The BBC has recently announced that its new Reith lecturer will be Grayson Perry – the wonderful, cross-dressing, Turner Prize-winning potter and emerging national treasure.
I’m a big fan. I don’t know his pottery that well, but he has a gift for describing the creative process and bringing it to life. I remember listening to his Radio 4 programme from 2010. I was in the kitchen, cooking lunch, and in interview after interview, Grayson managed to bring to life how difficult it is – and at times how unsatisfying – to create new things.
Yes. Unsatisfying. It was wonderful to hear someone who was passionate about the arts talking about how painful it is to make them. Because they’re never quite what you expected, or what you had in your head when you started. Making something creative is an organic process. It changes as you go along. The work becomes a conversation with the artist: you do something, it reacts, it suggests new possibilities, you go in new directions, and if it’s working well, you never end up exactly where you intended.
This is the glorious thing and the sad thing about writing, painting, making films, making a garden … and all the other arts. You can’t win. If you do exactly what you first intended to do, the process can feel flat and uninspired. But if you don’t do what you first intended – if you have that conversation – you can’t be sure while you’re writing, or painting, or editing, or planting, that it will take you to a better place.
Sometimes you know. Those moments are probably the ones that keep us going for the years and years that we struggle with what we do. They’re liberating and life enhancing and joyful and wonderful. But mostly you don’t. You’re inching your way forwards, often in the grip of self doubt, certain that what you’re doing is not as perfect as the original image in your head, fairly sure in fact that it might quite possibly be rubbish, that noone will like it, and yet on you go.
The end, or nearly the end, can be the worst part. Because you’ve ‘done’ it – you’ve made your story, or painting, or film, or landscape – but what you see in front of you isn’t what you saw inside you. It never can be, and it never will be. You’ll always find things you want to change. At some stage, though, you simply have to let it go, as Rose Tremain said so honestly to Grayson Perry in his programme.
This feeling has nothing to do with how good or bad the work is, by the way. You might go back to it later and realise it was really rather fabulous. Or you might remain convinced it’s terrible, but the public loves it. By the end of the process it’s simply impossible to look at it objectively any more, and anyway, artists can never be sure what will grab the public’s attention, unless they’ve reached the ‘anything by you, regardless of quality’ level.
So I’ve finished my new book. The sixth, if you don’t include the unpublished ones before Threads. And it covers all the themes I wanted to talk about, and includes all the scenes I wanted to describe, and I have a new world of people in my head. It has an ending, which I’m very pleased with, but it doesn’t feel ‘done’. I have put in on pause. I’m waiting for feedback and edits, when the process will happen all over again. Not so much ‘writing a book and cracking open the champagne’: more exploring, developing, and finally … letting go.