Exactly a year ago, I was living out a dream of mine – hiking the Larapinta trail. It is ten days of through hiking (for the super fit) from Alice Springs due west along the West MacDonnell Ranges. It stretches through what is thought to be the oldest geological landscape on planet earth. I did it solo (but made some friends along the way) and I felt something out there in that incredible timeless place.
Here is a photo I took at dawn on one of those magic days. I am not a good photographer, but I can tell you that it felt, in that moment, as if I was standing on the edge of infinity.
But this post is not about the Larapinta trail. It is about what motivated me to drive over 2000 km to do it and the connections between intuition and creativity. Intuition is, in this sense, sometimes called the muse or divine inspiration.
In a television documentary, I once heard a sculptor explain that he was not sculpting, he was simply removing the parts that weren’t required, and that, the more he learned to just let go and let the object decide what it was, the better the outcome. As a writer, I have experienced similar moments when it seems as if my hands fly free across the keyboard, seemingly unconnected to my brain and write things that I believe are beyond my current capacity. One of my friends is a visual artist. When I broached this topic with her, she agreed that sometimes the page creates light and shade where you would not have chosen it to go, but in going with it, something magical happens.
Just over a year ago, my ability to write anything dried up. My husband and my artistic friend encouraged me to take up drawing for a while. I was reluctant. If you can’t draw, how can you get any satisfaction from it? But my daughter bought me some quality art materials with her own limited money, so I had to try. There were some basic instructions on the back of the pencil box on stippling and hatching. New concepts to me. So I began making my first marks on the first page of the art book.
I wasn’t intending to draw anything – this was just me learning the technique. After a while, I realised I was drawing rocks.
“Cool” I thought. These almost look like rocks – far better than anything I’ve ever done.
For as long as I possibly could, I resisted making decisions on what I was drawing. I let the page decide. I say this, but I recognise now that this was me simply letting my intuition take the lead. Hours flew by, sitting in the garden while I stippled and hatched. This is what I drew.
Okay, so I am no Da Vinci, but in comparison with my previous attempts this was a giant leap forward with a jet pack strapped on. It became obvious to me that I was drawing the Larapinta trail as I imagined it would be.
I went with it and after a few days of letting Gupi take control, I finished the drawing from my conscious self – sharpening the mirror images in the water.
Prior to drawing this, I had been thinking about doing the hike, even talking about it, but my head had been full of all the reasons why it was not a good idea. Looking at this sketch, something that I had miraculously found the ability to draw, I no longer thought about what I couldn’t do. I planned carefully and two months later I did it. With everything that followed, I’m so grateful that I did.
Now we fast forward six months. I am picking up those pencils and the sketch book and staring at my first attempt, while sitting in a hospital bed. In between times I had tried to rediscover that magic, but like going through the wardrobe into Narnia, it does not seem to happen for me when I consciously will it to happen.
Just days before, at our March CwD meeting, Tony had shared with us a poem he had written. The first three lines especially, seemed incredibly relevant to my situation.
You have a decision to make
A journey to take
Are you ready?
Extract of poem by Anthony (Tony) Annesley
I was just beginning a journey that was terrifying. With cancer, there are two decisions you make – are you going to put yourself completely in the hands of the medical professionals; and how are you going to respond to what is happening. Wanting to distract myself on my first night in hospital, I started hatching. I vaguely hoped that I would have a picture to go with Tony’s words so I left the centre space blank to start off with, intending to insert the words there. However the urge to draw hiking boots was just too strong.
If my Gupi had an answering machine, for all the times she doesn’t respond, it would probably say ‘gone hiking, leave a message.’
Nurses, cleaners, doctors would come and go and comment on how they thought it looked good. It gave us all something to talk about. I felt this sketch was even better than my first attempt, although my almost impenetrable forest could keep me for years in psychoanalysis!
I took from this exercise, that I would treat my “cancer journey” as a hike. In every through hike, especially at the beginning, there are moments where you are overwhelmed. I’ve learnt that that’s okay, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and take in the beauty around you. To every single chemotherapy appointment, I wear my hiking boots. And yes, it works for me.
John Birmingham, in his book, How to be a writer… talks about “Gardeners” and “Architects.” I think his approach is useful for an understanding of how intuition should play a role in our creative pursuits. He describes George R. R. Martin, (the author of The Game of Thrones) as a Gardener. Like my approach to sketching, Martin does not plan his work consciously. Instead he lets divine inspiration take the lead. Birmingham argues that this can provide some of the best creative work, but it lacks discipline and can make reaching deadlines difficult.
Architects, on the other hand, plan their work. They can be creative but usually they do not reach the dizzy heights of creativity that the Gardeners do. On the other hand, they can reliably produce the goods. They make better editors too.
So which is best? I think we should all develop a keen sense of both – the inner “Gardener” (or Gupi) and the Architect, (the cognitive self). It has to be said, that while my sketches began with the Gardener and for sketching I rely heavily upon her, I still needed the “Architect,” to finish them off.
I now believe that all of us have the capacity to dip into greater creativity by learning how to “let go” and connect with our intuition, our Gardener, our Gupi. Walk through the wardrobe with me, let’s see what is on the other side.
It doesn’t just happen though. Whatever your pursuit is, you need good tools and some basic know how (such as hatching and stippling). Like daydreaming it works best when you don’t have to watch the time. Hardest of all is just letting it happen, switching the brain over to that other mysterious place.
And what place did my second sketch take me to? Misty Mountains, as I remember them. I will get there, when the current journey is finished.