Tag Archives: Rollo May

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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Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 3

What exactly happens to us when we become full absorbed in creativity? It affects more than we may realize. Yesterday, we looked at the portion of Rollo May‘s writings on the creative process. Today, we move on to the Intensity of the Encounter, what May calls the the second element of the creative act. “Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved, and so on, are used commonly to describe the State of the artist or scientist when creating or even the child at play,” explains May. No matter what we call it, “genuine creativity is characterized by intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.” He claims we all, artists included,”in moments of intensive encounter,” experience very clear neurological changes. May said these include

  • quickened heart beat;
  • higher blood pressure;
  • increased intensity and constriction of vision, with eyelids narrowed so that we can see more vividly the scene we are painting;
  • we become oblivious to things around us (as well as to the passage of time).”

The part about losing track of time explains a lot to me. Time ‘curves’ when I’m intently working on a project or work. I can even relate to the narrowing of the eyes; however, as yet, I cannot relate to the next aspect. “We experience a lessening of appetite — persons engaged in a creative act lose interest in eating at the moment,” according to May, “and may work right through mealtime without noticing it.” Maybe it differs with ceramics! After all, some of it is exercise, like wedging a big hunk of clay or working against centrifugal force on a wheel; it adds up! I will have to conduct my own scientific experiment and see if my appetite wanes with painting and drawing… May goes on to say that all of the reactions he listed inhibit the parasympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system, “which has to do with care, comfort, nourishment” and activate the sympathetic portion of our nervous system. When this occurs, it engages our fight or flight mechanism.  Ordinarily, such information, he says, neurologically

"I love the high from painting. The intense concentration and discovery, pushing my limits. Motivation isn't a problem - it would be much harder not to paint." — David Ladmore

correlates with fear and anxiety. However, though the fighting or fleeing mechanism is triggered, May states that “what the artist or creative scientist feels is not anxiety or fear; it is joy.” May said he used the word ‘joy’ as a contrast to pleasure or happiness. He explains that at the very “moment of creating,” the artist doesn’t feel satisfied or gratified, even though they might feel that way later. “Rather, it is joy, joy defined as the emotion that goes with heightened consciousness, the mood that accompanies the experience of actualizing one’s own potentialities.” I am astounded…May was so very insightful and wise. He continues, saying that “this intensity of awareness is not necessarily connected with conscious purpose or willing. It may occur in reverie or in dreams, or from so-called unconscious levels.” He then gives the example of a professor who for some time had been unsuccessful in figuring out a chemical formula. Suddenly, the very formula he sought came to him wholesale in a dream, after which he awoke and scribbled it on a piece of tissue in the dark. However, the next day, he couldn’t read his writing. Compelled, from then on, he thought about the dream intently before retiring. He recalled the formula, after a fashion, and wrote it down clearly. May said, “It was the formula he had sought and for which he received the Nobel prize.”

(Next: continuation of May’s the Intensity of the Encounter…covering will power and creativity and ecstatic Dionysian states, which May does not advocate as a vehicle for creativity.)

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Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 2

Existentialist psychologist Rollo May discusses the creative process in his work, The Nature of Creativity. Previously, I covered May’s definition of creativity and if you haven’t seen that post, you can find it here.  —  “Let us now inquire into the nature of the creative process, and seek our answers by trying to describe as accurately as possible what actually happens in individuals at the moment of the creative act,” writes May. “I shall speak mostly about artists because I know them, have worked with them, and, to some extent, am one myself. This does not mean that I underestimate creativity in other activities.” May said that the first thing you notice in a creative act is that it is “an encounter.”
 Artists encounter a scene they intend to paint, for instance; they become absorbed in it.
 The encounter for abstract painters might be “an idea,
 an inner vision.” The materials, paint, canvas, etc., “become a secondary part” of the encounter. “They are the language of it, the media.” The encounter, May explains, can involve will power, but the main point isn’t the “presence or absence of voluntary effort, but the degree of absorption, the degree of intensity.” May further explains that there must be “a specific quality of engagement.” He goes on to talk about the distinction between “pseudo,
 escapist creativity” and genuine creativity. The former lacks encounter, he said. A patient of his exemplified this: The man was very talented and would become inspired to write, but “would stop there, writing down nothing at all.” May said the “vital link of experience…was missing” and, therefore, “the encounter was lacking.” He continued, saying that with escapist creativity, not only is there no encounter, there is “no engagement with reality.” In addition, he said, “the concept of encounter also enables us to make clearer the 
important distinction between talent and creativity.” Talent may be inherited and might or might not be used. “But creativity
 can be seen only in the act.”  Further, he claims that purists, instead of referring to creative people, would refer, instead, to a “creative act.” With Pablo Picasso, there was great talent and “great encounter” which resulted in “great creativity.” Of F. Scott Fitzgerald, May said he had great talent, but “
truncated creativity.” A very creative person might seem to have little talent, he said, citing the novelist Thomas Wolfe. “But he was so creative because he threw himself so
 completely into his material and the challenge of saying it—he was great 
because of the intensity of his encounter.”

(Next, the “Intensity of the Encounter.”)

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Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 1

Last night, I got up around 1 a.m., as I was having trouble sleeping. I started reading from where I had left off with Rollo May‘s The Courage to Create. Very interested in the creative process and the act of creativity, the nuts and bolts behind it. It’s been on my storyboard for a while. Who better to talk about it than May in his piece, The Nature of Creativity? His style is readable and engaging. Published in 1959, his writing is food for the soul, every bit as relevant now. A psychologist, May does use jargon from his field; however, it in no way deflects from the intent of his words. In addition, he was a painter himself, so he’s not talking about art without firsthand experience. Earlier today, as I was out running errands, I decided to share it with you. In today’s post, he defines creativity. Later, he addresses the creative process, the intensity of creative encounter, and how that encounter relates to the world. I believe that we must look beyond the act and consider the process. It informs our work and strengthen us.  “When we define creativity, we must make the distinction between its pseudo forms, on the one hand—that is, creativity as a superficial aestheticism,” wrote May.  “And, on the other, its authentic form—that is, the process of bringing something new into being. The crucial distinction is between art as artificiality (as in “artifice” or “artful”) and genuine art.” He said that such distinctions have been contentious for artists and philosophers through the ages. Using Plato as an example, he said the philosopher demoted artists and poets “down to the sixth circle of reality” because they did not deal with reality but appearances, that art was only decoration and “a way of making life prettier.” He contrasted this demotion with Plato’s later writings in the Symposium. In it, Plato made a 180 degree turn, saying that true artists are those who birth  new realities. May said that, according to Plato, poets and creative people “are the ones who express being itself.” I am not sure why Plato’s view changed so markedly, as I yet to research it. Alternately, May contends that true artists “are the ones who enlarge human consciousness.” He also said a most beautiful thing: “Their creativity is the most basic manifestation of a man or woman fulfilling his or her own being in the world.” He does make a clear distinction. May does not include hobbyists or weekend artists…those who are simply “filling up leisure time.” May laments that “nowhere has the meaning of creativity been more disastrously lost than in the idea that it is something you do only on week ends.” You may think this smacks of elitism, but May’s true artists are fully engaged in the creative process. Countering different schools of thought, he claimed that the creative process should not be explored “as the product of sickness,” referring to those who deemed it neuroses. Instead, May said the creative process represents “the highest degree of emotional health, as the expression of the normal people in the act of actualizing themselves.” He spoke to both the creativity of scientist and artist, “in the thinker as well as in the aesthetician.” Further, he says we can’t rule out the extent to which it is “present in captains of modern technology as well as in a mother’s normal relationship with her child.” To May, “creativity, as Webster’s rightly indicates, is basically the process of making, of bringing into being.”

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