A Theory of Creativity


A complaint seemingly common among writers is the creative barrier known to many as ‘Blank Page Syndrome.’ Further down the line, when the pages are no longer blank, the term ‘Writer’s Block’ is adopted to denote a similar phenomenon.

Here, I do not claim to offer a definite solution to the problem, nor will I offer up a selection of inane tips and tricks which may or may not help in some small amount – such information is readily available elsewhere. Instead, I intend to outline for you a theory which I recently stumbled across while researching the role of the unconscious mind in day-to-day life. This information alerted me to what I dare say is the true cause of creative blocking, thus allowing me to develop my own techniques in order to overcome the obstacle.

The theory in question is offered up by Freud in his oft-cited and eternally popular work ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, in which he likens the state of mind required of his patients during psychoanalysis to that which must be adopted in order to create; in this case, poetry. In doing so, he refers to a correspondence between the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller and a friend who has recently complained of a lack of creative power. Schiller’s insightful reply – dated December 1, 1788 – is self-explanatory and in many ways revelatory:

‘The reason for your complaint lies, it seems to me, in the constraint which your intellect poses upon your imagination. Here I will make an observation, and illustrate it by an allegory. Apparently it is not good – and indeed it hinders the creative work of the mind – if the intellect examines too closely the ideas already pouring in, as it were, at the gates. Regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it; perhaps, in a certain collocation with other ideas, which may seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link. The intellect cannot judge all these ideas unless it can retain them until it has considered them in connection with these other ideas. In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude. You worthy critics, or whatever you may call yourselves, are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. Hence your complaints of unfruitfulness, for you reject too soon and too severely.’

Towards the end of the letter, Schiller appears to gradually lose his temper as he damns the close-mindedness of his addressee; a slightly harsh approach when you consider just how unlikely it is that somebody may discover this occasionally detrimental, although most often vital in order to stave off madness, function of the human mind. He also seems to suggest that a truly creative mind – such as his, it would probably be fair to assume – is fundamentally different to a non-creative mind in its ability to withdraw the watchers on cue; a disheartening prospect for those of us who strive to be creative.

Fortunately however, Freud disagrees and suggests that no such divide exists. Citing his own vast experience of encouraging patients to ‘withdraw their watchers’, he assures us that ‘such a transition into the condition of uncritical self-observation is by no means difficult.’ Good news indeed, but how?

Consider this; in calming yourself to a relaxed, tranquil state, consciously welcoming the flow of naturally occurring ideas as they pass unimpeded through the open gates and become fully-formed thoughts, you will quickly discover that the psychic energy saved by the renouncement of the critical process can be used to deal with the new ideas in other ways, such as tracing their origin for psychoanalysis, or collating them, as Schiller suggests, for review and use in creative practice.

Therefore, by spending a little time actively welcoming the ideas which are usually held at the gates of your intellect, in the words of Freud, those ‘‘undesired’ ideas are thus changed into ‘desired’ ones.’


4 thoughts on “A Theory of Creativity

  1. If one is to “put aside” his critical intellect to generate new and thus creative ideas is it a prerequisite that one has to be relatively sane with a acceptable moral compass in order not to go about accepting morally abject thoughts?

  2. Very good question, Daniel.

    The problem here is the vagueness of the term ‘acceptance.’ Bear in mind that the new ideas to which you refer are created regardless of the mind’s state. The process of ‘accepting’ them into the conscious mind is no more dangerous or irregular than having a dream, and in no way does it impair the mind’s ability to recognise them as desired or undesired ideas. Therefore, ‘acceptance’ in that sense is not an issue; if you were to find yourself thinking of a despicable act, you would still deem it as such. The mind protects itself against such ideas as they may cause emotional distress, not because they could lead us astray. Furthermore, Freud tells us that the relaxed, tranquil state is vital to the process of psychoanalysis – the cliché of the psychiatric patient laying down, eyes shut is testament to that – so sanity is irrelevant. In fact, thinking in this way is more likely to help a person of questionable sanity, as it allows the intrusive thoughts which form delusions, hallucinations and other neuroses to be traced and eventually understood.

    Of course, sanity and morality are both highly subjective, but I hope that I have answered your question.

    1. It is socially desirable to thank one and other at this point and why not. I sincerely value your effort and sound insight which is hard to come by. But to be honest. For me their will never be an answer to questions raised above and this makes it even more interesting to me.

      I tend to think that brilliant insight often emerges in those who lost them selves in order to reinvent the world. Very sane, strong minded characters who willingly estrange themselves from normality to be able to think without constraint. For example Nietzsche who walked this thin line all his live but got lost in the end and went mad. Before doing so he wrote the world that beauty is only that if it decays from the moment of perfection as resonance is what makes a concert unique where with every note we hope to get it even better in search of perfection. How else can someone conclude and proclaim that “pity is the multiplication of sorrow.” without hesitation. Well I will not start with Freud or maybe Ill devote a post to him. Would you like to be informed if I did?

      Gr. Daniel

  3. I certainly agree that truly progressive thinkers of the past such as Nietzsche and Freud must have deviated from the beaten track in order to create their respective philosophies on life. However, I don’t see ‘losing oneself’ as a vehicle to innovative thought. Rather, I enjoy studying the logical journeys taken by such influential figures which led them to their discoveries and theories. Sure, give me a shout if you devote a post to Freud. Thanks for your interesting comments.

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