This must be the place, paper collage, 2020
This post is formatted to reflect an original journal entry.
Had a significant insight into my own creative process. It happened on Sunday morning, as I was having coffee and reading one of John Muir’s Wilderness Essays. Experienced a flood of positive emotions as I was reading his lush, lively, anthropomorphic descriptions of Yellowstone National Park. One of the reasons I enjoy John Muir’s essays so much is that blissful experience—the recall of some of the most glorious, awe-inspiring natural scenes I’ve ever encountered.
Indeed, I was struck by what my mind was envisioning: great, expansive, luminous landscapes. And dramatically out of proportion. Flowers big, bright, unfolding. Snow-capped mountains glowing, as if bathed in perpetual sunlight. Everything intensely colored. I was totally blissed out. And not so much because of Muir’s descriptions, but my own recall. The mountains I pictured were, at least in part, places I’d been. So, too, were the flowers, other great, luminous objects, based on actual encounter. And I knew instantaneously I must make art to approximate this experience.
Why this struck me (this is, of course, mere speculation): I feel certain the reason for this flood of positive emotions was recall. That the emotions tied to my own memories of similar landscapes made me feel euphoric. Muir’s writing was simply a catalyst, or a trigger. And it was that emotional experience which spurred me to create. Makes sense.
But I am reminded immediately of Rollo May and his ideas about the intervening role of emotions in creativity. He believes powerful emotions heighten our senses—even make us see more clearly, holistically, and that creative output is the natural result of this enhanced perception:
Reason works better when emotions are present, the person sees more acutely, sharply, accurately when his emotions are engaged…I think it can be demonstrated, indeed, that we cannot really see the object unless we have emotional involvement. I commend this to you for further study. – Rollo May
I wrote about this before. And both Maslow’s thoughts on perception and his concept of peak experiences seem to jive with this. But now, I am wondering if the same logic applies to objects recalled from memory. Can simply recalling an intensely emotional experience produce this same effect? Was the original image—as I encountered it in a moment of heightened emotion and therefore heightened perception—somehow changed? Somehow brighter, more luminous, disproportionate. Indeed, almost otherworldly. Maybe best to work this through using a concrete example.
The photo doesn’t do it justice. But if I’ve ever had what might properly be called a peak experience, this was it. Whenever I recall that moment—either intentionally or as a result of being reminded by, say, a book like Muir’s—my whole being is flooded with the most blissful emotions. A mild ecstasy, really. But it never occurred to me—not until just a few days ago—that those emotions may have actually altered the memory itself. That is, I’d never before paid attention to the way my mind was recalling and reconstructing that particular scene and others like it.
Or—I have to ask myself—is it something else? Is it the strength of the emotion that’s affecting my imagination? That is, I read Muir’s description of a vast, expansive mountain scene. It takes me back to this place. I am virtually overtaken by positive emotions. And suddenly my imagination becomes more vibrant. Muir’s landscape comes alive, not because of a distorted memory, but because my ability to envision is heightened. The new image blends with aspects of the recalled scene to make something new—a work of art. Similar to what May suggests. (I’ve just purchased a book titled, The Ecstatic Imagination: Psychedelic Experiences and the Psychoanalysis of Self-Actualization by Dan Merkur. I’m hoping he has some insight.) It is possible that, in these moments, the imagination really is a gateway to a world just beyond perception.