Writing, Creativity and Grief

What acts are best to provoke creativity? Some poets – from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Dylan Thomas – seem to have felt that drug- or alcohol- induced hazes may be effective, but I don’t think many scientists would recommend that route. Discussing unanticipated results with colleagues at the conference bar is probably as far as alcohol wisely enters into the scientist’s lexicon of inspiration. I think most people would agree such debates can be productive, at least as long as the booze-consumption is moderate. Alternatively one might choose to go for distant walks (along the lines of William Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’) or simply spend long hours in the lab battling with the data until it surrenders its secrets. Everyone has to find their own route and, as Thomas Edison memorably remarked: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” and I think that covers creativity as well.

The observant and regular reader of this blog may have noticed that the regularity of my posts has slipped in recent months. I think this reflects my lack of creativity and a feeling that, not only are my evenings frequently not my own – something that has been true since I became Master of Churchill College; evenings were previously my favoured time to write – but that I have, at least temporarily, lost my spark. I am not entirely sure why this might be, although I think there are various component factors as I’ll spell out.

In line with the vision of Wordsworth tramping the Lake District’s hills, for much of the spring the ‘mulling’ time I found so valuable on my not very adventurous jogs around the area has been lost due to tedious health issues, including an incredibly painful stiff neck, which have stopped me getting out to run. Some physio, coupled with warning words about how I sit and hold my iPad followed by exercises and careful thought about posture, does seem to have released the pain. Which is good news. I am back out on the occasional run, contributing to my inner peace as well as my health and creativity. Several years ago I wrote about how I felt getting away from the keyboard and out into the open air helped me organise my thoughts and inspire my creativity. I had forgotten that during the past months and just felt frustrated that the words did not flow, and it is only now I am back into my gentle pace of jogging that I remember. I feel a bit more optimistic I might be able to write more regularly.

However, there is another mental elephant in the proverbial blogging room that may continue to squash my blogposts: death and mortality. I don’t mean my own (although I have just passed a significant milestone of a birthday that has brought me up very short with a feeling that time is running out), but that of others. Three years ago in May my mentor and inspiration to many Sir Sam Edwards died. I wrote about his death at the time, both on my blog and in the Guardian. These were colloquial and personal accounts of the man I knew and admired so much; the man who made so much difference to my life and career both on the personal and professional front.

Now, my Bank Holiday weekend task has been to write a much drier account of his life for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There is a set style to these brief write-ups. My briefing notes spell it out, and some of these seem decidedly antiquated, not least the ‘opening (or traditional) formula’ being illustrated by the article for that famous politician (the one not to be confused with Disraeli), Gladstone. Or, as my brief spells out the requisite style,

Gladstone, William Ewart (1809-98), statesman and author, was born on 29 Dec 1809 at 62 Rodney Street, Liverpool, the fourth son and fifth of six children of Sir John Gladston, first baronet (1764-1851), merchant and MP, and his second wife, Anne (1773-1835), daughter of Provost Andrew Robertson of Dingwall and his wife, Annie….

Then follows a list of issues I should cover. The one I found made particularly uncomfortable reading in the 21st century was as follows:

Subject’s spouse(s) or partner(s) other than spouse (common-law spouse, established lover or mistress): full names, for women maiden name and former name if previously married, titles, vital dates (years only), occupation(s), full date of marriage or start of the liaison, date (where applicable) of its dissolution.

It just all sounds so archaic and not in keeping with how we live our lives now. Undoubtedly people have ‘liaisons’ but referring to lovers and mistresses as opposed to partners and relationships just sounds archaic, however much such interactions and roles will not have disappeared. I think it is progress that marriage is now allowed to be introduced ‘at the appropriate chronological point’ and not relegated to ‘after the death of the subject’, implying a distinct lack of central importance in the relationship (no doubt historically it was the women who were so relegated) as apparently had been the previous norm. But I hope the keepers of the DNB house style may consider updating the style instructions to reflect more modern customs (I may mention this to them).

Nevertheless, I will attempt to do as required, and keep my style to something appropriate for a hefty (if virtual) tome, not pepper my writing with anecdotes of the man I knew and admired (who anyhow had a single, happy marriage of over 60 years). I hope what I end up with finds favour, but even just writing ‘Edwards’ instead of ‘Sam’ seems a travesty of the man. He always expected everyone to call him simply by that first name, and was not keen on the Sir Sam aspect, although there were those who found it hard to drop the formality.

The final strand impacting, I fear, on my writer’s block also relates to death. It is two years since my mother died, two years last week. Looking back at my blog I see I had another hiccough in my ability to write around the first anniversary too, which I had forgotten until I went back to look for the link to the first post just now. I never understood the phrase ‘not a day goes by when I don’t think of my son/mother/partner….’ until she died. Now I recognize the truth of the sentiment. I want to ring her to share the good times and bad; I want to hear her ironic or cynical comments on the things I get up to and the people I mingle with, often coupled with distinct put-downs regarding some of the things I took so seriously. Her time had come, she had a ‘good death’ if not a particularly happy life, but it is hard not to think of her and to dwell on her perfections and imperfections as the anniversary comes around again. And, as I found at the time, if there is one thing more than anything else that kills creativity for me, it is grief.

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3 Responses to Writing, Creativity and Grief

  1. Catherine Tilley says:

    Thank you for this honest account of a problem lots of us have. I recognise all of these problems in my own work (from time to time), and it’s good to know I’m not alone.

  2. Richard Powell says:

    The DNB is a marvellous resource, available online to anyone with a library card – a good reason in itself for supporting public libraries. I dip into it almost every day, and always come away enlightened, amused and intrigued. I hope you’ve smuggled in some good anecdotes about Sam, and also made it clear that no-one ever called him anything but that! It’s these little touches that bring the subjects to life.