The Nature of Creativity


It’s been some time since I posted, but I have a good reason: I got pneumonia! Apparently it is typical of the illness to need weeks to recover, even after the bug itself has been knocked out by antibiotics. Who knew? Not me. I have been very fatigued and portion out my limited energy in small tasks punctuated by periods of rest.

One thing that has been interesting to notice is that until this week, I have been unable to paint. I have had the energy to do the dishes or make lunch, so why not paint? After all, it can be done sitting down and requires very little physical activity. But the energy of the spirit required is significant, and it is not available when I am as sick as I’ve been.

Noticing that made me curious about the nature of that energy. Certainly part of it is focus and concentration. An artist friend calls painting her “brain rest,” not because it is restful, but because when you are painting you really cannot think of anything else. Your mind is totally occupied with the artistic decisions you are making virtually every second: is this color right? Should this be darker? Are these shapes harmonious? How does this work with what I already have on the paper?

Part of it, however, is something more ineffable. It’s the thing that I referred to as the “energy of the spirit.” It’s the essential creative force. I am reading “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde. I just started the book and I am guessing you will hear more about it in this blog, because already it seems unusually insightful. Here’s what he says about creating:

“We also speak rightly of intuition or inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls into place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” says D.H. Lawrence.”

I completely understand what he is expressing here. I felt the same thing as a writer, and I feel it as an artist. In that sense, the heart of creativity is the ability to open a channel to the “not I,” to the gift of creation. That is what comprises the real energy needed for painting. That is what art is all about, and it is not a small thing. Inviting the muse is the real “work” of art; the rest is secondary. It is what costs more than I could spend when I was most ill, and it is also what is most gratifying about making art. It is a connection to the sacred.

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3 Responses to The Nature of Creativity

  1. Esther Rothblum says:

    Wonderful post–and so true. Esther

    Esther D. Rothblum, Ph.D. Professor of Women’s Studies San Diego State University Mail Code 6030 5500 Campanile Drive San Diego, CA 92182, USA 619-594-6662 (work) website:

  2. Gail Anderson says:

    I can relate to your observations from having been a psychotherapist who felt, at its best moments, that our understandings were certainly sacred, beyond the sum of what we Individually knew, and all parties felt ito. Music is certainly the same, although my prowess is not strong enough to elicit this moment. But listening to professionals I can feel it, as well as at moments within our volunteer orchestra. Sometimes it is so achingly lovely that I can hardly stand it.
    So sorry to hear you’ve been very ill and it has lasted a long time. Oh, those days one when can only survive and there is no thriving. I’m glad you’re beyond that!

    • Thanks for your comment, Gail. Yes, that was my experience as a therapist as well: the work, in its best moments, was sacred and larger than the participants. It is a kind of grace. Perhaps all creative work and all healing work has that component if those involved can allow — or invite — it to happen.

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