Do you ever read a quote and realise you’ve committed it to memory, without every trying?
In a book I read this week, a young would-be musician is in anguish, wondering whether composing is his true calling. Leon asks Marek – his hero, a Czech composer who has withdrawn his music from performance in the Reich – whether or not he really has talent.
‘No one else can tell you that.’
‘But how does one know if it’s worth going on? I don’t know whether I have any true creativity or –’
‘Good God, Leon, why do you always turn back on yourself? If you feel the need to write music, or play it, then do so, but believe me your creativity is of no interest to anyone. Write something – then it’s there. If it’s what you wanted to write, if it exists, then leave it. If it doesn’t, throw it away. Your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant.’
It stuck with me, that last line. At first, I thought: oof, little harsh, Marek. But it’s true. Your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant. More importantly, I think there’s a lesson in happiness there – at least for anybody who considers themselves a creative.
And this lesson was crystallised even further on Friday night, as I pottered round the Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate, one of my favourite spots in London. Don’t get me wrong, our friend Pablo had all sorts of issues, but looking at the work he created in a single year, it’s fairly obvious he felt the need to create and did so frantically. (PS., go to this exhibition if you can).
It’s a funny, lovely thing – the urge to make something. Whether it’s music or art or poetry, novels or installations or photographs. I think it usually arrives quite young, although certainly people discover creative skills later in life. It can be a source of great joy, or even a tool for improving your mental health. I almost never feel happier than when I sit back from something I’ve written and think, yes.
But the older I get, the more I seen how unhappy it can make people, too. Creativity can become a cage, particularly when we reach adulthood and start to feel like we haven’t lived up to our potential. Obviously, very few people get to make a living from the pure form of their talent. When I was a little girl, I would have told you I wanted to be an author. (Spoiler: I’m not. And I now know most authors have other jobs).
And I used to feel bad about not making that happen (or at least, not making it happen yet). If I were a Proper Writer, wouldn’t I be doing it? Wouldn’t I be writing the book idea I’ve always toyed with?
Perhaps. But the reality is, who cares? Why on earth would I let that affect my happiness? There’s no point beating yourself up about not doing something, if the reason you’re meant to do it in the first place is love.
It’s what I love about blogging, and bloggers, for that matter – it strikes me as an activity that is highly motivated by enjoyment, not a desire to be perceived in a particular way.
If you want to make something, make it. If you don’t, know that you might one day, but it really doesn’t matter right now. But don’t let it make you bitter. And don’t blame it on your life.
Because if what you’re clinging on to is just an idea of yourself as somebody who produces art, and you create just to conform to that sense of self, you’re not likely to find much happiness.
Worst yet, I think it can be a recipe for bad art. Sometimes it results in… too much artist in the art. It should be an insight or an expression, not a way of reflecting how you want the world to see you.
Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t stick with it. It’s part of getting better: painting every day, practising your instrument. Brilliant art doesn’t come without effort; by all accounts, writing a book can be a slow, tortuous effort.
But I think most of us would be happier if we followed Marek’s advice: if you want to create, create. If it’s no good, never mind. But just bear in mind that your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant. And there’s no small amount of peace to be found in coming to terms with that fact.
READ MORE FROM NICER THOUGHTS
- The longest love I’ll ever know
- Gifts of joy: positive thinking and mental health
- Positive talk for your mental health: cutting the crappy self talk
The quote is from Eva Ibbotson’s beautiful book, Songs for the Summer. I read her books as a child, and still love them as an adult.