It always amuses me when researchers try to pin down the “science” of creativity. Like this Fast Company review of a new book, 7 Surprising Facts About Creativity, According to Science. There’s nothing earth shattering here – 72% of people have creative insights in the shower? Okay. What else you got?
Call me naive or childish, but…why can’t we just let creativity be magical? Can’t we just let it happen and be? Do we have to analyze it to death? I am reminded of my days at Purdue, the starry-eyed writer surrounded by logical, scientific, linear-thinking engineers. One day, sitting outside at twilight on a hot summer day between classes with an engineer friend, a huge plane flew overhead. We sat in silence, watching it pass by. I couldn’t contain myself and said, “Wow, isn’t it amazing that a huge, heavy plane can just…fly??” My engineer friend immediately began to explain aerodynamics to me in pain-staking, exacting, excruciating detail. It’s how he was wired. I get it. 🙂
But I’m not wired that way. I’m wired for wonderment. Amazement. Appreciation. Observing. Synthesizing seemingly random data, words and visuals into new and different ideas. Detecting patterns and playing with new ways of constructing and organizing them. I don’t want to understand the science of creativity. I just want to feel it. Every damn day that I’m lucky enough to be here.
So what does creativity feel like?
Here is my feeble attempt to use words to describe it. I wish I was an artist so I could show you, but even my stick figures suck. So here goes:
I once had the opportunity to tour a castle in Dublin, Ireland. I forget which one. But as I walked along with my group on the guided tour, I was fascinated by the walls of wood with intricate carvings, rooms full of decades-old toys, clothes, and objects once used by real people who no longer walk this earth. I imagined the woman who must have sat at the little writing desk in the turret room, looking out the window. (The picture in this post is the view from that room.) I imagined her writing, pausing to look out at that same window as she wrote a letter. I wanted to know what she thought. What she felt. Who she was writing to. Who she was mad at. Who she loved. What she wrote.
Later in the tour, we walked through a massive dining room with walls made of wood with intricate carvings in each panel. A friend (an engineer) dared me to touch the dining room table. I ran my hand over the smooth wood, feeling the nicks, felt the energy in that ancient surface where people I never knew (and never would) had shared meals, conversations, arguments, tears, laughter. The guide chastised me and pointed to the sign that clearly said “Don’t touch.” My friend laughed, knowing that I can’t resist touching things. I love feeling patterns, grooves, raised surfaces, life. Tracing my fingers along the lines. Soaking in the colors. Appreciating the effort, craftsmanship, and care that went into the making.
My son is on the autism spectrum. When he was little, he touched everything. He picked up things, clutched them, put things he found on the ground in his mouth, hated certain textures of food (to this day he refuses to eat bananas or peanut butter), refused to wear things made with tags, seams or “uncomfortable” material. I didn’t know he was autistic then. I knew that what he did was not “normal.” Strangers were all too happy to point this out to me at every opportunity. But I understood his need to feel his way into the world around him.
Creativity is a language. It is an attempt to understand. To be understood. To make meaning. Putting words to my experience grounds me. It connects me to a world that amazes, confuses, overwhelms me. It connects me to myself. It reminds me of who I am. Why I am here. What really matters. I did not choose it. I am driven to make meaning. I don’t ask why.
On my honeymoon years ago, my then husband and I took a boat ride on the Gulf of Mexico. Standing alone on the back of the boat, I saw a flock of birds fly in a v-formation high up in the clear blue sky. Hundreds of wings flapping, dipping, in perfect unison. Following. Leading. Flying. A seemingly effortless yet organized rising and falling.
In that moment, I felt my mother’s presence as sure as I felt the moment when she left six months earlier. That day I had woken early, suddenly. I felt compelled to go to the window. I traced the cold frost on then pane with my fingers. Cold. Sun so bright on white snow it hurt to look. Look. A flock of birds. V-formation. Wings in slow motion. Rising. Falling. Following. Leaving. Sunlight so hard I had to look away. Hospital call five minutes later. She’s gone.
When I write, I am flying in formation with ideas sensed yet unseen. Closer to sky than ground. Immersed in flight. Clouds, words, blue, light so bright yet not always painful. Feeling my way into the rhythm. Into the story that must be told. I lose myself in the writing yet never lose my way. It is a dreamy world of wings, light, and a sense of moving in the right direction. Even though I have no idea where I’m going. I trust it.
When my kids were little, I worked in a family business and had little time for creative writing. Our business was in our house for a long time, so there were always people around – employees, clients, babysitters, other kids. I had no time or space to be alone and just think, let alone write. I got depressed. Don’t get me wrong – I love my kids, but as any parent of young children knows, it’s a 24/7 job. I was so desperate for solitude that I put my writing desk in my walk-in closet, just off the bathroom. (Everyone still found me, including the dogs, who would whine just outside the closet door.) Eventually we moved the business to an office and I was able to ‘come out of the closet’ and move my desk to a real room of the house.
Today I know that solitude is my oxygen. It is the time for ideas to take shape. I find it most at night, when responsibilities are over, little people are asleep, to-do lists are checked off, and I can think for as long as I want without interruption. Ideas flow. I ride the wave as long as it lasts. I stay up all night writing until it’s all out. Only then will sleep come. I have learned to go with it. You can always sleep tomorrow.
Sometimes I sit outside and take it all in. Sky. Moon. Wet grass smell. Crickets. Waiting for the leaves to turn. Everything feels different at night. I see things I miss. The skunk who rustles around in my front bushes before skulking across my yard. The cat running up the front steps right at me, neither of us expecting the other to be there. The white coyote strolling down the middle of the street. (I held my breath until it was out of sight.) The old woman walking up and down the street with an overloaded shopping cart, talking to herself. I wonder what she is saying. I take it all in. I process. I think. I recharge.
Walking on a dream
How can i explain
Talking to myself
Will I see again
We are always running for the thrill of it of it
Always pushing up the hill searching for the thrill of it
On and on and on we are calling out and out again
Never looking down I’m just in awe of what’s in front of me
What does creativity feel like for you?