This week I’ve been reading The Farther Reaches of Human Nature by A.H. Maslow, who was apparently a foremost spokesman for humanist psychology. I picked up on Maslow’s publication when it was mentioned as influential within Jacob Nordby’s Blessed Are the Weird: A Manifesto for Creatives, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. So one book led to another, in a kind of chain reaction, as so often happens for me these days.
As far as I was concerned at this point, Maslow was responsible for the somewhat simplistic idea of human development being represented visually by a pyramid showing his concept of the hierarchy of needs, which argues that if the basic requirements of survival are met, an individual can then work up towards the pinnacle state of self-actualisation, roughly translated as self-fulfilment and achieving one’s full potential in life, including creative work. I wasn’t so impressed by this theory when I was introduced to it on a counselling course, because even if basic needs are not met, the drive for what Maslow calls ‘peak experiences’ as part of self-actualisation, are still possible – just think of all those examples of impoverished artists and craftsmen who have driven themselves to work at their craft regardless. Art history and literature studies are full of romanticised examples and there are plenty of people working at their art in ‘poor’ or adverse conditions today. So I came to this book somewhat sceptical that Maslow had anything to offer me, but I was intrigued because Nordby had linked Maslow’s theories to the creative person which provided me with some necessary encouragement to give Maslow a try.
Now, I’ve mentioned before that this winter would see me finishing sewing up two patchwork quilts, that I’d been putting off because these finals stages would involve me crawling around on the floor pinning layers together. Well, the first one is in progress now. It’s within the jaws of my sewing machine as I type, and there is a massive spreading sandwich of layers to get through to completion. Frankly, the machining was daunting at first, but I’m cracking on with it now.
Also this week, a good friend of mine, Clair, who has a craft business making beaded wire trees, aptly named Twysted Roots finished an extra large tree for a customer, and I got to see a few developmental stage photos and a sneak preview of the final piece. I was astounded at the quality and the work involved – and she has a lot of nasty scratches on her hands from the wire to prove her devotion to her craft! I can’t show you the tree in question as the customer hasn’t seen it yet, but here is an excellent alternative tree of hers for an autumnal feel:
What both these projects have in common is a long haul process, from initial stimulation (okay, let’s call it inspiration ;>)), to approaching the starting point, to getting going and falling over a few times, right through to making it through to the finishing line. And as I sat at my sewing machine the other day, wondering whether or not my trusty friend sewing machine was actually going to be able to cope with the task in hand, I got to thinking about my own approach to this kind of creative project always having being the same. Firstly , I have a ‘shining vision’ in my mind, that fires off a few sparks, then I sit with it a little, then decide, okay, I’m going to do it. I don’t think about the difficulties involved until I come to them, then I try to solve them, always keeping my vision in mind. I don’t let conventional musts and shoulds get too much in the way – and believe me, there are plenty in the world of sewing! So it might be a large canvas I painted of a floral bouquet in painstaking detail, or a long novel which started life as a short story, or some gorgeous remnants I collected and decided to make up into two large quilts. Basically I love making things and, generally speaking, I refuse to be daunted, and the process is always the same for me. First there’s the vision or the seed of an idea, then the doing, with the two working in tandem, just like Clair building up her tree, leaf cluster by leaf cluster, to be balanced by just the right thickness of wire trunk, through to the beautiful spreading roots which self-support the tree. And now I come to the point of the post. Lo and behold, in reading Maslow, I found an humanistic psychological explanation for this kind of blind devotion to an idea, and then the working out how to go about it.
So here’s what I’ve gleaned from his teachings within the book which directly apply to creative people. A wee disclaimer here – I’m not putting artists on a pedestal, but over the years I’ve come to respect my own creativity and that of others, so that is where I’m coming from with Maslow.
So here goes!
1.Self actualising people usually work in a devoted manner at something very precious to them, as part of a calling or vocation in life. And this is commonly found to be the case with creative people.
2.The creative process within creative individuals is made up of a ‘primary creativeness’ which is the inspirational phase, as distinct from the ‘secondary creativeness’ phase of working out how to go about it and producing the final product which bears the fruit of the idea.
This distinction has to be made because the second phase usually relies on plain hard work, and the discipline of the artist having learned to use their tools and having developed their skills to the required standard. Maslow says ‘inspirations are a dime a dozen’, it’s the hard work, patience, training and a stubborn determination that makes the idea become manifest. (So this is where cutting all those fabric squares and threading all those beads onto wire comes in.) It also reminds me of the well known Edison quote: ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration’.
3.Maslow argues that the ability to become ‘lost in the present’ is a necessity for creativeness of any kind. As I say in Turtle Beach, where the artist character, Lucy, is concerned – when she paints, ‘the hours sink beneath the surface of the day’.
4.He describes in great detail the characteristics of the ‘creative attitude’:
It involves a giving up of the past, in the sense of viewing a present problem in the now, giving it all you’ve got in studying it to discover the answer to the problem within the problem itself.
You also need to give up the future. We shouldn’t treat the present as a means to a future end, and so devalue our present. This being in the present moment is kind of evocative of meditation and another close artist friend of mine believes painting, or any other creative work, encourages just this state of harmony of being within the present moment. And in that way creative work can be a form of meditation in itself.
I love this one – here’s me and my so-called naivety having reason and purpose! He says the creative attitude is characterised by a form of innocence. A kind of innocence of perceiving and behaving. Creative people are frequently described as being guileless, without assumed expectations, without ‘shoulds’ or ‘oughts’, without fashions, fads, dogmas, habits, or other pictures-in-the-head of what is proper, normal or ‘right’. They are ready to receive whatever happens to be the case without surprise, shock, indignation or denial. (And this reminds me of how we can cultivate our inner child for creative flow).
We use a narrowing of consciousness, concentrating on the matter in hand. Our awareness of other people, their ties to us, and ours to them, of obligations, duties, fears, hopes, all shrink down as we create. (Just think of how you feel being interrupted in the middle of writing your fiction by someone you know just ringing up for a chat, with you being dragged out of your inner world of creation into the real one, and yet it’s fine to have that chat half an hour later when you’re out of that creative space). He goes on to say that with this narrowing, we become much more free of other people, and in turn much more ourselves, our real and authentic selves, away from all that conflict-driven, somewhat neurotic involvement with other people, or hang-over repeating patterns from our past, or irrational transferences. Sounds good to be free of all that for a while, doesn’t it?
He says this narrowing brings us to a place of freedom from the influence of others. It means a dropping of masks, and a dropping of our efforts to influence, impress, to please, to win applause. With no need to ‘act’ we can devote ourselves, self-forgetfully to the creative problem.
We lose our ego in this self-forgetfulness, we become less self-conscious. When you are totally absorbed in non-self, you then become far less self-conscious. Your self-observing ego and your experiencing ego merge together, and you feel more unified, integrated and at one with yourself. So all this means that creativity can be a pathway to find one’s real self, one’s deepest nature.
Secondary creativeness (the actual work process) does require some degree of self-awareness and self-criticism to come into play, but the state of less self-consciousness is important for reducing fears and anxieties, for lessening inhibitions and defences as we do our creative work. When we are in this zone we can be courageous and confident in our approach to the work. (It strikes me that this is ‘the war of art’ I’ve touched on before, between the artist’s free rein of the imagination and the passionate drive required, versus the inner critic going on within us – but of course we need both and need to learn to handle them in tandem).
If we are fully concentrating on the matter-in-hand, having no other agenda in mind, then we are encouraging our own spontaneity, and our capacities can flow forth easily without effort. Our capacities can also adapt in this way to changes in the situation, quickly and flexibly eg the way a craftsperson continuously adapts themselves to the demands of the work in progress. This full spontaneity functions as honest expression, and spontaneity and expressiveness both imply honesty, naturalness and truthfulness, without effortful striving and straining (as can happen when an artist ‘overworks’ something long past the spontaneous moments!)
Lastly! We end up with a fusion between the person and their world, as a natural outcome. A kind of working in harmony or melting into one. Maslow uses Hokusai’s saying to demonstrate this idea: ‘If you want to draw a bird, you must become a bird’.
So there you have it, a few possible compensations for living the precarious nature of the creative life.
Cheers for now, a shorter post promised for next week!
(pics from Lynne and Clair of Twysted roots)