creativity blocks, metaphysics and individuality

in our last conversation about creativity, jeremy from PsyBlogs talks about the difference between “chaotic” and “ordered” creatives and then moves on to discuss creative blocks.

recently, i came across a doctoral thesis in divinity that talks about the connection between chaos, creativity and spirituality. kurt sander from northern kentucky university points out the important nature of “failure” among creatives. “we must acknowledge that the understanding of a composer’s identity is incomplete if one looks only at masterpieces.” he goes on to say that most creative blocks do not stem from a lack of ideas but from an inability to manifest those ideas. ideas are trapped in the creator’s mind and cannot come out.

according to sander, to make sense of creative chaos, one must find a way to say ‘no’ to individual ideas, “not only to expedite the compositional process, but also to maintain a work’s cohesiveness.”

how to do that? he quotes one of my favourite composers, john taveneran icon, who says, “we live in an age when man has lost belief not only in god, but also in himself. metaphysics has been completely split from the world of the imagination.”

sanders suggests, then, that the way out of chaos is to organize one’s creative process into “a quest for artistic perfection symbolizing the greater human quest for divine perfection.” sanders himself does that with the help of iconography, an ancient art form that de-emphasizes the individual creator’s ego and places art within the context of a greater good.

that is one point of view. let’s add another one – the great filmmaker fellini’s, as discussed by dr. john parris springer, an english professor and movie specialist. this point of view is also about chaos, creativity and creative blocks – but it takes a different, perhaps even the opposite tack. fellini solves his creative crisis by getting as intensely personal as he could possibly get.

fellini had struggled for several years developing ideas and working on a script for the famous film . there was intense pressure to make a film that would top la dolce vita, an international sensation when it was released in 1960. fellini was suffering from the filmmaker’s equivalent of writer’s block, uncertain of his purpose and hesitant to commit to a particular narrative or aesthetic plan for the film.

fellini’s solution was to make a film about a movie director who is riddled with uncertainty and doubt – a character in the same dilemma as fellini himself. thus, 8½ is extremely personal and psychological (which led to accusations of self-indulgence by his critics.)

in 8 1/2, one critic – a sort of alter ego – follows fellini (portrayed by the character of guido) throughout the film, constantly throwing intellectual cold water over the project. the critic’s final pessimistic speech to guido is a plea to abandon the project:

“such a monstrous presumption to think that others could benefit from the squalid catalogue of your mistakes.”

however, 8½ ends on an uplifting, redemptive note. while sitting in his car listening to the critic, guido experiences a sudden epiphany that permits him to achieve a renewed sense of artistic purpose and personal commitment to his wife and friends. guido’s final declaration is, “life is a celebration! let’s live it together!”

at first glance, these two points of view on the creative crisis are very different. one emphasises moving away from the ego or individual to the greater good. the other moves deeply into the individual.

in the end, however, both make me think of buddhism. for example, delving into process is something that is advocated by insight or vipassana meditation. pema chodron speaks very eloquently about that. go inside. get to know yourself, that feeling, intimately.

at the same time, buddhism teaches non-dualism. we are all one, and part of the cessation of suffering is to experience ourselves as more than our tiny little individuality.

buddhism is also very much about detaching from the chaos of our thoughts – thoughts, for example, of failure, self-criticism, pressure to perform, uncertainty and lack of direction, and move towards a groundedness in nothing but the exclamation, “let’s live, together!”

(image by mharrsch)

8 thoughts on “creativity blocks, metaphysics and individuality

  1. Otis

    Could there be a connection between this blog and the one on “struggling with the church” (which from the number of comments, seems to resonate with many people)?

    I really liked the John Tavener quote.

    Everyone’s experience is different, so there is no universal remedy for “spiritual emptiness”. (I.e., this is one reason we have counselors.) However, we shouldn’t assume that this emptiness is “abnormal” or that there is always a cure — especially not an easy cure.

    An article in Time on Mother Theresa (sorry, I don’t have the link, but a Google search should find it) “quoted in a letter to a spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael van der Peet, that is only now being made public, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. ‘Jesus has a very special love for you,’ she assured Van der Peet. ‘[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.'”

    I’ll leave it to Isabella to tell us if this might have been a sign of treatable depression.

    The point I would like to make is that Mother Theresa is remembered as a “saint” because of her work with the poor — which she apparently accomplished in spite of a spiritual emptiness not unlike what has been described here.

    Maybe, considering the suffering she witnessed daily, it would not have been ‘normal’ if she wasn’t depressed. And maybe that is true of some of us, also. But again, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek professional help, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t make significant changes in our lives and the lives of those around us.

  2. Evan

    Hi Isabella,

    I don’t think Buddhism can have it both ways. If there is no self, then there is nothing to go inside. The language needs to be refined here.

    I’m not sure Mr Sanders language is very helpful either. A writers work is not an idea that is transferred into writing. Every ‘idea’ is already embodied. Phrases and words and sentences and structures in the case of a writer. Creativity always involves working with a medium (or media). Sometimes our ideas aren’t clear, sometimes we have competing ideas. These are often sorted out through working with the medium. We try something out and see if it works sometimes.

    The emphasis and de-emphasis of the ego are the same process: re-engaging with the medium. Which could bring us back to Buddhism I think, but I don’t know much about that.

    Evan’s last blog post..A Glitch and an Update

  3. isabella mori

    otis, thanks for commenting.

    is there a connection with the post on wrestling with the church? hm, probably in some sense – but then there are quite a few posts on spirituality here on this blog …

    re mother teresa: you might find this post interesting, where i make a slightly different suggestion regarding the possible source of mother teresa’s difficulties. however, like you, i (and others) have certainly wondered whether she was dealing with depression.

  4. isabella mori

    @evan, thanks for making me check my language! that’s always appreciated.

    you say, “i don’t think buddhism can have it both ways. if there is no self, then there is nothing to go inside.”

    to this, i imagine the buddha saying, “there is no self. there is no no-self.”

    there’s much more to say about this, and i will make an attempt to do that in the next few weeks.

    aah, and then, “a writers’ work is not an idea that is transferred into writing.” – sounds very marshal mcluhan-ish 🙂

    i think that experience is different for each writer, and perhaps with some writers, even different between one writing experience and another. for some, writing is a vehicle by which to tell stories or propagate ideas. for others, it is a way to “get stuff out”. for others, it is about the word, the language.

    hm, come to think of it – writers’ blocks are probably different for these different kinds of writers … what do you think?

    (i have to confess that in over 40 years of writing, i have never [yet?] suffered from writers block).

    and @therapydoc – wow, coming from you, that’s a big compliment! thanks!

  5. Evan

    Hi Isabella.

    I think a creative idea has a form. If it has no form yet I suspect it of being a feeling or sensation.

    If the ‘idea’ was then ‘expressed’ the medium would be a matter of indifference. But this I think unlikely for both the maker and the object made.

    I’d like to hear more about your own and others creative process. I think this is a very important topic for the process and outcome of therapy (a full life needs creativity I think).

    Evan’s last blog post..Finding a Free-er Place

  6. Catatonic Kid

    Fascinating – particularly interesting to me since I’ve always thought of really great works of creativity as coming from, in part, the ability to draw connections between apparently unrelated things – to see patterns, and think beyond one’s current mode.

    It’s not necessarily about simply going in or out but the ability to hold one’s self in a state of grace – to draw in and of all that is, and see possibility in ‘unlikely’ places.

    Catatonic Kid’s last blog post..Stick Insects, Resilience and the Weight of Deception – Why France is signing-up to combat Anorexia.

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