The Heating, Cooling, and Automation of the Creative Process

We drink up ideas in the same semi-unconscious way as we drink in and absorb the sunlight. Looking through our windows, on our short walks to the local grocery store, or during day long hikes in the mountains we are accompanied by the light. It comes to us filtered through cloud coverage or directly through ozone and atmosphere, bright and real. It gets in through our eyes and our skin, vitamins and nutrients being absorbed, and we use this heat as an energy that moves us through our daily tasks.

We do the same with the foods we eat and the water we drink, but we each get to choose when to imbibe, when to abstain. We're never as passive about our meals as we are in the absorption and processing of radiation and energy from the Sun.  Yes, we could hide ourselves completely from any and all natural light—this is a choice—but there are consequences to staying indoors, windows closed, sequestered away from an unsafe but brightly lit world. We would end up suffering from this kind of escape.

The poet David Whyte, in his 1994 book The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, tells of the hardships and hopes in finding belonging and creativity on the corporate stages of our work lives. Throughout the book he uses metaphor as evidence for an exposition on how to work in a more soulful, humanist state:

“Fire and ice are timeless images appearing again and again in the poet’s mind. The poets of Elizabethan England in particular were hypnotized by these two sides of experience, as if re-creating their nation’s simultaneous exploration of Africa and the Arctic. In the corporation today we must make a timeless home between the fierce heat of innovation and the cool winds of consolidation.”

He goes on, exposing some of the symbolic fears and opportunities held within felt temperature:

“The familiar knife edge between nourishment and terror, between everything that is passionate and everything that is numb with cold, seems to lie, like the fire warming our hearts, at the center of human aspiration…
“Take any step toward our destiny through creative action (it may be as simple as lifting a pen over a blank sheet of paper), and we know intuitively that we are giving up whatever cover we had… The universe turns toward us, realizing we are here, alive and about to make our mark.”

When I was fifteen years old and in high school, I rediscovered and turned to the piano as an outlet for the satisfaction of skills and mastery. I taught myself how to read music by downloading, printing, and playing music from video games. I sat, slowly lining up my fingers with each corresponding note in the score, and after hours and hours of this I had ingrained these melodies into my muscle memory. No longer needing the sheet music as reference, I could play them aggressively, fast and loud, oftentimes on the piano in the school auditorium to attract the attention of my peers. It felt great; it was automatic.

Eventually a decade later and after quitting college, I gave up my piano playing because my wrists were in pain—likely from playing with poor technique—but I tried hard, and I would keep at it for years at a time.

After seasons of drilling and practicing, I remember these little moments of joyous witness: my own hands become alive and independent of each other. I could now focus on the right hand melody while the left was busy on it’s own, being controlled by a section of my brain that already knew what should be going on over there. It was the effort I put in that moved me along to this level of ease and power.

To see yourself doing something, with a degree of automation, that you felt was impossible for you—your own hands attached to your own body—to be doing. I was in literal amazement. The song played, I listened to it, and laughed to myself at the out-of-body experience of being minimally involved in the execution of songs I felt so deeply attuned with.

David Whyte continues later on in the same chapter:

“...Holding two contrasting images may serve to our advantage as we ask deeper questions about our work. Caught between the fiery heat and icy cold of creative engagement, we are asked to come to life in the tension between two opposites. We must make a hearth and home at the very place where the life we feel we are stuck with and the life we desire meet and overlap.”

Seeking the competence and skills that will allow us to continue to engage with the world, we also seek the joys and experiences that can come when we place ourselves in between intentional action and unconscious automation, a territory within the boundaries of both total control and none at all.

Taking a step towards work worth exploring—my own effort at kindling the soulful, creative fire of writing as a vocation—provides the heat as it enters my body, is the not-completely voluntary experience of absorbing the light of experience and effort. Eventually it will go through the bodily and psychic processes and return to the exterior world in automated fashion. I’m building the habits of this work, the routines and channels in which I hope it flows.

This article is a receptacle for some of it as it leaves me. The last time I wrote a piece this long was in college, but when I press publish, it will be a step in the process, the mechanics of creativity working and building in me in ways I hope to be automatic, to seem almost magical in the way they can happen on their own with very little human intervention. I look forward to the day that I can embrace the essay, the article, the written word with that specific self-directed laughter as I sit up straight for a moment and see something wonderful flowing from my body.