On Creativity, Crap, and the Clearing Away of Childhood

Firstly, thank you: for your kind and enthusiastic and kindly enthusiastic responses to my last post. I am particularly heartened that people seem to like my scribbled poetry notes. These little fragments are where I feel most at home creatively and I look forward to rambling about them at length in the future.

For now, though, I’ve been thinking about the long, slow process of cleaning out my childhood home, which took place over the last couple of years – firstly in a big, focused burst, and then in dribs and drabs and trickles and whimpers. It was full of sadness and joy and reminiscence and teeth-grinding and head-shaking and many more things besides. We moved around a lot in the first few years of my life and I have blurry memories of that time, but the year I turned five, my parents bought the one and only house they would ever own, and proceeded, over the next 50-some years, to fill it with kids and memories and obscure family sayings and stuff. So much stuff.

I’m sure they threw plenty of things away over that time. They were sensible people, after all. A little quirky, sure, but then again, aren’t we all? They made conscious choices about what to keep – things that were useful, or might be some day, even if in some as-yet unimaginable way; things that had once been useful but were now broken but might be fixed at some future point or repurposed, possibly in some as-yet unimaginable way; things that had sentimental value or might have one day, depending on what events transpired in your life or the kind of person you turned into or a million and one other variables. Things that sparked joy or rage or indifference or even just a raised eyebrow and a mischievous line of thought: Hmmm, I don’t know what this is for and the kids won’t either. I will attach a label to it that says “MYSTERY OBJECT” and use it to bamboozle people.

The thing is, everything can serve some sort of function, even if it’s just to make you shake your head in puzzlement. Even, as it turns out, if it’s just to mean that after you’re gone, your adult children are obliged to spend day after day lost in time, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the house that made them, sorting through boxes and filing cabinets and collections of bits & pieces, shaking their heads and smiling and grinding their teeth and laughing and calling to each other from one room to the next in the big old house, “A biscuit tin of used stamps?!”,”WHY WOULD YOU KEEP THAT?”, “Good grief! What is all this crap?!” “Oh, look! It’s the iron filings!”, “Hey, I just found your Christmas list from 1976!”; “Who’s got the blu-tack ball? I just found the mother lode!”, “More stamps! WHY, DAD, WHY?”. All of which, of course, slides seamlessly into, “What was that even used for?” and “Remember when we …?” and,”Ohh, I had totally forgotten about that!”, and in so doing, gifts those adult kids a difficult but necessary and necessarily difficult and impossibly fraught and beautifully bittersweet experience of sifting through the strata of their shared lives, of undertaking a ritual of sorts that becomes part of the process and the processing, of the coming together and the falling apart.

And look, I don’t want to romanticise things, even though I seem to be. It was hard. And there were times when it felt like it would have been easier not to excavate at all, to be indiscriminate, times when we rubbed our backs and massaged our spiralling emotions and talked of bulldozers and skip bins and sent each other flamethrower gifs. Mostly, though, for me at least, it felt so important to be fully in that space, in that place, to really look at things and remember them, and then consider them anew: What do we do with this now? Is there life left in it? Who might want it and why and for what? Can it be repurposed, passed on, donated or sold, re-cycled, up-cycled, uni-cycled?

There were so many lovely moments in that process:

* The man who, coming to pick up a pair of paint-spattered 1970s chairs,wound his window down as he pulled up the driveway and declared, “Hey, I know this house! I used to print stuff for your father! And wait … didn’t you go on a Rotary thing to Japan? I took your photos! Your dad was so proud of you!”

* The family who came to fill their trailer with piles of rocks from the backyard, leftovers from Dad’s various building projects, who planned to use them in arty structures at the school camp they manage, the very one we all went to as 11-year-old kids.

* The people who claimed some twisted, hollow logs and later sent a photo of them in their bushy yard, providing sanctuary for frogs and lizards.

* The guy who was beside himself over an old formica table that had sat in our laundry since the beginning of time. Who couldn’t believe we were just giving it away, because it was so cool, so weathered and rusted and faded in the best possible ways, and would be perfect for his ‘weird art stuff’. And who may have been a little taken aback by how, the moment he uttered the phrase ‘weird art stuff’, my sister and I almost fell over ourselves with excitement and started scouring what remained for other things to give him. Because Dad loved weird art stuff, and would have done exactly the same.

These are just a few examples. You guys, there were so many. And yes, it took so much longer to do it this way, to try to find a new home or a new use for as many things as possible. It was time-consuming and tiring and sometimes frustrating (If you’ve ever tried to sell – or give anything away – on Facebook, you’ll know what I mean!). But mostly, it was so incredibly rewarding. It brought connection and colour and community into the process. It made me look forward, to reach out and open my borders at a time when it would have been so easy to shut down, to close myself off and dwell only in the past. Even just in writing the ads, I got to mess around with words, reminding myself of what I love, what I’m good at, how much fun it is to simply play.

It was a gift, really, and one that brought me other things too. In the cracks of everything, it became a rich creative well, from which much writing was to spring. A lot of it is formless at this point but there will be poems, eventually. About excavation and strata and maps and the call-and-response of twin diaries, of the logging of minutiae and the telescopic collapsing of past and present. Poems, though, take time, at least for me. They call for their own kind of careful excavation, for a greater emotional investment. They will sleep in fragments until their time comes around.

For now, there is something different. Emerging from the glorious rubble of all this are two picture books, very different in subject and style, but both with a direct line to this intense period in my life. And hey – I was going to talk about them now but as usual I talk too much and say too little, and as I’ve been writing all this I’ve thought to myself, Hmm, I’m running out of space to talk about both. Maybe I’ll just do one and leave the other for next time and instead I’ve run out of space to talk about either. I suspect that if I let my internal editor loose on this post, she would strike out the whole thing, tell me to keep all this stuff to a tight paragraph and then get straight to the book/s. But I’m not letting the editor in here. I’m going to let myself ramble and play and if the point I meant to get to remains endlessly deferred, then so be it. I suspect it’s often in the rambling and playing that we discover that the point we planned to get to might not be the most important one, that there are other things occupying our thoughts that want to rise to the surface. So here, I leave you with these ascending bubbles, and the book-talk can wait. As a gesture, though, towards having achieved what I set out to do, here is an illustration from the first of the two. The artist, Karen Blair, thinks this is a fictional character named Ella, and it is, but it’s also me, of course, a childhood Meg perched on a pile of stuff, pondering. What to do with all this useless stuff? Skip? Flamethrower? A trip to the tip? Or maybe there’s another way, full of richness and connection and creative possibility…

10 thoughts on “On Creativity, Crap, and the Clearing Away of Childhood

  1. ClareSnow

    rocks and logs? yes please!

    you black out names in books!? but thats the best part when i buy a second hand book for a dollar. i recently found one of your picture books signed by you and the illustrator at paraquad bookshop. I don’t know why it wasn’t more than a dollar


    1. Meg McKinlay Post author

      Yes, I know what you mean about names and I generally leave mine, but this was specifically in my parents’ books. They had stickers with their names, address, phone number and it just felt odd to leave it all there. I suspect I might have done the same just for the names, though, simply because they weren’t there to ask and it felt like a bit of an invasion of privacy to put their names out there. I like your bookshop score! It’s actually pretty unusual to find one signed by both me and the illustrator, as we’re rarely in the same place.


  2. carla chapin

    As we gently comfort our Inner Child, I find a new POV for my children’s book characters. I think kiddos would love the adventure of a “mystery object.” Appreciate all you do!


  3. Pingback: Ella Emerges from the Rubble | Meg McKinlay

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