Monday 11 May 2020

Creativity For The Overachiever - Kelly McCaughrain

The general consensus seems to be that all this free time is your opportunity to take up a new and creative hobby.


Not one to argue, I’ve been sketching and messing about with watercolours. And I’ve made several observations about people’s reactions to this.

1. ‘Oooh, you could illustrate your own books!’

No, I couldn’t. I have no artistic training and even less ability.

2. No, you’re really good! These are really good!

You don’t have to console me because, even if they were good (they're not), I’m doing this for relaxation, why does everything we do have to be monetized? It’s just fun, you should give it a go.

3. Oh no, I’d find it discouraging. I wouldn’t be good enough.

But that’s exactly my point. It's about relaxation and fun, not being good at it or being better than anyone else. You don’t even have to show anyone.

4. But then why bother?

I feel like we’re going round in circles here. I’m going to pour some more gin.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this. I spend my working life trying to create opportunities for kids to be creative, and a big part of that message is ‘Just jump in! Write whatever you want! It’s about self-expression, not perfection!’ etc. And the adults are fully on board with that. When it comes to kids. But somehow we think it doesn’t apply to adults.


For example, my husband and his mates regularly get together (pre-Covid) to write songs. They might even get organized enough to play an actual gig someday. When one of them told a friend about this, the friend laughed and said, with complete incredulity, ‘But you’re like forty…’

I.e., you’re too old to be a popstar, therefore you’re never going to make a career of this, therefore why are you doing it?

Would you say that to a kid? ‘Listen, sweetheart. It’s really unlikely that you’re ever going to be Taylor Swift so I don’t think you should get a guitar for Christmas/take piano lessons/sing in the shower anymore, OK?’ Or to an adult who nervously wandered into your writing workshop and wasn't much good at writing? No. Because you know they're getting so much more out of it than a career path.

Hubby and his band all have proper jobs and sensible haircuts, they just happen to like music. Why do we find that so strange? Actually this is exactly the reason I hid my writing from everyone right up until the moment it became a career opportunity.

We’re always banging on about schools cutting funding for creative subjects, because we know creativity is so good for development and mental health. So why do we do we think adults can’t do creative things unless we’re brilliant at them in some sort of professional capacity or intend to make them a career? Apparently women are especially prone to avoiding things they're not good at because we're raised to be 'perfect' rather than 'brave' so that probably compounds the issue for us.

In fact I took up sketching precisely because it’s an area I have zero ambitions in. I have very few hobbies and activities that don’t relate to writing/reading and so they always feel a little like ‘work’. I do believe that, wonderful as publishing a book is, turning your creative outlet into paid work changes the nature of it and leaves you needing a new creative outlet.

Anyway, point is, it doesn’t matter if my sketching is rubbish. But it takes a surprising amount of mental reprograming to convince even yourself of that never mind everyone else. I found Grayson Perry’s Art Club on Channel 4 quite helpful. He was doing portraits and he said something about ‘resemblance’ not being the point. I know nothing at all about art so I found that quite mind-blowing. I’d been copying models I found online and trying to get them perfect and criticising myself when a head was too big or an arm too long or the expression not quite right. Hands are a nightmare!

But when I give someone a writing prompt, the first thing I always say is, ‘this is just for inspiration, it’s just a jumping off point, see where it takes you.’ If someone was trying to respond to a writing exercise like it was a set of military instructions I doubt they’d come up with anything good. Why should it be different for drawing? After all, we have photocopiers for that. Photocopiers are not artists precisely because they can't do anything but resemblance. 


Of course professional artists need to be able to do both, but my point is, we don't have to be professionals and it's a lot more fun when you stop caring about how good you are. I don't find drawing relaxing because it's easy (it's not), I find it relaxing because it's completely absorbing, and that's all I want from it.


I think we even know this. It's why we waste hours playing whatever time-suck game is on our phones. Because you don't have to be good at Candy Crush, and that makes it quite relaxing. If we could feel the same way about painting or music or dance we could get our heads out of our phones and be having a lot more fun.

So I stopped worrying about resemblance and just started using models as inspiration. They might not have the same expression, but that’s because they’re not those people, they’re my people. And I actually like them more for that.

Now I’m trying to convince my mum to give it a go too. Ironically, she’s a much better artist than me but she’s resisting because she thinks she’s not good enough at it. Good enough for whom, I have no idea. So she's watching telly instead.

So what are you doing to be creative during lockdown? Do you have a hobby you suck at but love anyway? How do people react to it and do you put pressure on yourself to be ‘good’ at it? I’d love to hear what other people think about this. 

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page



Rowena House said...

Wonderfully thought-provoking as always, Kelly. We do, as adults, often seem to be stuck on an achievement/accolade merry-go-round, rather than being happy to go along for the ride. Maybe it's our goal-orientated, output-measured world invading every corner of life, or a childish need for praise & validation which we never really grow out of. I'm trying to help an elderly relative get going on writing, but he writes a sentence or two then stops, worrying it won't be as good as my writing. I should hope not! I've been a professional wordsmith in some form for nearly 40 years. But then, the notion of enjoying the process of writing, without stressing over product, is a lesson I've had to learn again too.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

So true, Rowena. And probably why it's important that we start being creative as children, when there's less pressure, because if I'd had to learn to write as an adult I don't think I've ever have got past that inner critical voice. Hope your relative keeps going!

Moira Butterfield said...

YES!!!!! I love this post. it's what I keep telling people, but it so rarely gets through. Playing creatively should be something adults can do, but they resist it so much. I have a group of friends that have met up for many years - meant to be a bookclub but not really - and recently I suggested we did a creative play evening (e.g.: collages etc) and then threw what we did in the bin. You would have thought I'd suggested something shocking. It was an absolute no-go. I was taken aback.

Penny Dolan said...

Such a brilliant, encouraging post, Kelly, and greatly needed for now.

The shadow of imperfection is laid on many of us at any early age, especially for people like your relative. That inner "you're not good enough" voice is a difficult one to silence or even quieten, which is why Grayson Perry's mood of acceptance and open-ness is such a joy.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Moira and Penny. I think the emphasis in education is on end product rather than process, which doesn't help. In creativity it's the process that's the enjoyable bit. Someone on Grayson Perry said last week that the person who gets the most out of a piece of art is the person who made it, and that's absolutely true. And yet we judge it by what other people get out of it.

Nick Green said...

Right. Creativity is its own reward, and SO IT SHOULD BE. That is what it is for. The fee only comes in because some people want to share in others' creativity, and want to enable more of it to happen before the creator starves to death...

Enid Richemont said...

Creativity and publishing are not comfortable bedfellows, and I'm pleased you touched on that in the blog, Kelly. As with all partnerships, when it works, it's brilliant, but when it doesn't, it's hell.

Lynne Benton said...

Greaat post, Kelly! Very thought-provoking. Many thanks.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Nick, Enid and Lynne!

Sue Purkiss said...

Great post. One of the things I really like about the writing class I teach in Cheddar is that they write because they love it - not in any expectation of being published.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Sue! That's the only reason to write if you ask me.