Winnicott on creativity: an expression of ‘I AM’ not ‘who am I?’

When I watch R play- which he does almost non-stop in such surprising and subtle ways- I have a hunch this is what Winnicott is talking about when he uses the term a ‘creative living.’ It is so different from how I felt at art school about creativity. Every experience is up for grabs. There is nothing that can’t be play, there are no hard and fast lines or rules about what counts as a creative act and what is living. I’ve written an homage to his play here. I had to (re?)learn how to be this way through therapy. The scars of over-invasive, neglectful parenting run deep and the consequences are often a sense of not having a mind of ones own, toxic shame, and a loss of spontaneity- all relationships to oneself that make freedom to play impossible. Apparently Klein was the first psychoanalyst to ‘regard the play of a child as equivalent to the free associations in an adult.’

In Winnicott’s essay, ‘Playing: creative activity and the search for the self,’ he makes a distinction between the production of art which is, at its heart, the artists ‘doomed’ attempt to find himself (‘The finished creation never heals the underlying lack of self’) versus creating from a place which is an expression of, ‘I AM, I am alive, I am myself. From this position everything is creative.’

My lived, felt experience testifies to this truth. Creating art was a discipline when I was at art school. I made myself go into the studio to ‘do work’, and I conceptualised it as an extractive process. Something I wrung out of myself. The production of art was fraught and intermittent and laboured and required remaining in a state of scrutinising-vigilance. Am I being lazy? Should I make myself work another hour or so? I ought to be more curious about woodworking processes. Should I get a studio space when I graduate and band together with some other artists in a collective to ‘keep me going?’

And I was in desperate search of a self. A history bumped around inside me like ice floes knocking against each other in a cold, dark ocean. I was a welter of incoherent feeling-states and moralities and dissociated memories. I was in pieces and my story bobbed around, unclaimed. There was no way to retrieve the wreckage by myself. I didn’t know where to begin.

Trying to find a me from this place through art practice alone, was, in Winnicott’s damning words, ‘never-ending and essentially unsuccessful.’ He stresses that valuable art can be produced but creating objects or performances or writing from this place doesn’t help the artist step into their own skin.

This felt experience manifested in dreams and drawings and associations in therapy after I graduated art school. I would lie on his couch and tell him how I thought of myself was as a scavenging animal. Foxes and cats and raccoons populated my drawing and imagination, rummaging through bins, living on scraps in the midst of nuclear winter. Trying to turn trash into treasure, the task of gathering and gleaning a life, collecting shards of identity after the disaster.

In terms of making, I probably more or less do the same stuff I have always done, I probably have pretty much the same tastes and interests, broadly speaking. I’m still reading Walt Whitman ten years on and I gallop and love psychogeography. But the felt experience is radically different. It is an expression of I AM. After surrendering to what Winnicott calls ‘unintegration’ where I gave up control and trying to make sense of it all and just let my therapist do the hard work of containing and thinking-through while I floated, free associating and playing three times a week over years, well, after that, I’m whole. I know what I think and feel and I’m (mostly) not ashamed of my truth or way of being in the world and I feel liberated to plunder and loot my own life for personal meaning allot of the time. I have all the kit I need- the oxygen tanks and snorkels and ropes to climb the gothic towers of my psyche and plunge into the caverns and caves and do spelunking and deep sea diving. I have 24/7 lifetime all inclusive access to my own soul. I am alive, I am myself, and as Winnicott noted, everything is creative from this position. And in this sense it is effortless- no wringing my guts out or pneumatically drilling my soul for content. What is required now to write or make art is solitude and ring fenced time to connect with myself. The hard part was learning to face my demons and trust someone enough to say what comes to mind- in a phrase, to free associate or play in front of another.

But writing is only one gesture of many possible creative acts: it is one act of play among many. Breathing is a creative act and chopping vegetables is up for grabs and taking communion at church and lighting candles at William Blake’s grave and leaving him flowers every week but so is reading and changing a nappy and being lonely and welcoming in feelings of disappointment or passion. And it’s not a mantra that I say to myself, it’s just that everything in my life is ripe for picking and feasting on. There is nothing that I can’t take in and eat, that isn’t personally significant if I want it to be. Anyone who has seen a three year old engrossed in opening and closing a gate for twenty minutes or overheard them remarking that a stick is a ‘wiggly worm -stick,’ knows what this magical state of mind looks like. Living a ‘creative life’ as Winnicott calls it is possible not just for toddlers and writers, but for everyone. It requires playfulness and the capacity to ‘just be’ which he theorises comes from good enough holding by the good enough mother, or else an experience of unintegration (the state of ‘just being’) on the psychoanalytic couch. The payoff is enormous- it leads to a rich, meaningful life with little distinction between ‘being creative’ and ‘living’ or existing. I play with my whole being now, I can’t help it, it is no more or and no less than an expression of ‘I am’.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

I have come to realise, after all these blog articles, just how much I adore Winnicott. I seem to have read the guy quite thoroughly and spent a good deal of time internalising his thinking! His essay mentioned in this article can be found in Playing and Reality.

The juicy tidbit about Klein and play and free association I just read recently in a book of psychoanalytic essays about the use of dreams in the analytic hour published by Karnac called ‘Thinking and Dreaming.’

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