The Nature of Creativity - Part Three

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

Recognizing that every person’s creativity equation will be different, Part Three tackles the importance of keeping a record and the different forms this record keeping can take. As always, I am sharing what I have found works best for me. You will need to discover your own iteration.

Collect and Capture

“I get so busy trying to get somewhere I miss what's on the way
No time for looking around a thousand miles an hour.
What good is getting there if I'm not happy just the way it is?
Appreciate what comes around, the sweet or sour.

Do you soak it in, this life you're living?
Do you soak it in, this life you're living?
And after all you've done and all you've seen
Will you remember anything?
Do you soak it in, this life you're living.”
(Rachel Farris, Soak)

Find a way that works for you to soak up experiences, both new and familiar. Create private records of moments when assailed with new sights, smells, feelings, or thoughts. Train yourself to take advantage of every moment when it hits you. It is most satisfying to me to capture life’s experiences with images - photographs and sketches - and words, but experiment with different methods that work for you.

1) Take lots of pictures

Photographers are shamans who conjure with time and light, and photographs are technology’s equivalent to moonbeams carried home in a jar. While a good photograph commits to carrying the weight of a moment for eternity, your pictures do not have to be technically good, they just need to be able to carry that instant forward in time for you to relive later. You should employ the modern hard drive as a snuff box to pop open when you need a fix.

Beijing Bicyclers
Above: Beijing Bicyclers
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller

This photograph means nothing to anyone else; it is a disaster technically, even in an abstract sense. However, this single shot epitomizes a memorable moment of a trip to China. It is my mental tag for the experience of the entire trip. It is a shot of a cheerful young couple riding a bicycle. She and her partner are sharing an intimate laughter while riding down the busy street. To them there was no one else in the world and I was a guilty voyeur. Just a single moment captured carelessly with the thoughtless flick of a finger yet, when I look at it, I can hear her laughter and smell the exhaust in the warm air.

2) Carry a notebook and pen everywhere

Heidi's NotebookLeft: Heidi’s Notebook
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller

Because I do not heed my own advice, I am constantly penning things on my hands, which is quite unprofessional. I constantly leave voicemails, text myself, and auto-email. It is an organization tyrant’s worst nightmare. I have not found a technological solution yet that beats the quintessential notebook. You do need to carry it with you though. This is the collector for the daily clutter that you do not want stored in your head, as well as a place to record those insights that come suddenly and would otherwise be lost. As I page back through my current notebook, I unearth a note scrawled in the margin. “If your life is simple enough, there is no need for organization.” (Heidi Kneller, 2009) I remember where I was when I realized that – I had to pull over and write it down. Those of you who know me understand how fundamental a realization like that would be for someone as organizationally obsessed as I. If you are a serial list maker like me, this notebook is your non-prescription Prozac. Write it down so you can appropriately either forget about it or remember it. We need notebooks like this both because, and as a reminder, that we are imperfect.

Here is the final page from my latest notebook. It is a mosh pit of randomness, but three lines have been reused and several more are percolating into something bigger. Two morphed into a poem celebrating the marriage of friends and the third turned into Schizophrenic on a Friday Afternoon.

3) Keep a journal

I am an artistic neophyte and exceedingly fickle when it comes to choice of medium and outlet. I cannot sketch reality to save my life but my mind is full of phantasmagoria and I try to let it out with as little judgment and in as many different ways as possible. Franck’s mantra really strikes home: “Let drawing be the celebration of experiencing, of the eye in love, instead of making pictures to be framed.” (Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation) Still, it is words that leave me much less demure.

Window Inserts. Wood, glass, paper, vellum
Above: Window Inserts. Wood, glass, paper, vellum
Artist & Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller

A journal can be a repository for anything, but one of the philosophies I identify with is one that Julia Cameron shares in her book The Artist’s Way, and is discussed wonderfully in this blog. Journaling, in whatever form and schedule you settle upon, is an integral part of the introspection process and a key to my thriving. I struggle with making the journaling process part of my regimen. Jena Ball, in her article Get to Know Nature, offers an explanation as to why nature seems to make journaling easier for me. “By keeping a journal and practicing a few simple techniques, you can discover a stronger connection to nature. Not only will you observe unique events, you will feel more alive — awake to the world around you and attuned to your connections to it.

Journal Collection
Left: Journal Collection
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller

I collect blank journals like some people collect stamps or baseball cards, in love with the idea but terrified of the perfect, clean page. My habits have evolved enough to be able to conscientiously experience my life and to relish the trips I am privileged to take and the people I meet, but I have not figured out how to do both. I leave on a trip like the one to Antarctica – planned for almost four years with a false start trek all the way to Argentina – with the best intentions to capture every moment. I came home with a ridiculously excessive 9,000 pictures which I am still wading through. Although I possess some incredible memories and diving bragging rights I failed to keep a journal. It is almost as if I enjoy the experience so much that making the effort to preserve the impressions “for later” is impossible. For me there is no later, just the moment, and thinking of later is an unnecessary distraction, an almost traitorous act. Thankfully, later comes along, but I am inevitably reminded of how fickle memory is. New experiences are so complex and I devote so much to making them happen but, without a compressive sensory record, I am missing out on the long term payoff on my investment.

4) Revisit, Reuse, Recycle, Retry, and Revise

Revisit the notebook, the journal, the pictures, the people, and the places. Part of the compelling reason for each of those things is to stave off starvation when creative fodder gets thin. When your days are filled with the mundane, as they surely will be, return to this archive of new experiences and relive them. The key is to continually inject creative precursors from those moments into your system with the fixation of a recovering surgery patient on a morphine drip. The records you keep are laden with latent creative karma because you have carefully collected each one, and unlike tea leaves, they produce a better refreshment with each successive brewing.

Coatimundi in Costa Rica Underwater life in Antarctica

Top Left: Coatimundi at La Cusinga, Costa Rica hoping I am not going to steal his supper.
Top Right: Underwater life in Antarctica.
Bottom: Humpack whale mother and calf cuddling during Clipperton trip.
Photo Credits: Heidi Kneller

Creatvity Influence Graph
In the graph above, the default experience is what I have when I do not revisit pictures and journals, revise creations, or retry where I may have failed at first. New experiences still influence me but their cumulative long-term effect is negligible. When I keep a journal, thoughtfully capture images, and record important thoughts I put them in my creative safety deposit box. Once an experience is over and I am returned to the real world, I can post-process at leisure. I can re-examine, re-live, recycle, and replay the highlights and look for new tidbits to feed the creative process. Ultimately, I enable each experience to have a lasting impact and I set myself up to garner even more from the next experience I have.

Creativity does not always have to be on a timeline, and keeping a record frees you from that pressure. I have found that activities or outputs that give me the most satisfaction have been given the time to mature. Words will get juggled around umpteen different ways at many different times, sometimes over the course of years, before I really feel what I have written is right. Nothing I have ever written is safe from revision. After all, words have such infinite possibility. Take an ordinary sentence as an example; the permutations, combinations, and rearrangements are endless. Combine them, then polish, re-examine, deconstruct, mangle, and dismember. Masticate, ruminate, regurgitate, and re-arrange. Reassemble and suture, but do not sterilize. Finally, embellish with aberrance and garnish with re-punctuation. A good sentence is all about cadence, which seldom shows itself in the first few takes.

When I sit down to play with words, I realize that time is creativity’s ally. With the science of a sorceress, I try to snitch a word you used last week and mix it with something I read last year, toss in a line scrawled in my notebook yesterday, some spice from an old photograph, a sound, or a whiff, and whip up a powerful spell. This takes practice and requires many failures. Most of the time I find that I have turned gold into straw. Yet, I try to gain currency from the fact that I am at least able to transform, if not matter, then at least thought.

What’s Next?

As much as personal creativity can be a solitary pursuit, finding a way to make others a part of it is important. Others can provide fodder and feed into your process as well as share in our outputs as friends, critics, and adoring fans. Everyone should have multiples of each. In Part Four, I share the importance of including others in your creative process.


Will Green said…
I went to the Antarctic in the US Coast Guard, I have been confounded with the flood of creation that springs from my mind, each day is wonderland where ideas are a well spring to my own detriment as it stirs resentment. However each idea has become an integral & important part of a larger system coming into focus.

The more you know, the more you know you don't know.

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