The Collective /SHARE
We The Pilgrims
Zabriskie Point, 1969.
The Creative Desert is a hellish place in which to find yourself. You thirst, you burn, you are utterly alone; you crawl towards those beguiling mirages – O water! – only to end up with a mouthful of dust. It is a place of extreme temperatures, of venomous animals, and transformative powers. I have spent a lot of time there over the years. I’m never quite sure how I come to find myself among the dunes ... only that it is a wilderness, and seekers are drawn to them like moths. Creative people (and more people are creative than perhaps they realise) are always seeking. We are on a perpetual quest. It’s just that we don’t always know what it is we are looking for, beyond the fact that it is almost invariably some sort of Holy Grail, the mother lode, the key to the Enigma.
I have spent the past year, maybe even two (deserts are like that) in a sunstroke of confusion, circling myself, doubling back in my mind trying to understand why so few of my creative projects – and, incidentally, why so few things – made sense to me anymore. I could no longer see the point of finishing writing yet another thriller, could not bring myself to finish sewing yet another Angie Doll – even drawing them felt forced. I had moved on from my old ‘stupid’ cartoons and lost the will to cook with any degree of imagination or passion; it was all I could do to finish these pieces for RUSSH. It’s not that there were no ideas, there were too many perhaps. It’s just that there was no clarity as to which direction I should head in. I searched for signs and markers, portents and omens; I rushed this way and that but all I kicked up was dust. This confusion was the worst thing of all. I had somehow slid out of the energy-current of life and was now turning in turgid circles, stagnating. I could not break free and the shadow of depression hovered bitter-cold and inky. I was fading at the edges, and at the centre.
I decided I had to begin again at the beginning. There would be no calcified chasms of automatic thought guiding my travels – all assumptions had to go, the dry riverbeds smashed to powder. And so I simply stopped: I stopped feeling guilty and useless, I stopped trying to feel busy and fulfilled – I just stopped and listened and hoped like hell that if I stood still enough the necessary truth would come to me. There is a power in standing still like this. The creatures hidden all around you begin to show themselves. You literally come to your senses and begin to properly hear and see and smell. I’m not sure we do this often enough in a world that seems to be bent on perpetual distraction, and by the demand that we all appear useful and engaged and hectically, maniacally and overachievingly busy (with the accompanying badge of honour: stress). We are required to be always in motion, regardless of where we are actually going or what it is we are really producing.
And so I stood still and I waited. I reached up and brushed the cosmic cloths with my fingertips and prayed I still had it in me to draw down the ideas and vision I depend on. Eventually some phrases came to me – I thought they might be poetry. I wrote them down without questioning whether they were good, or what they were ... it began to trickle ... I thought I glimpsed a way back in. I began to draw again, lightly. My new character wore a large hat and I nicknamed her the Snufkin (a homage to the Moomins). I realised that I had evolved, changed, grown out of old tropes, and that new ones had to be formed that reflected who I was now, and all that I had learned and lived through. I was the Snufkin now; I had always been the Snufkin – it’s just that the Exploration of Life had demanded I set off on all sorts of adventures, and I had moved far away from her. Life had required other guises of me.
We orbit our true selves – our ‘ness’ – like moons. We spin ellipses in slow motion, moving closer and farther from our central truths; the feelings, the thoughts, the visions of the world that make us who we really are, the person we recognise when we are alone in the dark. It took letting go, and a certain amount of faith, to trust in the trajectory of the orbit, to believe that I could still spin back, to learn to hear the planets singing to us with their radio waves.
It also took a huge amount of active hunting. From the outside this looks like a pretty passive process (sofa, coffee, blank stare) but inside I am a raptor. I see and read everything, I talk to wise owls, I revisit the shelves of my dusty old notebooks, I seek and call out ... David Bowie died and I thought a lot about him, how he never gave up his Bowie-ness (even if that in itself was completely created). He pushed out into space like the starman he was. I also thought about how extraordinary things can only really be achieved with a little insanity. Insanity is the ingredient that stops us from checking ourselves too often, it’s the brake on being too sensible, too practical. In the right dose it is the thing that saves us – saves our ‘ness’ – from being erased by quotidian demands and disappointments, the tyrannical gaze of others. And this takes us to the heart of the creative process: we have to be still and listen and open to ourselves, but then we have to build something with what we have felt or seen; we have to manifest things from our ‘ness’ that we can share with others (even if it’s just the wild creatures).
I talked to a friend who knew about the Bedouin and how they navigate the desert. He told me they make ‘space’ from place; they imbue meaning and significance into the landscape around them. These meanings mark the resources for survival, or the way to get to them. Australia’s indigenous people – great desert wanderers themselves – have their songlines ... Perhaps if we find ourselves lost in the wilderness we need to do the same: find the meaning in our lives that will lead us to water. Creative expression is the evidence we can show ourselves to prove our lives matter, that we are part of a greater songline, that there is significance to our days – whatever that is. Perhaps then that wilderness is where we go, not when we are lost but when we are ready to find ourselves again.