The Paradox of Creative Choice
That each person is compelled, day by day and deed by deed, to choose his or her life; and that though this choice is by nature extremely personal and individual, it is nevertheless a choice not only for the person choosing, but for all mankind. - Milton Acorn1
Most of us, throughout our lifespan, acquire a collection of identifying labels based on the choices we make. There is the role we take on in our chosen career: leader, teacher, tradesperson—a choice often driven by a need to provide for a family or loved ones. There is the position we assume within that family group: parent, caregiver, provider. There is the role we perform within a community: mentor, spokesperson, listener. And there is the greater calling that we are compelled to follow whether it be creative or spiritual (if it is possible to separate the two). It is a paradox, especially in North American culture, that the choices and subsequent roles that bring us the most personal and spiritual satisfaction are often the ones to which society places the least value.
Like many of my counterparts, I’ve spent a good deal of my working life within the corporate landscape. This paradox has been personally evident when I’d tell people that I was the Vice President of Operations of a medium-sized Canadian company, or Assistant Vice President, Regional Director for a leading international firm. It was unanimously met with nods of approval, a virtual ‘thumbs-up’ in the look and body language of the receiver of this piece of information. However, when I told them that I was also a poet, there’d be the uncomfortable shuffling of feet, a reluctance to make eye-contact. It’s only been recently, since I’ve come to my own in the role of poet, that I’ve begun to understand why. It has to do with the perceived value that our culture places on the creative and spiritual choices we make. And it’s about the discomfort with the inherent cost that the creative choice demands.
The cost of the creative choice: Why does the creative choice come to so many at such a cost? I believe that the main reason behind this phenomenon can be summed up in one simple truth: You cannot be fully open to your own creativity without first confronting and coming to terms with yourself.
Irving Layton said, “Poetry, by giving dignity and utterance to our distress, enables us to hope, makes compassion reasonable.
Photo Courtesy: superluminal.com
Being fragile creatures, this is not a place where many will venture willingly. We all have demons. We have regrets. We have secrets—all caged up somewhere in the back of our cluttered minds, comfortably out of reach, locked and barred. Giving in to your creativity means connecting to the same corners of the psyche where we’ve stored all that chaos and anxiety. And, quite frankly, tapping into it scares the be-jeepers out of the best of us.
When you give yourself fully to your creativity, you expand the mind—brush the cobwebs off the far reaches of the brain and let things out. You’ll release such beauty that could bring the hardest of hearts to tears. You’ll release ugliness, hatred, and envy.
It is within this process—these glimpses into the inner mirror—that we create. Margaret Atwood once said, “My own theory is that poetry is composed with the melancholy side of the brain, and that if you do nothing but, you may find yourself going slowly down a long dark tunnel with no exit.”2
Some of us find it easiest to release our demons into the stratosphere, and so are able to free ourselves to create. Others harness them, mix them with a keystroke, dab of paint, or long resounding note, and in doing so, we reshape the ugliness into a work of art so that others may recognize their own demons and know that they are not alone. Irving Layton said, “Poetry, by giving dignity and utterance to our distress, enables us to hope, makes compassion reasonable.”3 In its own way, creativity is a form of healing.
Creativity—the binding thread: It is this look into the inner mirror that unmasks the fundamental truths that tie us together as a species. When you choose to create from within this place, you tap into a binding thread. If done well, when it truly works, whether it be through language, art or music, there is an immediate connection. Those who witness it recognize an inextricable piece of themselves, like a gift or curse, laid out for all to see.
When you consider the cost and the lack of value placed by our culture on the creative choice, it’s tough for someone outside the creative process to understand why anyone would choose a creative path. Photo Courtesy: Mr Fish (October 2005, Harpers.org)
Molly Peacock wrote, “Sometimes I think we are attracted to a poem because it makes us feel as if someone is listening to us. This may seem like a strange reversal because we are supposed to be listening to it, but the voice of the poem allows us to hear ourselves… Certain poems allow you to feel what you mean, even though you cannot dare to say what that is yourself.”4
Why do so many of us continue to choose to create? When you consider the cost and the lack of value placed by our culture on the creative choice, it’s tough for someone outside the creative process to understand why anyone would choose a creative path. So, why do we? Time and again, I’ve heard poets (writers, musicians and artists) tell of what they experience when they create. Even the most talented of wordsmiths can find it difficult to put to words. They just know that, when it works, it is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences they know. I believe that it is that moment when we come face-to-face with the very best of ourselves. For some, that is the closest they will come to a spiritual experience.
Barry Dempster quoted Mary Oliver when he said, “Poetry comes from extremes, from the left field of all experience, and my passion and impudence came straight from God. American poet Mary Oliver writes, "In art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place." I came to poetry as a fanatic, my confidence shaken by discovering a distance between God and myself. Some of the words I was insistent on were all mine, while others, God's favourites, were stuck to the roof of my mouth…” Though the words change, the theme is consistent when poets talk about why they write. Irving Layton wrote, “I want to be remembered as someone who believed that a great poem was the noblest work of man and that no one ever wrote one who didn't want to get out of hell.”6
The value placed on the creative choice: Why does the North American culture place the creative choice so low on its scale of value? Perhaps it’s partly because of the fact that the choice itself is so readily available to us. Because the right to express our minds and hearts is so inherent in our culture, and has been for generations, we take it for granted. Few of us have lived long enough to remember the human cost paid for this hard-won right. Secondly, our consumer culture, through its educational systems, media news, television and marketing strategies places a high value on financial success. Let’s face it; except for a fortunate few, poetry and financial success just don’t go hand-in-hand.
The Canadian paradox: It’s said that in Canada there are more poets per capita than in any other nation in the world. Much has been speculated and written on why this should be. Theories include: the past support for poetry publishing by the government through the Canadian Council for the Arts, our colonial mindset and identity complex, the sheer expanse of our geography and the related isolation of our people (consider that, though our geographical size is similar, the population of Canada is about one-tenth of that of the United States).
Whether you buy into any or all of these theories, it still begs the question: with so many Canadians choosing to create poetry, why, as a culture, is this creative choice still so under-valued?
Perhaps the reasons stated earlier are even more applicable to Canada. In the past, we lived within a landscape that supported the arts, if not entirely socially, at least financially. The government’s reason for intervention becomes apparent when you combine being the next door neighbour to a giant like the United States and our colonial mindset/identity complex. Put the two together and you have a recipe for cultural evaporation—the swallowing up of the Canadian culture by our neighbours to the south. In order to combat this, the Canadian Council for the Arts was born.
You’ll note that I’ve discussed this phenomenon in the past tense. Recent economic changes have forced the Canadian government, like all governments, to tighten its belt. Due to their low perceived value, the arts are and have always been considered low hanging fruit when it’s time to cut costs.
“My own theory is that poetry is composed with the melancholy side of the brain, and that if you do nothing but, you may find yourself going slowly down a long dark tunnel with no exit.” - Margaret Atwood. Photo Courtesy: poetswar.com
The future of the creative choice: In the near future, many of Canada’s small presses find their livelihood in jeopardy by proposed changes to funding through the Canadian Council for the Arts. If these changes are made a reality, poets will find it increasingly more difficult to get the printed word out. The problem is circular: we undervalue our creative choices because our right to do so is a given—we take it for granted; because, as a culture, creativity is rated low on our value scale, our opportunities to pursue the creative choice are threatened when funding is trimmed.
Over the long term, the funding for our educational systems is also under attack. Again, when programs are cut, the arts are first to go. This is true despite indisputable data that links the study and practice of the arts to academic achievement. In today’s schools, stress is placed on those disciplines that teach our children how to make a living, with precious little time or resources to programs that enlighten their creative minds—the skills a soul needs to truly live.
Perhaps those future poets, writers, artists and musicians, still drawn by the undeniable need to create, will have to fight harder and longer for the right to creative choice. In doing so, will the value placed upon creative choice finally be recognized for its worth?
1. Milton Acorn. Hundred Proof Earth, ed. James Deahl. Toronto: Aya, 1988
2. Margaret Atwood: Waterstone's Poetry Lecture Delivered at Hay On Wye. Wales, June 1995.
3. Irving Layton: Foreword, A Red Carpet for the Sun, 1959
4. Molly Peacock: How To Read A Poem, McClelland and Stewart, 1999
5. Barry Dempster: A Matter of Spirit, Ekstasis Editions
6. Irving Layton: Foreword, Droppings from Heaven, 1979