Some time ago, we talked about dead or seriously ill projects. Today I want to look at the other end of the process: how are stories born?
You’ve no idea how badly I’d love to jump up and say, “Like this!” Alas, no one knows. Not really.
There are theories, of course. I’ll give you the high points of a few, but this isn’t intended to be a psychological treatise. If you want to know more about the theories that follow, please refer to the original authors.
- The psychological theory. This suggests that creative people are conditioned by their circumstances or repressed emotions. A troubled past can be parlayed into a creative present. All the biggies of the psychoanalytical world liked this one – Freud, Jung, Adler, etc. All the same, I’m not sure I buy it. While it’s true many people with troubled backgrounds have become writers or artists, it’s also true that many creative people are well adjusted. By the same token, a great number of troubled people become criminals or politicians. Just because you’ve had a ‘troubled’ childhood, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll become a creative genius.
- The mental illness theory suggests you cannot become truly creative unless you possess some form of mental illness. Briggs, Eisenman, Goodwin, etc. were keen on this notion. I’ve known some mentally ill people in my time, but very few of them were truly creative. Destructive, yes. But creative? Not so much. As with pretty much everything else, there are exceptions.
- Psychosis: You can thank Eysenck for this notion that a creative person exists somewhere between “normality” (whatever that is), and psychosis. This theory doesn’t have many adherents. It doesn’t have a clear definition and the only test for it was devised by Eysenck himself. Psychologists tend to be sceptical of theories that have no clear cut impartial tests to support them.
- Addiction: This idea suggests that the artist is inspired by drugs or alcohol. At least up to the moment they overdose or die of cirrhosis. In fact, most pharmacologists say that the creative process is actually inhibited by chemical substances. The addiction theory is supported by Lapp, Collins, etc. I have to admit, there are a fair number of creative people whose lives suggest there is some truth to this theory. Hemingway, Brendan Behan, Ken Kesey have all subscribed to the “better living through chemistry” notion. At least up to their premature deaths. Then again, Arthur C Clark, Anna Quindlen, and Franz Kafka are / were all teetotalers.
- The Humanistic Theory, which follows Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs and is broken down by Maslow into three components: Primary Creativity (a simple release of energy in spontaneous drawing, singing, etc.); Secondary Creativity (requiring more thought and planning); and Integrated Creativity is the combination of the spontaneous and the planning. I would suggest that most of the great works of art, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, any of Beethoven’s concertos, Michelangelo’s Pieta were the result of integrated creativity. Maslow, Rogers and Fromm support this theory and it does seem to appeal to me more than the others. Maybe I just resist the idea of being mentally unbalanced or an addict.
There are dozens of other ideas, such as gestalt–see Max Wertheimer (1945), for instance–and Grof (1988) sees divine inspiration behind the artist’s spark of creativity.
That said, none of these theories tells us where our spark actually comes from. Is it just the way our neurons fire in our brains, or is there something else going on?
Scientists tell us the universe was formed as the result of a ‘big bang’. I’m going to suggest that the genesis of any creative endeavour begins with a small bang. A squib, almost.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY A CREATIVE SPARK?
I am hugely fortunate to have been inside such moments. I know what it’s like to have an idea burst open in my brain, showering me with golden images. If you’ve never experienced anything of the sort yourself, the nearest I can come to explaining it is it’s like love at first sight. One minute, you’re getting on with your day. Everything is both hunky and dory, then BAM! This vision captures you and you are spellbound. Or, to put it another way, it’s like the beginning of The Wizard of Oz. Everything in Kansas is black and white, but once we get to Oz we’re in technicolor. Being inside the creative moment is technicolor.
It’s not always like that, of course. In fact, that sort of Oh, Wow! moment is incredibly rare. Most of our creative energies are sparked in a far more prosaic manner. The “What-if” questions that generate possibilities. There’s still a mysterious alchemy at work, of course, it’s just not quite as showy.
We’re not just talking about the next great novel or a magnificent painting, either. Such creative sparks can come when we are problem solving. One of the most famous moments of brilliant insight is in the story of Archimedes. He’s sitting there in his bath trying to figure out how to determine the weight of gold and silver in a wreath made for Hieron, and the answer comes to him in a flash. Or, more accurately, in the displacement of water in his tub. “Eureka!” he cried (probably the ancient Greek form of “Bingo!”) and went running naked through the streets. OK, the story is probably apocryphal, but my point is creativity takes many forms and sudden insight is earth-shattering, ground-breaking, and volcanic. The reason the Archimedes story has lasted for these last several millennia is because it feels true. And amusing, but I digress…
PREPARING TO ACCEPT THE SPARK
We may not be able to say where that spark comes from, but we can probably draw a few conclusions that may help you next time you’re trying to generate an idea or solve a problem:
Answers and ideas come from the subconscious mind. Its workings are indeed mysterious, but there are ways to access it without resorting to the chemistry set.
Fix a routine
If you show up at the same time on a regular basis looking for answers or inspiration, your subconscious will start cooperating with you. I know this may sound a bit airy-fairy, but it really does work. Try it for a month. Sit for 30 minutes every day for the same time and write down whatever thoughts come to your mind. Paint or doodle or pick out tunes on the piano or your guitar. Just showing up is half the battle.
Try to be consistent about your environment
If you can’t find a quiet space at home, then use the park or the library or your garage. OK, I’ll grant you getting your piano into the park may require a bit of effort… The important thing is you are in a relaxing environment where you can listen to the voice in your head. NOT the one telling you to put rat poison in your colleagues coffee.
If possible, find a group of like-minded people that you can meet on a regular basis
Writers groups and art clubs can offer inspiration, encouragement and advice. Be aware of the dangers, though: Don’t mistake such groups as an alternative to your own work, don’t hang out if the environment is toxic (ie full of people who mock you or put down your efforts), and move on if the group is purely social and doesn’t focus enough on the artistic side of things.
If your primary interest is writing, try to take up a paintbrush or a guitar. If you paint, try music or photography. Many famous actors also write or paint; da Vinci designed gadgets and studied anatomy. Exploring other areas of the arts can fire up different parts of your brain and may well stimulate your own area of interest.
Lose the guilt
Don’t let anyone try to tell you that your work is without value or that your pursuit of the arts is something to be ashamed of. Writer /Singer / Actor Kris Kristofferson was disowned by his family for following his dreams. He was inspired by the writings of William Blake:
< Blake> was such a passionate artist and he believed that it was his duty, because God made him that way, to be a creative poet. He said “If he who is organised by the divine for spiritual communion refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, sorrow and desperation will pursue him throughout life, and after death shame and confusion are faced to eternity.” So for a young guy who wanted to be an artist it was a perfect inspiration. — KRIS KRISTOFFERSON
Find your inspiration
We are all inspired by different things, the trick is to identify those things that make your heart pump a little faster. Wordsworth swooned at the sight of daffodils (so he said), and Blake was inspired by social injustice and the evolution of the industrial age. The point is, find that thing that makes you cheer, or cry, or shout. Find it and nurture it. Passion will find its outlet eventually.
I’m lucky in that I get inspired pretty easily. I know that I am inspired by other artists. Every year at the Hay Festival I discover any number of story ideas. Being in a creative environment stimulates me. Excellence in others, whether it’s an extraordinary painting or a piece of music or a novel, jangles me and makes me hungry to get to work. The more exceptional the talent, the greater my thirst for creation.
I should confess that hosts of daffodils, be they ever so golden, do nothing for me. I’m seldom inspired to write an ode about the sunrise, or the sunset for that matter. Chaim Topol singing Sunrise, Sunset… well, that’s another matter.
Understanding creativity is a fascinating topic. Well, to me. If you are curious and would like to know more, here is a short list of books that are worth exploring:
Arieti, Silvano, (1976). Creativity The Magic Synthesis. New York: Basic Books.
Barron, F., (1988). Putting creativity to work. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.). The nature of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Dacey, John S., (1989). Fundamentals Of Creative Thinking. Lexington Mass: Lexington.
Grof, Stanislav, (1988). The Adventure of Self-Discovery. Albany: State Univ. of New York.
Harman, Willis, & Rheingold, Howard, (1984). Higher Creativity. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.
Koestler, Arthur, (1964). The Act of Creation. London: Arkana.
Mahler, M. S., Pine, F., and Bergman, A. (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. New York: Basic Books.
Maslow , Abraham H., (1962). The Creative Attitude. San Jose Ca.: Psychosynthesis Distribution . (Reprinted from The Structurist 3, 1963. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: University of Saskatchewan, 8th National Assembly of the Canadian Society for Education Through Art)
Maslow , Abraham H., (1968). Toward A Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
May, Rollo, (1975). The Courage To Create. Toronto: Bantam.
Perkins D. N., (1988). The possibility of invention. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.). The nature of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Taylor, C. W., (1988). Approaches to and definitions of creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.). The nature of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University. 118-119.