Creative Making in Uncertain Times
This is a book about enabling creative making. Addressing the question from twelve different points of view, it asks how we might best encourage and embolden ourselves to make the work we love, particularly when we find ourselves in positions of doubt, ambivalence or uncertainty. Making creative work in the face of difficulty and uncertainty is a subject that’s close to my own heart. At the age of thirty-six, I had a serious stroke, in the immediate wake of which I gave up my career as an academic writer and lecturer. After my stroke, I faced a completely uncertain future. I had no idea what my newly disabled body and damaged brain were going to do next, but I knew I was going to try to make my life through making things. Crafts like embroidery and knitting not only helped me to develop hand and arm function but offered crucial sources of stimulation and inspiration through which I slowly began to trace a new creative path. Writing about my projects, and documenting the art and history of textiles while I did so, gave me another outlet I enjoyed exploring. In time, I was gradually able to bring the words and things that I loved making together, producing books about knitting, and the history of hand-knitted textiles, for other people to enjoy. I began my new life as a maker from a very difficult and completely uncertain place: with no background, no credentials, no position and no income, possessing very little trust in my new body, and never quite knowing what my damaged brain may or may not have permitted me to do. But, I found that, by working at my own pace, by taking things very carefully and very thoughtfully, by accepting and embracing my new limitations, and by facing up to my own uncertainty, I was not only able to create things that I loved and felt had value, but to make a new kind of life through my own making.
Over the decade following my stroke, my individual making practice grew into a small business. One of the things of which I’m most proud is that my company has allowed not just me but the group of people who work with me the space to develop our own ideas and explore our own—very different—identities as creative makers. Focusing on forms of manufacturing and production that will always remain small-scale and sustainable we create patterns for hand-knitters, design and publish books, process fleeces into yarn, and produce our own knitwear ranges from local wool and mills. In our books, we celebrate the creative communities among whom we work and try to bring new and underrepresented talent to the fore. Alongside these endeavours, all of us make different things: we write poetry and non-fiction, we stitch and weave, we create photographic images, music and textiles, and we pursue our own applied art, fine art, and community art projects in areas that have ranged from an audio-visual exploration of Hebridean island causeways to a collaborative blanket celebrating 30 diverse creative women. Working together, we often talk about our individual attitudes about, and approaches to, what we enjoy doing as creative people: we have very different strengths, and work in very different fields and media, and we all grapple with a different set of personal challenges when we sit down to make. For one of us, a desire for perfection can result in an inability to mess up and enjoy creative play, while another may feel like a working-class imposter, whose sense of not belonging in a particular milieu forces them to question the cultural value of their work. Equally, one person may feel weighed down by the pressure of “authentic” self-expression (or the larger issue of whether an authentic or essential voice could ever be said to exist at all) while another may possess an incredibly rich and fertile store of creative talent whose undoubted worth is nonetheless repeatedly eclipsed by their own diffidence. Frank conversations among my friends and colleagues have not only been interesting and stimulating, but have revealed to all of us how important it is to have our beliefs about our own creative identities and approaches challenged from time to time. Assumptions about who we essentially are and what we do as makers have a dangerous tendency to become idées fixe that can all too easily stymie our capacity to create new or difficult work. The desire to usefully question such assumptions is the first of the two starting points from which this book began.
Beyond bland platitudes
The second starting point is a general frustration with the contemporary discourse of creativity as it appears in popular books about artists and makers, on the one hand, and equally popular books about business and entrepreneurship, on the other. While many creative people have written superbly about their practice (you’ll find some of my favourites in the further reading section) there’s currently a huge slew of publications still peddling bland platitudes about how to be creative. Drawing from familiar canons of inspiring examples, and reinforcing rather narrow definitions of what creative people do or look like, such books adopt a particularly lazy approach to things like “creative genius” which involves the routine exclusion of the experience of difference in all senses. It’s no coincidence that women, people of colour, and disabled people feature among the important makers and artists whose work is celebrated in the pages that follow. Indeed, I feel that at the present moment it’s particularly important to counter the misrepresentation of disabled artists and makers, whose complex, lived experiences are routinely mined in books about creativity merely to provide sources of inspiration for the blithely able-bodied. While tired clichés are rightly exasperating to those of us who are their target, I’d also argue that we all lose out by leaving such damaging stereotypes unchallenged. As a disabled person, I’m powerfully aware of the fact that because my body has to be resourceful and adaptive it is also necessarily, in and of itself, creative. Rather than a problem to be heroically “overcome”, disability involves a wide range of instructive creative experiences from which the able-bodied may well find they have a lot to learn.
If ideas of creativity have become worn to the point of near banality in many popular how-to books, then this problem is magnified tenfold in contemporary discussions of business and entrepreneurship. Type “creative disruption” into a search engine and prepare to be overwhelmed with vapid long-form treatises about thinking outside the box and moving fast and breaking things. We find ourselves at a moment when the most predatory and despicable of corporate behaviours might be celebrated as creatively “disruptive” or when the desperate precarity of a labour market full of gigs and side-hustles could be presented to us as a golden opportunity for us to explore our creative side. In our deregulated, disastrous, late-capitalist world, it seems that creativity can be anything to anyone: not only lauded as a vital bastion of selfhood in the coming age of automation, but a passport to that basic productivity without which we are repeatedly told we will soon cease to signify. To my mind, the lauding of creative “disruption” alongside the simultaneous quashing of actual creative possibility represents the key dialectic of the particularly weird cultural crossroads that we’re now at. For, at the very same time that creativity is held out to us as the last promise of what might make and keep us human, the attention economy repeatedly extinguishes the possibility of actual creative praxis through its demands of continual presence and the bland forms of self-replicating self-expression with which we all now comply.
What's left to say?
If creativity has been appropriated to the point of near-exhaustion as a kind of shorthand for simply being human, is there anything about it left to usefully say at all? I believe that there is, and, more importantly, I think that it’s crucial that we try our hardest to find some new words and ideas about what creativity is or might become in order that the concept might still resonate for those people who, in the face of this uncertain world and their own uncertainty, continue to make their work with heart. This book is one contribution. In the twelve chapters that follow, I counter some of the most routinely accepted—that is, the most hackneyed—notions about what creative making is or does or looks like with a set of challenges and questions. What if, instead of breaking or disrupting, we made mending and repair the focus of our work? What might creative action look like if it was much more about collaborating and bringing other people forward than blowing one’s own trumpet? What if we just stopped wishing for creative freedom and thought more carefully about what impediment and limitation might importantly have to show us? How might things change if we stopped aiming for certainty or conviction and rather accepted the self-questioning nature of our work as its necessary condition?
The pieces that follow are polemical. That is, they all adopt a particular position from which to make a particular argument. Such arguments are certainly not intended to make you nod along and concur, rather, they are there to make you question a few ideas, step back from what you might have imagined, and reflect upon a few different possibilities. How could your approach to your work change if you thought about what you were doing as iterative and repetitive rather than as making something completely new? What if you embraced an idea of performativity over one of authenticity? Might shutting up and listening be as important to your work as other more vocal, or more visible, forms of self-expression? Some of these chapters may seem completely irrelevant to you and to your practice; some of them might not seem at all convincing. You don’t have to agree with—or even like—what’s being said, but I do hope that at least some of these pieces challenge your thinking, or provide some food for thought.
Making creative work is hard. Making creative work is fun. Whether knitting is your hobby; whether you can’t stop writing poetry; whether you make your living as a photographer or an illustrator; whether your applied art practice involves a mixture of commercial and conceptual elements; we are all here, in the end, because we enjoy what we do and at some level firmly believe in an idea of its worth. In challenging a few commonly received notions about what it means to make creatively, the aim of this book is not to undermine our firm beliefs, but rather to find some useful ways of exploring their parameters and to bring them into meaningful focus. Making creative work is fun. Making creative work is hard. As well as challenging ourselves, we all need some encouragement from time to time, and there are moments when it is very important for us to pause, regroup, and try to find a new place from which to purposefully recommence. My hope is that this book is something that might be reached for in such moments. In the Feel Uninspired chapter I set out one of my own approaches to finding new, purposeful beginnings at moments of real difficulty, while the Have Doubts piece suggests a few different ways in which we might embrace the provisional, the ephemeral, or the ambivalent to continue to make our work with hope.
If making creative work seems hard when faced with our own uncertainty, then our uncertain times certainly do not make matters easier. While those in power are happy to co-opt the worst kinds of prejudice and bigotry to further their own ends, the online monopolies within which all our lives are implicated spew out a daily cycle of distraction and reaction. Critical responses to our uncertain cultural moment seem to be dominated by two equally depressing default modes: a hand-wringing digital oh-dear-ism, or an affective politics with an ever-narrowing focus on the hurt and damaged self. Neither mode, it seems to me, is particularly interesting, or creative, because neither is constitutionally apt to move beyond stasis, resignation, or complaint toward actually doing or making something. I read a lot of books about creativity before sitting down to make this one, and an incident described in Austin Kleon’s Keep Going (2019) stands out. Kleon writes about how the joy of his creative practice is sometimes undermined by waking up and feeling “as if the world had gotten dumber and meaner overnight.” He counters that familiar feeling of depletion—that sense that the world is utterly appalling and there is nothing we can do—by making things, and among the things he makes are robot collages, formed out of bits of tape and magazines, which he exchanges with his five-year old son for the latter’s robot drawings. These robots are part of a meaningful exchange between two people, powerfully consolidating the affectionate bond between them, and made with no other purpose than the sheer fun and joy of their creation. Kleon describes the robots as “some of my favourite things I’ve ever made.” For me, they represent tiny beacons of hope against despair. I’m not saying that creating and exchanging tiny robots with someone you love is going to change the world. But I do believe that making things that you believe in—whatever those things are—will always make things better.
Underlying each of these twelve chapters is that basic desire to make something—better. Each essay explores a potentially challenging point of view; each provides a series of prompts to encourage creative experiment or action; and each makes a suggestion for a different place you might like to go to extend your thinking about the issues raised. The prompts to creative action have been produced from perspectives which simply reflect my own experience as a maker: someone who knits and designs, who writes words, and who occasionally produces art. The prompts aren’t meant to be didactic: feel free to interpret them in any way that makes sense to you and your own practice; to change them; or to ignore them, just as you wish. If knitting is your thing, you’ll find several PDF charts to download, adapt and use here on the Wheeshtbook website. Developing, writing, and producing this book has been in itself, for me, a very particular form of praxis: my own way of making something useful in uncertain times; of thinking and writing carefully about a set of issues that I believe to be important; and of contributing to a particular debate about the development of sustainable, inclusive, responsible creative practices that I feel is now of some real urgency. Whatever your identity, position or point of view, whatever your discipline or practice, whatever it is that you particularly like to make, and whatever the purpose of your making, I hope you are able to embrace the simple idea that sits at the heart of this book and which runs, threadlike, through each of its pages: as a way of moving forward, making something is always an improvement on doing nothing.
© Kate Davies / Makadu Press 2019