Are we wasting that creativity we keep all to ourselves?
“I am a cage, in search of a bird.” – Franz Kafka
Before the great novelist Franz Kafka died in 1924, he ordered his friend Max Brod to destroy his entire body of unpublished work so that it could never been seen by a critical eye. Brod, who was a prolific writer himself, knew talent when he saw it and so being the great friend that he was, completely ignored Kafka’s dying request. Instead of burning his deceased confidant’s work, as Kafka had routinely done himself over the course of his lifetime, he had it published. All of it. And Kafka, being dead, remains forever untouched by both critical opinion of his work and the worldwide acclaim he achieved posthumously. Kafka, it seems, spared himself the bad at the cost of the tremendously good because he was by all accounts, a classic hider.
When the theme of this issue arrived in my inbox I sat with it for a long breath; the chord it struck took a while to stop reverberating. Every human life, I believe, has one or two constitutional themes or challenges from which all others sprout, like a river and its derivative streams. Mine, like Kafka’s, has been a recurring tendency to nominate myself as the hider in a perpetual game of hide-and-seek with the world. I’m all too familiar with what it means to keep a lifetime of creative emissions undisclosed, stashed away in notebooks (hundreds of them), folded into battered bar napkins, scribbled on post-its, hidden away in cupboards and storage boxes, filed under “my own” in Word documents. All of it seen by no one but me – not family, lovers or friends, let alone work contacts, potential publishers or, God forbid, the general public. While I’m proud of my published work and feel lucky to have it in print, it has always been commissioned, I had somebody else’s confidence in me, and an imposed deadline, drive the will to complete a piece and put it out into the public realm. Yet the work I would call personal, the stuff that emerges when there are no external limitations or expectations influencing my creative flow, remains in the shadows. For years I was seemingly OK with this – I even attached a kind of romance to having something that was just for me, a private space for purposeless artistic exploration and the freedom of expression that allowed. But a nagging sense of unease growing steadily in volume of late, like a deep internal itch, has caused me to suspect that there might be a deeper issue at play. That there’s a bigger reason for keeping it all a big secret than merely indulging in that aspect of my creativity as a cathartic hobby.
For many like me (and there are more than you might think) the rationale frequently flies under one of the classic ‘anti’ banners: “money perverts art”, “recognition is a shallow motivation”, “subscribing to a capitalist, materialistic, fame-obsessed society’s idea of success is a fast track to a meaningless life”. And for many of us notorious hiders, those battle cries do hold some degree of truth. It is true, for example, that I don’t believe in striving endlessly to satiate an ultimately insatiable craving for material success, or that public recognition will lead to a sense of personal fulfilment and real meaning. But that’s not the real root of the reason my work remains in cupboards, is it. Because what it takes to use what you’ve been given, make something out of it, and expose it to the world, is courage – a tonne of it. Without the bravery of artists willing to put themselves out there and risk public slaughter, we would have no great art to inspire us, to challenge existing paradigms and expand our experience of the world. Every hider knows this deep down, but it’s not an easy thing to admit that the level of courage required to come out of hiding – creatively or personally – feels unavailable to them, to us.
The faceless artist Banksy, master of all incognitos, was once quoted as saying that “invisibility is a superpower”. And in some ways he’s right. In an age when everything is so grossly visible, so overly shared, I think his strategy of anonymity is a valuable counterpoint to the highly curated falsified selves we’re peddling as a culture these days. His invisibility allows his message to stand as the focal point rather than a manufactured self-image. But, he still shares that message. Banksy is ultimately a creator who shows his work. Yes, he hides, he hides well, and who knows his real reasons for that – perhaps a giant PR stunt or perhaps the same crippling fear of judgement that plagues all good hiders. But what he certainly doesn’t hide is his art, the fruits of his heart’s labour, and that is an important distinction. While we may not be able to see Banksy, he can certainly see us. The criticism, the scrutiny, the ridicule from cynics and high art snobs – I’d be very surprised if he was insulated from it all. And yet he keeps creating, he keeps canvassing our landscapes with his messages. He may not have a face, but he has a voice. And for the hiders, for the poets who write only for the Moleskine their words are scrawled in, for the Kafkas of the world, finding your voice and speaking it aloud is the gut-wrenching, panic-inducing, hardest part.
One of the greatest poets of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson, composed more than 1700 poems and saw fewer than a dozen published in her lifetime. Of course the fact of Dickinson being a woman at a time when the majority of women harbouring creative genius remained unrecognised is no insignificant factor. But beyond the limitations of being a female Dickinson was a known hider, a staunchly private poet whose attempts at publishing her work were desultory at best. In her late 30s she reached out by letter to a literary critic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in response to an essay he wrote for The Atlantic offering advice to young writers who wished to be published. “Mr Higginson, are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive? The mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have no one to ask.” Enclosed with the letter were four of her poems. My hunch is that what she may have been hoping for in entreating Higginson for his thoughts on the “aliveness” of her verse, was the validation she always been too apprehensive to seek, and perhaps even the push she needed to publish. But alas, while Higginson reportedly praised her work and the two remained in correspondence for many years, he didn’t push her to publish and nor did she explicitly ask. Dickinson continued to write in secret until her death at age 55, sharing her verses – which can only be described as unmistakably “alive” – with a very select few, and uncannily like Kafka, made a dying request to her sister Lavinia to commit her words to the furnace. Lavinia, unlike Brod, was dutiful – but only partially so. Dickinson had specified only a portion of her writing should be destroyed and failed to mention the 1700 poems she kept locked in an old chest. That was Lavinia’s loophole, and that omission is the sole reason we have the heart wrenching, uniquely Dickinsonian verses we know and love today.
The examples of posthumous recognition for notoriously reclusive artists are endless, from van Gogh to Thoreau to Emily Brontë who never lived to see her real name printed beneath the title of her first and only novel, Wuthering Heights. Their mystery, no doubt, a significant part of the intrigue that surrounds them and the value later placed on their work. And I do think there is something to be said for the dying art of cultivating mystery, especially in today’s world, but the need to express ourselves creatively and authentically, to be seen and understood, is a human need, not the need of narcissists, capitalists and an insecure celebrity-worshipping youth. There is a difference between desperately seeking validation from strangers to affirm your existence and simply sharing with sincerity and vulnerability who you are, what you love, and what you dare to make out of it. Kafka probably could have been published more extensively in his lifetime but he chose to work for an insurance company. Maybe he had bills to pay and figured the corporate game was a safer bet, but more likely, because he was afraid. Likewise Dickinson could have pressed her well-connected penpal Higginson for a little help breaking into print, but she seemed content to have but one person read her words for his own mild amusement rather than live in the minds of many – maybe because that was genuinely enough for her, or maybe as a woman of a certain era she didn’t feel entitled to such things, or maybe she too was simply afraid.
Fear is a shape shifter that manifests in a multitude of ways. We all experience it differently and some forms are worse than others, but fear of judgment is perhaps among the worst, mainly because it’s just so inhibiting to creativity and therefore, life. To quote Dostoevsky, who contrary to the aforementioned seemed to have no problem projecting his literary voice even in the face of persecution, “almost all capable people are terribly afraid of being ridiculous, and are miserable because of it”. The hiders, above all, fear humiliation – which is not totally irrational. We live in a brutally critical society with more platforms through which to share ill-informed and callous opinions than ever before. Scathing personal attacks via social media have sadly become the norm, and anybody with access to Wi-Fi who fancies themselves an art critic has an open arena in which to massacre an easy target. I wouldn’t blame a faint-hearted poet or a sensitive painter for their hesitation in throwing their deeply personal creative work into the lion’s den to watch it be ripped apart. But while technology has made it easier to publicly scrutinise, it has also made it easier to connect with an appreciative audience, however small or niche it might be. Putting a poem up on Instagram or a personal blog may elicit a few biting sniggers, but it also might be exactly what someone on the other side of the world needed to read at that moment, something that might just touch their heart or save their sanity.
In one of her poems Dickinson wrote, “We never know how high we are till we are called to rise. Then if we are true to form our statures touch the skies.” The call to rise can come from anywhere, but most often, I’ve found, it begins softly – a quiet note resounding within. It’s the persistent tug of that thing you feel most compelled to do, with or without an audience. But what I’m beginning to realise is, doing the thing you feel compelled to do and filing it away in a locked cabinet is only halfway to meeting that call. The rest of the mileage is covered by stepping right into the deep dark well of your own vulnerability and allowing the world the opportunity to connect with it, to benefit from it, even in a small and seemingly insignificant way.
Both Kafka and Dickinson each in their own way defied the literary conventions of their time and reimagined their craft, creating a ripple effect that ramified over generations. In retrospect, they were an integral link in chain of the evolution of their art. They both, unbeknownst to them, passed the baton to a whole new wave of writers who absorbed their unique style and evolved it, like the world-renowned novelist Gabriel García Márquez who credits Kafka’s work with showing him “that it was possible to write in a different way”.
The poet W.H Auden wrote: “You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at.” What if what we have within us isn’t really ours, but everyone’s? What if our inner urge to create in a particular way is actually an anomalous piece of existence begging for expression, so that art might move and expand in ever-unique directions? In short, what if it’s not about us? What if our fear of humiliation, of ridicule and judgment, is not only stunting our own personal evolution, but that of creativity – of art – itself? What might have happened to those transcendent works of Dickinson’s and Kafka’s had they not have had such disobedient loved ones who also possessed the acuity to see value in them? They would be ashes. And the literary canon might look very different, who knows.
I had coffee with the friend at the start of the year and she asked me a very simple question: “what do you want from life this year?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “but I do know what I don’t want. I don’t want to die with it in me.”
“With what in you?”
She didn’t know, because I hadn’t shown her. I hadn’t shown anyone.
Ultimately recognition, posthumous or otherwise, is secondary to the glorious feat of straddling our most intimate fears and riding them to the death. To finding our caged bird and flipping it at the mediocrity that will inevitably seek to tear down radical bravery. To the act of giving what we’re here to give with little regard for how well or not-so-well it will be received, because it is simply our duty in this life. “This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me,” penned Dickinson in one of her musty, stashed notebooks. Well, lady, you never gave it a chance.
It has come to my attention a little too recently, that in this game of hide-and-seek, the world is not playing. The world is not relentlessly hunting for the dedicated hiders by torchlight as we might secretly wish. It is not elbow deep in an archaeological dig for the goods we have locked away in the cavities of our chest. The world is going about its business and to what degree we go about ours is of no concern to it. But, my fellow hiders, it should be of concern to us. Because, as Wallace Stevens said, “the wound kills that does not bleed.” Keeping it all inside can be a far more painful existence than letting it out and having the whole world throw rotten tomatoes at it. Instead of silently waiting for someone to peek behind the door and yell, “found you!” perhaps it’s time that we step out from that dark nook and see if the world won’t glance up from its business and meet our gaze. And if it doesn’t, well, at least we won’t die with it in us. Or worse, depart this earthly plane and leave it to someone else to release before the final edit has been made, which, as every creative knows, is a true source of terror.