Listen carefully. There is a faint whisper, somewhere in the back of your head, one that sounds a million miles away yet does not fade. It is the start of something – a poem, a novel or a new theorem in physics – but is still wildly unformed.
That, Nino Ricci explains, is the voice of creativity.
“That’s the hardest part of creativity, trusting that over time, that the voice will become clearer, then putting in the time for it to become clearer,” said the award-winning Canadian novelist. “Sometimes we think of creativity as the brilliant idea that makes everything easier. But no one gets a brilliant idea out of the blue. There are probably years and years of effort that have led to that revelation.”
Ricci now lends a brilliant ear for creativity to Western as the inaugural holder of the Alice Munro Chair in Creativity in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.
Ricci, whose internationally acclaimed first novel, Lives of the Saints, spent 75 weeks on the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list and won the F.G. Bressani Prize, the Books in Canada First Novel Award and Governor General’s Award for Fiction, joins the Western community this term. He is also the author of Testament, The Origin of Species, Pierre Elliott, along with and his most recent novel, Sleep.
The Munro Chair position, which honours Canadian short story writer and Western alumna Alice Munro, aims to inspire student writers and foster creative expression of all kinds.
Munro’s first connection to the Department of English came while she was an undergraduate student pursuing an English major. In 1976, Western recognized her literary achievements with an honorary degree, the only such honour she has ever accepted. In October 2013, Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
For Ricci, who feels he has learned the craft of writing and creativity from Munro, “the master stylist,” the position was a perfect fit.
“The best literature is literature that expresses something you have always felt but never had the words for. Alice Munro seems to do that on almost every page, sometimes every line, for me. She captures in language nuances of emotion that correspond deeply to things I’ve felt and experienced but never had the words for and, in fact, would not have been able to articulate, until they were put in words by her,” Ricci said.
“That’s what literature does best for us; that’s how it most helps us know ourselves, by charting out those outlying areas of human emotion that colour our lives so deeply but we so little understand. She does it not by explaining them, or giving some factual demonstration of them, but by capturing them and finding the situation and words that can convey that emotion without reducing it and without simplifying it.”
That’s the pinnacle of creativity, Ricci stressed, and it is not exclusive to writers or artists. Creativity takes place in science, in technology, in business and commercial endeavours.
“(The chair) is a good place to start to think more broadly of creativity in context and how some of those skills can actually be communicated to students across the whole university environment,” Ricci said.
Granting creativity the space it deserves is often the hardest part of nurturing such a skill, regardless of the setting, Ricci noted. The chair position will create such a space. During his two-year term, Ricci hopes to lay the groundwork for continued creative thinking at Western – across faculties and departments.
“We often shut ourselves down because we feel we are not getting it right or we have to get things right, right out of the gate. We limit our thought right from the get-go. We choose a familiar structure. But creativity often needs letting go of that and saying, ‘I have no idea where I am or where I’m going.’ It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not something the world wants to allow us to do. The world wants us to produce on demand and quickly,” Ricci said.
“Part of it is practice. The first time you do something new, it’s scary and you flounder and fear. But once you’ve succeeded at something, and you know you can do it again, you’re willing to put in the two days you think are wasted because you were doodling and writing up crazy ideas that you would have ordinarily omitted. But you might see value in the two ‘wasted’ days at the end of which the idea you were trying to develop (becomes clear),” he continued.
“Those two days might be two weeks, or two years, in some cases. Every project will have its own acceptable timeline. You do have to find a way to work within it. But within that, you can still use techniques that will help you get toward where you are going in a more satisfying and maybe a more creative way.”