From “The Self” to “The Collective”: Two Doors to Creative Flow
Letting the Journey Transcend the Destination
There is an energy wave different than light or sound that contains the collective consciousness of all living things. There are times when we can become keenly aware of it, but most of the time, it flows without notice. What comes before and after our time here will probably always be a mystery, but accessing that place that simultaneously houses the self and the collective sum of all our spirits is necessary for our mental and physical health. Throughout history, oral and written traditions have been passed down to instruct us on how to dip our toes into the current that runs through all. Many religions were born out of a need to touch this place; to teach the skills necessary to connect with a deep sense of self as well as our connection to the infinite. They taught prayer and meditation and other ritual practices that allow our brains to tune out the everyday and tune into another place. When people talk about getting in touch with their spiritual self, this is the state they are referring to. This spiritual plane is deeply connected to creativity. This is where muses live and ideas are born, but for these ideas to be seen, we must fetch them from that outer place, and bring them back to the center. The ease with which we can do this directly correlates with our ability to express our innate creativity. You can straddle the threshold of the two places, but living a creative life requires you to travel far beyond the doorway and make it back again to a world of physical expression. But what happens when creators cannot gain access? The ways in are varied, but I have seen two main entrances, one is through deeper contemplation of the self and the other is through connecting more deeply with others.
The Self Door
For simplicities’ sake I will refer to what I see as the spiritual plane and the place where creativity lives as “the flow.” One of the doors leading to the flow is through the self. Unlocking it again can be tricky, but the key can be found in personal discovery. In Kolodny’s book, The Captive Muse, she recounts a poem she wrote about loss that mentions a watch among other lost items. The attention paid to the detail describing the watch had an entirely different feeling than the rest of the poem. When an instructor brought this to her attention, she began to wonder why. After dreaming about the watch and obsessing over it for months, she was able to unlock a memory of this watch from her childhood that was connected to the loss of her grandparents. By following that small clue from an unsatisfying poem down the rabbit hole, she created a much better poem than her previous work (p. 53). Her description of how that poem came to be made it seem hard won. She spent a lot of time and effort finding her way to something that was quietly whispering to her the whole time. Sometimes it does work this way, an idea will wriggle its way in and slowly emerge over a prolonged period. Everything does have its season, but we can get better at perceiving the season we are currently in and give life to ideas that are ready to emerge in that moment.
Learning to tune into our intuition can help us gain access to creative flow. I have described it as a door, but you will not get into the self-door by trying to knock it down, you must put your ear to it and listen to the vague whispering of the ideas inside. When you start to pursue those ideas, you should allow yourself to be surprised and let them draw you into the flow.
In my own creative life, every time I have approached a project knowing exactly what I want to do, the results are less than I hoped for. It is only when I allow myself to shut out my inner dialogue and be surprised that I make my best work. Like reciting a prayer or mantra, I always start with some repetitive activity. I like painting patterns or even just circle drawing. There is something so soothing about painting a circle and perfecting its roundness. I like to feel where the edges might be and trace them over and over. If you have ever doodled, you may know what I mean. Another thing I like to do is cover a page with paint and then, with a plastic card, scrape away as much as I can. Sometimes I use the end of my brush to dig circular textures into the paint. I imagine that doing these things makes me feel like a dog getting scratched behind the ears.
As I do my little rituals, random words, or phrases sometimes pop into my head. I write them down on the page. I outline them, I obscure them with paint. I scrape the paint away to reveal words again. This is all part of my listening. The words get obscured and revealed so many times they become something else. Shapes create faces, or animals, or monsters. When I begin to see those things, I grab hold, not to steer it, but so that I can follow the direction it leads. When I am in that flow state, daily stresses slip away, and time feels different. I have spent whole days working on paintings and it feels like no time at all. Not to discount the time it took to learn the techniques of my craft, but when I make it into the flow, it feels effortless. I instinctively know which rules to break and which rules to keep. I speak in pattern, color, shape, and form, and it feels like my native tongue. This is not just about making art, but about being and communicating the truest form of myself. It is seductive. Through this door, we are all Narcissus drawn to our reflection in the lake. Some artists spend too long there, obsessively writing in journals, taking synthesized shortcuts to the flow in pill or liquid form. If this is the case, you can get lost in it. It may be hard to resurface again.
Vincent Van Gogh famously said, “I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process.” I can easily see how this could happen. When you open yourself up to listening to that flow state, you are also open to intrusive thoughts. Knowing how to identify the ideas that are becoming too circular and not leading anywhere new is just as important as learning how to get there in the first place. My art involves painting, collage, and sometimes sculptural elements. The beginning stages are creating the elements. This is the more intuitive part of the work. The arrangement of the elements is sometimes where I become blocked. If I find myself arranging and rearranging without satisfaction, I will go back to the elements phase. Something new may need to come through, or an existing element might need to be edited and held back for a future project. In a way, I am continually working on the same piece of art. My previous work informs my current work and sometimes contributes to it directly. I craft each element like a piece of a puzzle, and each completed puzzle fits into a larger puzzle that will not be complete until I am no longer able to create work.
Not all my making occurs in this spiritual flow state. That is only part of the process. Most of the crafting of the pieces happens in flow, but in putting them together, I use more of my conscious mind. The conscious part of the process is where almost all my blocks occur. I get in my own way. Finding ways to listen to the bits of residual flow that live in the pieces created there is the key to figuring out where they go. Some colors, textures, and shapes make it obvious what fits together, some less so. In those times when it is not so straightforward, it may be necessary to enter back into the flow state to gather more clues or look at leftover pieces from previous projects to see if anything clicks into place.
I have also started experimenting with writing. The few poems I have written came to me in a moment of wakefulness in the middle of the night. This makes sense, because the space between wake and sleep has some relationship to the spiritual plane I have described. Dreams and moments around sleep are excellent times for self-contemplation and discovery. Any kind of activity where you can lull your mind into a relaxed state is an opportunity for you to enter the flow. This may be a great entry point into folding writing into my art practice. Committing to a dream journal will be my initial steps into developing this skill. Examining my visual art practice will hopefully give insight in learning what works for a productive writing practice. It will be interesting to see what features are transferable.
The Collective Door
If the self door is closed to you for a time, you may have some success with the collective door. Sometimes the energy from just one person is not enough to achieve creative flow. I may have an idea, but not enough to build momentum. Any time I have experienced a low point in my singular creative endeavors, a collaborative approach has helped me get back to a place where I can start once I am alone again. Sometimes you will find specific people that enhance your creative energy. When you find these people, make them your creative kinfolk. They will be your most ardent supporters, and the things you can do together will be greater because of that mutual support. The creative energy you can produce together has been labeled in the corporate world as “synergy.” Although this buzzword earns a big eye roll from me on most days, the basic idea is good. Combining forces to produce something greater than the sum of its parts does produce a feeling of being in the flow.
My kin of collaborators have been the catalyst and contributors to amazing collective ideas. These people build excitement, encouragement, and create free spaces of expression without judgement. When I create work with these people, it becomes so entwined, it is hard to tell who worked on which parts. They not only help create great collective work, but they can boost confidence in solo work as well.
My partner is a graphic designer and whenever I have new artwork, he is usually the first to see it. We critique each other’s work so often, that aspects of his aesthetic are now apparent in my paintings. His work has also taken on characteristics of mine in new ways that I would never have thought of. That is not to say that our work is now similar, but that my work has improved from his influence. We are both lifelong creators, but my work breathes easier when he is around.
I have four children (ages 22, 20, 18, and 5) who are always ready to collaborate. They all enjoy spending time making art, music, and in other creative pursuits. My 5-year-old loves to play games where we invent new creatures, and is also the master of the improv game “yes and…” The older kids have been teaching him to commit to whatever bit they have invented since he started talking. It is not unusual to hear a string of passionate nonsense words from an older kid answered ardently by the youngest with more foreign fabricated syllables. My 22- and 20-year-old have a hilarious podcast that is gaining a following. 20 and 18 have a band and just produced their first music video. Listening to my 20-year-old talk about their creative process with music and collaboration allows me more insight into my own. When I asked them to briefly describe it, they said, “I cast a wide net… I cast a wide net, and I’m not picky about the fish.” This is the essence of why they are a great creative collaborator. They, thoughtfully and with a curious mind, open themself up to people and experiences and are willing to apply their unique creative insight to different genres and aesthetics. They listen to all the whispers behind the door to the flow and accept the gifts of the current.
Outside of my family, I have a colleague that sparks ideas for me with every interaction. There are some people you never have surface level conversations with. Every time I talk to him, I learn something. This was happening so often, that I now have a folder in my notes app labeled “Mike notes.” Last semester, I had an idea for an action research project. It was still very abstract, and I needed a new perspective. I explained to my colleague that I wanted to create a curriculum change centered around students creating collaborative art. The next day he showed up in my room, pulled out an expo marker, and wrote out a whole acronym for what this project would be called. Everything said in this initial meeting brought new clarity to the project. The project grew from a curriculum change to a community wide initiative. This creative collaboration between the two of us became the petri dish for how we wanted our students to interact with each other and the community. Making something about collaborative art all by myself just would not make sense. We needed to model that sense of excitement that can be found when a creative vision is shared and elaborated on by someone else. The resulting effort has been phenomenally successful, and we have even been invited to present the project at the Southeastern Collage Art Conference in Virginia this fall.
There is a name for the emotion that comes with the collaborations I have described. French social scientist Emile Dirkheim coined the phrase “collective effervescence” to describe the feeling of belonging to a group and tapping into the collective consciousness. It can be further described as “…a condition of heightened intersubjectivity, which, according to Collins, rests on two mutually reinforcing elements: shared actions and shared emotion.” (Pizarro et al., 2022) The theory of collective effervescence, and theories that have sprung from it, can be observed over a diverse range of social groups. The positive or negative effects this can have on individuals is related to the goals and morals of the group.
Collective effervescence helps to explain the reason for the emotions we feel when we collaborate in rituals with others, but it does not address the creative aspect that may emerge from such a gathering. The feelings that come from creating with a group is an area that has the potential for further research. For me, that feeling is remarkably similar to the emotions that come with moving through the self door into creative flow. It is surprising and fulfilling. It gives a deeper understanding of yourself in relation to the whole.
A Balanced Creative Life
Using these two doors into creative flow has helped me to better understand myself and my place in the universe. It is my belief that whatever door you enter through, the destination is the same spiritual place. It is both small and immense. It is the self and every living thing. Finding out who we are requires us to orient our place in the universe, but we are the universe. We are ourselves, but we are also all the flora and fauna that live in our bodies. We are god and we are gods gut biome because neither could exist without the other.
Art is my religion, and the flow is my place of worship. You may choose whichever door is most accessible to you, but in the life of an artist, blocks will come. When they do, you cannot force your way in, you must find other open doors. I have not yet found a need beyond these two, and I do not know if there are more. If one day these doors are locked, I will look for another.
Kolodny, S. (2000). The captive muse. Psychosocial Press.
Pizarro, J. J., Zumeta, L. N., Bouchat, P., Włodarczyk, A., Rimé, B., Basabe, N., Amutio, A., & Páez, D. (2022, August 1). Emotional processes, collective behavior, and Social Movements: A meta-analytic review of collective effervescence outcomes during collective gatherings and demonstrations. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.974683/full#B16
Melissa Lindsey is a compendium of organisms with a shared goal to survive and pass on traits to the next generation. She lives in Nashville, TN with her family and is an artist and art educator who has taught high school art and ceramics for the past 16 years. She is currently working on her master’s in Critical and Creative Thinking at University of Massachusetts Boston. Her art practice incorporates many different types of media with an emphasis on process over product. In her work, she questions concepts of individual and collective identity, and seeks to understand how both the microscopic and macroscopic patterns contained in our universe can help us find our place within it.