The Psychology of Creativity
Making it all work when you don't feel inspired.
Posted Jul 10, 2019
I have been working on a new book about the creative process. I hope I will have an announcement along those lines soon. In the meantime, I thought I would share a few thoughts on creativity with the readers of this blog, because you have been so instrumental in keeping my work going over the past few years. I know that many of you are writers as well, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Journalist Richard Louv perceptively writes, “We live in a time in which the process of life seems less important than the products that life produces. So it’s important to be reminded now and again of the process."
Creative people walk day by day in this tension between process and product. To successfully navigate through the creative life, we must simultaneously keep the distant goal in mind while working with the shifting ground of the project as it unfolds.
The mountain peaks of finished projects lie there in the mind’s eye, but in the day-to-day grind of creativity, we have to deal with the swamps of self-doubt, the brambles of disorganization, and the mudslides of confusion. We only make progress by continuing on the journey, day by day. We put a few more words on the page, a few more brushstrokes on the canvas.
The creative life is a beautiful mess. We have to get our hands dirty by working with the materials, but we also have to keep in mind the vision that first inspired the process. Too much mess, too much confusion, and we fall off the path. Too much craving for beauty, and we become afraid to work at all.
There are so many unresolved questions, so many thousands of tiny decisions to be made. Does this phrase, this sentence, this paragraph, make it into the final draft, or does it deserve to be thrown on the cutting room floor?
Of course, the literal cutting room has now become extinct, but we still have our ctrl + x functions, our digital recycling bins. How do I know if I am just telling people what they want to hear, or expressing something truly new and unique? Am I doing what I truly want to be doing, or am I just working to get paid?
These questions are vital, but they can also be paralyzing. If we allow ourselves to wallow in the uncertainties, the work doesn’t get done. Rather than hemming and hawing, ruminating on the questions, we have to live our way into them. We put these questions into the creative process itself, being as honest as we can along the way.
While I am writing, I often have the sense that something doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe I have made a claim that is a little too fantastic or set up an opposition that is too stark. This can be an occasion to rework and revise, but only if the timing is right. On the rough draft, it is okay to overstate things, to choose dramatic images and flowery language. When getting an idea down on paper, we have to give ourselves the freedom to mess up. We have to be like little kids, scribbling on a piece of construction paper with crayons. The critical judgment must be suspended in order for nascent ideas to take shape.
We have to fall in love with the process, to sit down each day and do the work, whether or not it feels especially fulfilling or wonderful. When we keep our appointments with the muses, they keep their appointments with us. I may be thinking that I would like to stop and take a coffee break or go for a run or fold the laundry, but, in the meantime, I have to hit my goal for the day. I have to talk myself out of leaving the keyboard or the sketch pad or whatever the project might be. Each day by itself is inconsequential, but the days, taken together, lead to the big gains. This hour doesn’t much matter in its own right, but it is one piece of the bigger picture.
Some days I will be watching the clock every five minutes, barely able to wait until the allotted time is over. Some days, I will be continuously checking the word count, hoping to reach 1,000 or 2,000 words. On the good days, I will lose track of time and plunge into the manuscript, forgetting to eat and drink.
Here’s the trick though: The good days depend upon the bad days, just like the building of a house depends upon a strong foundation. The special dedication of getting through the tough slogs leads to those moments of timeless elation. I have to show up whether I think my writing is good or bad, whether I feel inspired or not. I cannot put things on hold until I find myself in the proper mood.
To fall in love with the process, we have to acquire an attitude of humility. I must think of myself as a simple transcriptionist rather than a great author. I simply order the words as they occur to me in my mind’s eye. I sit at the page and wait for the words to appear. The more I get myself out of the way, the easier the words come. From this point of view, writers' block is really just the absence of typing behavior, usually combined with the fear of negative judgment. The screen on which I write is a digital copy of the screen in my mind’s eye. I simply copy from one blank space onto the other. I am not guaranteed another page: I am only given one phrase at a time. But it will be enough to simply stay with the process, to get down another sentence, to keep going.
A writer is simply a person who stays with this process over a long period of time, someone who has learned that the words will always come. This is a bit astonishing when you think about it, that the author has no internal sense of having created anything. It is as though the work is already completed there in some nebulous, non-physical space, simply waiting around for someone to take it down. But surely this must be impossible: picking real fruit from an imaginary tree? Or maybe it is just the nature of the world or the universal mind to want to explore new possibilities. Maybe the ideas are looking for a conduit, and anyone receptive enough can be that channel.
Our impulse to create arises from natural curiosity with the world. As human beings, we are not stand-alone beings, separate unto ourselves. “No man is an island,” as the John Donne poem goes. Just as we are not alone as individuals, we are not alone as a species. We reach out to the human and non-human others with whom we share the world. Our minds want to reach out, to transcend the limits of time and space, to explore the earth and even reach out to the distant stars. We invent new worlds and augment our perceptions of this world. As we feed our natural curiosity, we make it possible to sharpen our artistic sensibilities.
Louv, Richard. The Web of Life: Weaving the Values that Sustain Us. Berkeley, CA: Conari, 1996.