Make Good Art

It’s been floating around the ether for a couple of days, but just in case you’ve missed it, I want to make sure you can get to Neil Gaiman’s speech to the graduates of the University of the Arts. It’s twenty minutes, but if you’ve ever wondered whether you ought to be doing what you’re doing, (especially if it has anything to do with making something, whether that be sculpture, clothes, fiction…) then you could do worse than spend your time with Neil.

Two things stood out for me. One: the exhortation to make mistakes, because if you’re making mistakes then you’re obviously doing something. And doing something is the only way you’ll get anything good, even if you have to write a hundred crappy stories to get it.

And two, you should only do work that you’re proud of, and excited about, even if it brings you no money. You will still have the work, and your pride.

This might be hard to swallow, especially with regard to money. But the life of an artist is so precarious anyway that it’s not worth compromising what you want to do just for money. Believe in it. Believe in your own version of success. Write it down. Put it somewhere you can look at it. Keep walking towards it.

Even if you never make it you’ll always know you were heading in the write* direction.

(Ah hell. I swear this was one of those Freudian things.)

Ladies! Let’s stop fighting about our wombs.

It’s polling day here in London, and various other places around the country. I vote every single time I have the opportunity, clutching my black and white card and thinking about the Pankhursts, and Emily Davison, and the hunger strikers force fed in Holloway prison as I stride towards the polling booth.

Voting is a privilege women have had in this country for less than a hundred years. We should still be talking about it.

But today one of the first articles I read was another argument in the mothers versus not-mothers war that the press seems intent on inflaming. Having read Dr Worsley’s words (originally in the Radio Times), I’m not sure she was being sneery when she said she’d been ‘educated out of the natural reproductive function’ (I have a masters degree – was that not enough? should I have got a PHD?), in as much as she anticipated the (obvious and tiresome) question and developed a riposte (poor choice of words though, Lucy). If she’d been a man, it wouldn’t even be in the article.

Danuta Keane’s response (with inflammatory Mail headline) asks us to consider how much more political becoming a mother can make us, which is true (though not for all), and that the changes that having a child bring can be welcome, even if you’ve resisted them, even if you are educated. Even if they do, inevitably, turn you into a different person.

The key word being different, not better.

I am clearly not who I’d be if I hadn’t had my son, but then the person I would be wouldn’t know that, and wouldn’t mind (probably). Indeed, who knows what might have happened to that person in the last three years, and what changes might have been wrought? Imagine if we could meet each other, my other self and me. Would we argue with each other, try to plead our case for or against? And if so, why? Who is making us feel as if we have to justify this most personal of choices (and sometimes it isn’t a choice) one way or the other? Other women? Our culture? Society at large?

Because this is what has happened: it’s everybody’s business, and anyone can probe a woman about her reproductive status. Women who choose not to have children feel they have to justify that or be labelled as selfish. Women who haven’t been able to have children have to justify it while hiding their private sadness behind a veil. Women who have only one have to justify that or be labelled as selfish. Women who have more than one are never allowed to complain about the difficulties of marshalling toddlers, keeping a house and possibly a career. Women who work have to justify that as well as fight for their right to work part-time, or full time or from home. Women who choose not to return to work have to justify that because otherwise what was feminism about. Women who have larger families have to justify that or be labelled a drain on the planet’s resources.

Why are we doing this to each other? When did we stop looking at everything else that was happening to women?

When I was growing up we still talked about whether you should say ‘chairperson’ rather than ‘chairman’, ‘ms’ instead of ‘miss’. Somewhere in the last twenty years, because things got a little bit better, we assumed the battle was won, and we stopped talking about it. We just assumed we could say anything we liked, be anything we liked, do anything we liked. And yes, it’s truer than it has ever been, but only for some of us.

Recently unemployment went up again, and it went up most sharply for women. Job losses in the public sector disproportionately affect women because they make up around 65% of the workforce (more in some sectors). Older women are losing their jobs at a time when they are running out of time to make pension contributions, ensuring their poverty will linger for decades more. The cuts to tax credits and benefit changes will adversely affect women more than men. Women are more likely to be in part-time and lower paid jobs, in part because they are trying to juggle with other responsibilities, like childcare, or caring for elderly parents, but also partly because women are still paid less than men. Here are some figures from the Fawcett Society:

  • The full-time gender pay gap between women and men is 14.9 per cent
  • The pay gap varies across sectors and regions, rising to up to 55% in the finance sector and up to 33.3% in the City of London
  • 64% of the lowest paid workers are women, contributing not only to women’s poverty but to the poverty of their children
  • There are almost four times as many women in part-time work as men.  Part-time workers are likely to receive lower hourly rates of pay than full-time workers.

Isn’t it time we stopped squabbling about whether wombs are good or not, and talked together about some of this other stuff?

For the last word on the kids debate, I leave you with Stella Duffy, who writes wisely and compassionately. Now go on and vote.

(Deep apologies for linking to the Daily Mail, by the way. It couldn’t be helped.)


5 Books to Kickstart your Creativity

I confess I love creative writing books, and I buy them with all the zeal of the recently converted Amazon Prime subscriber. I continue to buy them even though a good deal of them are repetitive and dull, and inspire me no more than staring into the depths of my laundry basket.

The ones I come back to are the ones that throw me out of my ruts, and they tend to be less specifically about writing, and more about living creatively, however you choose to do it. So here are my favourites:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The don of all creative kickstarters, Cameron wrote this classic about rediscovering your creative self in 1994, and has sold a Gazillion copies of it since. The book is a 12 week program, with exercises and tasks to help you back towards living a more creative life. It’s not just for writers, but anyone who has had, and lost, a desire to make stuff. (Now available as an online course. I’m not affiliated, just showing you where it is.)

Personally I’ve never got beyond about week 6 (which may be why I still feel blocked) but I’ve carried the tool of morning pages with me through every fallow period (and I know many writers rely on them). The idea is to write three pages a day, preferably in the morning, of whatever you like. No editor, no critic, no stopping. It works. Whatever rubbish I write I feel better for at least having done them.

Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel. A confession: this is a new purchase for me, and I was attracted by the idea of tackling the anxiety I feel about writing (I took a long break, I had a baby and now am brain dead, I have no ideas left – that sort of thing). Maisel is a psychotherapist who works with creative people from all disciplines, and this book is unlike the others that encourage you to sit down and pick up a pen, or go for walks in the woods. One of the very first exercises involves a potato. It may not be the book for you, but I laughed so much while trying to hold my potato that I have to include it.

The 3a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kitely. If you’re after writing exercises that push you a little further than ‘be inspired by this image of a camel’ or whatever, then this is the book for you. Kitely teaches Creative Writing at the University of Denver, and takes the approach that we can learn about writing by actually doing writing. The exercises can feel narrow in their scope, but this just encourages creativity, rather than stifling it. It’s Oulipo-like in the approach to using boundaries to encourage free wordplay – just like children, writers play with more freedom if they have a wall to bash against. Highly recommended, as is the sequel The 4a.m. Breakthrough.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Tharp isn’t a writer, she’s a dancer, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book about her creative process, and the tools she’s used in her career as a choreographer. There are practical exercises throughout the book, which focus on developing working habits and encouraging the creative mind to be awake and present, as well as tackling frailities. It ends with a lovely chapter on the necessity of failure, and her admission that she was 58 before she felt like a master of her craft. Very inspiring book.

Most of these books can be used by anyone who wants to live creatively, whether that means making a living out of it, or just following your passions for making art of one kind or another, regardless of monetary reward. I hope you too find some inspiration for your Autumn renewal.