Describing her mother, Alice Walker writes: “She is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have.” The final phrase chimes in my head. Despite the urgency (“her soul must“) it alludes to a peace concomitant with understanding that creative work is the purest form of pleasure.
I arrived at this understanding roundabout, by a process of elimination. After years of diligently, assiduously failing to profit from the wisdom of others; stubbornly running down alleys and pursuing phantoms, I now recognise the two things my soul needs: running and writing. Running, first, because it is obvious, though the less important of the two. Like good grammar, it is essential to my sense of order and well-being, but I only make a fuss in its absence. A nagging pain in my foot warns me to leave my trainers under the bed, unlaced. My brain knows better than to aggravate an injury but the rest of my body is twitchily uninformed. There is nothing wrong with me apart from a sense of abstraction and discontent. Without the discipline of running and long breaths of cold, cleansing air I am inefficient, fretful, soft in a bruised-fruit kind of way. The sky is linty and the wind whips past the shop-fronts and pebbledash terraces as if they aren’t there, yet my run-hungry body longs to be outside.
It took me a long time to notice my unequivocal parallel reaction to not writing. For a week I have been producing rather than creating. Anyone else might think a few thousand words of research here; an article there; a column; a sales pitch; a dozen cover letters; the hundredth iteration of my CV, count as writing—but my soul knows it doesn’t. Job seeking has temporarily, if necessarily, invaded my life and distracted me from work. Without creative activity my brain fidgets and stews. As with running, the longer I go not writing the more I yearn to and, paradoxically, the more difficult it becomes. After a few days off I feel both dread and pleasure at the prospect of a run. Similarly, when I don’t write the idea of writing fills my head, swells to such vast importance that the process grows alien and terrifying. My fractious mind elides twenty-odd years of devotion and discipline and whispers “you can’t,” or “you can, but it won’t be any good.” Absence opens the door and Doubt saunters in carrying a funhouse mirror where past and future crush unbearably against the present. Anxiety ripples through me like a tiny earthquake, shimmying books off shelves and setting my internal crockery a-rattle. The Fear descends: my book will remain unwritten; questions scribbled in notebook margins will remain unexplored; I will tell no stories; never again will I craft a beautiful essay or forget time as I play a private game with my twenty-six favourite toys.
My younger self mistook this Fear for ordinary dissatisfaction. I blamed jobs, boyfriends, poverty and hangovers for wretchedness and sought them as relief. If anyone told me what I needed was “work my soul must have” I wasn’t listening. Words alone gradually won me back. The thrill of recognition on reading Orwell’s Why I Write: “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” The way Fitzgerald’s evocation of: “an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” burns my eyes like the sun. Piecemeal, I discovered that when I write—really create—nothing else matters.
Valerie Solanas wrote that “self-forgetfulness should be one’s goal, not self-absorption.” This is the delicious secret of creativity: what looks like self-absorption (missed appointments, ignored phone calls, banished partners, skipped meals) is an intensely satisfying act of self-forgetting. If, while writing, I have the slightest impulse to make tea, check Facebook or go to the toilet then I’m not creating, I’m producing.
According to Natalia Ginzburg: “To the extent that the writing is valid and worthy of life, every other feeling will become dormant. You cannot expect to preserve your precious happiness fresh and intact, nor your precious unhappiness; everything recedes, disappears… you possess nothing, you belong to no one.”
There is a word for possessing nothing and belonging to no one: freedom. When Walker eulogises her mother’s creativity she isn’t praising an act of production, however aesthetically pleasing. She is paying homage to the radical wisdom that doing the work our souls must have is a way to claim ourselves and free us from what we are not.
“The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear,” wrote Michel de Montaigne. Several centuries later Franklin Roosevelt rephrased the sentiment as: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
They lived in dangerous times. Montaigne’s contemporaries were lucky to reach the age of five-and-thirty. Roosevelt was speaking from the depths of the Great Depression. Fear, one could argue, was a legitimate emotion. Yet they diagnosed it as a greater threat than any material problems. Roosevelt condemned the, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” While Montaigne observes that, “many people… impatient of the perpetual alarms of fear, have hanged or drowned themselves, or dashed themselves to pieces, [giving] us sufficiently to understand that fear is more importunate and insupportable than death itself.” Look at it like that and fear diminishes from a bona fide ghost into a Scooby Doo baddy shaking his limbs beneath a threadbare white sheet. So why do we still hide under the bed when fear skulks into the room?