Guest Post: Creativity and Repair

Mal | Guest Posts,Universal | Thursday, March 19th, 2009

This is the first in a series of guest posts written by fellow bloggers. I’m so pleased to introduce this series by featuring Emma, whose blog furrybees includes thoughtful, well-written posts about her experiments with embroidery, crochet, clay, poetry, and other creative media. If you’d like to write a guest entry about your creative process, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

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Thanks to Mal* for giving me this opportunity to reflect on meaning and creativity.  Her blog is a welcome dose of thoughtful reflection on the creative process.

I credit creativity with great powers of restoration.  (I also sometimes credit it with great powers of anxiety-making, but that’s another story.)  This story is about the intimate connection between identity and creativity and how one lost, academically-minded woman found her way slowly back to herself, or one part of her self, through crochet, embroidery and the vagaries of an old Rolls sewing machine she inherited from her grandmother.  As with most stories, there are many ways of telling it and many ways of making sense of it.  Here is one.

I began a PhD in feminist theory and applied ethics in February of 2001.  “What’s that!?”, I hear you ask.  Well, I thought it would be a good idea to try and write a long treatise on the different ways women can feel both powerful and powerless (for don’t we, at some point, feel both as we go about our days?) and how that affects the way we see others, how we treat them, and, more importantly, how we should respond to them. 

I felt a tentative enthusiasm for my new life at first, and had a thinly sketched idea of what kind of a person I thought I should be as an academic.  I would be brilliant (making immediate and spontaneously fabulous connections between ideas), a quick reader of complex academic writing, and an inspired and prolific writer.  I imagined that I would find joy in books and ideas, relish in the mystery and detective work of research, and flourish in the quiet solitude of the contemplative academic life.  And, in many ways, I did.  Or, I tried hard to, at least.  However, just as virtues can swing to vices, my vision of who, and how, I was supposed to be began to distort. 

Over time, I wondered if I would drown in the books and ideas, if the mystery of my research would ever resolve itself, and if the isolation I felt – alone in my cubicle and alone in my academic field – would ever abate into a quiet, enjoyable solitude.  Needless to say, I felt adrift in this new life and my sense of self — my sense of knowing with any certainty who I was and what I was capable of — began to erode.

However, sometimes the universe intervenes and saves you from yourself. 

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Two things happened almost simultaneously.  Firstly, after one of our many chats full of existential angst, a good friend and I decided we needed to pursue activities that would keep us “in the moment” and give our minds a break from the constant self-analysis that could leave us tied in complex knots.  So, she began to knit and I, spontaneously, bought and began a small cross-stitch bookmark that came in kit form from the local supermarket (of all places) — something I’d never previously contemplated and probably associated it unfairly, and in a dreadfully ageist way, with “granny” and her projects for idle entertainment.  I finished it quickly and was surprised by the strange, glowing satisfaction that followed.

Shortly thereafter, another close friend announced she was pregnant (the first to start the inexorable tide of pregnant friends that were to gradually follow).  In imagining which gift would be appropriate for her and her new one, I remembered how she’d laboured over a crocheted baby’s blanket for another friend’s first baby.  I had watched as, with each stitch, she hoped her friend would cherish this blanket and see it as the lovingly created heirloom that it was intended to be.  I knew I wanted to give the same to her. 

Except for one small matter – I didn’t know how to crochet.

Enter Google and exit, at least for a small part of every day, my PhD project.  Before long, my isolated cubicle was filled with the vibrant energy of a new research project that tugged at my attention and constantly tempted me away from more scholarly pursuits.  Within a short time I had taught myself to crochet and after much thought given to style (interesting but not too “interesting”), colours (no pastels!) and textures (definitely soft and snugly) I made a small white woollen baby’s blanket, in a repeated shell pattern, with a navy blue shell border.

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Those humble beginnings created a kind of urgency in me to keep making things, as well as an insatiable desire to find out about different textile-related arts and crafts.  I quickly picked up embroidery and then sewing things of my own design on an ancient, one-stitch sewing machine gifted to me by my mother’s mother before she died.  With each new skill revealed, with each thrifted piece of fabric transformed, and with each project worked I felt excitement, satisfaction, and accomplishment.  And I felt a kind of existential relief.

It’s only recently, with time and distance (figurative and literal – I moved from Australia to Canada in 2007) that I have been able to reflect on these happenings and how they served to create the woman I am today.  My academic life, then, was a world where I felt lost – adrift in a sea of ideas and competing claims to the “truth” – and where I felt powerless, alone and strangely unskilled at being able to find The Answer to my research questions.  To make matters worse, the academic identity I had tried to fashion to help me with this task was uncomfortable, difficult and ill-fitted to me.  In hindsight, it is no surprise that the methodical learning, grasping and practising of different creative techniques would help to mend the frayed edges of self left by the uncertainties and difficulties of my scholarly life. 

Seeking solace in creativity taught me new lessons about my self.  The gentle, achievable goal of taking stitches, one at a time, of learning new skills, one step at a time, and the act of holding and working with the tactile pleasures of fabric, thread, buttons and beads enabled me to witness a different Emma emerge – someone who was competent, creative, inspired and capable of beginning and finishing projects both big and small.  It is no wonder that I often struggled at that time to choose between the mesmerising meditation of crochet and the tumult of working with complex feminist ethical theory. 

So, I credit my creative life with both restoring a sense of my self to me and with providing the space to begin to imagine a new sense of who I am and who I might become.  Some days as I dream up new ideas in my workspace, or sew up a new creation for another new being fresh to our world, I am aware that there is a dual process of creation going on: one with thread and needle, fabric and hoop; and one with me and my ever evolving sense of my self.

Emma Woodley aspires to be a creator of beautiful, meaningful, useful things.  She is currently trying on the identity of “textile artist” for size. You can follow her adventures in being Creative and Courageous (New Year’s resolutions that delight her on some days and haunt her on others) on her blog furrybees.

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