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Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za

Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Big Book Chain Chat #15: Sustaining creativity

Chris Marnewick - 2010-10-19

Helen Brain wrote: “So if you’re engaged in an everyday job that isn’t very satisfying, how do you keep your creativity fresh?” I can see the problem. Boredom at work may lead to boredom at home. And elsewhere. I would like to pose – and answer – the question turned on its head: Does being engaged in a satisfying and even challenging job facilitate creativity in your writing?

It does. There seems to be a strange phenomenon at work here. I spend my working days reading and writing and talking to people and listening to them. I spend on average one day a week in court, listening to people and talking, after a good deal of reading – research and preparation – and writing court documents. The work is often challenging. Some cases are emotionally and physically draining. Some are over quickly, while others take years to resolve. Frequently a case comes around that is so difficult that it behaves like a tapeworm that consumes every ounce of your best energy, leaving nothing for other pursuits – not for the wife, not for the children, not even for a good night’s sleep. The adrenalin levels are high, most of the time. The job is never boring.

The law is about relationships between people, and so is the novel. Every court case is about some conflict or dispute or other that involves legal or moral issues, and so it is with the novel. My job is also about persuasion, finding probabilities in strings of events, frowning upon the coincidental. Lawyers distrust the deus ex machina as much as writers do. In court the judge has to provide the answers, but in the novel it is for the writer to resolve the issues in a credible and convincing manner.

What energy could there be left then for creative work after an exhausting day’s work? This is where the strange phenomenon I mentioned earlier comes in. I think creativity comes from my emotional or instinctive mind rather than my rational or intellectual side. And the instinctive part of my mind takes over when things get really rough at work. It acts like a self-preservation valve. For a reason I can’t quite fathom, the human mind functions better under stressful conditions. The body does too, of course, and perhaps the analogy needs to start there.

Years ago, when I was much younger, I ran marathons and had to train very hard. I also played squash and tennis. Some days I had squash or tennis after a long run or even a race. What I noticed was that I played my best tennis (and squash) on days when I had run at least 10 kilometres in the morning. When I started doing triathlons, it became even more noticeable. A two-kilometre swim followed by 110 kilometres on the bike and a 10- to 15-kilometre run produced my best tennis that afternoon. What the state of near exhaustion after the running did was to slow me down so that I was forced to play a cleverer, more tactical game. I later noticed that when I arrived for tennis from an exhausting day in court and with my nerves quite ragged, I also played my best tennis.

So it is with my writing. The more stress I have at work, the greater the productivity when I pick up my pen to create. The cliché, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, works for me.

My job is interesting and challenging. And that – no pun intended – works for me.