Musings on Creative Angst
The writer, Amita Paul, muses about creative angst. What triggers it and what sustains it? What can put an end to it? Is it really necessary to write good poetry? Questions that probably all of us are faced with when we pick up a pen to write.
There was a time when I used to worry about my lack of creative angst. I was writing poetry and it seemed to just flow out of me with almost no effort at all. This spontaneous flow of song seemed to come from such a serene, fulfilled perspective on life, as if all problems had been ironed out forever, that I just took it for granted. Today, I cannot understand how I could ever have been so comfortable with life or felt so sorted. Had I been closing my eyes to the unhappy complexities of life all the time? Had I been speaking from some place of unconscious privilege?
My lack of conflict was reflected, I thought, in my poems which lacked the brio of poems written by tortured souls. There was a lack of desperation and urgency about them. My critics could well have called me smug and self- satisfied, and I would well have agreed with them. And yet today I feel the exact opposite: I feel as though nothing is right with the world, and that there is no way things can be made better without going through extreme struggles, to the point of losing one’s life in them.
Living cooped up in an apartment amidst a concrete jungle, losing touch with parks, fields, forests, seas, rivers - the earth itself- has much to do with the change in my attitude. So also has my awful new addiction to my mobile phone which has changed my sleeping habits so much that I hardly get any sleep at night and end up feeling listless during the day. Lack of mobility, lack of exercise, lack of person-to-person social contact have all contributed to my sense of unease. Add to all this, my growing age.
It’s all right for a teenager to feel brittle or uncertain about life, but an old lady in her late sixties? Existential angst at this age seems very unsuitable, somehow. This is when I should have been able disengage my mind from the state of the world to concentrate upon the state of my own soul, and to try and square my account with my Creator, but suddenly I feel jumpy, I feel antsy, I am totally restless. All this is not good news for my peace of mind, but what makes it worse is that it doesn’t even seem to inspire me to write much poetry, forget about ‘good’ poetry that I thought would emerge from the depths of my angst and restlessness. I seem to have lost my peace for nothing!
I try to make the best of this burnout by telling myself that this too is a learning experience, that to go through a sort of prolonged ‘writer’s block’ is somehow good for my soul, that it will more deeply ‘humanise’ my inner self. More stoically still, I am prepared to accept that this may be more than a temporary ‘dry period’, and that this may actually be the end of the road for me as a poet, or even as a writer in a wider sense. I ask myself whether that would really be such an awful thing, now that I’ve written enough for a lifetime, especially in the last five or six years, which have been prolific. The answer is no, it wouldn’t shatter me, if I wrote not one poem more, or even one word more. That is not the central issue.
The central issue is, where does this angst come from, at this stage of life? What triggers it and what sustains it? What can put an end to it? And without the catharsis of creativity, which for me is mostly through writing, and that too mostly in the form of poetry, how do I deal with this restlessness? How long will it last? As of now, there are more questions than answers in my mind on this subject.
Of course, it could be that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, because it’s not as if I’m not writing at all. I am, but the words and forms, the images and ideas, don’t flow as easily as they did before. This is surprising, for one would have imagined that practice could only help one to write with greater ease, but it’s not so in actual fact. For it is only by writing and continuously examining the fruits of your labours in this direction, that you realise where your limits lie, and that makes you restless. You want to push your boundaries, you want to move out of your comfort zone, you want to take more risks, you want to achieve more. And that is where you are confronted with the stubborn nature of reality, and its innate complexity, which defies expression in words. You are brought up short by the essential ineffability of life in a complex, nuanced and myriad universe. That is a stage of wonder, but also of frustration. That is why poets make and remake words and ideas or create alternatives like ‘magic realism’ or surrealism or impressionism or so many other ‘isms’. It is clear that this urge in the creative mind goes beyond the field of literature. I’m sure it is the same in art and music as well.
Perhaps this is the very moment when a butterfly emerges out of a chrysalis, or a chicken hatches out of an egg, or the soul shrugs off the shackles of materialism and takes spiritual flight. Perhaps that is what the sense of restless suffocation is all about. But I must hold on to the thought that the darkest hour of the night is just before dawn. Who knows?
I am reminded of the words of an eminent Urdu poet of the 19th century, Haider Ali Aatish whose poetry was memorably rendered to music by the Empress of Ghazal- singing, Begum Akhtar:
Betaab hai kamaal hamaara dil e hazeen
Mehmaan sarai jism ka hoga rawaana kya?
My sad heart is unbelievably restless:
Could it be that the soul, a visitant of the body, is getting ready to depart?