We started with the Greeks and Romans philosophy of creativity who viewed the creative spirit as something that comes from a separate distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons
And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was, let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine.
And it’s the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius.
I think this renaissance thinking was a huge error. I think that allowing somebody, one mere mortal person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smudge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.
And, if this is true, and I think it is true, the question becomes, what now? Can we do this differently? Maybe go back to some more ancient understanding about the relationship between humans and the creative mystery. Maybe not. Maybe we can’t just erase 500 years of rational humanistic thought in three blog posts.
There are probably people reading this post who would raise really legitimate scientific suspicions about the notion of, basically fairies who follow people around rubbing fairy juice on their projects and stuff. I’m not, probably, going to bring you all along with me on this. The question I want to pose is: why not? Why not think about creativity as this fairy distant creative spirit that visits us once in a while, who not think about it this way? Because it makes as much sense as anything else I have ever heard in terms of explaining the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process.
A process which, as anybody who has ever tried to make something, which is to say basically everyone reading this post, knows does not always behave rationally. And, in fact, can sometimes feel downright paranormal.
I had this encounter recently when I was researching my new book when I read an interview about the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone, who is now in her 90s, but she has been a poet her entire life and she says that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page.
And other times she would not be fast enough, so she would be running and running, and she would not get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”
And then there were these times, this is the piece I never forgot, she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she is running to the house and she is looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.
So when I read this interview I was like, that’s uncanny, that’s exactly what my creative process is like but my writing process is at a slower pace. The creative spirit comes through to me once in a very long while.
I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.
I wake up in the morning everyday and write and blog, everyday. Sometimes I’m more creative, others times not so creative, but I pitch and write.
But even I, in my mulishness, even I have brushed up against that thing, at times. And I would imagine that a lot of creatives have too. Even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source that I honestly cannot identify. And what is that thing? And how are we to relate to it in a way that will not make us lose our minds, but, in fact, might actually keep us sane?
I have learned that it is important to do what you love even when you don’t feel like it. There are times when I feel so creative with words that I would just sit in front of my laptop and the words just write themselves, there are times when I have to rewrite a sentence five times.
The important thing is discipline. To keep on writing, to keep on creating, innovating, to keep on it drip, by drip, the creative spirit will visit you occasionally.
Anne Tyler said it very well: “If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”
Do your art anyway, even when you don’t feel like it.