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The Nature of Creativity - Part Two

by Heidi Kneller
Mechanical Engineer at The Payloads Concept Center, The Boeing Company

Yesterday, in Part One, I put some fundamental definitions in place and then I shared some of the necessary ingredients for my personal creativity. In Part Two I will share the practical ways I have found to cement those ethereal ingredients of wonder, awe, peace, gratitude, and joy into my daily creative process.

Enable Personal Creativity

I believe that the single most important facet to nurture in oneself is the ability to wonder, both to do it regularly and to have it flood over you easily, often, and unexpectedly. Being constantly wonder-full also reminds you to be grateful, it breeds reverence for our world and each other, it is contagious, and it self-propagates. Although theory is interesting, practice can be another matter entirely. Move with me from conjecture to practice. The following are empirical tools I have found essential to my creativity. Look for relevance from here and from others to augment your own toolkit. Keep only what dependably provides you results and satisfaction and throw out the chaff. Be finicky. Apply the scientific method: question, hypothesize, test, analyze, and iterate continuously.

Be Deliberate

We choose what we experience, not what we see.” (Hugh Prather, Spiritual Notes to Myself) Deliberately seek out amazement wherever you are and whatever you are doing. Attempt to make the density of your matter more closely match that around you so that experiences penetrate you with little effort. Ask yourself what do you see? and then STOP to think on it. Turn what you see on its head. Turn it inside out. Look for the extraordinary in ordinary people and things, and for new ways to share what you see. Search and experiment with new ways to see. Prather admonishes to: “Look lightly on your destiny. Look lightly on the world. There is more to seeing than your eyes, more to life than a body.” (Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself)

The painter and sculptor, Frederick Franck expresses a similar view so succinctly “If you can see, you can see with your nose and smell with your ear.” (Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation) He continues:

Everyone thinks he knows what a lettuce looks like. But start to draw a lettuce and you realize the anomaly of having lived with lettuces all your life but never having seen one, never having seen the semi-transparent leaves curling in their own lettuce way, never having noticed what makes a lettuce a lettuce rather than a curly kale. I am not suggesting that you draw each . . . vein of leaf, but that you feel them being there.” (Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation)

There are many different ways to seek out amazement but I find it easiest to find in nature. Scuba diving is only one of the lenses available to me, and I often draw on my love of hiking and climbing to carry me away. As I look back on an experience scaling Mt. Rainier and how I will be forever infatuated with that mountain, I find a good example of what I mean when I say “Turn it on its head.” I had been trying to write about the climb ever since I had stood upon her summit, miserable, indelibly humbled, and completely enamored, but had gotten nowhere. Everything started with describing the mountain as “high” which is completely mundane and, although true, totally uninspiring. Cholesterol levels and crime rates are high but describing Mt. Rainier as “high” just did not seem to do her justice. I spent an entire afternoon thinking up various ways to describe her dominance of the skyline. I turned her upside down and her profile became a “sky trench Mariana”. I turned her inside out and finally settled upon an opening line of “Much less below the sky than I.” There are an infinite number of ways to describe a mountain as high. Do not use one anyone has used before.

Revel

Inject yourself with concentrated doses of delight. My default elixir of choice is the natural world, on which it takes so little effort to get drunk. Explore places where you can rest and be perpetually bathed in bewitchment because the place is overflowing with it. Take yourself away from your normal to where it is easy to shut out the droning of a busy life.

Sometimes you just need a fix and something new. Most recently, while returning from Clipperton Island, diving off Roca Partida served up an incredible chance for revelry, providing everything necessary. The concentration of diverse and interesting people was off the charts, the place was as foreign and virgin as space, and the sea a plush liquid. It made it so easy to let defenses necessary for survival in real life disintegrate and the senses to be titillated.

One extraordinary afternoon we were treated to hours of snorkeling with a mother humpback whale and her calf. Both seemed at ease with our presence, the sea was cooperative, and we were fertile for memorable moments. Inter-species communion took place and the memories weigh heavy with reverence. When we get used to plodding through life, such things easily overwhelm or, more tragically, underwhelm because we lack the faculties and discipline to process and appreciate them. I was so desperately out of practice that, by the following day, when we shared a dive with the giant mantas off San Benedicto I was still so full of humpback alchemy that there was no room for more.

Whales off of Roca Partida
Above: Whales off Roca Partida
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller

Antarctica is also a place most conducive to revelation. With the most of nothing, yet not the least of everything, it is a place intimidatingly foreign. It is the driest desert built of water where, again so much like space, no human could survive for long without artificial support. There are few places where you can risk coming face to face with an alpha predator and realistically suspect that you are the first human it has ever encountered. Historically, explorers approached the continent with a hubris built upon recent experience in the Arctic, yet the two places are not at opposite ends of the planet for no reason. If you let it, Antarctica will strip you naked, leaving no preconceptions to protect your modesty. Revel in places such as this, demand revelation, and respond instinctively to the mysteries unmasked.

Face to face with a leopard seal
Face to face with a leopard seal
Photo Credit: Cameron Etezadi

Diving off Jougla Point, Antarctica
Diving off Jougla Point, Antarctica
Photo Credit: Henrik

The goal is to naturally and unflaggingly exist in this awakened, yet awkward space, facilitated by such sought out experiences, even when you are not scuba diving in Antarctica or snorkeling with a humpback whale family in paradise. Exercise your psyche like a muscle, stretch it like a yogi, and train as if your life depends on it. Become an awe addict with a high tolerance for inebriation and be prepared to abandon modesty at first opportunity.

Be still

“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence:
. . .
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
(T. S. Elliot, The Rock)

I find this to be the most difficult of all and, once again, being out in nature makes it easier to simply be. Terry Krautwurst, in the wonderful article Secrets of Watching Wildlife, assuages my conscience by admitting that “most humans find it difficult to remain motionless for more than a few seconds.” Strive to become adept at quieting yourself, expecting nothing, needing nothing, wanting nothing, struggling against nothing, and at the mercy of everything. Surrender.

Night nature walks force me to be still. Usually, it only happens after I have been charging around in the dark at my normal high speed trying to see everything. Once I stub my toe, bonk my head, or fall down and I am at last forced to pause, the real experience is allowed to begin. Once you allow your primary sense to become disabled, all the other ones step up their game.

For example, after a very long day immersed in the Costa Rican rain forest, and then attempting to decipher scientific abstracts to uncover nature’s mechanisms for sound and moisture management, the entire team was tired. Still, around midnight, darkness did manage to draw several of us out on the short walk down to the beach. Night stood naked before us, her silk lingerie of darkness strewn over the forest floor, and her excitement apparent in the rich forest scent. We separated at the beach and I walked down the sandy strip to lie down alone, face up, on nature’s magnificent mattress. Within moments the sand bubbler crabs resumed their mysterious festivities frenetically clicking and painting with their sand baubles to create fleeting masterpieces. Revealing her foot fetish, the sea foam flirted and licked at my toes. Befuddled, I went out to be still in the water’s rhythm, our two bodies swapping saline through a single skin. How much I miss when I fail to be still.

While I have been most successful when practicing this “being still” on my own, there is not a much higher communion between souls than happens when two can be still in complete repose, silently replete in an extended moment. Find someone who has mastered this skill and unabashedly flatter with imitation. A good teacher will force your hand. After all, it is easier to shut up when the person you are with refuses to talk to you, for, “like giggling, stillness is infectious.” (Jeanette Winterson, The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds) Giggling. Stillness. I strive to be an epidemic of both.

Introspect

Creativity is a response action. You should strive for the response to be involuntary and prompted by the conventionally ordinary. In order for this to happen, you need to clear out the head clutter that everyone accumulates. Use new experiences and cycles of revelment and stillness to purposefully define those things that most incite you, and then seek out those triggers. Unlearn bad habits and re-examine your goals and expectations of yourself and others. Take advantage of challenging times in your life to molt beliefs and belongings, and make experimental forays into unchartered territory. If you do not like what you find, you do not have to stay.

A few years ago I went for a week alone to a cabin on the Washington coast. I ran on the beach. I hiked. I read I spontaneously napped on the sandy shore. I poked around in tide pools and watched the grass grow. I wrote and I dissected. It was Thoreau-ean. I had no agenda other than to examine my world. The most important realization was how important scheduling such time is for me. If you ask me now how I have incorporated that realization into my life I will admit to failing miserably. Such introspection is frightening and few of us have the luxury of that much alone time at regular intervals. I am still attempting to have the discipline to do a bit of this daily and to find a way to achieve a lasting benefit on an abbreviated time schedule.

Toward what end is my life lived? A great freedom comes from being able to answer that question." (Jeanette Winterson, The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds) I had a lot of time to ruminate during the two and half week Clipperton trip, and the six days steaming at sea were a gift. The realizations made were not earth-shattering, but they were pivotal. They were not sudden, but instead built upon things I had been musing upon since Costa Rica. Clipperton simply served as a capstone experience in my current iteration.

These words are a product of some difficult but satisfying introspection. It is a reaction to an accumulation of awe, and writing it has been very satisfying. It is a product of my creativity and an example of yet another important tenet: collect and capture.

What’s Next?

Part Two concludes with the plea to become adept at doing nothing. In Part Three the work really begins and I will share mechanisms I attempt to practice daily to invest in sustaining the creative process.

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