos is being translated into paint, I'm really eager to see the results.

Indeed the stage-managing of those big events must be mind-boggling and I admire those who can do it. But it's true that small personal contacts probably achieve more than all the hullabaloo.

Jean said...

Nothing but ineptitude so far being translated, but I hope to keep at it.

Beth said...

Natalie, I am quite sure that somewhere there are people saying, "I met the most amazing, inspiring woman in Deauville..." Pooh on the panel; as other have said, your real impact may well have been elsewhere. As the Buddhists say, "We never know when one word can become a ferry-boat for someone."

Beth said...

Further, on your address, which I thought was really excellent -- I know the state you are describing, and also that it is a choice. Writing is quite different for me from making art, though both require silence. Art (the studio kind, not outdoor sketching) also requires solitude, and a block of time during which I know I won't be interrupted, so that I can allow my concentration to deepen and listen to the interaction that's going on between me and the artwork and the Muse or whatever It is. Persistence is also important; I rarely quit but try to work through whatever frustration or obstacles or difficulties may come up; in fact I expect them and they don't rattle me so much as they used to, because I'm learning to trust the process and its ability to teach me something that will carry over into the next session or project. I also learn so much from you and a couple of other older creators I've known, and I just hope I can keep going in the same way, entering that remarkable room and closing the metaphorical door behind me!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Beth, I think visual artists differ from writers in how they go about exercising their craft and not only in terms of the physical space required. I know that you and I are similar in that respect, as you've described above. But maybe for artists who work with a team of assistants, or who engage in communal projects, it's very different.