Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it; they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.
I was looking for quotes for the 1000 Voices Speak post for our Connection Link-up when I came across those words from Steve Jobs. They sum up my experience of creativity.
Writing, painting, making a garden or building an airplane can be a creative process or can be something else. I’m not sure if it’s always obvious from the finished product, but it is obvious to those of us doing the making.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King likens novel writing to digging out a fossil. It is already there; he just unearths it. I agree with the part about it already being there, but for me, creativity is more dynamic than a fossil, what is found is more alive. In that sense, Jobs’s description comes closer to how I feel.
When we are in a creative flow, we connect with something other than our own minds. I was surprised when I read On Writing because I had imagined that Stephen King sat down with a formula and worked out a plan for each novel. I didn’t expect him to work in such a free-flowing manner, or to have so little “ownership” of his work. But then, I’ve never read his novels, so that was my prejudice.
I went to see Alexander McCall Smith recently, the massively popular writer of the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, as well as countless other books. His output astonishes me – he’d written three books in the last six months. King and McCall Smith have very different styles, but he also describes the writing process as something beyond his control – as a combination of ideas that come from the subconscious mind and as a “process of making contact with the subconscious mind.” See, there’s that term again – making contact. Connection by another name.
Creativity is just connecting things. – Steve JobsTweet
Way back in the 1980s, I was a fashion designer, living in London. London was the hip place to be, a center of the fashion world, but, like most of my friends, I was penniless and certainly didn’t go scooting off to big fashion shows or even have access to fashion forecasts. I was working freelance for two employers, and every single dress design I did came out with cowl necks and batwing sleeves. After about the twentieth of these designs, I tried really hard to do something different – I went for a walk, I studied fashions from the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1920s for inspiration. I went for another walk. I came home, got out a clean sheet of paper – and drew cowl necks and batwing sleeves.
I was surprised that my employers liked my designs and set about making dresses in several colors. I was even more surprised when the shops began to fill with the new season’s styles. You won’t be surprised though to hear that they were – cowl necks and batwing sleeves.
What caused that? At the time I thought perhaps there was a progression in fashion that couldn’t be seen close up, but that might be visible through the lens of history. Perhaps cowl necks and batwing sleeves naturally flowed after whatever had come before.
Perhaps. And perhaps I was doing what Steve Jobs said, and connecting things. It’s also fair to point out that over the years of my career in fashion, I sometimes hit trends without trying and sometimes missed even whether I was trying or not. I suspect that the more we try to “get it right” the less we are able to.
Something happens when we write that is beyond our control. Some days, I feel as if I am squeezing words out a drip at a time, and other times, writing is like a river.
This trickle or flow has little to do with the subject matter. I wrote an article for a political site last week, and the words poured out easily. Not only that, but wherever I took a break, I’d go on Twitter and stumble across an article or video that aided my understanding or in some other way helped. It felt so exhilarating to write that article, and I thought my days of struggling were well and truly over. Ha, ha. I finished that, went back to working on an essay about a trip I took with my father – and the words stuttered and spluttered. You could say it was because I felt the loss of my father as I wrote, but I’ve felt that before and words have tumbled out faster than I could type them.
I think it has more to do with that I am trying, in that essay, to describe a place few people know, and this is high in my mind as I work, so it causes doubt. My first attempt was a mix of travel article and personal reflection along with some history thrown in. So it was a muddle. I was trying to get it right, to fit everything in. For me, over and over, trying to get it right gets it the way of creative flow, of making that connection Jobs talked about.
I’m reading a book just now called The The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment
by Chris Niebauer. It is, as you might expect from the title, fairly light-hearted. It’s a mix of science and – something that you could probably call spirituality. At one point, Niebauer writes about research done on people with brain disease which meant that the right and left brain couldn’t connect in the way most brains do. What they discovered was that the left-brain spends most of its waking hours interpreting. In one study, a patient was asked to perform an association exercise. The task was to match a picture on a screen with cards in front of him. Since the left-brain controls the right hand and vice versa, the appropriate hands were used. The left-brain viewed a chicken claw while the right brain saw a snow shovel, and the patient picked the correct cards. However, when asked why he had picked the snow shovel, he said, “Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken…and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”
This is what our left-brains do, it seems. They make up stories about our lives and it matters not a jot if those stories have any basis in reality. So when we sit down to write and the words don’t instantly flow, it’s most likely because our left-brains are busy creating some mischief – making up stories about why we can’t make up stories. The left brain is also the part that wants us to get it right.
Jill Bolte Taylor was a neuro-scientist and in her thirties she had a stroke that affected the left side of her brain. In her book My Stroke of Insight she describes observing the stroke as it happened, and how her left-brain functioning would break down, resume, and break down again. Each time she lost left-brain functioning, she felt ecstatic, in what she describes as Nirvana or Lala land. When her left brain sprang back into action for a few moments, she was able to see that she needed to get help. By the time she managed to make a phone call she wasn’t able to speak, but the person she rang knew something was very wrong.
Jill Bolte Taylor took eight years to fully recover from that stroke (and this defied expectations since it used to be assumed that if functioning didn’t return after a year or two it never would.) Recovery, however, didn’t mean she went back to how she was before. The experience made her realise that although we need the left-brain, we don’t really need it to be so dominant – and the main thing she realised was that “nirvana is never more than a thought away.”
Do watch Jill Bolte Taylor in the video below. You won’t be disappointed – she’s really funny!
So, what does this all mean for us creative types? What can we learn from it?
These words come to my mind, so I’ll type them: “Let it go.” Let it go. Let it go. When we let go, stop trying, then we can connect with whatever the heck it is that creates. It’s not us.
When we let go, stop trying, then we can connect with whatever the heck it is that creates.Tweet
It’s not “me.” At least, not in the sense that I have any control over it. Of course ideas are coming into my head and my fingers are typing them. But I had no idea I was going to write “Let it go.” Until the words came. As I lay in my bed this morning, I thought about this post, which I left last night about the point Jill Bolte Taylor made her appearance. I had no plans to include her, until I did. Even if I had planned to, where would the idea for that plan have come from? From remembering her book and Ted Talk. I didn’t do them, so how can I claim the credit?
When we create, our connection isn’t just with whatever brings the ideas, but also with those who read our words, or view our art, or wear our clothes. We may never know in what way that has an effect on the person doing the receiving, since even if they write a comment or leave a note at an exhibition, all they leave is a snapshot, a moment in time.
Sometimes we get a little more. Sarah of Amycake and the Dude wrote in a post that she had been to a show choir weekend and found herself remembering my post about cult thinking (a review of Arthur Deikman’s Them and Us.) And of course, anyone involved with 1000 Voices Speak will know that I was reading Lizzi’s post We all Need the Village when the idea came to me. But I cannot honestly say that Lizzi’s post gave me the idea. It didn’t – if I trace back I can see other factors leading up to it, including the conversation Lizzi and I had on Facebook about the Boko Haram massacre. So it would probably be closer to say that what motivated Lizzi to write that post was similar to what motivated me to suggest 1000 Voices. Even that may not be true.
Some people say that there is a thing called the collective unconscious. I’ve read tons of evidence for it – for instance a group of monkeys on a Pacific island were fed by having fruit dropped off to them on a beach. The fruit was covered in sand, and after a while some bright monkey started washing her fruit in the sea. Soon the others did the same. Nothing unusual there, but on another island, monkeys began also washing their fruit in the sea. As I write this, I now wonder if this is a true story or a myth, and a quick check of Wikipedia does indeed reveal this story has been distorted, exaggerated and probably has little basis in reality. But it was fun while it lasted.
In any case, the collective unconscious isn’t so much a thing out there waiting for us to tap into it, but just a bunch of ideas we share in common. Here’s what Jung (who coined the term) had to say: The collective unconscious – so far as we can say anything about it at all – appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious…
So what are we connecting with when we create? And does it matter?
I think the answer to that last question is probably not. In fact, I quite like the idea that there are some things in life we can never answer – at least not with our left-brains, that part of us that wants to know answers, to put things into categories, to create labels, analyse. I quite like that life is full of indefinable mysteries and that Nirvana is always just a thought away.
Nirvana is always just a thought away. – Jill Bolte TaylorTweet
By the way, if you are wondering about the pictures I use to illustrate this post – my daughters made them by swirling a torch (flashlight) around in a dark room and photographing it. Creative huh?
This month, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion continues to work toward a compassionate world with a particular focus on Connection, including Reconciliation.
If you would like to join in, you can write a post on Connection –and add it to the link-up right by clicking the blue button below. (But you will need to hurry because it closes in less than an hour!)
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