Charlotte Wood: ‘The artists I most respect have a real acceptance of the animal self’

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When Charlotte Wood first sat down to write her 2015 novel The Natural Way of Things, she was stuck.

“It wasn’t working,” she told Guardian Australia’s monthly book club on Friday, dialling in over Zoom from the Central Coast of New South Wales. “It was dead on the page.”

A decade and a half deep into a writing career that had already spawned five novels and one edited anthology, she suddenly found her time-honoured creative methods restrictive.

“I was trying to apply too much rationality to that story,” she said. “It was a very surreal book, very dark. Trying to use my rational mind … meant sticking with the very bleak nature of the material.

“It wasn’t until I let the quite primitive, symbolic, dreamy side of things in that it started to come alive.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Wood’s novel – which she described as a “feminist dystopia about misogyny” – went on to win the Stella Prize, with a rapturous response from readers and critics.

Her latest book, The Luminous Solution: Creativity, Resilience and the Inner Life, is a collection of essays themed around imagination – how we can nurture it and how we can sustain it. Daunted by a blank page, as Wood was, how can we get our creative juices flowing?

In a thought-provoking discussion with Guardian Australia’s features editor Lucy Clark, Wood spoke about returning to a younger self’s more instinctual creative impulses, unbound by the pressures of expectation.

Her first novel, she said, was created with a complete “lack of knowledge of how to write a story”.

“I’m glad it came from that – there’s no way it would be published now.”

What she lacked in terms of experience, however, she made up for in commitment, spurred by a family tragedy.

“When I was 29, my mum died, and my father [had] died when I was 19. When a real crisis hits you, you can see things suddenly very clearly.

“I suddenly knew that writing really mattered to me. It mattered immensely. I decided to commit to learning, to trying to finish something … [I] gave up other things in order to commit to that.”

It’s that tension between “the pragmatist and the dreamer”, as she put it, that continues to drive her creative process.

“I do think the artists that I most respect have a real acceptance of the unconscious, the dream state, and sometimes the … animal self.”

Related: Charlotte Wood: 'What are we really afraid of when we think of old age?'

In writing The Luminous Solution, Wood came across a study based on decades of psychological research, which dictated a trio of key ingredients essential to a creative mindset.

“What I translated into shorthand for myself was that the most creative mood was slightly excited, curious optimism,” she explained.

“It basically said the way I went to the desk was the opposite of … the most creative mood state. I would go with fear, anxiety, gloominess. [I] couldn’t wait to get it over with.”

Only by embracing a sense of discovery can we quell those anxieties, she said. “The state of the artist [is] this state of unknowing and uncertainty: living between certainties, and groping towards certainties.”

And perhaps the best antidote to uncertainties is to approach them with a sense of unbridled, childlike glee – like the kind Wood experienced as a five-year-old in the unlikeliest of places: Catholic church.

Making reference to an essay in The Luminous Solution, a version of which was published in Guardian Australia, Wood described mass as “being forced into amusing myself for an hour a week”.

“It was really quite a challenge [but] I found it really beautiful – it gave me and my siblings a kind of privacy, and a feeling of dreaminess. You could just sit there and … think about whatever you wanted to think, and look at all these people and decide what you thought about them.

“I think that’s really good for children: to be forced to be bored.”

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