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WARNING: IDEAS UNDER CONSTRUCTION
Thanks to a series of compelling posts on creativity by Isabella Mori at changetherapy (part of an exchange with Psyblog), I’ve been trying to understand more clearly what happens when creative work takes place. I haven’t gotten there yet (can’t say I expect to solve this puzzle since more learned and insightful people than I have been trying for a long time). But I would like to throw out a few ideas I’ve picked up in my reading, and then ask you to share your thoughts.
Now why should I get into this in the first place? Simply because I know that when I’m working creatively I’m in a different state where depression doesn’t exist. Just like the spiritual encounters I’ve been trying to describe that stop time and this despairing condition, there is something about creating, even at my modest level, that draws out a force within me that dissolves depression. What is that? Can I package some and pull it off the shelf when I need it? Here are a few of the insights that gifted thinkers have offered. They make sense to me, but this is just a starting point. I hope we can build a dialogue to go further into creativity and its ability to make depression disappear, at least for a short time.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sees the focusing of attention as a key to enabling creativity to flourish. The discovery of new things depends on a mastery of existing knowledge and techniques, and that requires deep learning and focusing on the field in question. He describes a contest for the attention of our mental energies in daily life. Creative work, he says, requires an ability to withdraw attention from other matters and create a “surplus” that can be used both for the mastery of what exists now and for the creation of the new. Though his study tends to focus on the major breakthroughs that change a culture, his emphasis on this key condition for creative work resonates with my experience. Creative energy would be scattered if not concentrated on nurturing skills and knowledge as a writer, artist, scientist, or worker in any field. Attention and focus, of course, are just the qualities that depression tends to undermine. Countering that impact of the illness presents a major problem.
- David Bohm emphasizes the way in which creativity occurs outside the fixed categories of thought that arise from logic and the conventions of daily life. Logic works in situations where pure and definitive distinctions can be made, but most events in real life are too complex to be so neatly cleaved apart. Thought confined to these categories leads to confusion rather than discovery. Bohm talks about the need for an alertness to this tendency of thought and sees intelligence as the art and skill of maintaining an alertness to set aside the fixed categories of thinking when appropriate and consider a situation in a completely different way. He calls this the “art of intelligent perception.” Again, I find this a key condition enabling creative work.
- T.S. Eliot talks about a negative aspect of creativity – the breaking down of barriers (that tend to reform quickly in the mind) – barriers which close off perception. He’s getting at the same thing Bohm is. Bohm likens this flexible state of mind to the way children can perceive things as fresh and new. Not hindered by fixed patterns of thinking that limit the imagination of adults, children remain alert to details and impressions grown-ups would miss or take for granted. Part of the excitement of being a parent is to share that first experience of a child with something long familiar to you. The moon one night looks like it’s crying; a rusty pipe becomes a treasure; a cow in a field is suddenly an amazing creature. Creative insight depends on an ability to break away from seeing and interpreting experience in the ways we use to navigate daily life.
- Jacques Maritain captures the actual moment of discovery as creative intuition. After the preparation and long drawing in of learning, ideas, perceptions, a creative mind gets to a place of quiet where everything comes together in that sudden flash of insight that is so hard to put into words. He emphasizes that this intuition of a new thing does not come from outside but from the inner depths of the mind and soul. He sees the experience as a kind of natural grace, a spiritual encounter of the soul with its deepest self in a place free of tension and full of repose that brings rejuvenation and peacefulness.
These ideas ring true in helping me understand what’s involved in arriving at that state of mind and soul where creative work is possible. But there are practical dimensions to this for a person plunged in depression. What are the specific actions we can take to work creatively in spite of that condition? The next post looks at ideas about how to do that.
But in the meantime, what do you think of these attempts to capture what happens in the creative process? Do they square with your experience? Please share your thoughts.