The column should’ve started with a hand print.
It’s the image that kept coming to me as I wailed and gnashed my teeth through writing the September column for Woman&Home SA. The gist of the piece is about creativity, and it forced me into a conversation with myself that I’d been trying to avoid for many months.
In keeping with the theme of avoidance, I opted to not start with the image pushing itself at me, and chose instead an anecdote from childhood to make the point I finally make.
But the point I make in the column is not the whole thought I’ve been grappling with. And I’m still left with the image of the hand print in my mind’s eye and the feeling that something of what I meant to say remains unsaid. How much can you say in 700 words when 10 000 or none would do equally well? What’s the point of saying it then?
Which brings me to the hand print.
To be correct, it’s not a print but a stencil, created by an ancient artist blowing red pigment over their hand onto the rock belly of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, some thirty to forty thousand years ago. This particular piece isn’t the fanciest or even the oldest of the stencils, but it was the one that always found its way into my art theory notes every year, from high school to art school to college.
It was the image used to introduce us to the concept of art and meaning. Why do we make a mark? Who did that artist stencil their hand for? Their own delight? To delight and impress others? To make magic? Attain immortality?
For me, the power of the single hand, so starkly contrasted in black and white in our cheap Photostatted notes and brown-paper textbooks, was that it was above all else a statement: I am here.
Here is my mark. I exist.
Fast-forward a coupla millennia and here we all are, a few billion of us making our marks a few million times a day, most often on digital media platforms that can be wiped away by a line of code or the whimsy of a Google or a Zuckerberg or a Jack, most often leaving no evidence of itself in a year or a decade other than on unreliable memory.
Ever since the neat ‘brand’ of Dorothy Black tied up, it’s become increasingly difficult for me to make meaning in that overwhelming wave of noise and voice of it all, the transience and churn of it all. I’ve often started to write up some blog and then stopped after a sentence or two, listless and demotivated to continue.
This week, cosplayer and pop-culture reviewer Noelle Adams aka Pfangirl tweeted: ‘Those crisis of confidence days when all around you are podcasts, streams, substacks, YouTubing, Reels, and and… It’s so overwhelming. So many voices. Why the fuck would anyone care what you have to say? And where do you find the time + energy to do all that; to be relevant?’
I’ve followed Adams for years and have enjoyed her cosplay updates and her reviews. For me, she’s an accessible doorway onto a comic world I don’t immerse myself in. The comments under her tweet veered from advice to validation, but none of it was ultimately helpful to soothe the jab of that small, sharp thorn at the end of her sentence: ‘Relevance.’
It’s a nasty little prick, that word.
Like all things twisted, ‘relevance’ started off well enough I think.
Creating is very often (if not most often) a two-part process: the making and the sharing. Whether it’s a painting, a performance or a piece of writing, the created piece is only fully in the world once it’s been engaged with by an audience.
In the past, this engagement would’ve involved applause, sales, readership or critique. Now, there’s a step before all of that: ‘clicks’ and ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and, if you’re lucky, ranty feedback comments on Facebook. Do enough of what gets you that ‘engagement’ and you might get ‘fame’ and a maybe then little bit of actual applause or a sale and some pennies.
Which is fine, but somewhere along the line, the value of that social engagement started to outweigh the value of what is created, or even the creating itself.
This doesn’t bode well for creative expression.
Unless you’re one of the lucky few whose ‘make’ taps into the zeitgeist with ease, the tyranny of ‘relevance’ is a stranglehold on the authentic creative impulse.
It saps enthusiasm with all sorts of shoulds, it kills joy with comparison, it disparages anything that isn’t the latest, most edgy hot take. There is nothing that dampens the quiet, internal creative impulse more than looking outwards and wondering how other people might be moved emotionally and how to accommodate – or, frankly, manipulate – that.
Not only is it an impossible ask, it’s fucking exhausting if you try.
After months of trying to find the words to explain something that wasn’t entirely clear to myself, Adams’ tweet and that one horrible word ‘relevancy’ brought it all into sharp focus: I’ve stopped creating because I’ve stopped having anything relevant to say. If the social media/engagement lie is to be believed, why say or do anything at all if it’s not going to be loved, shared, instantly viral or in aid of ‘building a brand’.
For new writers, the lack of confidence combined with this particular barb of ‘relevancy’ can be poison. ‘Relevancy’ hasn’t just informed, for the past two or three years now, my hesitancy to blog again. It’s also the word that’s turned the process of trying to find an agent for my first novel a thoroughly nauseating experience.
Luckily Adams’ tweet did more than just help me identify that dastardly word. It reminded me that I don’t have to make myself a slave to it.
I don’t have to be relevant. I can just write for me. I can do what I’ve always done with blogging and that’s to use it to organise my thoughts in ways that journalling is too accommodating for. If my books never get published, that’s what Amazon’s for. For an audience, I have Tom and Tom’s mom and my friends – and you! Hello 🙂 – and that’s enough.
What sweet relief.
Maybe that’s what that image of the hand, so relentlessly in my mind’s eye for the past month or so, was trying to remind me.
I imagine that Paleolithic artist now, deep in a cave, alone. Somewhere in that cool dark, far away from the sunlight, kept company only by the dancing lamp light and their imaginings, they capture magic not because they want to be relevant to a thousand strangers, but because that act of creating is required of them from their creative impulse and their Gods. Because when they put their hand against the cold rock and breathe their image onto the surface, they are confirming for themselves, ‘I exist’.
And that’s enough.