Plumbing the depths of creativity

3monkeyGlenn‘Um, I’m a bit embarrassed – urghhh – I think I’ve blocked your toilet … I’ll check it again before I leave,’ Karl offers as he enters the room.

‘Oh,’ I reply.

‘I know I’m full of shit, and you’d probably say I’m just really “anal”.’ Unlike the toilet, Karl’s humour flows with the same apparent ease with which his lithe body moves from the door and into the chair.

‘You’ve been saying that for some time,’ I reply.

‘I have?’

‘Yes, you complain how shit your life is, about how you dump here and on me, you apologise and then you do the same thing the next week. Blocking the toilet was inevitable.’

‘So you think your blocked toilet is a manifestation of my internal world?’

‘Sure,’ I reply. ‘You’ve brought together two key aspects of your life: writer’s block, and how shit your life is. The toilet is a beautiful embodiment of your perspective.’

Karl thinks for a moment, ‘So I’m a blocked toilet? And I thought I was the one who’s full of shit!’

‘Maybe I am, but you often say how you’ve lost your creativity – then when you do create something you devalue it.’

Adjusting his glasses as though to emphasise his incredulity Karl asks, ‘You’re seriously suggesting I value a blocked toilet?’

‘Yes. You say nothing much ever happens to you; well this is it – it’s happening right now. Writers write from experience – so write about this.’

‘Great, I can just see my editor’s face when she asks what I’m working on, and I say, “The time I blocked my therapist’s toilet – oh, and yes, my writing really has turned to shit.”’

‘See, that’s good; you just don’t see it, or you don’t value it.’

Karl pushes back, ‘Seriously? Come on …!’

‘Why not? You’re not writing anything else. Besides, whatever your stuckness is it’s forcing you to be with yourself; it’s confronting you with yourself.’

‘You’ve said that before; maybe it’s you who’s stuck.’ He has a point.

‘You don’t trust your process; you restrict yourself creatively – you don’t risk being spontaneous.’

I’m not sure if Karl’s lack of response is a grudging acknowledgement. After a brief pause a thought appears. ‘What’s brown and sticky?’ I ask.

Karl looks quizzically at me, ‘What, really?’

‘Yeah, what’s brown and sticky?’

Karl shrugs, ‘A stick?’

‘No, you are …’ Karl’s face is expressionless; I suddenly feel very exposed.

‘Are you serious? You think it’s okay to say that to a black man?’

The moment steals my breath. Karl’s eyes look pained, then almost imperceptibly, the corners of his mouth curl up as uncontained laughter ruptures his serious expression: ‘I gotcha! Ha … I’ve never seen anyone whiter than you!’

Lost for words and unable to laugh, I utter, ‘Wow … that wasn’t nice!’ He laughs louder still. I want to laugh but I first need to breathe, ‘I don’t know about you being brown and sticky, but I think I’ve soiled myself!’ With this the tightness in my abdomen releases as laughter bubbles up; we’re now laughing together and wiping the tears from our eyes.

‘I’m sorry, but you did challenge me to be more spontaneous!’ Karl pauses allowing me to take his words in. ‘You thought you’d offended me?’ His voice has a tenderness that often comes through in his playfulness. ‘You know your joke could have backfired.’

He is acknowledging the risk I’d taken; perhaps it’s testament to our relationship that we are able to connect in a place where we’re both potentially vulnerable; it was this that set the context for our exchange. I began wondering about other times when I may’ve got it wrong; there are probably more than I’m even aware of.

Karl interrupts my thought, ‘Don’t worry; your joke was racial, not racist; there is a distinction – they’re not synonymous.’ Karl’s sincerity gives way to giggling, ‘I am sorry, but your face; you looked like a ghost.’

As our laughter subsides we sit in silence for some time like a post-coital couple enjoying the warm afterglow of a brief and intense encounter.

‘So you really think I should write about this,’ Karl concludes.

‘Why not? Treat it as a writing exercise – it might unblock you, and it might not.’

‘Hmm,’ Karl ponders, ‘But who’d read it?’

‘Write it for yourself.’

Karl laughs at a private joke, ‘“Write for myself”; I’m a professional writer.’

‘Maybe that’s where you’re stuck; you only ever write for other people.’

‘I might as well just flush it all away,’ Karl replies as though he hadn’t heard me. His words belong to another ongoing conversation; rather than deflecting perhaps he’s making a connection.

Glancing at the clock and addressing himself, Karl declares, ‘Times up, and time to face the music.’

‘If it doesn’t work I’ll deal with it; I work with people’s shit all the time.’ My words follow him out of the room.

Karl disappears into the downstairs’ toilet. A loud swooshing sound accompanies Karl as he emerges triumphant, ‘All good.’ Then with irony he adds, ‘Well at least the toilet’s not blocked anymore.’

Rather than criticism, I take Karl’s comment as a reassurance to us both that our work is not yet done. He was right about me being stuck – we are, as it were, stuck in it together.

Glenn recommends …

If as a psychotherapist you ask someone to do something, you either first have to have done it yourself, or be willing to do so.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Life is like …

3monkeyGlennLife is unlike the life your parents prepared you for; they too were unprepared. The best a parent can teach a child is there’s no preparation for life …

Life is like the life your parents wanted for you, only not in the way they intended.

Life is unlike the strange men you were told never to talk to, unless you are a strange man, in which case talking to yourself is obligatory.

Life is like an encounter with a stranger; always welcome people introducing you to yourself.

Life is unlike everything you ever wanted but we’re afraid to ask.

Life is like everything you ever wanted without freedom from wanting.

Life is unlike similes and metaphors; life is a metaphor. You are a metaphor.

Life is like incorrect grammar, unless you believe in grammar, in which case you’ll struggle with breaking the rules and it’ll always feel like someone’s looking over your shoulder.

Life is unlike a fork in the road; rather, you’ll see yourselves walking beside you on parallel roads, in parallel lives.

Life is like your parallel lives; be glad you’ll never meet yourself.

Life is unlike the lives of people passing by as you sit watching from a park bench telling yourself the story of their lives.

Life is like children off playing in the fields for the day; they’ve no concept of time and are blissfully unaware of the trouble they’ll be in when they’re home late.

Life is unlike money: having more doesn’t make you happier; that’ll depend on how you came by it.

Life is like money: you’ll try to save, spend, squander, borrow, take and give it away. In the end it only buys more of the same.

Life is unlike the life you think you should’ve had; it’s the ‘shoulds’ that get in the way – unless, of course, you’ve convinced yourself they are the life you want.

Life is like listening to the dawn chorus at 4am: you long for sleep, even though you’ve never heard anything more beautiful.

Life is unlike anything else. One life cannot be compared to another; life is a false equivalence.

Life is like every other life on the planet.

Life is unlike a fairground ride; you’re told to hold on tight even though it makes not a blind bit of difference.

Life is like a travelling circus; you fear it’ll take you away, and you’re scared it won’t.

Life is unlike conversations about life; talking about it can be painful and pleasurable, and yet it’s no substitute. Psychotherapy is conversations about life; it makes pseudo-experts of us all.

Life is like being carried away in conversation: you don’t know where you’re going, or what word will come next. The ‘right’ words usually come; be patient, for the ‘wrong’ words will find their way.

Life is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before; no wonder it passes you by as you wait for it to begin.

Life is like dreaming you’re awake; if you’re lucky, you’ll wake up and realise you’re dreaming.

Life is unlike a container of assorted confectionary – it really isn’t.

Life is like a wheelbarrow full of orphaned baby orang-utans.

Life is unlike infinity; you can always find a bit of spare time.

Life is like a pain in the neck; if you stop interfering it’ll usually sort itself out and you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.

Life is unlike your life story – all the right words in the wrong places, and all the wrong words in the right places.

Life is like an actor who fears forgetting their lines only to realise it’s all ad lib.

Life is unlike the centre of the universe unless it’s spinning off its axis.

Life is like it might never happen, unless it already has, in which case you might have missed it, only you can’t be sure. In time the feeling of missing out shapes what is absent, such that the feeling becomes indistinguishable from the thing itself.

Life is unlike a riddle; people can’t help you solve it, but they might distract you for a while.

Life is like coming out to yourself and, if it isn’t, it’ll be more like a closet.

Life is unlike the running out of time and more or less like a running out on time; abandon all concept of time. There’s enough to get to the end.

Life is like every book, film and play you never read, saw or went to.

Life is unlike the infinite promise of youth; you only realise it once you’ve let your self go.

Life is like the taking of prisoners – unless you give your self up.

Life is unlike a sandwich-filler; your life is a sandwich-filler – sandwiched as it is between birth and death. Confusing the two will hamper your sandwich.

Life is like it never happened.

 

Glenn suggests …

There’s no answer to life, since it’s not a question.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

How to spend a penny

On a morning train from Cambridge to London a woman looks up from her paperback offering me a smile as I sit opposite her. I take out my laptop to begin writing a blog about art in the consulting room …

An older couple join us. Before sitting down the man picks up a penny from the floor, places it on the table and declares, ‘Look dear, good fortune; I’ll be lucky all day.’

‘Ooh, don’t spend it all at once!’ is his wife’s scripted reply. They’re sharing their ritualised interaction with the woman and me – drawing us both into a performative intimacy peculiar to passengers sharing confined space on a train journey. We duly return their smiles. It would be ungenerous not joining in with their warm banal exchange. They have, after all, tried to establish civility between strangers pushed together around a small table.

Back to my blog, and I’m struggling with my thoughts about the intangible heart of the piece. My eyes dart back to the penny. A playful voice in my head says, ‘Pick it up; put it in your pocket.’ A flash of excitement – thoughts rush in and the moment is gone. The voice rebukes, ‘Why didn’t you pick it up?’ The subversiveness of the creative act would now feel contrived; this is a familiar double-bind. Second thoughts come wanting to know why and what I’d be doing, their intrusiveness inhibiting any spontaneity.

The man is now engrossed in his crossword, his wife and the lone woman are reading paperbacks. The now-neglected penny has been spent as a cheap catalyst for social bonding. And yet it’s somehow become a talisman for my stuckness and creativity. I can tell I’m not yet done with it.

A few minutes from King’s Cross the man looks up from his paper and says to his wife, ‘I’m stuck, I can’t finish it.’

‘That’s not like you.’ His wife’s tone is consoling. ‘Maybe it’s a particularly difficult one today?’

Immediately a voice from a dark corner of my mind blurts out, ‘Perhaps it’s early-onset!’

I scan the husband and wife, ‘Phew, I didn’t say that out loud.’ A rush of energy rises up into my chest; the unspoken thought has mobilised me and my eyes dart back to the coin. I see my hand reach out, pick up the penny and pop it into my pocket, ‘Wow! Look what I’ve found; now that’s a sign of good luck!’ I sense three pairs of eyes fixing on me.

The lone traveller shoots daggers at me, her silent expression speaks volumes. Her cold gaze reassures me of my transgression. She is perhaps outraged by my behaviour, her discomfort conceivably much to do with her apparent inability to speak. She’s unwittingly let herself become a passive bystander, but to what? What has she just witnessed?

The couple look perplexed and smile nervously to one another. Then looking at the man I add, ‘So that’s you and me – we’re both lucky today.’ This seems to ease the couple’s tension. They let out a stilted laugh, and still the lone woman remains stony faced. I’ll not speak to her – I don’t want to rob her of her experience.

‘Do you want the penny back?’ My question takes me by surprise; I’m aware the man still hasn’t made eye contact with me. I hope my question doesn’t dissipate the charge around the table.

‘No it’s okay,’ he utters, directing his words to the table where the penny had been.

‘I won’t give it back anyway!’ With this comment I feel playful and ridiculous. It reassures me I’m not trying to repair something. To do so would belittle us both, and it would detract from the charge. It struck me that I hadn’t actually offered to give his coin back; rather I wanted to gauge the impact it’d had on him. It’s as though my mind hadn’t yet caught up with the act. The energy I felt was like a wave that swept before me, or perhaps I was swept away with it.

Although arguably I’d just robbed a senior citizen on a train in broad daylight, all of us were the richer for it. With a penny that hadn’t belonged to me a multiplication miracle had occurred, ‘loaves and fishes’; a single coin had multiplied in value and was shared among everyone.

For the rest of the journey the couple reminisced about decimalisation. I tuned out of their conversation and wondered what sort of currency the penny had turned into? It’d done more than just break the constraints of a contrived social interaction. It was the simple alchemy of play that had transformed scripted civility into something else entirely, and had, for a brief moment, made a penny priceless.

 

Glenn recommends …

… (not) knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

In praise of being eaten

3monkeyGlennI recall, during my initial psychotherapy training at the Whittington Hospital in North London, the day I had to choose a supervisor. My tutor listed several candidates. He read out their names, many of them sounding exotic to me. He gave us little detail unless a group member enquired further. One name, in particular, struck me …

‘What about her?’ I asked.

He gave me an impish smile, laughed and cautioned: ‘She’ll eat you for breakfast!’

Something inside me said: ‘That’s the one!’ I didn’t know why, except I knew I didn’t want someone who wasn’t able to eat me. I wanted a supervisor who’d take no prisoners; I didn’t want to be spared. I thought only giants eat people for breakfast and, if there are giants, I want one as a supervisor.

I arrived for my first supervision session and pressed the doorbell of a beautifully coloured glass entrance to a large Victorian house. Only then, waiting for an answer, did I think: ‘What if she’s an ogre?!’ The door opened and a tiny woman revealed herself. I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment; I thought, ‘She’s not a giant.’

‘Oh God, you’re so young!’ she said. It was no compliment. Wow! I was being eaten even before I’d entered her house. I was both breakfast and delivery man. Her greeting had taken me by surprise. I stood rooted to the doormat not knowing how to respond.

‘Come in.’ It sounded more like an instruction than an invitation. Her tone was short; I hoped it was just her accent. Inside her consulting room we sat opposite each other. I stroked the hair on my chin. Goatees were fashionable at the time and I’d hoped it’d make me look a little older. It hadn’t worked; she’d seen straight through me. Now my stroking felt more like self-soothing. I imagined she was sizing up both me and her appetite at the same time. My tutor had warned me.

The memory of a green lizard I’d once seen in a glass tank flashed before my mind’s eye. Next to the lizard lay two flesh-pink, blind baby mice huddled together on a tea-plate, their short breaths in unison anticipating their fate. At the time, this scene unsettled me. Now, however, the image is empty of drama and emotional charge; with the clarity of calmness I see only two mice, a lizard and its lunch.

‘Did you notice you scanned me at the door?’ Her question woke me from my daydream, bringing me abruptly back into the room. I was more curious about the softness of her voice than her question. Then it struck me that I didn’t understand the question.

‘No,’ I replied.

‘You very quickly looked me up and down; you were scanning me. It’s good, it’s a good skill for a psychotherapist.’

Something lifted from my chest; with this she was saying: ‘I will work with you.’ I let out a deep breath as this began to sink in. At the time I couldn’t have predicted this would be the start of a long and rewarding collaboration.

I later discovered that supervisees can be eaten more than once. Perhaps the most memorable occasion came in our second year. I’d inadvertently caused something of a dilemma in an organisation where I was working, and one that my supervisor had ties with. We’d talked it through, I felt relieved; my supervisor would support me. At the end of the session, as I stepped outside she said, ‘I hate you, goodbye.’ With that the door closed and I stood glued to the doormat unable to leave or re-enter. Wow, what congruence! It turns out that two of my most valuable supervision experiences took place while standing on a doormat.

I imagined I was a cat that’d been put out for leaving an unwanted gift on the carpet. I told myself: ‘It’ll be okay, it is okay’; no one gets rid of a cat when it leaves you an unwelcome present, do they? I knew my supervisor well enough to know she’d meant what she’d said, and at the same time something in me was able to trust.

Walking to the underground I began to conceptualise her intervention. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott would say that for fifty minutes you love your client and at the end of the session you hate them by showing them the door. I was experiencing object constancy with a powerful benevolent other. Hate needn’t kill off a relationship. With this insight I could tell something important inside me was knitting together.

I learned three invaluable lessons: first, being eaten by a giant can make you bigger not smaller; second, to become a giant you must dine with giants; and third, afterwards you have to shit it all out.

Glenn cautions …

Not all those who would eat you are benevolent. You can tell a giant from someone who thinks they’re a giant; they’ve not learned the third lesson, hence the odour of much that comes out of their mouth.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Religion of the undead

3monkeyGlenn‘You said your last therapist thought you’re mad.’

‘Yes,’ Daniel replies.

‘How so?’ I ask.

With a heaviness Daniel replies, ‘Umm … You know what zombies are?’ His eyes are intense.

‘I’ve seen zombie films,’ I retort. I don’t think this is the answer Daniel wants.

Daniel continues, ‘Zombies are brain dead; they feed on the living.’ He scans my reaction, then continues.

‘Have you seen Romero’s Dawn of the Dead? These people barricade themselves into a shopping mall, then zombies break in and wander around the shops; the survivors have to pretend to be zombies – it’s the way people have become.’

‘It’s a comment on consumerism?’ I ask.

Daniel looks disappointed. ‘It’s a metaphor, not a comment.’

‘So you’re saying some people are zombies?’ I clarify.

‘You read Nietzsche right?’ Daniel asks. I nod. ‘People’ve become Nietzsche’s last man; they seek only comfort, they don’t think, they dislike and fear the “other” unless they’re subjugated, kept behind a big wall, or Brexited away … This is what zombie films are about. No one’s immune. Christians think they are; they don’t realise they’re already zombies. Christianity is the religion of the undead.’

‘Say more,’ I urge.

Daniel sits forward. ‘Nietzsche understood Christianity wouldn’t die with the death of God; instead it would flourish, because, at it’s heart, it’s nihilistic. It can’t affirm life because it devalues it; it values only a belief in an afterlife. And so it breeds ressentiment towards life.’

Daniel pauses for a moment, then continues, ‘You’re thinking “He’s mad” aren’t you?’

‘Yes I am. You are mad. You’ve come in here and said “People are zombies”, “Christians are the undead” just as Nietzsche’s mad man entered the market declaring “God is dead”. You’re doing just the same. By your own point of reference, and Nietzsche’s, you’re mad.’

‘Huh. Yes I suppose so. But do you think I’m mad?’ Daniel insists.

‘Not in the clinical DSM 5 sense, but yes, in an informal sense, the way most of us are.’

‘So you agree that Christians are zombies, nihilists?’ Daniel asks.

‘Well I don’t know about zombies … but yes they’re nihilistic. Though I wouldn’t include Jesus in that. I agree with Nietzsche about Jesus, he described him as “the first and last Christian”. So Jesus is the exception that proves the rule.’

‘Hmm interesting,’ Daniel ponders, ‘Do you think Jesus was mad?’

‘How could he not be? Though I think he knew he was. Knowing how mad you are makes all the difference,’ I reply.

‘Do you think Richard Dawkins is mad?’ Daniel asks.

‘You tell me.’

‘Yes in a sense; when he attacks religious people it’s clear he doesn’t see how much in common he has with them; he wants to convert them. He picked up on this idea about memes, and said that religion was a sort of meme or virus. That’s similar to what I’m saying, though people seem to think Dawkins is brilliant. He thinks he has the cure; he doesn’t see how he’s just spreading a different strain of the same virus.’

‘You’re quite invested in what people think of you,’ I reply.

‘Aren’t you?’ Asks Daniel.

‘Yes to some degree; mostly not. Being yourself inevitably invites criticism. It’s a small price.’

‘You’re not mad,’ Daniel concludes, ‘You’re a bit odd, but you’re not mad.’

‘I am mad.’ I point at the space on the sofa next to where Daniel is sitting. ‘Three months ago I worked with a talking chimpanzee. She sat right there.’

Daniel looks at me as though seeing me for the first time.

‘Look, there on the rug, that’s a squashed mango stain – she dropped fruit peel and skins on the floor and stepped on them when she got up.’ Looking at Daniel I add, ‘If that’s true – and it is true – tell me I’m not mad.’

Daniel blinks twice, blurts out a high-pitch laugh and says, ‘You’re nuts! … So tell me about the chimpanzee, did you cure her?’

Daniel is humouring me; he doesn’t believe what I’ve said.

‘No, I don’t cure chimpanzees, or humans. Both are terminal conditions; there’s no cure. She did appreciate the fruit though … And our work together isn’t finished.’

Daniel looks up at the wall. ‘You should have one of those signs – you know: “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”.’

‘I might do that.’ I smile, ‘You’re a sensitive man Daniel. You’re creative and you care deeply. I see it’s a struggle to express that. We can explore anything you want. How does that sound?’

Daniel solemnly nods his approval.

‘But if you eat fruit in this room you can use the bin like a normal person.’

Glenn recommends …

… reading his earlier blog Chimpanzee on the couch; it might help you make more sense of this one.

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.