Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 4

Rollo May thought we all have experiences similar to that of the scientist who brainstormed his Nobel prize-winning formula while he slept. While our dreams may not be as dramatic, May said we all experience “processes of forming, making, building…even if we are not consciously aware of them at the time.” Yesterday, my post focused on the physiological effects of intense creative encounters. Continuing where I left off in May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” we now switch our focus to the relationship between will and purpose in regard to creativity. It is clear that creativity “goes on in varying degrees of intensity on levels not directly under the control of conscious willing,” according to May. Yet, heightened awareness does not mean “increased self-consciousness,” he clarified. Instead, it correlates with abandoning ourselves to the creative process, becoming absorbed in it and this “involves a heightening of awareness in the whole personality.” Unconscious answers and insights to our problems that come “in review” are not hit or miss, though. They occur when we’re relaxing, fantasizing, or alternating play with work, he said. I know he’s not talking about creativity in the workplace, but what he said did make me think of it. Setting the mood for such creative breakthroughs is hardly the modus operandi of a typical workplace. However, it is likely that workplaces that do encourage high levels of creativity have playgrounds little different from the one in Tom Hanks’ “Big.” Radical Entertainment, a computer game company in Vancouver, has just such a play area for its employees. Still, it is very clear that intense creative encounters, wrote May, “pertain to those areas in which the person consciously has, worked laboriously and with dedication.” The phenomenon of purpose in human beings is so much more complex than what used to be termed will power. “Purpose involves all levels of experience. We cannot will to have insights. We cannot will creativity. But we can will to give ourselves to the encounter with intensity of dedication and commitment.” There is a relationship here, May said. “The deeper aspects of awareness are activated to the extent that the person is committed to the encounter.” Many years later, Julia Cameron would write about such a relationship in her groundbreaking book, The Artist’s Way, about kick starting creativity. I have followed her program several times when I found myself at a dead-end. We have all needed a push sometime or other. Standing on the edge of the diving board is much different from taking the plunge. I remember a very specific instance in my own life during my late teens. I was in charge of recruiting a model at the art school I attended and I chose my lovely friend, Cynthia. On the day she modeled, she wore a vintage dress and looked beautiful. Our teacher, Ken Spiering, and Cynthia were in the middle of the room, surrounded by a little circle of budding artists. I remember looking at the canvas in front of me, a canvas I’d made and gessoed. A fairly large one. As I stood before it, the whiteness loomed. I don’t know if I felt some type of self-consciousness over painting a friend, but the whiteness of the canvas in front of me kept growing larger and I could not put brush to canvas. My heart started pounding and, finally, I tore myself away, running out of the room, out of the building, and down the block till I got a grip on myself. In retrospect, it sounds like I had a panic attack. Regardless, I had to come back to the canvas. And I did. I could not will creativity, but I willed myself back into that studio.

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5 Responses to Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 4

  1. I spend a lot of time studying ceramics and am sometimes aware that I am studying instead of working. It’s true that I am learning many valuable and important things about the craft, but it takes both skills and knowledge, and all the knowledge in the world is not a substitute for practice. I have to find a balance! This article will help me to think about that — wait, I need to stop thinking and get my hands dirty (well, with clay it’s often more than my hands, but the metaphor holds). To myself I say: “Knead some clay, self!”

    • Jan

      Yes, it’s easy to stay stuck in the mental realm because we’re so often there every day. I’m reminded of the code Hemingway kept in mind: Action, not words. For me, I am constantly seeking balance because I am writing about clay or creativity daily now. The act of writing has its own creative rewards, but it still ain’t a hunk of clay. “Knead some clay, self!” I like that…

  2. John Mordock

    From whom do I get permission to reprint the picture of Rollo May that appears on your website? Thanks

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