How does your garden grow?
In my introductory post, I explained the inspiration behind the Garden of My Delights and the framework that liberal arts can provide to cultivate creativity through the intentional exploration of new areas of study and new hobbies. To be inspired we need to put ourselves in the way of ideas, perspectives, places, and people that become points that we connect to existing information. Those new connections open the door to creativity.
So how do you discover what may inspire you? Sometimes we think of inspiration as a bolt of lightning, jolting us into a creative endeavor, but more often inspiration is quiet and elusive, many small points of light that slowly coalesce into an idea that can take us in a new direction. In order to encounter those tiny points of light, we need to put ourselves in the way of things that could help us make new connections or stir our souls.
Of course, it is easiest to start with the familiar, those hobbies or pursuits that we enjoy and make us feel most “like ourselves”. To unlock creativity, we need to connect the familiar with the novel, and I find the liberal arts framework to be helpful in casting a wide net for possibilities. The ancient liberal arts are usually listed as Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic/logic, Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy. Those come across as rather obtuse and archaic, so I prefer the categories of the modern liberal arts which are usually grouped as Humanities and Creative Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Formal Sciences/Mathematics. These are all things that interest me, but because I tend to lean into the arts, the framework helps to prod me toward the sciences to maintain balance. Below are some of the topics that are included in each broad category. These are by no means exhaustive lists or rigid categories.
• Humanities and Creative Arts – includes art, literature, music, theater, linguistics, modern foreign languages, classical languages, philosophy, religion, ethics, and speech and debate.
• Social sciences – includes history, psychology, law, sociology, politics, gender studies, anthropology, economics, and geography.
• Natural sciences – includes astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, botany and horticulture, archaeology, zoology, geology, and meteorology.
• Formal sciences – includes mathematics, logic, and statistics.
If your comfort zone is literature which is in the category of the creative arts, you may want to explore the history of your favorite literary era. That can lead you to learning about a scientific discovery that was also made in that era, and you suddenly make a connection with quantum physics you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.
Practically speaking, there are many ways to explore a new topic and these are dependent on your personality, history, and environment. The signature quote for the Garden of My Delights comes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, “…one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”
As Goethe suggests, music is a fabulous source of inspiration. A great exercise is to put on a piece of music, let your mind wander, and then write or draw the images come to mind. Books, whether classic literature, popular fiction, or nonfiction, particularly a new genre or something outside your comfort zone, can lead your mind down new paths. Poetry, like music, encourages the mind to visualize the world in new ways. Visual art such as paintings or drawings, comics, and theater or film are all great ways to see the world from another perspective.
The arts are rich in inspiration, but a timeless source is nature itself. Take a walk in the woods or in a park, perhaps through a garden. This is what writer Allison Fallon calls “getting limbic” in her book The Power of Writing it Down. Getting out of our prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of our brain, and accessing the limbic brain where our imagination, emotion, and memories live, is key to creativity. One reason ideas come to you when on a walk or doing other “mindless” physical tasks is that it’s easier to drop out of your pre-frontal cortex and into the imaginative limbic brain.
3. Our fellow humans
Other people are inspiring since we humans are so infinitely varied and constantly changing. New ideas and perspectives come across social media every day, but our own family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues – even strangers we pass can give us a new way to think about something.
4. Location change
Changing location can be the ultimate way to find inspiration because it can put us in the way of all of the things I just mentioned. A new place removes us literally from our comfort zones, faces us with new people and situations, and can give us the opportunity to explore the arts in new venues. Attending a conference or retreat in our area of interest can push us to meet new people in a new location, sparking new connections and perspectives.
The next step on the path to creativity is identification. You have put yourself in the way of all sorts of new concepts and are veritably swimming in information, but not all of those will “stick” to you and inspire you. Following the garden analogy, what I plant in my garden will not necessarily provide the nutrition you need. You need to identify what feeds your soul so that you can plant those things in your garden.
Whether you choose to keep a journal of the things you have tried or just take time to reflect on your experiences, certain things will resonate with you more than others. While I believe it’s important to revisit each area periodically since we are constantly changing, narrowing your focus to those areas with which you really connected can save time and keep you energized and encouraged.
Once you have narrowed down your list of inspiring sources, it’s time to go deeper. Appreciation involves learning the craft of something that catches your interest. Whether it’s understanding how a painter captured the light in a famous work, the difficulty of a section in a piece of music, the skill it takes to build suspense in a novel or movie, or the level of mathematical expertise required to work out a scientific formula, getting inside a process can give you a sense of awe and a desire to learn more. Having a better picture of the inner workings of a craft or pursuit will also enable you to make creative connections more easily.
One of the easiest ways to start digging deeper on a topic is to Google it. Start down the rabbit trails of the Internet, and you will be introduced to videos, books, and experts on the topic that will inform you further and set you on subsequent paths of discovery. Looking for books and attending lectures will help you to learn from those who have already thought deeply about the topic and can already show you connections to other subject areas. If you really want to get inside a subject or process, take a class to learn how to paint, or golf, or write, or play an instrument, or do higher math.
Creation – Do the work!
The purpose of increasing your creativity is to create, but that can be the hardest part. Particularly for certain personality types like mine – analytical Enneagram 5 – it’s much easier to continue to gather more information, soak in oceans of books and articles, feeling creative, than to actually put words to paper and create something.
Steven Pressfield has written several of the more kick-in-the-pants books on creativity and writing that I’ve come across. A prolific author of deeply-researched historical novels, he lays out the battle between the creator and Resistance in his book The War of Art and the subsequent manifesto Do the Work! Resistance is an active force keeping us from sitting down and creating, and it can manifest in any person or situation that convinces us there is something more important than doing the creative work we have been called to do, that we feel compelled to do. One of the best ways to beat Resistance is to have a mindset of showing up every day at a certain time in a certain place to work, what Pressfield calls “turning pro”. He says, “Don’t Think. Act. We can always revise and revisit once we’ve acted. But we can accomplish nothing until we act.”
My schedule is as packed as anyone’s, and it took some adjustments to carve out time every morning to write. I found that as I spent ten- or twenty-minutes writing in a journal or working on a blog post, my desire and drive to find extra minutes grew in proportion. When we put in the time and start to feel connected to and invested in our work, it self-perpetuates.
Iterative and parallel
While I have laid out the process of discovery, identification, appreciation, and creation in a linear manner, it’s important to state that the process is not linear or uni-directional. Increasing our creativity is an iterative experience and usually parallel. We discover and identify and then we discover something else as we’re appreciating the first topic and so on.
It is also very important to accept that small points of light may give us the initial inspirational jolt to sit down and create, but it is through the cultivated discipline of creation that inspiration becomes a regular companion.
In her book Walking on Water the great writer Madeleine L’Engle talked about showing up as a technician of the craft in chronos time, the time according to the clock, in order to experience Kairos time, the time when
“we are completely unselfconscious…When we are writing, or painting, or composing, we are, during the time of creativity, freed from normal restrictions, and are opened to a wider world, where colours [sic] are brighter, sounds clearer, and people more wondrously complex than we normally realize.”
To get to that point, however, the creator needs to exercise discipline.
“Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work, and to go where it tells him to go…The moment of inspiration does not come to someone who lolls around expecting the gift to be free.”
Pressfield felt the same way about working for inspiration, describing the professional as having a “lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.”
Just as we will seek more time for the work when we spend time, we will find that inspiration comes more easily when we show up ready to receive.
The subsequent posts on this site will introduce you to creators and their creations spanning the liberal arts. Use them to discover, identify, and appreciate. Then, sit down every day and create!
Image source: Author, Château d'Igé, Igé, Burgundy, France.  Allison Fallon, The Power of Writing It Down (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 54-56.  Steven Pressfield, Do The Work (North Egremont, MA: Black Irish Entertainment, 2011), 13.  Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980), 93, 98, 101.  L’Engle, Ibid, 149.  Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (New York: Black Irish Entertainment, 2002), 74.