• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

The Creative Process: It’s All About the Backside by Deborah Barlow

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft
Diving into the Mystery

Deborah Barlow

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Hands down, one of the best parts of being Anam Cara’s director is getting to know the writers- and artists-in-residence and their work. They have taught me and each other much about the creative process. Their genre/medium may be similar to someone else’s, but their approach is always unique and inspirational.

As a fundraiser for Pieta House, Anam Cara Publishing is offering Diving into the Mystery: Studies in the Creative Process. For this anthology, 54 former residents and supporters generously contributed their personal essays in which they explore the many aspects and results of their creative processes. The American poet Billy Collins offered his support by writing the Foreword… as well as creating the title! 

Sue Booth-Forbes, Director, Anam Cara Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat.


It’s All About the Backside by Deborah Barlow

When creativity comes into a conversation, my first impulse is to just go metaphysical. All those great words—spiritual, cosmic, mysterious, complex, numinous, subjective, The Cloud of Unknowing—are ones I grew up with, so I feel at home in their company.

Not everyone resonates with that take on things however, and I turn to other conceptual models as well. One is Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects: immense and complex entities that can never really be understood, like global warming and deep space. Regardless of what lens I use, I keep circling back to a creativity that is indelibly aligned with uncertainty, with not knowing.

This is all so personal, and it is by no means universal. Many artists can describe their creative process with a great deal of precision and exactitude, parsing their progress from idea to execution as well as the many micro decisions they made along the way. But most artists will agree that there is no one way to bring new forms into being and that methodological orthodoxy isn’t tenable in the domain of art making. I think of myself after all as an artist without a method (while recognizing that having no method is in fact a method…)

However you approach creativity—metaphysical philosophy, hyperobject, conscious methodology or something else altogether—its primary source remains indeterminate. We live in a world where so much of what really matters is actually invisible—cells, germs, gravity, quarks, electricity, economic forces, emotions, thinking. Do we gloss over this salient fact as an inconvenient truth? It is so easy for 21st-century humans to be seduced by the illusion of certainty, by the specter of knowledge systems based on airtight, arborescent logic. It takes effort to step outside that frame.

During Anam Cara’s first year of operation, I put together an exhibit of my work. A group of students came to see the show, and one young man looked at the paintings with particular intensity. As he was leaving, he said to me, “I think I know what your painting is all about. You are painting the backside of everything.”

What a memorable response! The backside is a part of the world that exists but is not visible to the eye. Assumptions are made about what it is actually is based or on what can be seen. And yet the backside of life is perpetually out of view.

Whether focusing on front views or the backside, artists are perpetually in search for what can be perceived with fresh eyes. Nature offers a rich trove for that kind of exploration. While my interest is not in mimetic reproduction of the natural world, I am titillated by the unexpected that is found anywhere and everywhere—in the nooks and crannies of a landscape, in the intricate life unfolding at the microscopic level, in the beamed images of planetary surfaces and deep space supernovas. And the edge dividing what is hidden and what is seen is tantalizingly paper-thin. Wallace Stevens famously delineated between the beauty of inflections and the beauty of innuendoes—“The blackbird whistling/Or just after.” Keats framed it as “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

For those of us who work in an emergent model of creativity—one where “trust the process” is the operative mantra—there is a tension between what you think you know and what you don’t. Your trained hand sometimes has to behave as if it were not. Reliable forms are jettisoned for unruly ones. Old ways of working perpetually erode and are replaced by new ones. So how do you navigate this complex world of indeterminateness? Staying present, in this moment, is the state of mind I have found most conducive. This is fundamental to many Eastern meditative traditions, and guidance on how to achieve that state is readily available. My approach is self-styled and non-denominational. It consists of a few simple directives: Clear out mental distractions. Shed the past. Let go of any attachment to a particular outcome.

My creativity guidance system includes one more facet that I have found essential. I think of it as My Favorite Paradox: An artist needs unflappable confidence as well as marrowbone humility. Yes, you must believe in yourself and your work no matter what the world says. And yes, it must be coupled with humility. When either quality operates without the other, the result is distortion and dysfunction—arrogance at one end, self-abnegation on the other. But together? It’s the best yin/yang, artist juju I know.

(c) Deborah Barlow

About Diving into the Mystery – Studies in the Creative Process:

In support of Pieta House Ireland, whose mission is to replace suicide, self-harm, and stigma with hope, self-care, and acceptance, Anam Cara Publishing has produced Diving into the Mystery: Studies in the Creative Process, an anthology of personal essays written by fifty-four creative people.

In his foreword, Billy Collins writes, “This collection holds an abundance of insights into the lives of artists [from a variety of disciplines] and their approaches to creativity. Many common threads unite their commentaries. Art often happens not when you are looking straight down the path but when you catch something out of the corner of your eye. Poems come “from the fringes of attention.” Making art is a way of “understanding yourself,” or of trying to make sense of a disheveled world. Art is the result of “repetitive awareness.” Art arises out of landscape. Self-expression combines “humility and boldness” or “alertness and surrender.

“Among the many compelling notions, the most essential agreement for me was among those who saw art as a way of finding out what you think rather than just expressing the thoughts you already have. One wrote: “I don’t know what I think until I speak it.” Another gave this: “If I begin… with something I know… the poem quickly curls up and dies on the page.” In creative hands, the pen, the paint brush, the camera are not recording instruments; they are instruments of discovery.”

Order your copy online here. Or contact Sue at anamcararetreat.book@gmail.com, cost: €12 plus postage and please include your postal address.  See here for more information about ordering and postage costs.

All proceeds go to Pieta House.

About the author

Deborah Barlow is a painter whose work mirrors the complexity of a multi-layered, visually rich, indeterminate world. Deborahbarlow.com; slowmuse.com

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