Portrait of the artist as a tortured soul

You've got an unfinished novel stashed in your drawer and an unfinished symphony ringing in your ears. And now you're blocked. Matt Seaton looks for a quick fix for the suffering genius
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y novel? It's coming along. I'm on chapter one. Almost. Actually, I've been thinking about it a lot. It's terribly important to know what you're going to say, don't you think? Has it really been eight years? Good Lord. I really am going to start it next week."

Sounds familiar? Most people seem to be convinced that there is a real creative "me" in there waiting to be unleashed as a novelist / dancer / painter / musician, if only we had the time, the space, the money - and we weren't blocked.

How to unlock the artist within? Many, from Coleridge, via Rimbaud, to Jean-Michel Basquiat, have resorted to drugs or alcohol to keep in touch with their Muse. But it's a short-term solution, since these substances inevitably take their toll on the artist's physical and mental well-being.

If mind-altering toxins are off the agenda for practical purposes, then what is one to do? The answer is that there is a huge literature on the subject, as well as masses of courses, describing an almost innumerable quantity of alternative techniques for unleashing one's creativity.

Vera Peiffer is a practising hypnotherapist, as well as a trained psychotherapist. Typically, she finds herself treating writers who are suffering from "block", and she uses hypnosis to allow clients to uncover some bad experience or affront to their self-confidence. The theory is that this repressed, unpleasant memory causes anxiety about failure, which prevents the client from using his or her creativity effectively now. "If you're tense," she says, "you can't be creative; the more relaxed you are, the more doors open."

But if you're feeling cheap, this is something you can do at home with a copy of Gilbert Oakley's The Power of Self Hypnosis (Foulsham, pounds 4.99). Using the example of Indian fakirs walking on hot coals (an example which crops up with monotonous regularity in the "spiritual path of creativity" literature) he maintains that if the mind can exercise control over matter, it can exercise control over itself. All you have to do is stare at a light bulb, a metronome or a large piece of card with concentric circles drawn on it (he explains how to make one of these, too) and when you've entered a trance, you repeat to yourself a set number of "affirmations".

Affirmations are simply positive statements about your life and things you wish to accomplish: you're just paying yourself compliments really, but because your rational, conscious self has been lulled into a state of suggestibility, you can alter your conscious state of mind. It's DIY brain-washing.

Gareth Cheeseman - one of Steve Coogan's creations - has obviously read Oakley's book. He uses the "mirror method", which involves talking to yourself in the mirror - in Cheeseman's case, shouting, "You're a tiger! Rrraaa!" Talking to oneself is best done at home, of course, rather than on the bus where other people, says Oakley in a moment of paranoia, "may attempt to remould your personality."

Nobody could accuse Shakti Gawain of such devious ends. Her Creative Visualisation (Airlift, pounds 7.99) is a New Age bestseller. Well into its second decade, its sold over 2 million copies in the USA and, according to Airlift, which imports numerous Californian self-help books, currently sells a respectable 300 copies a month here. Shakti has big hair, dangly earrings and signs off her foreword, "Enjoy! Love, Shakti."

Like self-hypnosis, creative visualisation also uses affirmations during meditation, so that "consciously imagining what we want can help us to manifest it in our lives." It's important to sit up straight while doing this because "having your spine straight helps the energy flow and makes it easier to get a deep alpha wave pattern," which sounds as if you're getting a tan at the same time. Affirmations work best when there is a spiritual dimension - try: "I have the infinite creative power of the Goddess within me." After that the alpha wave pattern will be really deep.

My favourite creative visualisation method is the one called the "Pink Bubble Technique". Here you imagine your desired goal, and then visualise that thought surrounded by a pink bubble which floats off into the universe to gather energy for its manifestation. It's arrestingly simple. I was less keen, though, on Shakti's idea of "tithing your income," which, she says, "will give you a continuous experience of outflowing." Frankly, my bank account already has this experience without having to lob over a percentage of my meagre wages to any "spiritual organisation."

Edward de Bono doesn't suggest anything quite so foolish in his book Serious Creativity (Harper Collins, pounds 7.99). His notion of creativity is less focused on the individual psyche and more on large corporations' need to harness new ideas to retain a competitive advantage. Essentially rehashing his one big idea from the Sixties, "lateral thinking," de Bono throws in a few newer tricks, like the "Six Thinking Hats," the "Creative Pause" and setting up "Provocation". As he is fond of boasting, these gimmicks terrifically impress IBM executives, but in reality they're either blindingly obvious or as silly as they sound.

If you want a guru to help you unleash your creativity, then personally I'd rather have the real thing, a true spiritual visionary. One such is Henryk Skolimoswki, Chair of Ecological Philosophy at the University of Warsaw, otherwise found on the Greek island of Thassos, home to his EcoYoga sanctuary.

You know that this man is serious about what he does because in his book, EcoYoga (Gaia Books, pounds 10.99), the author photograph shows a middle-aged man with a shock of white hair hugging a tree with a beatific smile on his tanned face. Meditation, of course, is a must for Skolimoswki - a matter of "mental hygiene" no less. But like Shakti Gawain, he also believes in the power of visualisation: "One strategy is to imagine, in concrete palpable terms, the positive outcome of what you want to accomplish." I still preferred his idea for "exercising your smile," though. What a sweet man!

The problem with gurus, however, is that they tend to get mobbed, and before you know it they're running a cult and driving yellow Rolls-Royces. "There are a lot of workshop junkies," Raven Lamoureux-Dodd told me. A 43-year-old therapist, she has spent 25 years studying shamanism and, for her, the essence of his spiritual tradition is "taking responsibility for yourself, which means you're no longer a victim of circumstances."

"Creativity," she says, "gets blocked by judgements, fears and self-defeating attitudes, or when you're stuck in emotional conflict." According to Lamoreux- Dodd, shamanism uses trance (a little like hypnosis) to get outside one's present reality and observe it from another, higher reality. Using the good-old "walking on hot coals" example, she describes it as a way of "putting belief and intention into physical life," or of learning to trust one's intuition. And, with this technique, she has treated "a cross-section of society, from corporate executives, and secret service people, to little old ladies." But "you have to take it seriously," she warns, "it's a scared path."

A less demanding way to creativity is laid out by Veronica Tonay, who lectures at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her book, The Art of Dreaming (Airlift, pounds 9.99) is a self help guide to interpreting and using your dreams to enhance your creativity.

Jung himself speculated that we dream all the time "but that consciousness makes such a noise that we do not hear it," so for Tonay the subconscious mind, where dreams are formed, is constantly "thinking" in a creative, associative way. She doesn't offer any magic tricks, but if you have an interesting dream life, perhaps this is for you.

Maybe my dreams are just too moribund, but if accessing the unconscious is the name of the game, then I would rather play with Tarot cards. Of course it's daft, but Catherine Summers and Julian Vayne, authors of Self Development with Tarot (Foulsham, pounds 4.99), get full marks for their plausible explanation.

"The unconscious mind communicates in images and emotions," they write, "whereas the conscious mind communicates in letters, numbers and words. The tarot combines both these features, each card having rational, logical associations and also unconscious, symbolic associations." If creativity is about learning to incorporate intuitive, unconscious thinking into your rational self, then why not Tarot?

Again, this is one to do at home: Summers and Vayne will have you talking to the card "as though it were a combination of priest confessor, counsellor, and friend," and even listening to a card. Too much of this and your only friends would be cards. Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity sets more realistic goals. Despite a rather unappetising New Age gloss on "the Great Creator," this is very much a course book, comprising a rigorous 12-week guide for "creative recovery."

The key tools it recommends are "the morning pages", which are simply three pages of free-associated gubbins you write down as soon as you wake, and then "the artist date", which is a set period of time every week which you set aside as inviolable time for creative work. A photographer friend confessed, at first sheepishly, to using Cameron's book, but said that she'd "followed the course religiously and it really worked."

She liked the technique because it gave her the time and space to be creative that she wouldn't have otherwise allowed herself - "And that's the point," she says; "that to make art at all, you have to be free to make bad art. What you need to get out of the way is your fear of that, which stops you doing anything."

And perhaps, whatever method you adopt, that's the key - being able to silence the inner critic, that voice which says, "You have no talent, you can't do this." Oh and, as Shakti would say, "Enjoy!"

release the muse within

1. Be sure to choose your parents with care

Studies show creative people come from homes in which intellectual and creative pursuits are valued, and they are encouraged to do well at school.

2. Indulge in hero worship as a child

Creative people read voraciously as children and often model themselves after heroes or heroines from books.

3. Fail miserably at school

Paradoxically, many creative people perform poorly at school. Actor Anthony Hopkins has said: "I was a dummy ... I would sit perplexed, drinking ink."

4. Be unhappy

Nearly all Nobel Prize-winners have come from troubled homes. As Gore Vidal, writes: "Hatred of one parent or the other can make an Ivan the Terrible or a Hemingway: the protective love, however, of two devoted parents can absolutely destroy an artist."

5. Before you reach adulthood, have a loved one die on you

One study suggests that only adolescent delinquents and suicidal depressives have rates of childhood bereavement as high as those of creative people.

6. Become mentally unstable

It is well documented that creative people are more likely than the general population to suffer from illnesses like manic-depressive disorder. Even those who do not suffer from mental illness tend to be more impulsive, depressed, or angry than other people.

7. At all times, be aloof

Overcoming the difficulties that are likely to have beset their childhood often means that creative people are extremely driven and have developed strong self-belief to mask their inner insecurities; this can make them appear arrogant loners.

Source: Veronica Tonay, `The Art of Dreaming: Using Your Dreams to Unlock Your Creativity' (Airlift, pounds 9.99)

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