Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Creativity
My paper began this way:
In a Zen story, a Zen master holds up a stick in front of a student and says:
“If you tell me what this is, I will hit you with it. If you do not tell me what this is, I will hit you with it. Now, quickly, what is this?” The student is challenged to react outside of the frame of verbal discourse put forward by the master (perhaps by grabbing the stick from him.) In current parlance, the student is being challenged to “think outside the box.” But what if (secondary process) thinking is the box? How, then, can we describe creativity, or the creative process?
In my view, the impulse to create, and even the essence of what is to be created, have their genesis in the unconscious, to be given more coherent form and shape by the use of secondary process thinking. While we can describe, to some degree perhaps, the process by which this “translation”takes place, explicating the unconscious processes underlying this work is a more daunting, perhaps impossible, task.
Many years ago, while a University student in Australia, I wanted to write a novel as a way of expressing my thoughts and feelings about the Vietnam war, a war which then involved Australian soldiers, a war creating much controversy on campus. I thought about this periodically for some considerable time, but no coherent form emerged out of my ruminations. One day,while I was sitting in a lecture on Charles Dickens, a basic story line, as well as the central characters, suddenly surfaced into consciousness. That day was probably the closest I’ve come to having a manic episode. I was filled with a tremendous exuberance and energy, more details of the plot began to flicker in my mind, I began to “see” the characters in my imagination. This burst of creativity was all-consuming.
Yet looking back on this experience (and it still remains quite vivid in my mind), I cannot locate any triggers for this sudden flowering of ideas, nothing in the Dickens lecture, nothing friends had said, nothing in movies recently seen.
They had just emerged, seemingly unbidden, from some internal realm.
At this point in the writing of the paper, I became stuck. I felt the personal vignette was compelling enough, but where was it leading? How was I to end the paper in a satisfying way, make some coherent point other than what I had already implied— that creativity springs from unconscious processes, which are inherently mysterious, even unknowable?
Several days passed. I couldn’t get past that last paragraph. One morning, still stuck, I began rifling through the pages of the weekend’s (as yet unread) readings, and came upon Susan Kolodny’s comments about artists attempting to (re)create, or experience, a sense of wholeness or perfection, an “oceanic” feeling of union with the universe. This psychoanalytic pebble in the empty stuck-ness began to cause ripples.
I now remembered having considered including, in the paper, along with the experience described at University, a memory of winning a 220-yards race while at High School. Coming round the curve into the final stretch, I somehow knew I was going to win. It was as if (and I can still sense the feeling in my body) I didn’t need to do anything except let myself be carried to the tape. I had recognized a similarity in the two experiences while writing the first part of the paper, but had chosen not to include the latter as unnecessary and perhaps self-indulgent. But now, reading Kolodny, it began to make more sense to consider the similarities more closely, the “oceanic” experience that characterized both.
The ripples widened to include the realization that the visual memory of that day at the Dickens lecture included an image of the lecturer, a woman professor whom I had much admired for her intelligence and a kind of calm, but unthreat-ening, authority. Perhaps, I now thought, it was her presence that allowed these ideas of mine to surface, to breach the repression barrier, thus giving the lie to my earlier assertion that I could not locate any triggers for the experience.
The opening assertion of this paper, then, that the wellsprings of the creative process are inherently unknowable, needs to be qualified. The act of writing this paper — and enduring the period of stuckness — has cast more light (for me) on that heady experience so many years ago. Perhaps we can understand more than I thought about the creative process, and we can do it both by acting and being acted upon, that paradoxical process which yields a brief paper like this as well as larger artistic creations.