Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

20-8. Creativity

Everybody’s creative, or so it is claimed, it’s just that most people don’t give themselves the time, or the power, to let their creative potential emerge. Perhaps that’s true, but I do think there are degrees of creativity: some people have demonstrable talent for original thinking, many struggle, and a few people have actual creative genius. And maybe creative people aren’t recognized because their ideas never get expressed – they stay in their heads, or they remain as unfinished projects. Creativity isn’t recognized until the idea becomes manifest, until the artifact of creativity has been produced. How many works of art lie dormant in a pile of clay, or asleep on some hard drive? Praise for the idea may depend more on the execution than the idea itself. Michelangelo was pretty creative in finding David in that huge chunk of marble, but if he hadn’t the talent with a chisel to chip away all the unnecessary bits we would never have seen how creative Mikey was.

Cleaning Up David

Another example, closer to home, much closer: I have been told that my annual Groundhog Day cards are pretty creative. But if it wasn’t for my very talented cartoonists, those creative ideas of mine would never have seen the light of day.

Here’s another problem with creativity. Sometimes, something that we think is original, isn’t; it’s a replicated meme[1]. It’s been thought of before, it exists already, you may even be subconsciously aware of it, but when it appears as an ‘original idea’ in your own conscious mind it is new, at least to you and those who are not aware of the meme. A lot of pop music is like that, somewhere the song writer heard that tune before and reproduces it in his own ‘original’ song. If it’s conscious deliberate reproduction it’s theft, plagiarism; if it’s ‘unconscious borrowing’, it may still be subject to copyright law.

Oliver Sacks points to three essential elements in a creative breakthrough: time, “forgetting,” and incubation. By ‘time’, he meant that the brain needs a certain amount of time to come up with that fresh idea. Creativity can’t be rushed (and if it looks like someone is being creative on demand it is more likely they are merely ‘repackaging’ something they’ve done before, even if they aren’t aware of it). By forgetting, he meant, not being aware of all the things the mind has learned or accumulated over a lifetime. Mark Twain declared that ‘substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources’. Sacks, speaking about our unconscious borrowings, tells us:

‘All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.’

But I digress, perhaps. The point is, we aren’t quite sure where in our minds this creative process occurs, or how it occurs. If you are a materialist, as I tend to be, the creative process is merely your synapses searching its library of patterns and previously learned things and deriving some new variant in response to the question or quest before it, which may or may not work. If it doesn’t work we discard it, try again; if it works we test it in application and file it away for possible future use as well. Sometimes the solution is immediate, sometimes it doesn’t appear right away, even for days, and weeks. This is the incubation step Sacks and others speak of, or in common vernacular, ‘sleeping on it’. If you believe in ‘magical thinking’ then creativity remains a mysterious process, or perhaps a gift from God. This is commonly said to be true for creative artists, composers, painters, even authors (I’m not sure about poets). Think Mozart. Or Shakespeare. But I suspect there must have been some period of incubation going on before the piece emerged ‘fully formed’.

Mahler composing his eighth symphony may be a better example (or at least, better documented) of incubation. He camped out at his lakeside retreat in Alpine Austria in 1906 intending to finalize his Symphony No. 7, but for two weeks did almost nothing, though I suspect his brain was working on a different problem. Then, allegedly, he said ‘Veni, creator spiritus’, which is a mediaeval chant, and began to write a wholly new composition. When he was finished his composition almost perfectly matched the cadence of the ancient chant which became the libretto for his new choral symphony, the famous, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (expanded symphony orchestra with very large choir). I suspect Mahler was quite familiar with the chant, over his long and extremely well-read lifetime; this is his ‘unconscious borrowing’. For two weeks he let his mind, consciously and/or unconsciously, turn over the challenge of what should the new symphony be; this was his incubation. And then he began to work, immersed himself in ‘Flow’ for the next six weeks and the composition was done, save for fitting the libretto to it and polishing for final publishing. 

You’ve heard me say before in reference to Bertrand Russell, How I Write, that he goes through a similar process: load the problem in your mind along with as much research as you can on the topic, leave it for a while (weeks ) for the unconscious mind to work on it, and then, when you’re ready, or externalities demand it, you sit down to see what comes out, more often than not, it appears ‘fully formed’. Apparently, Beethoven went through the same process:

’I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down. … Then the working-out in breadth, length, height and depth begins in my head, and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It rises, grows upward, and I hear and see the picture as a whole, take shape and stand forth before me as though cast in a single piece, so that all that is left is the work of writing it down.’

Even if the opus feels inspired it can’t be forced. It emerges in its own time. 

Not to claim I am a Mahler or a Russell, but I go through a similar process when I am cooking up my annual Groundhog Day cards, and the [almost] annual Lammas Day cards. (Go to my website, (here) to refresh your memory on my comic genius!) As autumn approaches the winter solstice, I find my mind wondering what might be a theme for the approaching Groundhog date. By Christmas I would have a kernel of an idea, not always emerging in a flash, fully fledged, but nevertheless taking form; often I was influenced by current events, at other times I had no idea where it came from, except from the obscure recesses of my mind where memes and memories are stored. I would produce a rudimentary sketch with a draft slogan and then I would sit with my gifted cartoonist, Jim Turner (when he was still alive) over a lubricating lunch. (These days my creative conference is virtual with my equally gifted cartoonist in Victoria, Renée Depocas). This left Jim with about 4 weeks to render my sketch and idea into a completed work. But since this was a creative process for him too, especially as I gave Jim license (and now Renée) to ‘add value’ to my original idea, he needed incubation time too. Sometimes Jim would put us in jeopardy of missing our deadline and I have wondered if in those situations was he in actuality being ‘creative on demand’, or was he simply procrastinating in putting his cartooning skills to work? (I hasten to add that Ms Depocas has never left me on the brink like that, she is a prompt and very skilled professional.)

I must also report in this little essay on creativity that others can quite vigourously disagree with the received wisdom of incubating creativity. Thomas Edison, genius that he was, offered that creativity is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. His first reliable lightbulb took more than 900 trials to ‘discover’. An author whose name I can’t recall, and so I paraphrase, advised, ‘creativity is overrated, discipline and perseverance produce the results’. This mirrors common advice to amateur writers facing writer’s block: write, just write, and the ideas will come.

I think my own creative process is some combination of those two things: priming my mind with the ‘problem’ or proposition and letting it steep, then revisiting it to see if anything has emerged from the brew. If nothing apparently has come of this period of incubation, I find that if I just start putting words to hard drive, thoughts begin to formulate into some sort of useful pattern. I’ve learned to trust the process. Worrying it doesn’t usually produce anything worthy. This blog post is a case in point. I’ve written and thought about the creative process in the past, in blogs and in lectures in the Organization Behaviour course I used to teach at Carleton University. In my last post on Willpower (and consciousness) I began to think I should explore this other unconscious process called Creativity. So I wrote the title on a new document, jotted down a few thoughts, and left it, in hopes that something would emerge in time for the publication date, September 30. Last Saturday I turned on MSWord to my draft page and began to write; familiar ideas began to take on a new shape, and before long the drafting had a life of its own. Three hours later my draft was complete, though I knew, like Beethoven, many revisions, and fact checking, lie ahead before I would be satisfied, or ran out of time. Monday consumed another three hours editing and revising. (Shortening it has proved to be a much harder endeavour.)

This creative process has been in play in the same way in my books. I have written now seven books, most of them non-fiction. The Dynamics of Management took more or less ten years to write. My latest opus, The Treasure of Stella Bay, has turned out to be a more challenging creative process than merely writing my memoirs and other opinion pieces. And I have been stuck for some time.

The Treasure Bay story has been incubating in my mind for years. It began with my first visit to Amherst Island, at least ten years ago. Marlene and I used to go sailing with friends one weekend each summer for a number of years; Marlene loved it, I mostly suffered motion sickness. We would depart Collins Bay Marina of a Friday afternoon en route to Wampoos or Picton on Prince Edward County and moor Friday night in Stella Bay on Amherst Island before carrying on to PEC Saturday morning after breakfast. That first time we set anchor in Stella Bay we dingied to shore and as we explored the little village of Stella I imagined Hannibal Missouri, the town Tom Sawyer came from. I could see my own story emerging, almost as a film set in this 150 year old town. But I wasn’t ready to write the story down, I wasn’t yet ‘an author’. And over the years I had other distractions and other projects, and the story wasn’t fully formed in my head. I needed to do more research. And the more I used that as an excuse the more I procrastinated from starting the manuscript.

But three weeks ago, having finished the blog post, Willpower, I woke up Labour Day Monday morning dreaming about writing The Treasure of Stella Bay. I could see unfinished chapters taking on content from my sketchy notes, I could see random events in the novel sorting themselves into the arc of the story. I sat down at my computer and spewed out 1400 words. And I have spewed out an average of 1000 words per day every five or six days since. I have now organized the general story line into 29 chapter titles; I can see the final manuscript coming in at a manageable 66000 words. At five thousand words a week I should have my first draft done in another ten weeks. I say spewing as I‘ve decided the latter-day advice to writers, write, just write, is good. I thought, don’t burden yourself with the unattainable fiction of a perfect product in one draft. It’s doubtful even Shakespeare or Mozart did that so don’t impose that impossible standard on yourself.’ And it’s working. As I type, and edit as I go, I can feel the latent ideas emerging from the ether of my mind, ideas I didn’t know were there originally. I’m excited to get back to the keyboard every day and see what else might emerge. I think it better, more productive, to get the first draft done, and spend all the remaining energy in the polishing of the final product, a sort of Pareto effect.

I know that the final book will have gone through many revisions and edits; and I have found from past projects, even that tedious process has creative elements. Churchill’s magnum opus, The Gathering Storm,volume one in his six volume 2 million word epic, The Second World War, went through up to a dozen iterations: the last five of which were labeled, ‘Provisional Semi-Final’, ‘Provisional Final’, ‘Almost Final’, ‘Final’, and ‘Subject to Full Freedom of Proof Correction’ … I know the feeling.

So I have adopted the strategy of discipline and perseverance over inspiration to try to bring this project into the light of day. It may well be that creativity is an iterative process, not a flash of genius. We’ll see.

But I feel better for having started[2].


Doug Jordan, Reporting to you from Kanata Ontario.

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

[1]Let’s try to be clear about ‘meme’, the proper definition is not the popularly presumed notion of an icon or expression that is representative of some idea, some sort of emoticon. A meme is an idea or concept that has entered the general consciousness, we ‘know it’ but we don’t know how we know it.

[2]Oh, and I’ve already started thinking about what the cover should look like.

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