Michael Leunig and creativity

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I’ve been thinking more about the issue of creativity. How does it happen?
Michael Leunig once gave a talk to a small group of therapists and counsellors in Melbourne. During the talk he began to tell us about his ideas on the process of art. He told us about the way in which an artist conceives an idea in his mind about what he’d like to paint. The idea is thrilling and exciting. The artist sets up his canvas, collects his paints. He’s ready. The idea and its execution are foremost in his mind.
He begins to paint, lashes of colour on the canvas. It flows on smoothly, effortlessly, but as he proceeds, something happens. The idea he first conceived begins to change. It does not translate so readily onto the canvas now. It fractures in his mind. He cannot hold onto it. He’s disappointed in his work. He might struggle on, but only in a state of despair, of deep disappointment and sadness.
Now he’s faced with a choice. The whole idea has lost its lustre. Might as well throw it in. Leave it behind. Go have a cup of tea. A glass of wine. Go out shopping. Collect the kids from school, anything but stay here in front of this failed canvas. He doesn’t care anymore.
He spatters more paint onto the page, a dab here, a stroke there. Listless, lifeless without energy or hope. He has given up on his original idea.
Leunig went on to tell us, if his artist can persevere, something might happen, something new might emerge on the canvas, something the artist had no idea of, no conscious conception of, like a bud unfurling, some new life. Then the energy returns, new hope, the possibility of some new creation.
For this reason, Leunig urges us to consider the importance of the second try.
One other thought, along these lines. In her biography on the lives of two Australian women painters, Drusilla Modjeska quotes Grace Cossington Smith .
‘ “A continual try”, she said. It’s true of painting, it’s true of writing and it’s true of life. The process of staying with that continual try can produce long low loops and sudden illuminations, which we see in retrospect as springing open and banging closed. But in the tug and pull of time it is another day lived, another piece of board on the easel, another squeeze from the tube.’
The process of writing can be similarly hard won.

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5 Comments on Michael Leunig and creativity

  1. Damon
    July 12, 2006 at 10:09 am (11 years ago)

    This issue of perseverance is essential, Lis. The myth of the Romantic genius, spilling instant profundity onto the page, canvas or stave, is responsible for a great deal of grief and mediocrity. Of course, struggle is also part of the myth, but often it is struggle against others, or against some mystical internalised oppressor.

    What is missing from this vision are the countless hours of workmanly banality, slowly crafting art from mess. I think of Matisse drafting and redrafting, painting and overpainting, until finally the work was complete: “at the final stage the painter finds himself freed and his emotion exists complete in his work.”

    I suppose I have always thought about it this way: it took Joyce many drafts to get Molly’s soliloquy right – not even stream-of-consciousness streams from our consciousness.

    Reply
  2. Ann O'Dyne
    January 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm (7 years ago)

    your first few blogposts attracted no comments, yet you persevered, as so many bloggers do, and voila!
    Now you have 190 Followers. Good Lord!
    8th January 2011

    Reply
  3. Jim Murdoch
    September 18, 2011 at 11:08 am (6 years ago)

    I think this is why I like to keep my poems short, Lis, because very little ever gets lost in translation. The words go from my head onto the page and in seconds – literally – the poem will be finished in essence. Okay I may change a few words here and there, shuffle the text around on the page but any changes are negligible. Short stories and books are quite a different proposition. I never start off knowing where I’m going. I’m the same with blogs. I pretty much write the first thing that comes into my head and I take it from there, see where it goes, which is why sometimes I ramble a bit at the start because I’m searching for a direction.

    With Left when I first started it I did have a good idea where I wanted to go with the book but I lacked the ability to execute my plan. I could never write erotica for example and there is very little sex in any of my books and that includes Left where one of the characters is a sex worker. I know all the words and what people do – I’m no innocent – but I just cannot for the life of me write about sex without wanting to make a joke of the whole thing.

    In the first version of Left the daughter was younger than she ends up in the final version, probably in her twenties, and she had conversations with her dead dad, not with his ghost but with an imagined version of him. If you ever get the chance to see an episode of the crime series Raines do because that’s exactly what I was aiming for. In the series (which only lasted seven episodes (the American public has no imagination)) the excellent Jeff Goldbum plays an LAPD detective who interacts with imaginary manifestations of dead crime victims in order to solve criminal cases. Most importantly: they can’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know – they are effectively hallucinations – so he’s really just working things out in his own head but I really enjoyed seeing how my idea could work even though I’d abandoned it by then. Here’s a perfect clip.

    There was a programme on a couple of weeks ago about the making of Cream’s album Disraeli Gears which was fascinating. It underlined the fact that chance plays a huge part in the creative process. I like to watch programmes like that because it makes me realise that everyone is winging it. Sure the product at the end might look polished and refined but that doesn’t mean the writer or artist wasn’t wandering round most nights wondering what had possessed him to think he could possibly compete a project of this [insert suitably unachievable noun here]. There was another on Rothko which was just as fascinating. You’d think he just rattled off those canvases but far from it.

    When I look at Left I’m fully aware that it was not the book I hoped/intended to write because I wasn’t capable of writing it but the important thing is that what I ended up with was worthwhile. That is all that matters at the end of the day.

    Reply
  4. Elisabeth
    September 29, 2011 at 10:36 am (6 years ago)

    This wonderful response that I've taken forever to get to Jim calls for another quote. This time from Annie Dillard's 'This writing life'. You've probably read it before but it's worth repeating here.

    ‘Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it?

    'Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as his first experiment dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed.

    'He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling.’

    I shall never forget the word 'cantilever' here. I can see it in my mind's eye and I take comfort from the image, Jim, whenever my writing ideas seem impossible.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Jim Murdoch
    September 29, 2011 at 11:15 am (6 years ago)

    I see a third question, Lis: Should it be done? There are plenty of things in this life can I can do but there’s a fair number of them that I would be ill-advised to do. All my books have been about change or at least about having the option to change. What good would dredging up my past do? I cannot change it and I’m not sure that many people would benefit from my insights. I certainly wouldn’t.

    Reply

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