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Cultivating the Creative Process

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“The creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” Rollo May, The Courage to Create

Story Break

Finding and honing one’s creative process is a surprisingly frustrating aspect of becoming a writer.

Surprising because it is something few aspiring writers realize they need to do. I thought I’d sit down and hammer it out, each day, page after page. Until I found reason after reason not to write, each one pathetically true, and infinitely weak.

Frustrating because here we are, we’ve taken control of the writing bug, we’ve announced our intentions publicly (no easy feat), and yet, to a large extent, we’re not “in charge” of our own work. There is an external boss, perhaps a muse, who allows us to create. Or to not create.

We call it “creative process” because we’re human, and we instinctively want order and control. In producing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck adhered to a beloved working diary to impose discipline, that thing he called “the whole physical basis of the novel.” And yet process, isn’t the right word. Process implies something that can be established, adjusted, perfected, and scaled. Even writers with strict routines have little control over their work. It ebbs and flows to a frustratingly high degree.

Creating is not a process nor a production—it’s a thing we endure.

It’s like a spigot with someone else’s hand on the knob. I cannot control my creativity, but I can cultivate it. I do this by controlling my space, environment, surroundings. Most writers (except for the capricious Vonnegut) are the same: they routinize as much as they can and find environments to do the rest.

So what is the right space to cultivate the creative process?

Thoreau considered silence and retreat a singular way to think, converse, interact, and exist. Hemingway disagreed—he feared the nothingness of darkness and one’s need for company and stimulation. And Vonnegut, well, he went where the mood took him.

I’ve learned through trial and error that complex and varied space is necessary to nurture my complex creative process. At the simplest level, it requires two components: inspiration and application. On closer inspection, it’s more intricate and must allow me to interact, engage, withdraw, and expand. Which is a lot to ask of any space. Which is why I don’t use just one.

My inspiration matriculates into useful thoughts through human interaction and engagement.

I am indomitably introverted, yes. However, I must engage with the vitality of my world (immediately speaking, London) and unearth the unexpected. (I address the duality this causes in my essay “Part Serial Killer, Part Humanitarian: Margaret Atwood and Others on the Writers’ Duality” but for right now, we’ll keep to the non psychological aspects of it). I must wander and take note. Observe. There is a word for this wandering (in French, of course): flâneur.

In 2015, London’s Saatchi Gallery hosted an exhibition called Wanderland, in which the Parisian fashion house Hermes launched their 2015 collection and celebrated the essence of flânerie. It’s the first time I heard the word. I found it quite apt, for Hermes, for me.

creative process

“The journey through Wanderland draws its coherence from two intrinsic elements of la flânerie: dreaming and freedom of spirit,” – notes Bruno Gaudichon, curator of the exhibit and of La Piscine Musée d’Art et d’Industrie in Roubaix, France.

The exhibit drew viewers into the textured, detailed worlds of recreated Parisian scape, asking us to wander, be curious, and notice. I must have passed through the eleven rooms, full of whimsy, a dozen times, each time grabbing on to something new. At the end, I determined to devote my Instagram feed to things noticed during these wanderings (outdoors in the city, country, or perhaps internally in books or even in my own home). I post things that interest, excite, or intrigue me, gathered like posies during this necessary ritual.

It is these aspects of getting lost that draw many of us to foreign cities. Cities offer the undiscovered, nothing is commonplace. I’ve always traveled alone to the cities of the world, alone because I will not be dictated by what other people think I should see vis-à-vis guidebooks. Most travelers find this exasperating.

To me, it is freedom, distilled. In St. Petersburg, I wound up in a protest against the federal government’s take-over of local elections, a protest that quickly became a riot. In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I marched quietly in the Dia de Los Muertos parade carrying accouterments someone handed me as she yanked me into the stream of mourners and celebrants. In Prague, I stumbled on a movie set and had an existential crisis about humanity. I walk for hours, to the top of hills and the bottom of river banks. I flow in and out of museums and sites, but only as my patience permits.

Flânerie is more than noticing the corners and pockets of urban space and taking in sensory details. It is the act of giving oneself over to one’s surroundings. A relationship essential to the psychological aspects of the creative process. The uncomfortable act of ceding control, an act through which we expand into deeper reflections and original thoughts.

Discovering undiscovered space – and often the deep, new sounds, even silence that accompanies them –  nurtures our discovery of our undiscovered selves.

But flâneur is only half of my creative process.

Recall Hemingway’s short-story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, where the soul of humanity gathers in the form of an old man who sits at a café and doesn’t want to leave because there is nothing else. I disagree: outside the lighted space is darkness, yes, but that is everything.

It is the vast expanse, the recesses of one’s mind and unknown thoughts, and it is the canvas onto which all the details of the lighted-space coalesce and form something more meaningful. The dark space is where I write, coalesce, and develop my original thoughts.

My inspiration comes from the city. My writing is done in the country.

I make a city and country comparison because it is the easiest way of conveying the difference of space I need. The dichotomy could be indoors vs. outdoors, night vs. day, moving vs. sitting still. When I was younger, it was about large vs. small rooms. It’s not the physical aspects that matter, it’s the psychological ones. Urban space is full of details, newness, and ideas. And sometimes, it is hard to exist, outwardly, boldly, with so many people. But it is easy to take in.

The country is the space in which I most naturally exist. It is familiar, comforting, and thus, empty. I fill it with myself. It is where I expand, pouring myself into the empty space through my writing. Writing is an expression of self, putting one’s essence into words. It must be private and free from judgment, and there must be space to accommodate its nuances. “The country is empty” means it isn’t filled with people, egos.

Last spring, my husband and I traveled through Morocco, jumping into Fez and Marrakesh, stimulated by the aesthetics, cramming my notebooks full of ideas and observations, forever changed by the surroundings. Nevertheless, I was unable to write anything coherent or new. At the end of the trip, we drove to Toubkal in the high Atlas Mountains, and in that process of burrowing deeper into the country, my lifeblood of creativity started to thaw.

Inspired by that experience, I’ve found myself retreating to the country the past few weeks. I tried a few small towns: Arundel, Oxford, Canterbury, Dover, Deal, St. Margaret’s. Each week, a new place, new attempts at writing, new successes or failures. Finally, I settled on Hastings, a small town on the Channel, noted, of course, as the landing point of William the Conqueror in 1066.

I choose Hastings to write, for a simple reason: a story took shape in my head as soon as I got there, and I couldn’t leave it behind.

It was as if the place had been waiting for me to chisel what I needed out of its silence and peace.

creative process

I found a hotel with small rooms and an old desk facing the sea or, on occasion, fields. No engagements or interruptions but the soft knock of room service announcing afternoon tea, and my nightly walk down to the bar to refresh the little grey cells. No egos to be found, scarcely any people. I love small towns. The space was perfect. Soon, I had a routine.

On Sundays, I take the train from London, exhausted after a weekend of excitement, observation, interaction.

On Mondays, I wake refreshed, tired, but determined. I look at the sea and write.

On Monday afternoons, I order tea and take a scorching hot bath. I like my nerves to sing. More reading.

On Tuesdays, I wake up, my mind unwound, and write.

By Tuesday night, I’ve written between 5,000 and 10,000 words and have completed a number of stories, essays, or ideas.

On Wednesdays, I spirit back to London and open my spirit to flânerie, rejuvenated by silence and the fact that I have unpacked my thoughts and discoveries from the previous week.

Each week, each iteration, is practice. I become more observant and more profound. The process becomes less about the words. It becomes more about the thoughts. What is my philosophy for life, and how do I want it to show in my writing. Great writers have original thoughts that encompass all of humanity and advance us towards enlightenment. I owe it to them, and myself, to push myself through the limits of my own mind.

For now, this works. But like Vonnegut, I’m capricious. And my creative process will need to change as I change. As my process changes, so will my space.

Inspiring, processing, thinking, expanding, expiring—that is a lot to ask of space.

But I have a lot to give in return.

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