Spirituality and the Creative Imagination
Where does it come from – the creative urge, the image, the character, the story? I’ve been writing all my life. Poems, stories and dramas flowed out of me from an early age, and since around 30 I’ve had them published and produced in various ways. All that time I wondered where it came from. Now, having achieved my Senior Rail Card, and carrying with it in the same wallet a Student Card for my MA in Creative Writing, I’m travelling alongside student writers on the same path as myself, and I ponder more than ever the origins and impulses of creative invention.
One image comes immediately to mind. It’s from the second volume of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, called The Subtle Knife. The boy Will, in despair at his mother’s loss of sanity and seeking a new and better kind of life, sees a black cat slip through a slit in the air between two perfectly ordinary hornbeam trees in Oxford. It turns out to be a slit in the universe. Will follows the black cat and finds himself in a parallel world, where different rules of history, geography and physicality apply and where different lives can be lived and different stories told.
What a vivid picture that is of what happens when we conjure up a story, a novel, a fable, a saga!
Is that what really goes on when we open ourselves to creativity? Is there an actual slit, an invisible aperture, through which our characters and their stories slide into our human, earth-bound, incarnated consciousness?
I think it is possible. How else can you explain my friend’s experience of standing in the shower on a perfectly ordinary day with nothing particularly inside her head, and ‘hearing’, imaginatively, a conversation between two fully-fledged strangers? I often get visions in the shower, too. And I have dreams about … about that small silver-haired brother who my current character is so jealous of … or the priest whose nickname is Moses … or the pair of starlings who rest on the bridge and become the final item of weight which will bring it down into the river. It happens when I’m least expecting it. I’m staying with my daughter in London, pop into an art gallery as I usually do, and – wham! That sculpture by Degas … I know that woman! And if I don’t know her already, if I work at it I soon will. She has spoken to me, as real-ly as if the words were out there, audible in the air.
Writers as diverse as John Fowles and Robert Louis Stevenson describe the initial vision that kick-started their novel. For John Fowles it was the image of a black-cloaked woman at the end of the Cob at Lyme Regis, that long spit leading out from the harbour, turning and gazing steadfastly at him. She became The French Lieutenant’s Woman. For Stevenson it was a dream which became the fantastically divided character, Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde. Stevenson’s wife, Fanny Osbourne, recalled: “In the small hours of one morning I was wakened by cries of horror from him. I, thinking he had a nightmare, wakened him. He said, angrily, ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogie tale.'” (A ‘bogie’ is a Scots hobgoblin.) Where had these two characters (or three, if you count Jekyll and Hyde as two) been before they entered the heads of these writers? Did they exist independently before they ‘came through’?
Or are they merely a composite of many people known to the writer, like the ingredients of a Christmas pudding, which have been noted at different moments of their lives and stored, ready to be mixed and cooked when the moment is ripe, the oven hot and the commissioning editor demanding a new and saleable product?
That last, more pedestrian, theory may be the true one. But I prefer the theory of the independent existence of fictional characters – if only because it’s more fun. I have dreamed whole stories, complete with the pattern of the wallpaper and the name of the Basset hound lying by the fire.
I’m supported in that conviction by no less a literary giant than A.S.Byatt . In her review of David Mitchell’s astonishing novel Cloud Atlas, she notes that each of this novel’s characters – who live in different historical or even future periods – has a birthmark like a comet, ‘as though they might be different incarnations of the same soul or different forms of the same cloud of molecules’. Perhaps, she says, following David Mitchell’s own thought, ‘we exist for a brief moment inside a shell (like Russian dolls) of virtual pasts, one of which is also the real past, and another of virtual futures, one of which is the real future…’ And she concludes, ‘Fictive people are ghosts’.
But it isn’t easy to reincarnate ghosts. Just because I’ve dreamt the wallpaper and the dog by the fire, I can’t simply write the novel about them like pouring water from a jug. The gift of the imagination comes first, but afterwards there’s the work of the imagination. And what hard work that is! What energy and persistence it needs to bring the original gift into existence as a fully viable story!
The spiritual framework which inspires me for that work is, more than any other, the shamanic world view. The shaman, in traditional cultures from pre-Columbian America to Siberia to Aboriginal Australia, is the seer of her or his community, the one who sees the vision of possibilities beyond those that are accessible or ‘normal’. The shaman will leave the physical body and go journeying in the spirit, will visit the realms of darkness and mystery and come back with stories, and with knowledge of what the community must now see, and hear, and do. The awareness that the shaman receives in this way, writes Joan Halifax , ‘is codified in song and chant, poetry and tale, carving and painting. This art is not art for art, rather it is art for survival, for it gives structure and coherence to the unfathomable and intangible. By “making” that which is the unknown, the shaman attains to some degree control over the awesome forces of the mysterium.’ A shamanic journey often involves being stripped down to the bone, or being forced through a tiny hole from one great space into another, wholly different great space.
Being forced through a tiny hole … The process of creating, in accessible and plausible form, a story which has been delivered to you as a miraculous vision, often seems like that. The hugeness of the vision has to be compressed, pulled through, and then recreated on the other side. The shamanic journey, says Joan Halifax, ‘condense[s] personal symbolism through a mythological lens that encompasses the wider human experience. Through creative expression, the human condition is elevated, mythologized and, at last, collectively understood’.
The creative process is not always as exalted as that. It can also seem petty, pointless, and a distraction from the real business of daily living.
Yet it does seem that humankind – while, as T.S.Eliot says, not being able to bear very much reality – can’t let go of creativity. We can toil and consume and be as logical and materialistic as we like, but that vast cast of fictional ghosts will come knocking on the insides of our skulls. They demand that we journey with them, that we squeeze ourselves through that excruciatingly painful hole and come back bearing their news. I’m glad that’s the case. I hope the ghosts never give up on us, but keep on knocking.
On Friday September 1st 2006, Alison Leonard gave a Rhwng talk and workshop entitled Living in Godless Times. Alison Leonard has written two books about life as a spiritual journey, as well as fiction and drama for children and adults. Even though she is Quaker and finds her way inward through silence, she still loves exploring the world of language for words that might express the inexpressible. Her life as a writer interweaves with a lifelong preoccupation with spirituality, and as well as running writing courses in the UK and abroad, she also runs courses in spiritual development and spiritual autobiography.
Thank you very much, Alison!