Exploring your creativity is as easy as remembering being a child. Can you remember opening your first box of color crayons or wetting the paintbrush to dip into the watercolors? I remember painting with large pieces of white paper and poster paint in kindergarten and wanting to live at the easel if the teacher had let me. There is something about that first splash of color on the page that makes the imagination want to play. When we were children, creative expression was about exploring color, texture, sensation, and movement. As an adult, you can easily start in the same place. It might feel like the first wobbly ride of a bicycle after not riding for twenty years. But your body (and soul) will remember how to do it.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes likens the creative process to that of the myth of Persephone and Demeter in her audio book, The Creative Fire. Demeter’s constant search for her daughter Persephone after she has been taken and hidden in the underworld is like the search for our own creative spark hiding within us. It can be hidden so far below the surface that we can only find it if we dare to venture into the underworld after it. In 1926, Graham Walls broke down the creative process into four phases: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.
1) Preparation is the knowledge we bring to the problem. It means we need to know what we are creating. Some of us are painters, cooks, writers, and others are scientists, mathematicians, or fashion designers. Before we start, we need to have a basic understanding of the genre that we are working in.
2) Incubation is the moment the writer puts down the pen and says that she has had enough for a day or so. She may go have coffee or dinner, or take a walk but deep in her unconscious the ideas are incubating. This is Persephone’s into the underworld. She begins her stay with Hades while waiting for her mother to find her and bring her home.
￼3) Illumination. At this stage, Demeter has discovered the location of her daughter in the underworld, and goes to rescue her. The flash of inspiration–the creative spark—has found its way to the surface. This is where the idea pops out while you are in the shower or walking down the street. It has been underneath the surface waiting for the moment when the conscious mind is relaxed and then the idea rises to the surface. By waiting until that moment, the inner critic cannot come in and block the idea any longer. Like Persephone, the idea is released from its dark prison. So the writer, drinking her coffee, not even thinking about her story, will be struck by her idea. It will surface and she will have no choice but to find her way to her desk and write it. Sometimes during the process of illumination, an artist will let the idea play in her head for a little while. The writer may let the story line write a few times. The painter will visualize the image for a day or two. The idea will sink into their bodies, and the painter will finish his painting, and the writer, her story.
4) Verification can be difficult for creative artists. In areas such as science and math, colleagues can help verify your discoveries. However, for the artist, this isn’t as clear. So, here is my secret. I ask myself, what’s in my gut? What do I think of the finished product, whether it’s a poem, a story, or a photo? Then, I have verified what I have done. I accomplished what I wanted. As with art, verification can also come from outside sources like other artists, writer’s groups, editors, and publishers. However, I find that what matters most in this stage is my own satisfaction. The rest is just fluffy delicious frosting.
Being creative means taking risks. Expressing your creative side means going a little deeper than what is at the surface. One can stay at the surface and explore creativity, but it is not satisfying in exploring the creative process fully. By going deeper, diving into the underworld of Persephone, a person comes closer to truth. I am not talking about huge, world-shaking ideas, but rather your own personal truth.
In Nancy Azara’s book, Spirit Taking Form, she shares the story of her friend (and artist), Lenore Tawney. Someone once asked Tawney if she strived for beauty in her art. Her reply was “No…. I strive for truth. It’s all in my heart and artmaking process. The artwork comes out like a great river.” The process of creating art in Azara’s and Tawney’s eyes is spiritual. In Tawney’s process of artmaking, she chants mantras. One is Ham Sa, which she translates as “I am that, that is God.” She reaches down into the spiritual part of her soul for her art. Azara studied Eastern philosophies and religions because she felt that there was a connection there between spirit and imagination that she wanted to find.
For myself, I often start with what I know, and what’s around me. I find ideas in the conversations I have with friends, with articles or stories I read. It might be as simple as an interesting word or quote. Then, I play around with the idea. I write my notes, maybe play with photo’s or just write. I find though, my creative process works best when the ideas I have are connected to me personally in some way. Each print, pendant, or blog post can be brought back to friend reaching out with their worries, something I learned or felt, or an inspirational message seen someplace.
As you explore the creative process within yourself, you may stumble around until you discover where your creative center is. At first it will be fun, getting in touch with the child self that you may have forgotten. Sometimes the process can also bring up other issues and feelings that lay within you, forgotten or ignored. Then it may begin to be uncomfortable. I encourage you to keep going through it. (If it brings up painful stuff, please ask for help). When asked about her process of artmaking, Nancy Azara says, “I sit and I sit in the silence, looking hard into the blankness and wait and wait quietly…”