Being creative


Dragon fly on the flower –

photograph by Gordon Humphreys

Part of being alive is to be in touch with one’s own creativity – this bringing into being one way or another, through expressing and putting into form our experiences, fantasies, feelings, wishes, hopes, and fears. Through creative actions we extend our awareness of ourselves and of our world.

There seems to be agreement about the four stages of the creative process which may often begin as a way of resolving a problem – the first stage is one of preparation, but it’s characterised by being confused and baffled by something that is also intriguing. There may be a conscious struggle to sort out something in one’s mind, and there could be searching to find out more – you can be really interested in the subject but know little about it; or long to develop a new skill like photography or drawing. But the subject is huge, there’s too much information and it’s a muddle – and can I be really creative anyway?

The second stage is called incubation which has also been called a state of muddled suspense. This is a time of letting go and withdrawing from it – there doesn’t seem to be a resolution. This is a stage you repeatedly return to – losing confidence, gaining skills and then inevitably letting go of any idea of an orderly progression.

The third stage is the most interesting – something may ‘happen’ – if one is lucky. This is the stage of illumination or inspiration which may unexpectedly and suddenly emerge. Ideas often come when one’s mind is emptied – this is the letting go of trying to make sense of something. It is almost about a state of passivity. Indeed, I have had this experience, and it feels like a gift – for example, suddenly there’s a new way of thinking about the subject and it makes sense; it feels as if it could have a different meaning. I like this from an eighteenth-century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss who has been quoted as saying: ‘Finally, two days ago I succeeded, not on account of my painful efforts, but by the grace of God. Like a sudden flash of lightening the riddle happened to be solved.’

It makes sense that our creator God is also present in all our acts of creation and indeed creative thinking – no matter what they are. This is a moment of exuberance, followed by the last stage of verification where the creativity has to be put to the test, or worked out further, and given relevant form and expression. That can be a long process – years or even decades.

I like the description by the poet Robert Lowell who when he visited Elizabeth Bishop witnessed many of her poems-in-progress, some of them years in the making, fastened to a bulletin board above her long desk. More than a decade later, Lowell dedicated a poem to Bishop in which he asked,

“Do / you still hang your words in the air, ten years / unfinished …?” These words seemed suspended in both place and time, “glued to your notice board with gaps / or empties for the unimaginable phrase.”

This is a willingness to wait for the creative moment of inspiration – waiting patiently for the perfect words with an expectation that they will come from somewhere at some time; waiting for the inspiration to paint, waiting to take the perfect photograph as the dragonfly lands on the flower– waiting for resolution.