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Shrinking Creativity

[Note: I'm a bit allergic to "one" as a repeated pronoun and to a lot of "his/her" and "he/she", so I've settled for "he" in most of the following essay on artists (which is loaded with pronouns). I do know that not all artists are male.]

Recently, I tuned in to National Public Radio just in time to hear part of the "Science" hour, where a female psychiatrist was being interviewed about her book on creativity, and we got to hear the psychiatric line on it.

Here are the viewpoints (opinions presented authoritatively as scientific):

1. Creativity is almost entirely an unconscious activity over which the creative person has little control.

2. Creative people don't know what they're going to create when they start to create something. Art just happens. It probably kills creativity to outline the work in advance or otherwise try to exert conscious control over the outcome.

3. Creative people don't create their own work. They all say that it's as if "the muse sat on my shoulder and spoke through me."

4. Based on her acquaintance with many writers in the Iowa School of creative writing (back in the 70s), she has concluded that creative people have a higher than usual incidence of mental illness, both in their family histories and in their own lives. They suffer from "mood instability". She says that the ones she interviewed did not think this mental illness was good for them, that, contrary to the idea of the wild genius relishing his insanity, they all felt that their "mood instability" hindered their work, and said they got their best work done in between bouts of "mood instability." (This seems to me to be a covert argument for drugging them to handle their unwanted "mood instability"--that is, their emotional roller-coaster, which is caused mainly by connection to people who ignore or invalidate their work. And yet, those same drugs -- for example, anti-depressants, are notorious for putting dampers on creativity--including the act of creativity we call "sex.")

I think it important to understand these points, and realize that they are a subtle mixture of lies and truth, and that they ARE pretty much the psych line. Here, roughly, is my take on each of the above points:

1. Creativity is as much a conscious activity as the creator is conscious. Awareness is not the enemy of creativity. Most people have a very dim awareness of their own universes, so have little knowledge, responsibility or control in that area. When in contact with their own universes (their own dreams, hopes, ideas, creations), they are overwhelmed by them as if by some alien invasion of ideas and pictures ("The story just leapt out of me, as if I were taking dictation").

It may seem that being effect of creation, and unconscious of it, is an aid to creativity--they are contacting areas unknown to them; thus it seems unconscious. Yes, when most people try to communicate what comes from their own universes, they are dealing with territory unknown to them. As they know themselves better, the process becomes more conscious and the mastery greater, not less -- because they are more aware of their own universes, less obsessed with the agreed-upon, neutral, no-man's-land we call the physical universe.

2. An outline may be a constriction (I never use an outline), but it may also be helpful as a guide or a barrier--a barrier, can be a challenge. Certainly if the poet sets out to write a sonnet or some "fixed form," the barriers of a particular game (the rules for rhyme and meter or other formal constraints) may aid or hamper creativity, depending on the writer's ability to confront those barriers and use them successfully. It's difficult to write a formal sonnet without knowing one is writing a formal sonnet. And yet some formal works happen to be fine art.

The idea that the creator doesn't know what he will create until he creates it is a half-truth. Obviously creation doesn't occur if what's created is already created, so there's some truth to it: We create what we create when we create it. But that act of creation, when an artist is operating at peak, is instant fullness, perception of richness, permeation, knowing. The thing is there, created at that point (that's my experience). It will change some in the process of writing it down, working out how to translate it from my universe to others' universes (and that, perhaps, is the alteration needed to give an instant creation some persistence--in minds of others, who recreate it. They think they are getting it from me, when actually I'm stirring them to create something; therefore, they've misowned it (attributed to me what is their own), which means it will persist for them too). But there's a tremendous and acute knowingness involved.

[One way we get things to persist is by attributing them to others. If I want to spread a rumor and have it take root, it helps if I attribute it to "everybody" or even to God, our theological everybody.]

If this shrink had interviewed Nabokov (probably the most creative writer in the last century), she'd have heard a different story. I don't have the exact words at hand, but here's how Nabokov described his writing of a novel: He'd write on note cards, which were on a sort of podium, so he could write standing up. He would pace the room, then pause at the podium to fill out a card. He'd put the notes together later (like a mosaic). He said that at the start the entire work was there for him, surrounding him. He said it was as if he were standing inside a huge, beautiful cathedral, perhaps under the dome, but it was dim, only tiny details emerging from the darkness here and there. So his work was a matter of bringing his own creation to light.

In his pacing he felt as if he were viewing the cathedral with a flashlight, catching a detail here, another detail there, writing down each point of glimmer on a note card. But it was his creation from the start, and he knew it was there, created in all its finest details. This is just his particular metaphor and method, not mine, probably not yours. The point is, he always stressed that from the point he created it, the creation was there. The knowingness was senior to the unknownness. He created it, and he worked out (flashlight-view by flashlight-view) what it was he created.

I recall that when I wrote papers in college, I'd have a concept, an involved set of ideas, and I'd have a clear sense of numerous interrelationships and interconnections, but I'd have to go for long walks turning the thing (already there) around in my mind, seeing it from one viewpoint, then another, then turning it back again, incorporating more and more stuff, sometimes for days, before I could sit down and put it all on paper. (I no longer have to do that. I don't need that particular excuse for knowing--or Nabokov's.)

Being effect of his own creation to the point of having little or no idea what he is going to create is as true for an artist as the artist isn't aware of what he's doing. Also this idea that he must be effect confuses the act of creation with the act of communicating the creation, which is a problem of language and compositional technique. The instant of creation, of bringing concepts into being, gives him a sense of a creation having occurred, a wholeness. Dimly or vividly, the artist is aware of that presence, that created wholeness. Crafting it (for example, putting it into words that will stir a comparable act of creation in others) is an act involving additional creation or re-creation, a keeping it in view or keeping in touch with what he has created--at least enough so that he can recognize when he has said it or when he has departed from that creation.

Here's where most artists have some degree of "not-knowing", mystery, feeling that some other force is leading them on, feeling despair if they lose touch with that force, muse, inspiration. But that transcendent force is the artist himself and his own creation. And the more aware the artist is of that act of creation and of the resultant concept, the less the artist feels moved by some cause external to self, and the less the artist feels his grasp of his own creation is tenuous and difficult. Knowingness is not the enemy of creation. (Unknownness of self is the enemy.)

3. The idea that the artist doesn't create his work, that some muse bypasses him, the words going directly from his muse (or inspiration) to the page, is an idea derived from the creator's unawareness of his own universe, or of that universe being his own creation. That unawareness doesn't make him more creative. His attempts to create involve him in unawareness, because they stir up a universe he has forgotten he created, or is creating.

An author doesn't create more alive characters because the characters "go their own way" (as opposed to the author's directing them), but many authors prefer not to be aware of the levels of consciousness at which they are capable of creating life. (As an artist moves up toward personal spiritual freedom, the process simplifies, because he simply creates what he creates. Ability to create life improves.)

4. Of course many creative people have "mood instability." Suppressive persons are always eager to "help" them. Even if no one puts down their art, the frequent lack of an audiences is in itself an invalidation. Plus there's the haunting suspicion that he is dishonest and faking it. (The Iowa "creative" writers seem to me to turn out a lot of work in which all of them seem to speak the same voice.)

In addition, there is the liability of running into past incidents of loss, pain and unconsciousness while working in creative writing classes that encourage writers to dredge up painful experiences, to take on personally (as method actors) the gruesome thoughts and feelings of characters, as in a play, etc. The basis for much creative writing instruction is that something "merely" imagined, as opposed to being dredged up from one's most traumatic experience, will lack "authenticity."

Also there's the push to be critics of their own work long before they've gotten a good flow of writing going. There is the notion that to write well, the writer must experience (be effect of) everything, where "everything" usually means promiscuity, violence, drugs, deliberately immoral behavior; he must be involved in all this to flaunt his "authenticity" as a true artist by living a degraded life, etc.

And then there are the hidden standards: Is my work great? Am I changing the world? Am I doing any good for anyone? These standards are "hidden" because they are undefined and, maybe,undefinable. Greatness -- as the word is used by critics and artists -- is like "obscenity" in the courts: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." (So pronounced a judge in an obscenity case).

Almost every artist faces, too, the contradiction between the instantaneous acts of creation -- whole worlds created in a flash -- and the slow, grueling work (at first, usually) of getting something well-written or painted or danced. And the still slower development of audience, income, fame. In other words, he creates what should be a huge effect (and is in his own universe, his own dream), then undergoes the enormous invalidation of time-bound, barrier-ridden physical-universe communication lines. The artist lights a bomb and, in the world where we all live, nothing happens or just a dull, distant pop. Or a whimper.

Imagine you have something brilliant and urgent to say to the world, and it's all there and vibrant and alive, but to communicate it, you have to go through a bureaucracy of bored officials, most of whom don't speak your language. It's different if your work is entirely along material communication lines (for example, if you've developed new, improved toilet paper), no dipping into your own universe nor impinging on the native universes of others.

You can live your whole life without ever noticing the communication lags (for example, the time lag between the time you ask a question and the time you receive an answer, or between the time you address a vision to millions of readers and the time when, having received it, they send you their gratitude) of the material universe, because you ARE a communication lag, not aware that you're waiting for an answer, because you are BEING the waiting, being the trap, being human flesh. As soon as you become aware of creation, you begin to suffer from the dominance of a universe that is everyone's agreement--automatic mediocrity.

Also, most creators who persist, feel they have to sell out to have an income-- become, for example, teachers who must toe the academic party lines. In addition, some of the so-called creative people got into that line of work because they couldn't confront producing anything else. It's not that they're creative so much as that they lack the ability to confront business, real estate, bodies, sales work, medicine, objects more solid than notebooks. I don't know how frequent that is, but I can think of many examples, and I suspect it's a little bit true of most. I can certainly see it in myself, not as a major factor, but as a small component: I didn't like being neat, well-dressed. My hair is unruly, and I hate hair oil. I don't like schedules or neckties. I wanted to do something where I could be a slob, and still "get respect." That's not the main thing I wanted from art, but that element is there.

Certainly SOME people turn to the creative professions because they figure it'll be easier and get them out of things they don't want to deal with. Such people, faced with pressures of having to come up with real products and market them, are miserable. They dreamed only of writing the great American novel, after which publishers and audiences would magically appear, as if summoned by the rubbing of Aladdin's lamp.

So the shrinks are right: Many creative people and wanna-be creative people have "mood instability." But that is not inherent in creativity. Creation is JOY. But the artist declines to the degree that he cannot turn his life into creativity: He soars to creativity, then plummets into uncertainty and mundane editing and promotion and marketing, which is depressing, especially when it fails. So the only way to live a creative life without despair is to become more creative in all areas of life, self, family, groups, mankind, plant and animal life forms, life sources, spiritual freedom, the imagining of a relationship to one's concept of infinite freedom--which means becoming more causative in these areas.

In other words, if he creates great work, then spends the night being vicious to his wife and children, using drugs, eating bad food, professing poverty as "proof" that he is a great artist, lamenting the fact that he is unjustly not yet famous, getting drunk over it and being a mean drunk--there is going to be a roller-coaster, or "mood instability."

Once he's become aware of his own universe, how can they keep him down on the materialist farm, tilling brain chemicals for the sacramental brain religion. He has at least to become just a little bit causative about earning a living, having a family, associating with groups, etc. If he uses art (as many do) as justification for having no groups, chaotic love life, poverty, etc., he's going to have problems with "moods." If he use his art--his knowledge of how to create--to lead a creative life, he may notice that all areas of life require continuous creation. He may have failures and occasional ups and downs, but he won't have that heavy contrast between bursts of artistic sublimity and the downward plunge into a tedious, grungy, uncreated life.

Or he can stay on the roller coaster, being an art addict, having his art highs, followed by life lows. He should probably join "Creators Anonymous": Whenever he feels like writing a poem, he calls his 12-step buddy, who talks him out of it. He needs to get past withdrawal symptoms and never touch creativity again, because he can't handle causative creativity. (Poetry lodges, so to speak, in fat cells--must be a brain function; brains are made of fat. He'll need to sweat poetry out, lest he get flashbacks of compulsive creativity.)

The correct handling is to get a life--that is, a Causative Life. Bring life to all areas of existence, expand knowledge and effectiveness. This may require drilling the technology of communication. The wrong thing for the artist to do is to assume that he has a "mental instability," to be corrected by psychiatric drugs and evaluations and labeling.

If, on the other hand, he buys into the psychiatric view (perhaps not recognizing where it comes from), he will probably move in the following directions:

1. Art is unconscious; therefore, it's important to be unconscious, to cultivate drugs and mystery, to experience murky, chaotic sex, to give free reign to "impulses," to ignore discipline, persistence, awareness; to live a corrupt "authentic" life in the underside of decency and reason. This "proves" he is a rebel genius, that destruction is creation, and "proves" that anyone who does not appreciate him is a middle-class philistine pig.

2. The artist never knows what he is creating--and the less awareness he has of what he is doing or where his creations come from, the more he is a true creator. So the way to create is to wait for something to come--sometimes he sits in front of a blank page for weeks, and nothing comes (it's like constipation)--but that's all he can do, other than stir up unconsciousness with a drug, or drink, or some other stimulus that weakens decisiveness, lowers awareness, and "releases inhibitions," so that he feels free to write some form of chaos that he is sure will add up to "great literature."

3. Since he doesn't create his work, but the muse (or inspiration or some higher power) does it all, he is not, as an artist, responsible for the effects he creates. Moreover, since his work comes from a higher power, he, as artist, is God-favored, and above all that other stuff in life. He is superior to others; he can mess up his life and hurt others, but that's okay, because he's an artist.

4. He will expect to be "mentally unstable," because insanity goes with creativity, although it sometimes gets in the way. He will go to a psychiatrist to handle it. He won't handle it by raising his level of responsibility for other people's lives. He won't handle it by taking more control of creation. He will remain pure by knowing nothing. He is an artist, not responsible for creating anything--the muse does it. He rides the spontaneous and unconscious Muse (to oblivion).

If an artist begins with artistic power and craft, he may produce some good stuff on this downhill road, but it will be a rapidly accelerating plunge. And at each downward spiral, it gets more difficult to turn things around. (Ask Brian Wilson what it took for him to get back some fragment of his magic after he escaped his years of psychiatric captivity -- partially escaped, still on a long pharmaceutical leash, limited to the lovely wistfulness of "Pet Sounds".)

The psychiatrist is not the artist's best friend. Why would those who see differently (have their own personal visions) trust the herd of pompous suits who have produced DSM IV, the psychiatric bible that classifies every form of action or feeling or perception that departs from some never-defined norm as "mental illness"?

Artist, find out who you really are before someone sticks you with a trendy, but toxic lie.


Last updated: July 18, 2007