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It was three decades ago that Charlotte Wood began writing fiction. She has since put out nine books – one, The Natural Way of Things, winning the Stella Prize in 2016. Not once in all that time has the sublime absurdity of wrestling forth her creation not amazed her. The miracle of it, the audacity, the agonising torments and the deep, affirming pleasures: to bring something into the world where there wasn’t anything before. The impossible conception. 

As she writes in her new book, The Luminous Solution, a personal and wide-ranging meditation on the creative impulse, it was in the church pews as a child that she first felt the ‘art instinct’. Although Wood is no longer religious, the hunger for the mystery has endured; as well as “the understanding that something big was out there, that I would almost certainly never touch it, but reaching for it was the point of being alive”.

She’s made her living committing herself to this act of reaching – often in long, solitary and at times wretched hours at a writing desk. But, she argues, you don’t need to work in the arts industry to gain entry to the clan of ‘creative folk’. 

“In Australia, we tend to think of creativity as a thing for artists, and only for artists,” she tells me over the phone. “I really feel quite strongly that the pleasure of making – whether it’s a cake, or a ceramic pot, or through song – is just such a nourishing thing for anyone.”

In many of our organisations and institutions, she sees only sloganeering lip service being paid to foster and encourage creative thinking.

“Even people whose job it is to be the creative one in the organisation are resisted at every turn. We fear it. When people say they want creativity, what they actually want is a replication of a previously established form of creativity.”

At what cost?

“I keep thinking, at the start of this pandemic – imagine if the authorities brought together all the best minds from the arts, sports, medicine, science and business, just to see what we could make of the solutions together,” Wood sighs. “We could have come up with some amazing ways of tackling the problems. But we didn’t. We decided it was only a medical problem, and only politicians were allowed to formulate the response. 

“It was such a missed opportunity.” 

In this spirit, The Luminous Solution positions itself very much as a book for anyone – no matter their career lane – who is interested in enriching their inner world through creative thought. Wood herself is perennially fascinated by the imaginative lives of others – their habits and methods, quirks and idiosyncracies, superstitions and dogmas. (Some famous writers, readers will no doubt be aware, have some curious customs indeed; Agatha Christie, for instance, apparently “munched on apples in the bathtub while pondering murder plots”). 

Behind Wood’s writing desk – as a kind of spiritual and practical bulwark that both challenges and inspires her – is a shelf of books on creativity. The volumes housed there are written not only by kindred authors, but all kinds of artists, from painters to theatre-makers, from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life to Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting. In The Luminous Solution, she spends many passages contemplating the cross-pollination of different artforms: how they correspond, and what they can offer each other. Why can’t, for instance, writers be more collaborative? To what extent is this cultural figure trapped by patriarchal myths, and how can contemporary authors escape, subvert and challenge them? 

One quality that unifies creative people, Wood proposes, is the capacity for discomfort. Which isn’t to say (as many do) that all creatives are martyrs or masochists; hurling themselves into psychic tortures unfathomable, weeping at the perfect sentence that can’t be summoned or brush stroke misapplied. Rather, it’s an attentiveness to internal disquiet; and when this disquiet is perceived, not to suppress or reject it, but to make room for it. To accept the wrinkle and allow for it to make another complex fold in your inner world. Creatives are by their natures ‘problem-finders’ in the first, Wood posits – only by creating unique problems can they find original solutions. 

What is the ‘problem’ lurking inside your blank page? Your bare canvas? That barren patch of soil in the back garden? Wood enjoins us to discover it. 

Inquisitive and illuminating, with chapters ranging from giving and offering feedback, to the value of dreaming and the unconscious on creative work, to anger as creative fuel, to very contemporary questions over representation, The Luminous Solution will resonate with anyone who knows something of the joy that comes with imagining what could be. What exciting, strange and perhaps radical new thing can be uncovered beyond the boundaries of what is? 

“My book is a call for everybody to be a bit braver, a bit wilder in our work and life,” says Wood. “To open up to a sense of not knowing; of discomfort, curiosity and wonder. Life is so much richer when you allow that stuff in.” 

By Kate Prendergast

The Luminous Solution by Charlotte Wood was published October 2021 by Allen & Unwin.

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