Lenses and Stories

(Thanks to Hanako for listening to this one before it actually happened, and helping me to solidify my thoughts!)

The creative process is something that really fascinates me at the moment, as I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of writing. Ever since I was a child I’ve thought about becoming a writer, basically because I love stories. Recently I’ve gotten into photography as well, and although I can’t see it as a career, it’s something that I really enjoy for the ability to find visual images that say something, be it a story or a feeling or a memory. I love the insights and I love the suspension of self for a while.

I used to write a lot. I was pretty prolific into my late teens, and then I went to university and… bam. Nothing. Creative dry spell that lasted a year. Then two. Then I woke up and realised I hadn’t written anything substantial in probably five or six years, maybe longer. At first this didn’t bother me, because it was easier to just brush off my earlier dreams of being a writer as childish nonsense. But there was always something at the back of my mind, urging me to do something with my love for stories.

So I tried writing again. And… it was horrible. What I wrote was stilted and unnatural. Even compared to my efforts when I was younger, I had a hard time coming up with storylines and expressing my thoughts well. I was like… what the hell happened?

After a lot of soul-searching, and also hanging out with people who are a lot less hung-up about their creative talents, I came to realise that creativity is, in a way, a habit of applying lenses to the world. An artist, or a writer, or anyone who creates, sees the world through different lenses to someone who simply shuffles through daily life without seeing things. It’s a way of seeing potential or of seeing some fraction of a different truth, of being able to identify obscure connections and of being able to isolate things. And you have to do it consistently, or the lenses lie forgotten and you forget that you are capable of seeing the world in that unique way.

When I thought those words about lenses, I was struck by (what I felt to be) rather a profound realization. The metaphor of seeing the world through a lens applies not only to creativity, which I’d consider a positive force, but also to what are considered more generally negative emotions – those moments, or periods, where we can’t see the world properly, where our perspective is distorted because everything we see seems to support whatever negative emotion we’ve trapped inside ourselves. It becomes an irresistible habit to lift the lens to our eyes and see the world through fearful eyes, angry eyes. We tell ourselves stories and are limited by them. No one likes me. I’m stupid. I need to wear Coach and Gucci to be attractive. I’m not creative.

It’s kind of simplistic, but isn’t this habitual seeing the world through our stories a form of creativity too? Even the most boring people (Oh no she didn’t!) are capable of coming up with some pretty elaborate explanations to justify their beliefs and habits, often in the face of overwhelmingly contrary evidence, probably because it’s easier to believe in something complex and external than to admit that you were ignorant, and maybe even wrong. These stories aren’t just internal – they affect our communication with others, our relationships and our identities on every level, our beliefs of what we can and can’t do, and what is due to us.

I think there’s a pretty fine line between being honest and objective, and being negative about yourself and your abilities. One of the things one could do is to ask why – why do I believe no one likes me? Why do I need to be attractive, and to whom? But dropping through layers of complex, often painful emotions is a long, hairy process, and it requires absolute honesty and a willingness to accept answers that might be different to anything you’ve ever believed before. It’s not easy and it doesn’t always happen in a single moment. Sometimes it takes years of beating with the enlightenment stick*.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d rather know myself – know the truth of my own weaknesses and strengths – than spend my life being limited by stories. I don’t want to be in the habit of seeing the world through lenses that ultimately don’t benefit me or anyone else. That kind of creativity… I can do without.

* There something of a tradition in Zen to tell stories in which an acolyte asks a master some uppity question. The master replies with something obscure and the acolyte goes, “Huh? That makes no sense!”, and then “the master struck him with a stick, upon which he was enlightened.” The enlightenment stick, for me, is a metaphor for those moments in which you come to a realization that leaves you reeling, but also a little bit more enlightened than you were.

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