On Good Art, Bad Art and Creativity

24 Mar


                                                                                 By Rhea H. Boyden
There are two things I have learned in my mid-thirties that I really, really wish I had been told by a wise professor on the first day of my four year career at a liberal arts university that would have made my life a lot easier. Firstly: when you study liberal arts you have no idea where it will lead and what career path you will end up in, so don’t stress about it now. And secondly: when you are writing a term paper, relax; procrastination and messing around with your notes and ideas are part of the process, so learn to love it. I was a good enough student at university, but I lacked confidence in my own academic ability and I was always really stressed when writing any term paper.
Last year when I really started to get more into writing, a good friend of mine gave me a fabulous book by a woman by the name of Natalie Goldberg entitled ‘Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within’. I learned more from this one book about writing than everything I was ever taught at university. Goldberg uses perfect metaphors to describe different processes in writing. In her two-page essay entitled ‘Composting’ she talks of how all our notes and research need time to decompose through our subconscious mind before they jump out onto our blank page as beautiful poems and stories- as Goldberg says- like a bright red rose shoots out of the compost.
This essay resonated with me entirely and I have never stressed about writing an essay since. I have come to view collecting my notes and doing my research and reading as ‘composting’ and have come to enjoy it immensely as a part of the whole creative process from first idea to final draft.
The successful writer Neil Gaiman gave a commencement speech to graduating college seniors at a prestigious arts college and he gave them some good tips as they set out on their careers. He told them, that no matter what, and how hard life got, they should simply ‘make good art’. ‘People who set out on a career in the arts have no idea what they are doing’, Gaiman told the students. ‘And’ he elaborated, ‘This is great’.
I remember very well worrying a lot about my future in my last year of university. I did not know then, that within a year, I would end up teaching English at one of Berlin’s better language schools, a job I still hold 13 years later. It was a job I loved, and I learned so much from it in the first few years. Like most jobs, however it gets a bit repetitive. I still love it, and there are days of novelty and wonder, but it involves a lot of commuting, which is one of the most soul-destroying activities of modern life, so I have recently turned to writing as something that really and truly fulfills me and also gives me new energy for teaching and has made my teaching job better too as I am more happy and fulfilled. The combination of teaching and writing is a good one.  I get to be with my students during the day and then I get to be alone and get lost in reading and writing at night and on weekends. Each job feeds the other, and I feel, they would be
incomplete without each other. I had to ‘compost’ my experiences in Berlin teaching and partying for 12 years before I could even begin to write about them.
‘You never know where it leads and this is a good thing’. Neil Gaiman’s words make even more sense to me now than ever before. Writing for me is a magical adventure and I never know where it leads. I never could have imagined two years ago when I sat down to write my first short story as a mature adult that I would be enjoying so much success with it within two years. It has filled my heart with joy, gotten me published in three countries, helped me stay sober after hitting the bottle too hard because I was bored and frustrated, and has opened my life to a whole range of ideas and possibilities that I explore every day.
My magazine assignments have been varied and wonderful and I explore Berlin art, architecture, theatre and opera and write about it all either as previews, reviews, or guidebook assignments. When I see wonderful art I am alive, empowered and inspired.  Everything is great and I am on a roll. In the past few weeks, however, I have had the misfortune of experiencing bad art and disappointing performances which has left me feeling somewhat unhappy and lonely and with a feeling that I have wasted my precious free time doing these things when there is so much good culture in Berlin to experience.
Last week I went to the cinema to see a film, in German and set in Berlin called ‘Shark Alarm on Mueggelsee’. I had presumed that the shark bit was a metaphor for something else, but unfortunately it was not. There really was a shark in the Berlin lake. The characters were bad and clichéd, the acting mediocre and the attempt at humour mostly cringeworthy. I went home feeling disappointed and lonely.
Last Sunday was Saint Patrick’s Day, so I dressed up in green and went to the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on an internet date. It was freezing, the parade consisted of a few Scottish bagpipes, which for me, are not a symbol of the Irish national holiday, and a boombox blaring cheesy Irish country songs. To make matters worse the date was also a disappointment. Again, I went home feeling disappointed.
But the worst experience in recent weeks was going to see a play at the English Theatre Berlin a few weeks ago and the whole performance was dismal. I am not accustomed to writing scathing reviews of events and I like to keep my writing light-hearted and humourous. I had made a lot of notes to write a bad review but I was not quick enough. Another Berlin magazine got there before me. The woman who wrote the review slammed the performance and apologized in a public letter for having supported the project at all. I simply abandoned my notes, she had said it all already.
So after an exhilarating ride writing about wonderful cultural things I feel a little bored, lonely and uninspired by my recent experiences and I realize even more how important good art is for my emotional well being. If you work a full time job that is a bit repetitive then you hope for good culture and art to get lost in and inspired by in your free time.

My day job is at least full of the variety of companies, diversity of students and multitude of topics that keep me from getting too bored, but what if you really work a soul-murdering job that allows no room for maneuver at all? In his novel ‘The Pale King’, David Foster Wallace describes the daily life of an income tax rote examiner, who has to sit and process tax returns all day. When the examiner, whose skin is described as being the colour of wet lead, looks at the clock he is painfully aware each time of how slowly time is passing. Foster Wallace sums  up the examiners thoughts like this: ‘He imagined that the clock’s second hand possessed awareness and knew that it was a second hand and that its job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow unvarying machinelike rate, going no place it hadn’t been a million times before, and imagining the second hand was so awful it made his breath catch in his
throat and he looked around quickly to see if any of the other examiners had seen him or were looking at him’.
Who doesn’t know the awful tedious feeling of being bored and waiting and watching a clock? Clocks run our lives and either we are running late, running out of time or we are waiting impatiently for someone or something to happen or appear.
Last summer I went to the Documenta international contemporary art show in Kassel in the centre of Germany. One of the most impressive exhibits at the show was a spectacular multimedia installation entitled ‘The Refusal of Time’ by the South African artist William Kentridge.  The exhibit portrayed society’s attempts at control over time and the mesmerizing ticking of clocks and music left me so enthralled and inspired that I went home and wrote an article about it which was then published in a New York online magazine. It was the first piece I had ever had published so I was naturally ecstatic. Kentridge’s clocks were not boring or excruciating, but inspiring and empowering. That was definitely a ‘good art’ experience that left me feeling whole and connected to the world.
So if ‘bad art’ leaves me feeling lonely and despondent, ‘good art’ has the exact opposite effect and shows me even more how vital it is to support and create good art. Good art inspires people to make more good art and then everyone benefits. And when you are feeling lonely you can strive to make good art to help you reconnect to the world ending your loneliness. Another of Natalie Goldberg’s essays provided me with this insight. Writing can be a very lonely pursuit but Goldberg says the following: ‘Use loneliness. Its ache creates urgency to reconnect with the world. Take that aching and use it to propel you deeper into your need for expression- to speak, to say who you are and how you care about light and rooms and lullabyes.’

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