Creativity can be as fascinating as it is elusive. On one level, it’s something we can dissect and study, giving ourselves a structure in which to create or inspiring ourselves with the examples of great creatives. It’s a good starting point, but we also need to dive deeper, and then deeper still because, when we open ourselves to the possibility of going beyond ‘self’, creativity is no longer a technique but a spiritual practice.
But let’s begin with the surface.
What we mean when we talk about creativity
In The Art of Thought Graham Wallas summarises four stages of creativity.
First there is preparation, which involves research and planning. At this stage we are marshalling intellectual resources and information. We’re thinking with language.
Then comes incubation. At some point we have to stop over-thinking the idea we’re pursuing or even stop thinking about it all all. We have to be willing to look away so that the creative project can germinate, perhaps working on another idea or going between several ideas that might, at some stage, begin to give rise to connections we’ll never see if we push too hard.
This leads to the stage of illumination, not something we can fake or force, when there are moments of epiphany.
And finally there is verification, when we try out the insight or allow it to find its form.
Of course, on any given day we’’ll have all kinds of ideas and projects in different stages, sometimes sparking off one another to lead in unexpected directions.
Malcolm Cowley, writing in The Paris Review, has a very similar view of writing as a specific area of creativity. He considers that a story goes through four stages beginning with the seed of an idea for a narrative, which he calls ideation. The second stage involves a mixture of consciously meditating on the idea, similar to Wallas’s ‘planning’ stage, and giving the idea over to the unconscious to incubate.
… as if a cry from the depths of sleep were being heard and revised by the waking mind.
Often the meditation continues while the writer is engaged in other occupations: gardening, driving his wife to town (as Walter Mitty did), or going out to dinner. ‘I have never quite known when I’m not writing,’ says James Thurber. ‘Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a dinner party and says, “Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “He’s writing.
For Cowley, the third stage is the first draft, which might sometimes be written at speed, letting it all pour out. For Frank O’Connor, for example, speed was of the essence:
‘Get black on white’ used to be Maupassant’s advice — that’s what I always do. I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it.
And finally comes revision, anything from minor changes and honing to radical rewrites. And often repeatedly: revision, revision, revision. For Austin Kleon, for example, creativity is all about subtraction. What can we take away?
Cowley notes that there might also be a fifth stage of writing, that is actually a prelude to finding the seed of a story. This stage, or better ‘state’ follows from being in what Dorothy Canfield Fisher describes as:
… generally intensified emotional sensitivity … when events that usually pass unnoticed suddenly move you deeply, when a sunset lifts you to exaltation, when a squeaking door throws you into a fit of exasperation, when a clear look of trust in a child’s eyes moves you to tears.’
Into the flow
This brings us into the deeper pull of creativity, what is generally called as ‘flow’.
This is how it is described in The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky:
It is a purely lyrical process. A kind of musical shriving of the soul, in which there is an encrustation of material which flows forth again in notes, just as the lyrical poet pours himself out in verse.
It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me … I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, before one thought follows another.
Writing on ‘Inspiration’ in Strong Opinions, Nabokov talks about a range of inspirations that merge, but can include:
A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life. This feeling of tickly well-being branches through him like the red and the blue in the picture of a skinned man under Circulation. As it spreads, it banishes all awareness of physical discomfort — youth’s toothache as well as the neuralgia of old age. The beauty of it is that, while completely intelligible (as if it were connected with a known gland or led to an expected climax), it has neither source nor object. It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret. In the meantime, however, a window has opened, an auroral wind has blown, every exposed nerve has tingled.
He goes on to describe how the writer begins to anticipate this experience.
The forefeeling can be defined as an instant vision turning into rapid speech. If some instrument were to render this rare and delightful phenomenon, the image would come as a shimmer of exact details, and the verbal part as a tumble of merging words. The experienced writer immediately takes it down and, in the process of doing so, transforms what is little more than a running blur into gradually dawning sense, with epithets and sentence construction growing as clear and trim as they would be on the printed page.
Some writers or artists have particular rituals that assist them into the state of flow. But however we find it, this is the gateway to a deep place where creativity and spirituality begin to merge. In flow, time becomes liquid and dreamlike.
A wild self-forgetfulness
Trying to force an experience in which we deeply inhabit our creative flow, so that we cease to think about food or comfort or time, is doomed. But opening ourselves to the dissolution of the personal ego primes us for flow; for experience that might be described as mystical or that alter our perspective.
The more we get out of our own way, the more we cultivate our connections, to others, to the nature that we are part of, to the night sky and the ocean, the more we are likely to experience a sense of continuity with all life and with the universe, a continuity in which we create unselfconsciously, as children do.
The key to changing your mind and creating more deeply could well be the ability to let go of ego, at least for a while. We do this through connection and also through stepping back from all the ways we learned to name and categorise the world.
For a child a tree is not the word ‘tree’ standing in for experience, neatly categorised and understood, to such an extent that we no longer see the tree in any meaningful way. Rather a tree is the feel of bark, perhaps even its taste, the challenge to climb, the scrunch of leaves, the scents and mystery of it all. The tree is a thing that relates to every sense, not a word that allows us to sum something up and move on to the next thing. Mystery is everywhere.
Inevitably, as adults, we name objects and experiences so that we can function in a complex world. But for the child, like the visionary poet, William Blake, ‘the doors of perception’ are wide open. A leaf, an insect, the light through the branches, enter consciousness without the filters of language and categories and schema.
Writing about this from the perspective of a scientist investigating the use of psychedelics, Pollan notes:
Over time, we tend to optimize and conventionalize our responses to whatever life brings. Each of us develops our shorthand ways of slotting and processing everyday experiences and solving problems, and while this is no doubt adaptive — eventually it becomes rote. It dulls us. The muscles of attention atrophy.
Whilst habits can enhance our creativity by giving us the framework in which to write, they can also become constricting if we lose flexibility and openess.
Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner. […] The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment. We’re constantly jumping ahead to the next thing.
We [are] continually translating the data of the present into the terms of the past, reaching back in time for the relevant experience, and then using that to make its best guess as to how to predict and navigate the future. […] Alas, most of the time I inhabit a near-future tense, my psychic thermostat set to a low simmer of anticipation and, too often, worry. The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.
Diving for surprise
We forget ourselves and dissolve the ego, at least temporarily, when we focus on our connection to all things, and when we allow ourselves to encounter the world more directly and playfully.
And we become less anxious, more available to surprise when we challenge habits that might be stultifying rather than enhancing our creativity. One way to do this is to introduce new experiences, ones in which, like children, we don’t have all the categories and answers at our finger tips.
Experiences like travel, seeing new art, losing ourselves in nature, immersing us in the present and so are more conduce to flow and creativity, Faced with new experiences that we don’t have all the language for, we experience wonder.
And feeling wonder in turn deepens our sense of connection. We begin to see the numinous in life. At this point, creativity and flow are deeply spiritual, which is not to say that they are other-worldly. Whatever faith or none we might espouse, I’m convinced, like Pollan, that it is not the material world that is the antonym of the spiritual, but rather it is ego, and the hubris that accompanies it, that is spirituality’s opposite. When we pare back ego for a moment, whether by encountering great art or music or by being awed by a sunset or a newborn baby or through meditation or travelling to somewhere that interferes with our ability to predict what will happen next, we are both more vulnerable and more open to epiphany and deep experiences.
For Pollan the epiphany is described like this:
Nature does in fact teem with subjectivities — call them spirits if you like — other than our own; it is only the human ego, with its imagined monopoly on subjectivity, that keeps us from recognizing them all, our kith and kin. […] Before this afternoon, I had always assumed access to a spiritual dimension hinged on one’s acceptance of the supernatural — of God, of a Beyond — but now I’m not so sure. The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think
Pollan comes at this through psychedelics, but epiphany can come is so many ways, others reach the same depth of experience through walking in a wood, standing under a starry sky or through meditation. The philosopher Simone Weil, for example, had a deeply mystical experience from reciting George Herbert’s poem Love III, and it was after this that she wrote:
Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.
Others, like the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, find it in the liminal state between being awake and asleep.
What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to recollect yourself, after starting from midnight slumber! By unclosing your eyes so suddenly … you find yourself, for a single instant, wide awake in that realm of illusions, whither sleep has been the passport, and behold its ghostly inhabitants and wondrous scenery, with a perception of their strangeness, such as you never attain while the dream is undisturbed. […] If you could choose an hour of wakefulness out of the whole night, it would be this.
The moment of rising belongs to another period of time, and appears so distant, that the plunge out of a warm bed into the frosty air cannot yet be anticipated with dismay. Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space, where the business of life does not intrude; where the passing moment lingers, and becomes truly the present; a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath.
What all share is the transcendence of self. As Pollan puts it:
Temporarily freed from the tyranny of the ego, with its maddeningly reflexive reactions and its pinched conception of one’s self-interest, we get to experience an extreme version of Keats’s ‘negative capability’ — the ability to exist amid doubts and mysteries … To cultivate this mode of consciousness, … requires us to transcend our subjectivity or — it comes to the same thing — widen its circle so far that it takes in, besides ourselves, other people and, beyond that, all of nature.
It is in this transcendence of ego that we come full circle to the links between self-forgetfulness, connection to all things and creativity. As a writer, diving deeply into flow; being vulnerable to new experiences and willing to encounter the universe with the wonder and playfulness of a child, are vital. And in a world in the midst of a mass extinction, in which writers must witness to the struggle for survival that all life is engaged in, connection has never been so urgent.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life as well as a fantastic special offer for my suite of online mini-retreats, Diving Deeply into Your Story The next module begins on June 20. Take a look at Writing the Soaring Sun. While you’re there, download my free courses, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your story