Jackie Morris: on creativity
October 5, 2022
We asked Jackie Morris, the award-winning co-creator of The Lost Words and The Lost Spells – and illustrator for this year's National Poetry Day – about writing and the creative process. She's written a powerful piece about the place creativity should hold in our lives and the cross-pollination of Science and the Arts.
‘A poem cannot stop a bullet.
A novel cannot defuse a bomb.
But we are not helpless.
We can sing the truth
and name the liars.’
– Salman Rushdie
There’s a phrase I have struggled all my life to comprehend:
‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.
Seeing how history is littered with the bodies of writers and poets, musicians and journalists, I have often wondered at the truth of this phrase. Many of those whose work I have loved have been silenced by dictators, war, the state. And yes, their words might live on, spoken and sung by others, but most had so many more beautiful tales to tell.
Now, as much as any time in history, writing can be a dangerous profession. Swords and guns and bombs speak loudly, so why is it that those who wield their wealth and power, for these two often walk hand-in-glove, fear poets enough to wish them dead, silenced? They burn books, ban books, imprison and torture writers, even as they forbid the right to peaceful protest, until writers and their words are just ashes on the wind. They put a bullet in the brain, even as writers try to place words in the heart.
a poet can hold up a mirror to the soul, reveal its poverty, find the lies between the lines in politics
So what is it dictators fear?
Is it because a good journalist can call shame to account? Because a poet can hold up a mirror to the soul, reveal its poverty, find the lies between the lines in politics? Swords and guns and bombs speak loudly, and lies fall to earth encased in sugared sweetness to poison ears, yet still a phrase can turn aside a tide of hatred, reveal the beauty of a truth, and even the smallest story can open a heart.
Is this why they hate us so?
Because poets can imagine a better way, can open up the cracks between the lies and let the light in?
In schools and universities in the UK children and students are encouraged to turn away from creative subjects. They are told the humanities will never lead to ‘gainful employment’, but what a poverty of the soul it is to see education as a tool for building slaves for industry. As a friend once said to me about working in a school, ‘the minds of children are not a bucket to be filled, but a fire to be kindled’.
Now more than ever we need to imagine new ways of being, as our old ways lead humans further towards dark times. Creativity and the imagination should be fostered above the force feeding of facts. Science and creativity walk hand in hand, and when they work together wonderful things can happen. All things, in order to be, need first to be imagined. When those who would claim to lead us do not have the vision to understand this you can be sure we are governed by ignorant and dangerous people.
Each of us has a unique voice. Education is about teaching people to find that voice and giving them the courage to use it.
And if the pen is mightier than the sword we need to use it to challenge those who would deepen the damage. We need to use it to better communicate the science of the climate crisis. We need to weave around the world a spell of protection, entwine natural law with natural lore, learn to listen as much as learn to speak, and learn the true value of life- all life
We live on a small planet, not a fragile Earth, but a powerful and regenerative place, a wonderful web of interconnected life. As humans we are a very tiny part of this, but our potential for harm, to the planet, to ourselves, is immense. If we are to survive we need to find new ways of being. And if the pen is mightier than the sword we need to use it to challenge those who would deepen the damage. We need to use it to better communicate the science of the climate crisis. We need to weave around the world a spell of protection, entwine natural law with natural lore, learn to listen as much as learn to speak, and learn the true value of life- all life.
Perhaps the pen might stop the next sword being wielded? Perhaps a novel might prevent a bomb being planted?
Any act of creativity takes courage.
Find your courage.
Let your pen be your sword.
May your battlecry be beautiful.
What else can I do?
A poem is dangerous
and if you only knew how one
whimsical, delicate line,
even that takes courage…’
– Miklós Radnóti
Jackie Morris is the bestselling and award-winning co-creator of The Lost Words and The Lost Spells, two books which have captured the hearts of hundreds of thousands of readers of all ages. She also illustrated and introduced a new edition of Barbara Newhall Follett's lost classic of wild literature, The House Without Windows. As an author, Jackie Morris has produced over forty beloved children's books; as an artist she has also worked with the New Statesman, Independent and Guardian, among others. She won the Kate Greenaway Medal and the British Book Awards Children's Book of the Year for The Lost Words in 2018. Jackie lives in a cottage on the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, where she is now working on her forthcoming third book with long-time collaborator, Robert Macfarlane: The Book of Birds.