Kyna Leski on the Storm of Creativity

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I wrote the The Storm of Creativity from the inside, from my observations as an architect, an artist, student and teacher. It is about the workings of the creative process, the cycles within cycles that bring about creative discovery.  By “workings” I mean stages of a process one navigates in knowing, making, or discovering something that does not yet exist. These stages are not really something one can schedule or impose externally or follow as a recipe; rather, they are stages one experiences internally. Even though a stage may quietly commence internally for the creator of a work, it can be empowering or debilitating. Simply put, the creative process is bigger than you. It is like a storm that slowly begins to gather and take form until it overtakes you — if you are willing to let it.

By storm, I mean meteorological storm, not storm, as in brainstorming. After WWII, Alex Faickney Osborn coined the term brainstorming to refer to storm in its military sense: a barrage of existing ideas thrown at a problem. I see it very differently. I think that the source of creative discovery comes from the disturbance of existing ideas and the absence of a preconception; or in other words, from a realizing that you don’t know something that you thought you did know. It is like the beginner’s mind. This can happen when something fails, or different perspectives clash, or when you really ask questions. Dutifully running down a list of previously composed questions is not enough; the questions must confront the knowledge that you rely on and make you uncertain about what and how you think you know. The uncertainty of what you thought you knew opens your mind to what is ahead of you. The absence of what you thought you knew produces a negative pressure that draws in the new energy and material of the field, a territory that was previously overlooked. The eddy of negative pressure starts to gather the new energy and material into a storm.

Although I am writing from my perspective in the design field, I think that this beginning holds true for all fields, as all the stages are universal. American physicist Murray Gell-Mann (b. 1929), winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles, made remarkable contributions to human scientific understanding. In his book The Quark and the Jaguar, he explains just how central this notion of getting rid of preconceptions is to the creative process, no matter the discipline.

“A successful new theoretical idea typically alters and extends the existing body of theory to allow for observational facts that could not previously be understood or incorporated. It also makes possible new predictions that can some day be tested. Almost always, the novel idea includes a negative insight, the recognition that some previously accepted principle is wrong and must be discarded.”[1]

How is the creative process like a storm? Both begin from what appears to be nothing. Both arise out of a disturbance and act to displace and destabilize. Both gather energy, material, force and direction from its particular situation. Both are dynamic: starting, stopping, raging in one moment and abating the next, with ebbs and flows of activity. Both propel and are propelled. Both creativity and storm can be of the scale that brings great generative consequences or be too weak to continue and peter out. Neither storm nor creativity has a discernible beginning or end.

Although each instance of creativity is singular and specific, I see the creative process as universal. Artists, architects, poets, inventors, scientists and others all navigate the same stages of the process in order to discover something that does not yet exist. All of us must work our way through the empty page, the blank screen, writer’s block, confusion, chaos, and doubt.

Unlearning can be taught or be an intentional way of ridding ourselves of preconceptions; only when we realize what we don’t know can we pose the problem that we need to solve. We gather new information or evidence—with notebook jottings, research, the collection of objects—propelling the process. We perceive and conceive; we look ahead without knowing where we are going; we make connections. We pause, retreat, and stop, only to start again.

Creativity is a path with no beginning or end; it is ongoing.

[1] Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar, Chapter 17, “From Learning to Creative Thinking.”

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