In the beginning comes the flash of inspiration, the flicker of an idea, the flow of meaning.
This is the genesis of almost any creative work. We feel lucky when we experience it. And some of us conspire to make it happen more frequently and deliberately.
We use ancient language and the metaphors of the natural world to describe it. The word “inspire” literally means “in breath” (from the Latin verb spirare). We hope for the magical breath (air), or spark (fire), or to draw from the well (water). This longed-for and mysterious state of mind goes by many names across cultures: awen, or imbas, or qi, or prana, or flowing spirit, or grace. It means something like life force, energy, higher vibration, or the web that connects everything. Artists might call it the Muse. We seek the feeling of being filled with ideas, words, thoughts, solutions, directions, the numinous. We feel connected to the world, in love with life, humming along as we are supposed to.
It is a state of receptivity, of being open, of being . . . soft. Listening. Letting be. Forgetting the self. I have learned that the “flow” aspect of creativity is best approached obliquely. Some things seem to feed it: day or night dreams, meditation, play. Even repetitive physical tasks like showering, or walking allow us to enter this quietude of the mind, when another part of ourselves stirs and listens. An unfettered mind is a creative mind.
Some artists describe “getting out of the way” to let it flow through and out onto the page, the canvas, the keyboard, the graph paper. “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
Much of my artistic life has been in the service of creating visual art around words, often on commission. Being in business as a jobbing scribe and illuminator for many years, often having to adhere to a schedule, means I can’t always wait for the blessed moments of inspiration to arrive before I begin.
Here is what I have learned: just showing up is valuable. Artists who have some kind of daily practice simply put themselves in the way of inspiration. It doesn’t always come when we ask. We might toil away day after day, refining our craft, wondering why we practice, why we enter a space and time when the goal or product is not important. But it is a practice of being ready and open. When the exalted feeling appears, and we begin to sense the glorious connections, it is as if we have been invited to a party and we’re all dressed and ready to go, in our party dress and tiara.
My practice varies according to what I am seeking to make. For visual art, sometimes I will just begin with marks on the paper, or a color, or write the words I want to use many times, in different sizes and styles. The same goes for compositional writing. I will begin by just writing randomly on the subject. Whatever comes to mind, no matter how disjointed, is worth the “ink” of “getting it down.”
My preferred method of composition is to sit down with lined paper and a pen first thing in the morning, and handwrite. Perhaps it is the literal flow of ink onto paper that I like, my enduring love of the tools of my trade. It can be free writing, a journal entry, a letter to a friend, a blog post, a review— all keep the writing muscle exercised. Doing this in the morning often yields a connection to my deeper dreaming self. If I am lucky and move slowly and stay away from distractions, I will be able to recall and record a dream. I rarely use an actual dream in my writing, but images and sensations from dreams do find their way into the waking world and onto the page. While writing this essay, I had a dream of describing this to someone, using words about fire.
So just getting it down begins the process. If I am working on commission, or deadline, the sooner I start the better off I will be. This allows me the cushion time of “walking away” which seems to be crucial to my creative process. Sooner or later I will feel frustrated with my attempts at “play” and feel I am bad at it. The germ of my first idea seems to be yielding nothing and I despair of the whole sorry mess. The more I strive and feel frustrated in the work, the better it will flow when I return to it later. It has gotten “under my skin” with the effort of the first attempt.
There is such a thing as “walking away” too soon, but doing something else for a while does seem to be key. Taking a walk, doing the dishes, a half hour of my qigong practice, or best of all, sleeping on it, performs a mysterious alchemy, and permits the work to go forward. It seems to work best if the activity is “in the body,” letting the mind wander and rest.
Often as not, when I return to the worktable, I will see with fresh eyes and find something to follow. “Letting it gel” is a sort of incubation process. I look at or read through the dreck and find something to follow, something that deserves polishing. This might happen over and over again before finishing the first draft.
If inspiration can described using metaphors of air, fire, and water, the other part of the craft can be seen as “earthing” the fertile gleanings. Then the work of the forge begins. This part of the work is often described in building language: hammering, assembling, cutting, pasting, connecting, shaping, structuring, fitting together. This is when I do my editing, using my analytical mind to pick and parse my words, or to make design decisions. It is the “hands on” part of the process, the time of bringing the strands of wild brightness into a weaving, a form, a container.
Even the typing of my handwritten pages, which writers used to give to minions to do (and I used to be such a worker bee), is for me part of the creative cycle. In transcribing from written pages to digital form, I enter the role of being reader of my own work. That distance can give me the necessary critical eye to begin the slash/burn/refresh process of editing. The greatest gift to my editor self has been the cut and paste function on my computer. Very often I will rearrange entire paragraphs, putting a later paragraph that has more punch at the beginning and the more expository material later on. Much is deleted, but occasionally I’ll move sentences to the bottom of the document, just in case I want to revisit a forgotten jewel.
It is a very rare thing for the work to emerge as whole cloth. Finding a very early handwritten manuscript from 1974 made me remember how in love I was with the act of writing, both the look and the sense of it. That was truly the white-hot heat of creativity, and I waited in vain for it to visit again for the rest of my college days. I knew nothing of the nuts and bolts of editing, but have learned it in the years since, and as a result have been much more productive.
The time in the forge is important. It requires a single minded focus, a discerning eye, and a measure of ruthlessness. The inspiration of poetry is best answered while it is fresh, to “strike while the iron is hot.” But then it must be hammered out on the anvil. Finishing is also part of the creative art; choices must be made. “Too many irons in the fire” is counterproductive.
Here is a discovery I have made after long years: it is just as possible to enter the “flow” while at the forge as at any other time. Working at anything that gives one pleasure and satisfaction, to the point where one forgets about oneself or the end result, is what flow is all about. Being absorbed in our work offers a sense of fulfillment like nothing else.
For this reason, any creative activity can be very healing. “I spent time writing my feelings,” writes Sue Monk Kidd. “I spoke them to my counselor. I prayed them. I dreamed them. I danced them. I drew them . . . Few of us seem to know the healing that can come from expressing our feelings through symbols.” This has been true for me all my life. From an early age, I knew that writing and making were salvation for a troubled spirit. In a poem called “For the Artist at the Start of the Day,” John O’Donohue, the poet, writes of that state when the “gift within you slips clear / Of the sticky web of the personal / With its hurt and its hauntings . . . to dwell uniquely / between the heart and the light / To surprise the hungry eye / By how deftly it fits / About its secret loss.” This is how pain becomes beauty, transfiguring wounds into form.
Beware the pressure that other people can cause by invoking the dreaded comparison monster. When I decided to major in creative writing in college, my family made much of the fact that I would write the next “Great American Novel.” Yes, it was said with the capital letters. I can’t express how irritating this was to me; it was not helpful. The work is what it is, and must stay that way for it to be completed. Dreaming of wild success is self-defeating to the work itself. It has taken me years to put words to this. It is why I often keep my projects under my hat, not telling anyone what I am working on.
Despite that urge toward isolation, I have also found that getting into community with other artists has been extraordinarily fruitful. Years ago, when I was a struggling scribe, I discovered my local calligraphy guild and the art world opened up for me. I began attending meetings and conferences and study groups, and was so inspired that my work took a quantum leap in quantity and quality. I have never forgotten that lesson, and have found various ways to keep alive my connection to other creative souls despite periods of deep introversion and limited physical ability to get out of the house.
For this I confess that the internet, that time-stealer, has also been a lifeline. Because I can express myself pretty well in writing, I was an early adopter of using the forums and virtual communities of the web to connect. The internet is a mixed bag, but I have made some wonderful friendships through it. And it has allowed me to become acquainted in a more personal or current way with much-admired teachers and writers and artists.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in her audiobook The Creative Fire about why artists make art:
“Sometimes it’s simply a giving a pleasure to yourself or others. A pleasure to self, often, is something that we call numinosity, that means a feeling state, that unequivocally reminds the artist that all things live in relation to one another and that recognition or realization by the artist is accompanied usually by a feeling of ecstasy or bliss. So one might say that the reason many artists are driven to their work once they finally understand how to connect to it on a day to day basis, is that they’re actually driven by ecstasy, driven by the repetition over and over again of entering over the threshold into the unconscious where the spirit gives profound pleasure through the feeling of oneness with the creative self.”
This truly is the secret of the flowing, healing, incubating, hammering, connecting creative condition. Participating in the magic and surprise of the universe has been and will continue to be, one of the great pleasures of my life.
Author’s note: I took this essay into the forge for a little revision – re-vision, meaning to see again. Curbing some of my meanders and tightening up my sentences has afforded me the pleasant opportunity of reading again these wonderful quotes and seeing how these ideas have continued to play out for me over the intervening years. Originally published here.
The images were created by me.
The little anvil was my paternal grandmother’s. She used it to weight the woolen strands she braided to make her rugs. It is composited with a flame from a Samhain cauldron. It is one of my favorite magical objects and appears in photos on my Journal frequently, especially at Brigidtide, to honor the goddess of the smithies.
The other image is of our backyard creek at flood stage. In March of 2017, the mighty Coyote flooded. I wrote about the flood here. The mighty river was a profound image of the flow.