Can happy, well-adjusted people live creative lives? Can they prove that the decades of artists who have fallen victim to the intricacies of their own minds aren’t the rule, but the once-cultural exception? Can we at once create mastery in our chosen art form while remaining level-headed and sane and sober?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the past year or so. I saw the difficulty of writing with length and honesty and soul deepen as my happiness grew. The inspiration, it seemed, dissipated as my sadness did: I didn’t naturally seek answers or draw connections or make sense of things — because I didn’t have to.
Prior to training myself to be both happy and productive in my job and craft (most of which occurred throughout the process of writing a book) I realized that I was pulling from darker, seedier past thoughts and notions. If there’s anything we know, it’s this: successful artists (writers, for this example, I guess) aren’t the ones who are the most incredibly gifted in the execution of their work, they’re the ones with the most compelling stories to tell and messages to give.
And there’s something really important in the correlation between “compelling notions to share” and “breakdowns.” The times on which I would reminisce weren’t breakdowns — they were breakthroughs. They were the difficult times that led me to understanding something more deeply, adjusting myself to the ins and outs and unpredictabilities of life with more grace. They were instances of inspired thought and understanding that only came as I was cracked open to receive them — if you will.
We know that there are neurological similarities between successful writers and the mentally ill. The reasons for this range from blatant simplicity to complex neuroscience: people who live their lives reflecting on them, analyzing them, drawing lines between external experiences and internal meanings have no choice but to look too deeply at times, and find that they’re left with disappointment, frustration, anger, shame — especially when they can’t draw lines and create at all. More importantly, there’s a relationship between the ability to come up with an idea and suppress the part of the brain that is linked to self-consciousness and memory retrieval. Essentially: the more you ruminate, the more you’re going to come up with the ashes of your past and fears of your present and future.
But this emphasis on creativity and the self wasn’t always postured in such a way. In ancient Greece and Rome, they believed that human beings were incapable of that kind of majestic, almost supernatural ability to create something so new and innovative and wise and gorgeous, and that it was actually coming from elsewhere. That human minds were wired for the mechanics of survival and basic understanding; the rest came from a “distant, unknowable source.” Socrates even believed there was a “daemon” that was present in his most creative moments and that that’s where all of his wisdom came from.
One of my favorite quotes (a notion that has led me to being happy and publishing daily) goes like this:
“Discover inner space by creating gaps in the stream of thinking. Without those gaps, your thinking becomes repetitive, uninspired, devoid of any creative spark, which is how it still is for most people on the planet.” — Eckhart Tolle
It’s so important that we reconnect with this idea. Not that there are spirits whispering to us, but that love and beauty and creativity and inspiration does not come from a place of logic, it comes when we part the seas of our incessant thoughts and let it through. It’s what I have to do every day: remove my ego from believing that I can craft the creativity and find it, and sit and breathe until it comes, and it always does. Not when I’m looking for it. When I’m simply open to it by another portal of self-discovery. And this can coexist with a happy, stable life.
It was during the Renaissance, and the first instance of turnover to rational humanism that we started placing the concept of creativity on the human being. That it comes from the self, and that we are both responsible for it when it’s there and responsible for it when it fails us.
But how humbling is it to realize that we cannot honestly be singular vessels of incredible expressions. That simply looking back on the times that we were most inspired, we realize that we didn’t craft those ideas, we didn’t create them, they just came out of… nowhere. But only when the time was right, and we had cultivated the right circumstances — usually in the form of a breakdown to the point where we weren’t thinking anymore, just trying to make it through. Can we recreate that opening to understanding without the destruction of the block that had to come down beforehand?
The ego and frustration in the idea that a person “is genius” rather than “has genius” (a language shift that occurred when our concept of creativity did) puts so much pressure and self-centric importance on the individual, of course the canon of Western writers and creatives lives’ looked as bleak as they do.
It’s not discounting legitimate mental illnesses. It’s not saying that these problems — our problems — can be summed up by a shift in perspective. But in some ways, it is. And in many ways, it offers an alternative to falling victim ourselves.
So it’s not to say that there are actually daemons in our rooms as we write and create (or maybe there are, who knows) but that as soon as you let your creativity come from an elusive, mysterious somewhere else, simply, it comes. Thinking about it too hard doesn’t work. Trying to create it yourself doesn’t either. Thoughts and concepts come naturally (or via whatever-the-hell) and the execution and the fleshing of it is what our minds are capable of. That’s our work. As though we and that “other” thing we’re talking about meet and co-work.
And no matter what that mysterious “other thing” is, (though I have my theories), it’s important. Whether it’s some encryption of our soul’s message that we can only feel when we quiet our brains long enough to let it through, the fielding of all the things we’ve known and have ever known that can inspire us when we’re not so focused on only one of them, a literal, divine connection to an energy higher than the one at which we vibrate, it’s something to consider.
Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses. — Amy Tan