Finding Creativity: Do, Don’t Think

Creativity is expressed in many forms, and somehow the creative methods of the following artists–a musician, a poet, a novelist, and a comedian–all connect to me.  They involve creating from the imagination and ways to get there.

Let’s start with YES guitarist Steve Howe.  When asked about his finger-picking style in the song “Starship Trooper,” he answers that he just plays and doesn’t really think about how he does it.  In fact, he insists, someone else has to point out to him what his fingers are doing.  Howe says,

I haven’t really thought about [how to play the song] from that perspective much because I’m playing it.  I don’t want to think about how I’m doing it.  It makes it harder.  Thinking about something can sometimes bring you into the wrong head space you need [to play].

This non-thinking connects to the dreamscape level that, for instance, John Gardner talks about: where writing unfolds as dreams or movies do.  But how do we get to the right “head space” that Howe is talking about?  Here are three possible answers:

The poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil talks about how she wrote her poem “Small Murders” as a product of continuous writing:

I do believe when you are in a continuous practice and drafting stage (I was scribbling on receipts, napkins, and my hand when I wasn’t in front of my desk), and your pores are just open and alive to the possibilities of language and wordplay all around us, then nine times out of ten, the writing does come out the way I want it to come out—a nice mix of deliberation, supposition, utter surprise, and a dash of hocus-pocus ‘Where-did-THAT-image-come-from?’

The novelist J.P. Smith gives credence to the act of ongoing writing:

As for the discipline involved, I began writing in 1973, when I took a teaching job at my old school in Westchester County, NY. […] every day I’d come home and write twenty-five pages. By doing that I learned how to create a flow (which some readers still find a bit confounding) in my fiction, so that I could move fluidly between past and present, between memory and life.  […]  I suppose it was like a musician practicing for hours every day, simply learning the craft, working the scales, seeking just the right tone and touch.

And then I came across Monty Python great, John Cleese, talking about how to find the “open space” of creation.  “Closed space” is when we want to solve problems in a decisive way: what to eat for dinner, when to get gas, how to fix the leaking toilet.  “Open space” is when we allow our mind to ponder and play and invent.  In the video above, he gives five suggestions on how to reach the open space.  It’s a funny clip, of course, but it’s also instructive.

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