No one religion can console this enormous country.
No single philosophy convince it.
No therapy relieve it of its burdens.
No legal system comfort its injustice.
No medicine deliver it from pain.
No government give it joy.
Only art does that.
— playwright Romulus Linney
Vol. 4: Deconstructing the Creative Process
This blog begins a journey through each step of the entire creative process. As I am typing this — like many writers — I have multiple projects in various stages of development. I have a newborn (an idea I hatched early this morning), a couple of toddlers (two fairly new projects that are way too demanding right now for me to attend to), a middle-school work that is content to be left alone for periods of time without bugging me), and a forty-year-old son who should have moved out years ago. This gives me the advantage of being able to write about: work that whispers to you in the night; work that rudely inserts itself into an otherwise relaxing moment to remind you that it’s still waiting; as well as, work that is moving along at a good pace. And, finally, work you have already placed into other hands, leaving a hole at your core.
What exactly does “creativity” even mean? From the Latin creatus, it means “to make, produce or grow.” In ancient Greece, Socrates believed inspired thoughts – coming from the gods – arrived when a person was “bereft of his senses.” But during the 19th Century a major shift occurred, when creativity became regarded as residing within the individual rather than the product of an external source. Inner passion and chaos, along with exterior rebellion, became the norm. The Bohemian lifestyle’s goal was to court creative urges and experience strong emotions. Passion eclipsed reason. Then, in the early 20th Century, Sigmund Freud swings the pendulum in the opposite direction, by focusing on the need to tamp strong emotions and recognize them as mechanisms for sublimating sexual energy. His colleague, Carl Jung made no association between creativity and pathology. Instead he encouraged his patients to consider creative urges to be a means of uniting with the mystery that is life.
Research into creativity is relatively new, starting in the 1950’s. The term didn’t even appear in the English Language dictionary until 1964. It wasn’t until the late 20th Century that the focus shifted to thinking of creativity as a positive aspect of personality. An actual strength. Today, most psychologists working with creatives support what is known as “confluence” theories. This means no single dominant influence has been established to explain creativity in humans. Each contributor over the ages – all the way back to Socrates – has been a little bit right: Multiple factors shape a creative person.
The way any artist approaches a new project is as individual as her fingerprints. That said, over time, certain common challenges face us at various junctures. I believe information is powerful, and the more you understand your own creative process, the greater the chance of achieving an outcome that is not only satisfying … but meaningful, as well. This knowledge provides internal scaffolding when inspiration requires skill, and skill takes a measure of us, and we slip into discouragement. Or, when we accomplish our aim — and the response is exactly what we wanted — yet paralysis sets in, when we are on the verge of putting it out into the world.
Finally, as I begin to deconstruct the creative process in order to empower you – I will keep in mind that some projects are required (part of an academic process or work-related), while others are born simply because you cannot deny them. As I explain what happens at each step, you will have to apply it to your own specific situation. Take what I am offering here that might be beneficial and toss (or tuck away) the rest.
Stage One: Preparation
An adult of 40 is only 2% as creative as she was at age 5. There’re a number of ways our creativity can be crushed: Society pressures us to conform. (People who think alike are easier to manage.) Our educational system places a priority on those subjects that help maintain our nation’s dominance in the world market. Thus, the Arts are the first cut in a school district’s budget. Following childhood, the drive to succeed and earn frequently eclipses personal expression. Also, as adults, a fear of failure limits our willingness to return to our “child” brain and experiment. Finally, life itself can be challenging; darker moods (inertia) are highly incompatible with inspiration (energy).
The source of any artist’s inspiration is another one of the highly individual aspects of the creative process. This first stage occurs when the imagination wanders free, scanning memory, as well as current experience in search of anything that might be relevant. To me a new project always feels like I’ve had too much caffeine. I pace a lot. I organize and clean and do anything else to disperse the energy that’s crackling within. I listen to music, pull art books off the shelf. My right-brain is having an orgasm. I’m on the verge of an amazing trip to an unknown land. Eventually, my fingers start to tingle. They itch to type. So I snag what I can: a color, snippets of conversation, an image, the first scene, or the final sentence. The words are liquid, spilling out faster than I can capture. I race to get as much recorded as I can.
Stage One: Preparation
It is precisely at this point when the painter, dancer, musician, poet is most vulnerable. It is here that — instead of simply collecting ideas – the left-brain often jumps in and begins evaluating. When that happens, coloring outside the line stops. Imagination shuts down. Censorship and criticism slither in. It’s our nature to weigh, accept, or reject each idea as it arrives. Evaluating ideas is definitely necessary, but it isn’t productive to consider the worth of an idea at the same time you are trying to generate as many as possible. Evaluation needs to wait until you have a solid list, rather than be activated by the first thing that pops out. Premature evaluation stunts your options. If you’re working with a deadline, and you tend to procrastinate (believing you’re more creative “under the gun”) then you’re at risk of ending up with few inspired, interesting, or novel ideas to choose from. You’ll make your deadline, but your work will, most likely disappoint you. So, as luck will have it … there is an out. The second stage of the creative process will do the evaluating for you.
Stage Two: Incubation
At one time writers and actors and sculptors called this part of the creative process, “The Three B’s.” They were referring to bed, bath and bus, because this stage is largely unconscious. It involves the right-brain, which works like a kaleidoscope, and it occurs when the logical left-brain is off duty. (Whenever you are deeply asleep or in auto-pilot mode, like taking a shower or commuting to work.) Data collected during the earlier Preparation Stage is combined and recombined in new and surprising ways. Unusual, highly-original combinations are not possible when we’re consciously trying hard, due to our human tendency to automatically ward off any connections that would shame us, or trigger strong feelings of revulsion or reveal things about ourselves we do not wish to know. But bizarre combinations are necessary in order to receive ideas like: watches that melt over rocks, or a large devouring plant on stage, or the shot of two women, in a convertible, flying over the edge of the grand canyon to their freedom.
Stage Three: Illumination
The third stage, Illumination, is sudden. Your brain has been grinding away for weeks when out of nowhere – just as you awake one morning, or while sweeping your floor — lightening strikes. “Yes!” you think, with absolute certainty. It is the perfect solution to that construction issue, the exact gesture you needed to complete a movement, the inevitable ending to your novel. It is one of the most satisfying moments an artist experiences. So much else in the creative life is “No!” or “How do I know for sure?” This stage puts a period at the end of the sentence. Relish it. It does not happen for everyone. And … spoiler alert … the shelf-life of the “message” is unknown. It may serve you well at this moment. However, sometimes the answer is perfect, but perfect for a different project, three years down the road. Or, perfect until another actor takes over the role. So write it down. Do NOT toss it.
Stage Four: Transformation (Verification)
This is when your idea is finally manifested. When the story in your head becomes a draft. When a sketch becomes a costume. When paint hits the canvas. When dancers leap. When you sing your interpretation of an aria. This is a challenging stage of the creative process, because this is your first encounter with a possible skill deficit and/or a materials challenge. That discovery is daunting and vital to your success. You may be called upon to stretch beyond your comfort zone, so your passion and determination are tested here.
Stage Five: Self-Evaluation
There is no skipping over this one, if you intend to continue. This is where you must address the gap between your vision and what has been created. Calculate what’s working, what isn’t, and what to do about it. Many a creative project died at this point, because the artist did not have the confidence, passion, skill, dedication, determination or assets to close the gap. Line up support ahead of time.
Stage Six: Modification
“Back to the drawing board.” Based on the above assessment, changes are made and the results are re-evaluated. Each new attempt to alter is another experiment. Sometimes during the improving of a project, it becomes something entirely different than expected. It can be farther from your original intention but closer to authentic or satisfying. In some organic way it morphs before your very eyes. (That is, if you get out of the way and let it become what it is determined to become.) It is important to have “other” eyes as consultants at this stage, because – if you are overly attached to your original vision – you are probably blind to what it needs in order to come alive. Take those notes and suggestions and consider them. Also consider the source of the advice. This is serious business. Reach out to other artists, or mentors, or other like-minded folks who “get” what you are wrestling with. Who speak the “language” of creating. (Save family and friends for support during the next stage.
Stage Seven: Presentation (Public Evaluation)
This is when your work goes out into the world. When it is performed, installed, published, exhibited, heard, experienced, etc. And, of course, this is when it will be critiqued, as well. By you (again and again), family, friends, colleagues, perfect strangers and (if lucky) professional critics will take note as well. The response may go beyond your wildest dreams. The response may leave you questioning your future. And, if you are wise, you will mine the response for anything that might enhance your future work. If you keep your projects in the closet, you cannot grow.
There are millions of novels in boxes under beds, finished canvases tucked into attics, dancers who dance only at home, and singers whose voices soar only in private. Just the thought of this stage of the creative process, is enough to keep many would-be actors from auditioning. Every project is a gamble. There are no guarantees. That is the reality of this profession – which chose us, more than we chose it. If you want certainty, become an accountant.
Now that we have completed our foundation — the next series of “Verge” blogs will delve into the challenges associated with each stage. You will acquire new tools to work with these common creative blocks and keep you in the studio, at the keyboard or out there auditioning. We will also, in the future, explore more intimate concerns that artists wrestle with (such as: Art and Motherhood, The Self-Defeating Artist, and Risk-Taking)
Something to Think About
Another way to think of the creative process is to regard it as a collection of various “elements.” I discovered this perspective in a book on creative filmmaking many years ago. Here are some ideas from notes that I took at that time. I will leave it to you to apply these concepts to your own work:
INTROSPECTION: Consider how looking within helps us discover the kind of work we have a passion for; what would be a “good match” for who we are. This also helps us identify deep connections to the material we choose to work with.
INQUIRY: In addition to our interior life, we must explore the entire range of human thought, emotion and behavior, because our own is limited. This enriches our work, because it expands our point of view.
INTUITION: To increase this elusive connection to the unconscious part of our mind, we must make time to play and allow ourselves to dream deeply.
INTERACTION: Collaboration expands creative possibility. It draws from the suggestions and responses of others. Ideally, it is an open, organic and fluid process. When done effectively, the outcome is beyond what any individual would have been able to accomplish alone. Everything is enhanced.
IMPACT: When we make the decision to engage others, to share our work with the larger world, it is important to be prepared for the possibility of disappointment. When we step on the stage and shock a viewer or write in order to move a reader, we are experimenting. There is no guarantee that the outcome will match our intention. But, put it out there, we must.
Questions to Consider
1. Which stage of the process do you struggle with the most? Why?
2. What do you need to unlearn to become a better artist?
3. If granted a sudden dose of boldness, what impact would that have on your art?