Creativity - The Alchemy of Art
by Nandini Murali
If, like me, you too thought the creative person is ‘the Other’, I wouldn’t fault your perception. Most of us yearn to be creative. But how do we fulfil our aspirations? Can every one of us be creative? Or is it only a select few who can do so?
For most of us, the words ‘art’ and ‘artistic’ evoke images of wild, bohemian, and ‘fringe’ lifestyles that border on the strange and the bizarre. My years of undergraduate and postgraduate psychology only reinforced such stereotypes. Modern psychology considers creativity and intelligence as polar opposites. We learned that intelligence is linear thinking, and creativity is characterised by non-linear leaps of imagination. Our textbook exemplars of creativity were Archimedes of the famous ‘Eureka’ episode, artist Vincent Van Gogh who cut off his ear, writer Earnest Hemingway who shot himself dead after a drinking bout, and several other extremists in the artistic and literary world. Undoubtedly, these were exceptionally creative persons; what was absent in their lives, however, was balance and harmony.
These stereotypes also suggested that creativity was mysterious, and the birthright of members of an elite club. While this is true of all art, it was particularly so in the act of writing. Unlike other art forms, writing has no ‘guru,’ teacher or mentor. In the visual and performing arts, you can acquire basic techniques, and then hone your skills, but not so in writing. To add to the cloak of inscrutability, few writers are willing to discuss their art. All this certainly mystifies the process of creative writing.
Paulo Coelho said it perceptively in The Alchemist, “When you really want something, the universe conspires in your favour.” Seven years ago, while browsing at my favourite book store in Chennai, a book with an unusual title leapt before me: The Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self by Julia Cameron. It was waiting for me. With the wisdom of hindsight, I now term this serendipity as synchronicity, described by Carl Jung as a “fortuitous intermeshing of events.”
Julia Cameron is an American author and artist. The award-winning journalist, writer, theologian, and poet, is the author of 22 books of fiction and nonfiction, and several Broadway plays and film scripts for Hollywood. Formerly married to Hollywood director, Martin Scorsese (of Taxi Driver fame), her phenomenal bestseller, The Artist’s Way (1992), explores a spiritual path to higher creativity. The comprehensive 12-week programme revolves around a process approach to creativity. Central to Cameron’s vision of the creative process is the belief that creative recovery or discovery is a “teachable, trackable spiritual process.” But there are no shortcuts, formulae, or quick-fixes to pain-free creativity. Cameron forges a ‘creative’ alliance between creativity and spirituality by showing us how to harness the higher power that acts as a bridge between human creativity, and the creative energies of the Universe.
Nearly two decades ago, Julia Cameron began teaching the principles of successful creative practice at the New York Feminist Art Institute that later emerged as The Artist’s Way. In a workshop for writers and artists suffering from creative blocks – where students paid by dropping five dollars into the kitty – Cameron started to finetune her methods for tapping creativity. A former blocked creative herself, her personal experience with alcohol dependence was a turning point that revitalised her own creative potential. Cameron recalls people’s scepticism and incredulity when she tells them she “teaches creativity.”
“How can you teach creativity?”
“I can’t,” I tell them. “I teach people to let themselves be creative.”
“Oh. You mean we’re all creative?”
To my eye, creativity itself is an act of faith. As artists, we must cultivate faith.
- Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way challenges popular notions about creativity. Completing the creative series are Cameron’s other books, Walking in This World, The Right to Write, and The Sound of Paper. “To my eye, creativity itself is an act of faith. As artists, we must cultivate faith. Every time we move onto the page, the stage, the canvas, we are committing an act of faith, and that takes daring,” writes Cameron.
According to Cameron, we live in a supportive creative Universe, responsive to our needs and aspirations. “I have irreverent shorthand for this that I keep taped to my writing desk: Leap and the net will appear,” says Cameron. Creative visualisations or affirmations are central to creation.
The mythological halo surrounding artists focuses on individual effort, and striving in an essentially hostile world. For those of us brought up on this staple, the idea that the Great Creator, Supreme Artist, or God, is supportive of our artistic aspirations is as radical as it is humbling. In fact, God and creative energy are synonymous to Cameron. “We are all creations of the Great Creator, and are intended to continue creativity ourselves. I would define creativity as conscious contact with the Divine,” says Cameron.
This transcendent state of being present in the here and now is a similarity artists share with meditators. Time and space dissolve; the creator and the creation are one. For painters, it’s the brush making the next stroke; for writers, the word finding the next word; and for actors, a gesture finding the next gesture. “When we act on such inspiration, we lose sense of ourselves as individuals. The art moves through us, and the ego stands outside. We are in the here and now. What is being in the moment, but being in touch with God, who might be called the Great Now?” asks Cameron.
Through an imaginative combination of pragmatic and practical exercises, Cameron shows us techniques that foster creativity. We realise that the act of creation is enjoyable, and that art is a process; not product. Remember the times when we built sandcastles on the beach when we were children? Then, unlike now, we were not preoccupied with creating masterpieces. We believed it was important to enjoy an activity, and participate wholeheartedly in it. The end result was immaterial. “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up,” said Pablo Picasso.
Guided by Julia Cameron, I began my personal journey – “an intensive guided encounter with my own creativity.” I realised that as a creative person, one of my imminent needs is support. While we commonly look for support from the outside world – family and friends – I now learned to generate support from within. Our conditioning has made us dependent on external validation for our creative efforts. All too often, harsh criticism or premature judgment of our fledgling artistic efforts can stymie our creative efforts. We feel we “cannot be artists; we are not good enough.” As a result, we end up as “shadow artists,” intimidated by the negative appraisal of others. I realised how easy it was for fledgling artists to masochistically wallow in such negative appraisal.
Among the many creative U–turns I negotiated successfully, was learning to be my own ally, and replace my core negative beliefs with alternative positive affirmations. For example, I believed that “I, Nandini, am a genuinely talented writer.” Or “I’m willing to create.” I learned to affirm myself everyday on the page after the daily morning ritual known as the ‘Morning Pages’.
Every morning, I got up earlier than usual, and headed straight to the page where I would write three pages of long handwriting. Here we write anything and whatever comes to our mind. There are no ‘rules’ – no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Even the sheer act of moving the hand across the page is sensuous in its physicality. In the age of keyboard writing on the blank screen, this simple act enabled me to get back to basics.
“Morning Pages are non-negotiable,” is one of Cameron’s Creativity Commandments. What happens when we do the Morning Pages is that we bypass the left brain ruled by the inner censor, which decries and derides our work as “useless, worthless.” The Morning Pages instead free the artist (right) brain. “Morning Pages are the primary tool of creativity. They get us beyond our Inner Censor. Beyond the reach of our censor’s babble, we find our own quiet centre, the place where we hear the still, small voice that is at once our Creator’s and our own,” says Cameron.
Another interesting creative tool is The Artist’s Date. This involves a weekly commitment of an hour or two for nurturing our creative consciousness, the artist child within each of us. The Artist’s Date is an intimate encounter between you and your inner child. No companions or accompanists. It could be a visit to a shop, watching a movie alone, or listening to music, a long solitary walk, or any such activity that pampers your artist child. These activities enable us to cross over effortlessly from the logic brain to the more creative artist brain. “Spending time in solitude with your artist child is essential to self-nurturing. As artists, we need to be self-nurturing. We must be alert to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them – to restock the trout pond, so to speak. I call this process filling the well,” writes Cameron.
I began to experience a creative resurgence in slow degrees. Admittedly, it took considerable patience and perseverance, as results were intangible in the beginning. Today, when I look back, however, I notice tangible shifts in my approach to writing. Earlier, I would agonise over my initial imperfect first drafts. Today, I enjoy the process of creation, as I realise that art is a process; not just a product. While earlier I wrote and edited simultaneously (often unaware that the two are antagonistic to each other), I now let my artist brain roam around the pages during my initial drafts, and then subject it to the logical scrutiny of the left brain.
Central to Cameron’s spiritual approach to creativity is that we are not the “owners” of creativity. Rather we are channels or conduits of the creative energy of the Universe. Dylan Thomas’s immortal line, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” rests on the belief that there is an underlying creative force that permeates all creation. Such a perception, where we align ourselves to the creative energy pulsating in the Universe, obliterates the ego or a sense of doership from the act of creation. We are a channel of God’s creative energy, and the act of creation is a spiritual alignment with the energy pulsating in the Universe. Cameron refers to GOD as spiritual shorthand for Good Orderly Direction.
What we are talking about is an induced or invited spiritual experience. I refer to the process as spiritual chiropractic. We undertake certain spiritual exercises to achieve alignment with the creative energy of the Universe,” says Cameron. According to her, spirituality and creativity are intertwined, one leading to the other. It is immaterial if spirituality leads to creativity or vice versa. If we act with faith, the Universe acts as an enabler in advancing our aspirations by removing our blocks. All that we need to do is to ask, believe, and receive. “I think of God as the Great Artist. I believe I will be sent what I need to make my art,” says Cameron.
Personally, a major appeal of Cameron’s approach is its mature concept of God. We commonly refer to God as Creator, but rarely do we use the term literally as a synonym for artist. For her, the Great Creator is the Supreme Artist. Our creative efforts are a part of the human quest for aspiration, as we seek to forge a creative alliance with the Great Creator to expand our creative horizons. From one creator to another, it seems natural to seek a partnership in the act of creation.
Music composer Giacomo Puccini claimed that the music of his opera was “dictated to him by God; I was merely an instrument in putting it on paper, and communicating it to the public.” Rt Reverend Dr Samuel Amirtham, founder president of Palmyrah Workers Development Society, a development organisation based in Kanyakumari, echoed similar views when he said, “Visions are not created or worked out, but received.” Purnima Coontoor, freelance writer, who works with the corporate communications division of an IT firm in Bangalore, derives immense satisfaction “when I write something, and it reads well, and can feel the words reverberate with some deep truth. When this happens, I feel that it’s not me but some force acting through me, and I feel grateful and happy for the experience.” We need humility and wisdom to accept and acknowledge that we are instruments, and not the authors of our creative work.
For most of us, such a view of a supportive universe and an empathetic God runs counter to our concept of God as a tyrannical male authority figure with a long flowing beard who revels in meting out “punishments” and “rewards” arbitrarily. Subconsciously, we often revert to projecting our unresolved conflicts with authority figures in our lives to our concept of God. According to Cameron, “such bogey-man visions amount to toxic concepts of God,” which counter affirmative life forces. “Instead, we need to accept and believe that there’s a benevolent user-friendly creative consciousness” that walks beside us hand in hand, and propels us in the direction of our dreams. “I believe that every thought has a direct connection to guidance; to God or to the Universe. And that as we seek this guidance, we are led,” writes Cameron.
The act of creation is a process of alchemy. We are as much transformed in the process, as the product of art transforms the world. “We cannot make art without changing ourselves,” writes Cameron.
If art is self-expression, the self needs to evolve to higher consciousness. To create joyfully, for art to flourish, we need to be integrated and balanced in body, mind and spirit. Such self-awareness enables artists to find their inner voice, and create with authenticity and joyfulness.
Creativity is an experience–to my eye, a spiritual experience.
– Julia Cameron, author, and creativity workshop facilitator
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