When any year comes to a close, it is natural to consider it in the context of the bigger picture of who we are and how we matter to the world. Given our human complexities, the challenge is a daunting one. Are we more likely to examine the facets of our lives that are personal, professional or a synthesis of both?
My creative identity as an illustrator and writer bridges and governs both facets of my life. But one of the keys to understanding them is the oft-asked question, “where do you get your ideas?” Though my answer, which is usually a shrugged ‘I don’t know’, is easier and seems to suffice, I’d rather be able to provide a more intelligent answer.
For this first installment of my 2015 review, I’ll try to do so. When visitors to my studio pose this query, it’s usually because they are simply curious. But sometimes, I sense a shadow of suspicion in it. Do they suspect that ‘getting ideas’ for my work involves some sort of magic or trickery? Are they really wishing for an answer that satisfies an ancient human desire to believe in the mystical? If that suspicion were directly stated, I would, of course, have to disavow any conscious legerdemain but what could I say about the unknown workings of my subconscious?
Though we currently embrace science and technology far more than superstition and have made great strides in understanding our brain’s organic functions, our perception of creativity via its numinous capabilities is only just beginning. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark’s maxim on magic, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” still holds true, but probably not for long.
Historically, the sources and products of creativity have always been subject to naked or grudging admiration and curiosity if not fear. From the earliest cave murals to paintings and sculpted masterpieces to installations of dead animals preserved in formaldehyde, it has been questioned, condemned, dissected and lauded by religious and political authorities, scientists, writers, critics, philosophers and poets.
In practical terms, the word ‘creativity’ does more than describe what artists, musicians, writers and other ideasmiths do. It integrates intuitive and learned skills with the influences of cultural heritage and world events, personal experience and relationships to generate ideas and facilitate artistic expression.
This past October, while watching a PBS series on the brain, presented by neuroscientist David Eagleman, I was fascinated by his revelations of our brain’s physiognomy and its effect on our bodies, human interactions, behavior and thoughts but disappointed that no insights were offered about its role in creative inspiration. I wanted to know, is creativity solely an organic process limited to the parameters of our brains and its madly firing synapses or is there some other catalyst that drives the process?
My curiosity prompted a look into Dr. Eagleman’s earlier writings. In the first chapter of his 2011 book, Incognito (Pantheon/Random House, 2011), I found that he includes some nice examples of the creative process at work.
With clearly explained scientific detail, he suggests that creativity seems to be an unconscious process and that the brain acts ‘incognito’ without permitting itself to be probed by ‘conscious cognition’. He then goes on to quote poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, the mathematician James Clerk Maxwell and the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, each of whom claimed that their greatest works resulted from collaborations with their ‘muses’ or in Coleridge’s case, with the use of opium (which he began using only for dental pain, later discovering their salutary effects on his ‘genius’). Dr. Eagleman views this collaborative process as a sort of ‘tool’ that allowed each of these great talents to access his own subconscious neural circuits and aid their creative endeavors.
While his comments made me wonder if we might one day learn to bridge that disconnect between our conscious and subconscious minds without the aid of drugs or mysticism, they also accurately described what I experience as I do my own work.
Though I don’t ‘hear’ any voices or ‘see’ any mystical entities, I sense an ethereal kind of quiet during which awareness of my surroundings seems to recede. As images and information present themselves and ideas begin to form, the feeling that something metaphysical is taking over to guide me in my efforts. Call it a synaptic alchemy, a ‘muse’, or whatever you like, what matters is the end result which is always a mix of surprise and mystery.
I’ll continue this thread of thought with some new insights in my next post, but for now, based on the comments above, I’d like to leave you with two questions:
1. Are you content to just create your work and let it be?
2. Would a scientific explanation of why you are moved to do so be a help or a hindrance to you?
Please feel free to contribute your own questions and ideas here so we can listen and learn from each other.
I wish you all a very creative and inspired New Year in 2016!