D.W. Winnicott:
Creative Living


For Winnicott, creativity is the retention throughout life of something belonging to infant experience: the ability to create the world. He suggests that when a child is born it experiences for a short time a feeling of omnipotence; at first it is only aware - in a limited manner - of its own existence, over time becoming aware of the world of objects and ideas that predated its birth. When the child is born, the world is born along with it - everything is created anew, and for the first time. This feeling of omnipotence is facilitated by the mother, who, if good enough, provides the child with what it needs when it needs it, giving the impression that, by will alone, what was needed was created.

From this (lack of) awareness comes the feeling of omnipotence; that everything the child experiences it also creates. As it grows it will come to see that this is not the case; things will not go its way, and the world will assert its own inevitable will: the child is impinged upon, shown who’s boss.

Freud termed this impingement the Reality Principle; it is, in a sense, the process of disillusionment, a coming to terms – or a tug of war - with objective reality. The infant experience is, then, a creative one; creativity is a way of endowing things with meaning, giving the infant the confidence to emerge, step by step, into the world; it allows them to plant roots into the soil, and stand firm in the wind. As its illusions are shattered the breeze picks up force, and creativity – the ability to personalize, to mythify, to assert the self – strengthens us against its incursion. This is why, as Winnicott suggests, we do not entirely relinquish our creativity: not only does it defend us against the impingement of outside factors, it also allows us the confidence to go forth, to engage with things, to slip and tumble; to play.

Winnicott provides us with an instance of creative living in an everyday scenario; “I know that one way of cooking sausages is to look up the exact directions [...] and another way is to take some sausages and somehow to cook sausages for the first time ever. The result may be the same on any one occasion, but it is more pleasant to live with the creative cook, even if sometimes there is a disaster or the taste is funny and one suspects the worst. The thing I am trying to say is that for the cook the two experiences are different: the slavish one who complies gets nothing from the experience except an increase in the feeling of dependence on authority, while the original one feels more real, and surprises herself (or himself) by what turns up in the mind in the course of the act of cooking. When we are surprised at ourselves, we are being creative, and we find we can trust our own unexpected originality. We shall not mind if those who consume the sausages fail to notice the surprising thing that was in the cooking of them, or if they do not show gustatory appreciation.”35

With Winnicott we see the democratisation of creativity; it is a capability within each of us, and is not confined, as convention may dictate, to the realms of ‘art’ – an opinion that must surely have been shared by those involved in the avant-gardes. If creativity is a way of seeing, then it is suffused into everyday life by simply having a personal view of everything: something that, as Winnicott suggests, infants excel in.

“In creative living you or I find that everything we do strengthens the feeling that we are alive, that we are ourselves. One can look at a tree (not necessarily at a picture) and look creatively. If you have ever had a depression phase of the schizoid sort (and most have), you will know this in the negative. How often I have been told: ‘There is a laburnum outside my window and the sun is out and I know intellectually that it must be a grand sight, for those who can see it. But for me this morning (Monday) there is no meaning in it. I cannot feel it. It makes me acutely aware of not being myself real.’

Although allied to creative living, the active creations of letter writers, poets, artists, sculptors, architects, musicians, are different. You will agree that if someone is engaged in artistic creation, we hope he or she can call on some special talent. But for creative living we need no special talent. This is a universal need, and a universal experience, and even the bedridden, withdrawn schizophrenic may be living creatively in a secret mental activity, and therefore in a sense happy.”36

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