On Creativity {And Buying Books}

IMG_3945Just when I think I’ve seen every book there is on creativity, I find one at the library sale that doesn’t look familiar. I say “look” because I have, more than once, bought a book I already owned only to come home and find the first copy glaring at me with shame from the overstocked shelves in the den.

“I’m right here,” author Alan Jones seemed to scream after I bought a second copy of Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality, which I had re-shelved after deeming it “too much” several years ago. Now the book is required reading for my training in spiritual direction and I can say without exaggeration that the book, still a bit chewy but worth all my effort this time around, is changing my life.

Happily I did not find an extra copy of The Creative Spirit by Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray, when I got home from the library sale so I dug in and here is some of what I learned. (This edition of the book was published by Plume in 1993 as a companion to the PBS series of the same name, which ran in the early 1990s. I do not have a memory of watching the show, but sometimes it takes me longer than the average middle-aged goober to catch on.)

Stages of the creative journey:

  • preparation (get all the information you can and hand it over to your imagination);
  • incubation (sit with what you’re thinking about and invite your unconscious to the meeting);
  • daydreaming (allow your mind to cast aside its daily responsibilities and unnecessary distractions for a bit); and
  • illumination (put your ideas into action).

Because I sometimes find myself edging the pit of depression (especially during winter months), I appreciated this reminder: “Although no one enjoys frustration and despair, people who sustain their creativity over the course of a lifetime do come to accept periods of anguish as necessary parts of the whole creative process. Accepting that there is an inevitable ‘darkness before the dawn’ helps in several ways. When the darkness is seen as a necessary prelude to the creative light, one is less likely to ascribe frustration to personal inadequacy or label it ‘bad’” (p. 19).

What a gentle idea, separating our self-worth from our inklings. I think I’ll give that a try, just as soon as I re-work the draft (self?) I labeled useless yesterday.

And because I have long valued intellect and the ability to “figure things out,” however misguided such an approach is to a life of contentment, seeing that we really don’t have control over much, I needed to read this: “We often underestimate the power of the unconscious mind. But it is far more suited to a creative insight than is the conscious mind. There are no self-censoring judgments in the unconscious mind, where ideas are free to recombine with other ideas in novel patterns and unpredictable associations in a kind of promiscuous fluidity….Another strength of the unconscious mind is that it is the storehouse of everything you know, including things you can’t readily call into awareness….Further, the unconscious speaks to us in ways that go beyond words. What the unconscious mind knows includes the deep feelings and rich imagery that constitutes the intelligence of the senses. What the unconscious mind knows is often more apparent as a felt sense of correctness—a hunch. We call this kind of knowing intuition.” (p. 20)

And of course I loved that the authors, noting the work of psychologist Erik Erikson, value creativity in older age, providing examples of folks who didn’t give up after retirement and who instead fostered their desire to paint and dance and write: “Grand generativity is a wise and creative approach to nurturing others, an affirmation of life itself in the face of death” (p. 34). Oh how I long to be a grand generative. I think we should start a movement labeled thusly. Please join me.

As to flow, the authors, natch, mention Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi , and then offer this as a description of the sought-after condition: “Your skills are so perfectly suited to the challenge that you seem to blend with it. Everything feels harmonious, unified, and effortless” (p. 46). When you’re in the zone, so to speak, your self-consciousness disappears. What a lovely state that must be, like the Zen calligrapher whose focus is “just the stroke” and nothing else. No worry of failure, no questions about technique. This “no mind” approach is not about vacancy or lack. Instead, it’s a “precise awareness during which one is undisturbed by the mind’s usual distracting inner chatter” (p. 48). This is what we strive for in Buddhist meditation, of which I am a fledgling, but determined, practitioner.

In the end, the authors remind us of those key points that most creatives know but don’t always take to heart: stay playful (curious); remain alert (listen to yourself and others; don’t be intimidated); and be willing to make mistakes (use them as information, not excuses to give up). Remember that passion and perseverance are vital. Mechanics can be learned.

And I’ll add this: Drive and belief and self-confidence can be had, too, they just need to be nurtured.

I hope that on this very day you will feel inspired to go forth and be your best creative self.

Looking forward,

Amy Lyles Wilson

How Many Books on Writing Does a Writer Need?

In preparation for my upcoming stint as an adjunct professor and writer in residence at the Earlham School of Religion, I’m making my way through all my writing books, to see what I can glean that might be of interest and benefit to the students. I thought about counting how many books I had on the topic, but at about number thirty-eight I became embarrassed because  I know, like many of you, that there comes a time in a writer’s life when he has to put down the how-to books and resist the urge to plan yet another trip to a writing conference, and simply, well, write. But we also know it’s not simple. Anything I can to help another person learn to call herself “writer,” I want to do. So I’m starting with my vast library, and I plan to pick out what I think are the juiciest parts and share them with my students. For now, though, I’ll be posting some of them here, in the hopes that you might let me know which resources you rely on most for your work. In the end, I’ll pass along the books I no longer need. Sooner or later I’ll feel compelled to buy some more anyway…

From May Sarton, in A Self-Portrait (Norton, 1982):

“It’s thought and feeling together, this is what makes the poem for me, when you can think and feel at white heat.”

“You have to be willing, as Yeats says, ‘there’s more enterprise in going naked.’ You finally do have to give something terribly intimate and secret of yourself to the world and not care because you have to believe that what you have to say is important enough.”