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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | July 4, 2020

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Interview: Creativity with Sarah Darmody

Interview: Creativity with Sarah Darmody

| On 20, Jun 2015

In preparation for her class on How To Be Creative at The School of Life, we sat down with the very talented Sarah Darmody to discuss her thoughts on all things creative.

As a writer herself, Darmody knows the battle we all have with creativity. Publishing her book, creative nonfiction novel Ticket To Ride: Lost and Found in America, in 2005, she has gone on to work as a journalist and film critic in the USA and within the film industry in New York City. With a successful career in publishing with Penguin Australia under her belt, she’s working on mastering the art of creativity, and helping others figure out just how to get their creativity back.

TCI: Do you have a particular routine to get your creativity flowing?
Sarah Darmody
: Pretty much isolation. Not necessarily isolation from people but isolation from my home and distractions. I go to a café, which is pretty typical, so I’m not tempted to do any housework. I feel like people can’t find me there. I go to a café and that can be anywhere in the world, it doesn’t necessarily matter where I am. And then I feel like it’s just me at my computer, and that’s my cue.

TCI: How do you keep from getting distracted on the computer?
Sarah Darmody: I have been writing a lot over the last 18 months in Ubud in Bali. The Wi-Fi is great, and every café has Wi-Fi. Australia is pretty dismal that way, so it is less distracting for me here because I’m not connected to the Internet in any café that I’m in. I also find that having a toddler helps. [She laughs] I have to go to such extraordinary lengths now to get time alone to write.

I’ve spoken to a number of people that have small children and have found creative blocks release. I’m not saying that procreation is a great way to get your creative ball rolling, but I think sometimes it helps when people turn the pressure up, rather than this sense that you need to run away and go to a cabin in the woods somewhere without any kind of distraction. Sometimes, when there’s so much distraction and there’s so much noise, you have to have an honest conversation with yourself about what your needs and desires really are. And once you do and you kind of make a commitment to yourself, you make the space for it and it becomes very urgent.

I never thought I responded well to pressure and thought that it made me anxious, but that’s not necessarily the case now that it’s been tested. Some kind of pressure in short stints can actually be a good thing for me, but I think that’s individual for everybody. Some people work best creatively when they’re really miserable, or things aren’t going very well. Other people need to be happy or they can’t concentrate.

TCI: On creativity, have you seen much by Ken Robinson?
Sarah Darmody: The first thing I saw of his was the Ted Talk that did the rounds early on, about the Industrial School Complex. I encourage everybody in my School of Life class on Creativity to watch that. We take some time talking about childhood and creativity, and challenging the participants in the class who say that they aren’t at all creative to try and remember creative states as a child. And they all seem to be able to recover those easily and remember playing around with things when they were children, and something snaps and they say, “That was creativity, yeah, you’re right, that felt good, that just felt like being me.”

When you’re allowed to be creative, it seems like that’s the right thing to do. We set children up to have a very creative life. I’ve got a two year old and if I go looking for things for her I’m being marketed crayons and paper and build-it-yourself, make-it-yourself, all of these kinds of activities that are deemed suitable for children. Create, make, ABC for Kids will be on in the background and someone is singing, “What are you going to make today? What are you going to create today?” And I think then it’s just a slow trudge towards school, where unless you’ve proven yourself “gifted” at the arts in some way, it’s viewed as a bit of a time-waste to be devoting time to anything considered capital-A Arts rather than serious study. Maybe at some point I could’ve understood that, I think parents are naturally quite conservative when it comes to their children and their choices. No one wants to screw it up.

TCI: How do you plan to nurture creativity in your own child?
Sarah Darmody: I think all I can do is what I hope to do with her in every aspect of her life, and that’s to make her aware of the dominant culture that she lives in, and how persuasive and pervasive those cultural messages are. We get so many of them every day: what’s successful, what’s correct, what’s the right way to do something. I think we should look at that in all areas of our life, but especially for a young people in terms of their creativity and education.

In our culture there is very great emphasis placed on creative output. There is great cultural excitement and reward placed on somebody’s output, whether it’s a couture dress or a painting or a book, a car design, something like that. You see the output, and it’s celebrated. But the creative process is not celebrated at all. The actual process is something that we talk about a lot in the School of Life workshops. It’s really beneficial to me because every time that I run one of the workshops, I get my own sort of re-indoctrination. All my doubts and suspicions about the two-faced approach that our culture has towards creativity find a home again in that class. There’s no space for what it actually takes to be creative in the “real world.” It looks like a lot of stuffing around, daydreaming in order to be productive.

But the most important thing that I can teach my daughter out of everything that I’ve learned since being at the school is that the path to being creative and being creatively fulfilled and having a creatively fulfilling life is not tied up with output but with process. Being able to measure that as success, if you know for sure that it is one of the things that you need in order to be a creative soul, is really powerful.

TCI: Would you say that generally the creative process is nurtured less in schools, and that we need to encourage that more?
Sarah Darmody: I encountered various people in high school and at university who were really inspiring and in hindsight would have been people that I could’ve had long talks to about this process and what it is and what it meant to them and what it looks like throughout human history. But I didn’t ask those questions.

I don’t think there’s some kind of collusion to stamp out creativity. I think its just that schools, no matter how great they are they, operate inside a wider culture which is getting it wrong, so they’re getting it wrong by extension. In high school, we are acting just as wider society is acting, with a huge emphasis on output and measurement. What story have you written? How good is it? What painting have you done? How good is it? How many have you done? Being measured in this way is what we’re taught leads to success, and that filters down through our culture into our education system. It will be very hard to push back against it. Frankly, I’d be nervous about it as a parent, if I sent my child to a school to that said, “Yeah, just do whatever, turn up whenever.” I know that my kid’s going to go into a world where they’ll be measured. So I’m a cultural victim as well. It’s really difficult to escape your culture.

TCI: Your first book was Ticket To Ride…
Sarah Darmody: That was me, it’s a travel memoir.

TCI: How much did you pull from real life? How do you feel it influenced your writing process? Do you think it’s important to maintain a creative flair when you’re writing on your own life?
Sarah Darmody: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, because in that book – which was written nearly ten years ago now – I didn’t change anything. I think I changed one person’s name because there were two guys called Steve. But afterwards, I realised that I had met strangers on a bus and I used their real names and described them and didn’t change anything. It didn’t occur to me at the time. I was young and sort of making it all up as I went along in terms of rules of literary engagement. And then I did a Masters in Publishing and all these ethical questions were asked. And I thought, “Oh, I never asked those.”

I’ve been writing fiction now for the last 18 months, which has been really exciting. I’m really enjoying it, but I’ve always written non-fiction. And I think, with non-fiction, I’ve always thought of it as starting in the middle of a forest, and everything’s there. You have to cut a path through so that people can see. And if there’s a particular tree that you want to draw people’s attention to, you have to make a clearing around it. You make all kinds of choices based on material that’s already kind of there.

In fiction, you have to grow the forest. You have to plant every single thing. So you know, it used to terrify me, but then I realised that the very great secret of fiction is that it is, of course, partially non-fiction. You have all kinds of experiences. Say you’re watching a human relationship unfold in your life. You can put that straight in! If you want, you can make them astronauts instead of council workers. [She laughs]

TCI: How do you think we can or should cultivate creativity in the everyday?
Sarah Darmody: A lot of creativity stems from states of boredom. But we don’t live lives that allow for much boredom anymore. Think about bad teenage poetry as an example, or doodling, or times when people pick up an instrument. It tends to be in those teenage years when you don’t yet quite have the pressure of universities and first relationships. You’re generally kind of job free. But you’re also totally disempowered. You don’t have your own money you can’t make your own rules. You can’t do your own thing, you’ve got a lot of time and you’re kind of bored sometimes. That is when you start to make these unique, synaptic connections in your brain.

It’s like what a comedian experiences when they make you laugh by putting something ordinary together with something it doesn’t belong with. We’re set up to think one thing and then there’s something else that’s unexpected. And it’s these odd connections between things that the brain does when it’s got time. So if we’re filling our brain with actions, activities, stresses and mindless scrolling on the Internet or our smart phones, we don’t actually have time to just be. I think creativity requires that period of boredom, of things festering. Your brain needs to be trying to make its own fun in order to get creativity to happen.

That’s one thing in the workshop that, after we’ve talked about it for a while, people really get on board with, and they start to recognise that problem in their lives. And the reason that that is so hard to come by is that we measure ourselves and others through productivity. Knowing that boredom and purposelessness is an essential part of the creative process can help you defend it when you notice yourself not having anything to do. You reach for you phone and you kind of go, no, hang on, let me just sit with my thoughts, let me just daydream. You have to daydream. That part is essential. I think trying to add daydreaming, and a little bit of boredom and discomfort into your daily life is where a lot of creative thought and inspiration comes from.

TCI: I find it interesting because when we write, we sometimes attempt to make people uncomfortable. We want to make them sit and think about something for a second, but when we are actually sitting staring at that blank screen it’s sometimes so difficult to just sit in the boredom of that moment.
Sarah Darmody: I’ve been so productive in the last two years. Lots of other things have happened in my life that I think have increased my creative courage. It’s also been two years since I’ve started teaching this class, and reading a lot about creativity. It’s so much easier for me now when I’m faced with that blank screen and I’m feeling like I’m not doing anything to recognise, “Hey, you’re totally doing something, this is that part of the process when nothing’s happening.” So knowing that it is part of the process is not an excuse, it’s totally legitimate. I think the fear of, “I’m not getting this right, nothing’s happening…” comes from a lack of understanding of what the process actually is: there’s huge gaps of not doing anything.

It’s so difficult, especially when you’re first starting out and you have such strong ideas of what you like and what you want to be, to not match that instantly. And having people asking you all the time, too, you know, “How’s it going? How’s it going? Can I read something?” is very difficult. It’s very painful, and it would be much less so if we all had a different attitude to endeavour in failure.

My partner is a professional athlete and I learnt so much from him over the last couple of years. He’s used to constant failure and setbacks and the most talented of his teammates fail constantly in public. They’re always failing. And it’s just totally acceptable, because you know that that’s what it takes. You can’t go out there and play perfectly every time that’s not why people are watching. They’re watching the process unfold. To think about that when I sit down and write is like, “Oh well, today wasn’t so great, but tomorrow probably will be. Because I know I’m good. I know I’m an athlete.” [She laughs] We don’t do that with the arts. We have that perception with sports. We know that you have to work really hard, you need to train constantly. But with the arts, we have this idea that creativity is somehow innate

And I’m sure when you were in school people probably said, “You’re such a writer, you’re such a great writer you should write.” But I don’t think that helps either. That’s just a long way to fall, not a long way to climb. People just expect you to either produce stuff, or you’re a fraud.

TCI: Despite the fact that they don’t encourage creativity so much in high school, they expect it to come naturally as soon as we get into the real world…
Sarah Darmody: [She laughs] It’s really lonely and bewildering. I’m finding it now after my friends have just started making careers in the arts for themselves, are just realising all of this after a decade. And I’m thinking, “Hang on, I feel like I was lied to at some point!”

No one gave me direction because they didn’t know either. I’ve been doing a pretty good job of this on my own and people feel sort of brave and emboldened by that, at last, but it’s taken a long time.

TCI: A sneak preview of the class: what’s one of your top tips for rejuvenating someone’s creativity?
Sarah Darmody: Try and put aside more parts of your day or week to just be a silent, unproductive and in a state of boredom. Daydream as much as possible. Actively daydream. The workshops are three hours long and that’s roughly 6 minutes of the whole thing just there. So there’s an awful lot that goes on in the workshops. There are certainly some parts about how to be very productive.

TCI: Any final thoughts on creativity as a general?
Sarah Darmody: I think it gets easier as you get older. Like when you see a manuscript get rejected, and you feel like that means you’re a talentless hack. And then you write a really good one. Or you realise that there are so many manuscripts and that that rejection is just part of the process as well. Those things just build up, and you do get this sublime perspective on it all.

You realise that you write because you enjoy writing, and that takes time, too.

To find out more about Sarah’s class and purchase tickets, visit The School of Life’s website.