The Creativity Column
by J.K. McDowell
Welcome to The Wayfarer and the Autumn issue’s column on Creativity. Continuing our adventure tracing paths across the creative landscape and in honor of The Wayfarer’s celebration of New England, I have chosen to explore the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was a man of New England, born in Boston in 1803 and went on to become part of an intellectual powerhouse of writers, artists and philosophers of mid-nineteenth century America. Interesting to note that his father, a pastor, is known to have remarked that by age two his son was “rather a dull scholar.” I am reminded of another quote, this time by another minimally regarded son or at least attributed to him: “Big things have small beginnings.”
Emerson did not write an essay entitled “Creativity” yet I believe he would embrace the quest described in my last column and lend full voice to fuel our charge against the host of modern challenges. In the last column I quoted a younger colleague of Emerson’s, namely Thoreau. In preparation for this column I searched my private library for my paperback collection of Emerson’s Essays Series One and Two. A 1998 purchase (the receipt still in the book) that was to be source material for a writing project that never materialized. Memory recalled the title “The Emerson Aeffect.” Some things have a way of circling back, not has you originally intend. I also snagged copies of the essays on my electronic tablet. In celebration of New England and in celebration of Emerson himself, I will use his words to fire this next look at Creativity. I will quote in a strong way material from three of his essays and stoke the flames, throwing light among the shadows and warming our spirit for the colder seasons ahead.
When was the last time you read Emerson? I mean really read him and not just enjoyed some short quote, typeset on an endearing photo backdrop? These displays are so common on the Internet now adays. Some have no doubt read “Self-Reliance,” the oft-quoted essay on the importance of the individual, in high school or college. Emerson must have sensed some malaise in the spirit of mid-nineteenth century America. We are reminded of Thoreau’s “quiet desperation.”
The threats to an individuals creativity remains with us despite Emerson’s powerful words of eloquence, crafted for the public podiums in meeting halls of his day. We will start with some material from “Self-Reliance,” consider the quote:
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.”
The emergence of the Creative Life requires you as the Artist, to accept your place, your special place and our responsibility. There is something that only you can achieve, only you can provide, only you can gift to the world.
There is an ancient Celtic story about the god Lugh and his acceptance into the race of Tuatha Dé Danann gods. He comes to the city gate and the guards challenge his entrance. They question what skill he can bring to the city of gods. Lugh explains he is a skilled warrior. The guards dismiss this skill, explaining they have several such warriors and no need for one more. Without disappointment Lugh explains he is a blacksmith and can fashion fine weapons. Again the guards are unimpressed and show off their swords and spears made by the expert blacksmiths within the city walls. There is no need for another blacksmith. Lugh then explains that he is a poet and can compose the best of odes to heroic deeds of the past and the future. The guards show off their memory and quote their favorite poets. Again, no need for just another poet. The dialog continues; wood carver, gourmet cook, harpist, healer. In each case there is one with those skills within the walls. Finally Lugh asks, within the walls is there a warrior, blacksmith, poet, carver, cook, harpist, healer? The guards looks at each other in puzzled amazement and confess, “NO.”
Lugh then takes his place with the Tuatha Dé Danann within the city walls. Lugh’s uniqueness is what is important and it is the individual’s uniqueness that is paramount to creativity. Your heritage, your place, your time, all combine and conspire to bring forth your contribution.
As our new found fictional sci-fi rodent hero says: “Ain’t no thing like me, except me!”
Rocket knows this for himself and it is true for you: there is not another you. Notice too that Lugh sought out the other gods. He could have easily survived on his own being such a “Jack of All Trades,” yet he knew he would thrive among the gods and there take his true place, achieve his true destiny. Community is important to the Creative Life. Remember that community is not a numbers game, just any crowd or mob will not do. Again “Trust thyself.”
We return to Emerson:
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
This requires a strong inner life. Today in our media saturated culture, the “crowd” is much stronger. A measure of solitude is even more precious. And even among the best of us, what is it that undermines our self-trust, as individuals, as creative agents? Emerson finds:
“The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our constancy; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no data for computing our orbit than our past acts and we loath to disappoint them.”
So we need to compute new orbits. Do not be limited by the imagination of critics. Critics are not paid for their expanding vision, they only know what they like and claim a cultured sensibility, which does not serve the public at large as advertised. A critic might say “there is no room in the music world for a dub-step violin player.” Four years later an online video of the same artist performing her signature musical arts receives over a hundred million views. I am for one glad Lindsey Stirling did not listen to that critic. Of course let’s not demonize critics. Most of the time they are doing the best they can, but being human, suffer from moments of confusion, jealousy or bias. Move to a new orbit without them.
From these orbits in “Self-Reliance” I want to move to Emerson’s essay entitled “Circles.” Emerson starts with an enumeration of recognizable circles: the eye and then the horizon and then a quote from St Augustine, scaling the personal, then the landscape itself and finally the Divine. To draw a circle, the pencil point does not start at the center, rather at some distance away from the center. Graphite against parchment trances a geometry of equality, complete only when you return to the place that you started. The circle is both a static and dynamic symbol. Think about the circles in your life. Relationships spinning about you, some you hold close and other confident at a distance. The cycles of change and renewal, these are circles too. Emerson traces and explores many. There is a key passage in “Circles” important to creativity and shows Emerson a bit at play:
“But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretend to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.”
Creativity is about experimentation. The active physical engagement of the artist with the medium of choice. These experiments reveal the artistic vision. There is planning and preparation, execution and reflection. And that cycle repeats. Skills are refined, the vision becomes sharper. Like the moon, this production will wax and wane. A time will come when the pace slows and is embarrassed when compared to the past but this despair is folly. The New Moon suffers no shame when compared to the Full Moon a fortnight back, despite its lack of shine. The New Moon knows it is progressing forward and like Emerson “no Past at my back” pressures its true appraisal.
In “Circles,” Emerson reminds us “Life is a series of surprises.” When you are in this mode of experimentation and discovery, you can ride the waves of Life with a forward determination. This practiced momentum propels the artist forward, so that like the samurai, even with your head cutoff, you can like a vengeful ghost complete that final act of honor and heroism.
Emerson propels us:
“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle.”
Creativity is drawing new circles. I want to move next to “The Over-Soul” an essay of Emerson’s a bit heavy on the mystical. This is not new for us. That same Creator that Adams, Jefferson and Franklin mentioned in our Declaration, the one that bestowed upon all the inalienable right to creativity, now sustains our authentic creative pursuits in Emerson’s “The Over-Soul.” What is the gift that the so-called Over-Soul brings us? Here is what Emerson says:
“And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacular, the subject and the object are one.”
The Over-Soul brings us to the awareness of unity and connectedness. We talked earlier about the nature of external critics. There is also the internal critic whose voice can seem more powerful and more damaging. The Over-Soul is the perfect counter to the internal critic. The inner critic is isolating and stagnating, working to freeze any creative pursuits.
The Over-Soul reminds one of vastness and potential. The inner critic likes the comfortable couch. The Over-Soul moves us to walk in the rain, reminds us to feel alive in this great Wonder.
Here is a closing quote of Emerson’s splendor in the Over-Soul:
“More and more the surges of everlasting nature enter into me, and I become public and human in my regards and actions. So come I to live in thoughts and act with energies, which are immortal. thus revering the soul, and learning, as the ancient said. that “its beauty is immense,” man will come to see that the world is the perennial miracle which the soul worketh, and be less astonished at particular wonders; he will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred; that the universe is represented in an atom, in a moment of time. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with divine unity. He will cease from what is base and frivolous in his life, and be content with all places and with any service he can render. He will calmly front the morrow in the negligency of that trust which carries God with it, and so hath already the whole future in the bottom of the heart.”
So this triumvirate of Essays: “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” and “The Over-Soul” can fuel our creative quest. In this column we traced some new vistas in the creative landscape. We have been gathering firewood among these quotes and commentary and I must say this has been a good walk and our arms are full.
In closing let me offer a sort of Emersonian Triad:
“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is […] to draw a new circle.”
“Weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but […] live with divine unity.”
All The Best of Blessings in your Creative Life.
J.K. McDowell is a poet, an artist and a mystic celebrating the creative spirit. His poetry collection Night, Mystery & Light is published by Hiraeth Press. An expatriate Ohioan, welcomed in the arms of Acadie, McDowell lives 20 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico.