Just over a year ago, a group of writers helped me to raise funds to form the Life Righting Collective. The main aim was to assist disadvantaged writers. We felt strongly that we should also publish an anthology of life writing, despite the time and effort involved in a market where it is difficult to see books. Why?
I am also a medical doctor. It strikes me how stressed and overworked many patients are. We have created a society that is often too busy and exhausted to participate in creative and civic life, and to be self-reflective. This perpetuates a system that is unsustainable, and does significant damage to individuals, communities and the earth.
I sometimes ask patients on the verge of burn-out: what do you do for pleasure? Mostly they stare at me, astonished, then they might offer something like watching movies, or going to the gym. When pressed, they might admit that they used to play a musical instrument, or write poetry. They took pottery or dance classes. Then life became too demanding, and the creative pursuit had to go because it was a ‘hobby’ that didn’t pay.
We have abdicated our creativity and handed it over to professionals.
Creative engagement is a birth right. Jaak Panksepp, the Nobel-winning neuroscientist, has described how humans are born with an innate capacity for play. We cannot learn how to play, because we need to play in order to learn. To play is to experiment, taking risks without knowing what is going to happen next. It is fuelled by curiosity and excitement. It feeds on paradox, contradiction and strange juxtapositions that open up new and surprising possibilities.
Creativity gets us out of the box of logic and reasoning − tools that are necessary but that are overvalued in our culture. From the time we are small, we are schooled to believe there is only one answer and you had better know it. We become afraid to experiment in case we look silly, or make a mess, or don’t produce a masterpiece first time round.
So, the first half of this post is a call for us to reclaim our inborn creativity as a valuable tool. We need to become curious about ourselves, our communities and the world. Creative writing is one way to discover what we don’t know we don’t know. Our unconscious patterns and habits, and the images and emotions that shape our lives, can become clearer to us when we have a conversation with ourselves on the page. We can improve awareness and observation about our habits and tendencies and how we impact on each other and the earth. We can grow compassion, and act more kindly. I think of creative writing as an act of mental health. Our mental health affects our physical health. This has value that no money can buy.
So why publish? When I first started teaching life writing 8 years ago, I purposefully downplayed the aspect of getting published, because if you have one eye on the market and another on the cash register, you will never do your best work. However, I have seen how the act of reading one’s work to others during a life writing course can grow confidence and kindness in the reader/writer, and how hearing another person’s story can help the listener to revisit their assumptions. By relating our lives to each other, we become more related.
Initially I felt ambivalent about the much bigger step of bringing writers’ work into the world. I have always emphasised that our creativity is about growing community rather than a hierarchy of who writes better than whom. Getting into the download space requires us to set aside judgement, and to make ourselves available to whatever needs to be written. I have seen too many writers stop writing if their work was judged not good enough to make it into print. But so much excellent writing was coming out of the writing courses that would never get published by mainstream publishing houses that I felt sad. Not only was the writing worth reading for its own sake, but the stories were having an impact on those who heard them. Our society is traumatised, and we need avenues to help connect us as human beings after decades of institutionalised prejudice and separation.
So when we raised funds for the first year of operation of Life Righting Collective, we included a budget for publishing a first anthology of life writing, and for creating a website to post more true stories written by South Africans from all walks of life.
The collection in our forthcoming anthology This Is How It Is is tender, moving, hilarious, disturbing, quirky and surprising. There are stories written by seasoned writers and beginners. They all reflect our shared humanity in courageous ways.
Reading them has opened my heart.