Last week, when I went home, I found a small stone in a box of old photos. On the back, distorted by the crannies of the surface, someone had written 2003 (I judged by the legibility of the handwriting it was not me- I would have been 3 or 4). I had dipped my little baby-fat hand in purple paint and now its imprint, viscerally small and permanent, remained on the stone’s cool flat face. The paint was a vivid mark of the momentary made tangible. The stone seemed smaller now, or maybe my hand was bigger; either way, smoothed by the thick lacquer of poster paint, and perhaps time, it was an invitation to indulge nostalgia.
It seems a great shame to me that the creative impulse can often feel incompatible with academic work. I was a prodigious artist as a child, despite a marked lack of any noticeable talent. I churned out drawings (mostly bad), shaved a triangle into my brother’s hair (regrettable), and sheaves of poetry (most memorably one about prime ministers and nudity, in which I rhymed bare and Blair). Increasingly, however, I couldn’t justify the time creation demands. It became a chore.
We are in charge of our own time at university, which is both extraordinarily freeing and extraordinarily stifling. We are fortunate at this university that Cambridge is steeped in cultural activities, often free to access. There is lots to do. This week Cambridge PEN is showing Parting Song: Poems from Prison (November 6th in St. John’s); the next day the Fitzwilliam is playing host to a Cam Lates feminist takeover; the day after you can, for £2, go to Sidney Bar to drink and draw (the proceeds go to Cambridge Rape Crisis).
It seems an indulgence to devote time to writing a poem that isn’t even good, or drawing a peach that looks like an apple. But it is exactly this perfectionist attitude that creation can go some way towards undoing. I might have set out to draw a peach, but the apple I made has a kind of beauty of its own. In the same way, the essay for which I had grand visions of harvesting the fruits of academic thought with can be contented with grazing the branches of the tree.
If exams succeed at instrumentalisation (both by making our bodies the vehicles of communicating our thoughts and, in more a reductive sense, by simplifying learning into a grade) then creative expression is a way to claw back fundamental agency. To make something as an end in itself is a curious kind of pleasure. To make something as an end in itself when the end itself (a lopsided picture, a splotchy painting, or an ill-conceived poem) is not conventionally successful is especially liberating in an environment that obsessively quantifies achievement. Maybe my peach that looks like an apple doesn’t even really look like an apple at all. It doesn’t matter. It’s still going on my wall.