Note: This is a post I'd written in January 2017 on a personal blog. Since the topic is about creativity, I felt it'd be worth sharing here!
Have you ever wondered what the source of sudden bursts of inspiration/ beauty/ magic and creative ideas is? Many people often feel that ideas come from an outside source, not from within themselves. Sometimes we almost feel like the vehicle for creative work, that it comes through us and not from us. But what is this magical source of creativity?
Background on the theories:
Recently, I came across a video that talks about Joseph Campbell's well-known theory of The Hero's Journey. Wikipedia describes this as "In narratology and comparative mythology, the monomyth, or the hero's journey, is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed."
The video explains Don Harmon’s interpretation of this structure (link to the video). He divides the journey into eight parts around a circle, involving variations of the steps described in the hero’s journey:
The part that we’re interested in here, though, is this distinction of the (same circle) worlds as described in the video. The top half of the circle is where the story begins and comes to an end. The bottom part of the circle is where the hero’s growth/ change happens. The top half is the normal world, and the bottom is the special world. (That sentence itself holds so much power, doesn’t it?)
Don Harmon writes, “Your mind is a home, with an upstairs and a downstairs.
Upstairs, in your consciousness, things are well-lit and regularly swept. Friends visit. Scrabble is played, hot cocoa is brewing. It is a pleasant, familiar place. Downstairs, it is older, darker, and much, much freakier. We call this basement the unconscious mind.
The unconscious is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the stuff you don’t, won’t, and/or can’t think about.”
"The point is: Occasional ventures by the ego into the unconscious, through therapy, meditation, confession, violence, or a good story, keep the consciousness in working order."
On entering the "special world" in our own lives:
Now in a story, according to the 8 step structure, when the character crosses from the upper half to the lower half (or from point 2: "the character needs something to 4: "the search for what they need"), the character enters the special world: Either the character enters a new place, or a new situation, and struggles to adapt. It's the difference between Neo living in the Matrix (normal world) and being in the "Real World" (special world). Or Frodo in the Shire (normal) vs all the places he's in during the journey (special). Or Harry Potter's story before and during Hogwarts. And then, of course, the character, having changed, returns to the normal world to end the story.
The video and the theory talk about how this structure is used by all stories that we write, explaining it in detail. What we're interested in, though, is how this is also applicable to us in our creative lives. My point here is that when we watch a movie/ experience a story, we journey with the protagonist. This means that the hero also takes us to the "special world" with him. And it is because of this that we feel inspired through other art. Creativity then comes from that "special world," as described above. I'll come back to all this in a bit.
The significance of this special world:
What sparked this thought was a fascinating comment on the video by a Youtube user named "Maitrī xp." Parts of what he said are–
"I think this structure is the basis of our consciousness; becoming aware of death means becoming aware of life, diving in the unconscious means coming back more creative with newly organized ideas."
"This cycle I first encountered, more profoundly, on psychedelic experiences."
"For me, it's more an inheritance of the cycle of season per se, or day and night, with which we have become so intricately connected."
"Then the sun becomes the bringer of consciousness over the unconscious when he rises; then the night becomes dissolution of boundaries and frontiers."
"When the nights come, and we can only see what we dream, we see everything merging and dancing like shadows."
The main takeaway from his comment is that the cycle described in the video, particularly the distinction of the two worlds, exists within us and is also a part of how the universe works, as the universe is creation itself. But more importantly, it is the special world from which we get our creative ideas.
Entering the special world:
The "special world" exists in the late nights, in dark corners where things are unclear, where nothing is certain, in fog and mystery, and especially in dreams. Dreams are probably when our minds are at their most effortlessly creative self. The day brings with it clarity, normalcy, and schedule. Spend your time only pursuing "normal world" activities, and creativity might suffer.
Maitrī (the Youtube comments guy) may have experienced this through psychedelic substances, but it can safely be said that there are many different triggers or doors to the special world. David Lynch is a prominent practitioner of transcendental meditation, and it should now be easy to see why. The Twin Peaks director is well known for his strange, dreamlike, and highly creative works, which often almost directly showcase the special world itself.
I, personally, like to work in the evenings with the lights dimmed. I also light incense sticks and keep a small water fountain switched on in the background. It takes me out of the bright, normal world and helps me knock on the special world's door. It has to be noted, though, that this doesn't always work.
Music and film are some of the best ways of attempting to get that door open. But the best medium for me is video games – they do the best job of transporting you to completely different, unrealistic, fantastical worlds.
Stories take you on a journey with the character, and maybe this is why they inspire us and spark creative ideas. With the character, we too enter the special world, where ideas reside. Perhaps this is why "art inspires art."
Protecting your special world:
Because of this, I'd say beware of the mundane, for it can push the door to the special world far away into obscurity, and of the trials of everyday life that can chain you to the normal world. If you spend every moment of your day thinking about work, bills, groceries, money, relationships, social life, and all these "normal world" concerns - even in bed at night - you might lose the way to the special world.
Instead, carve out some time and create a sanctum, a place, time, and an activity that allows your mind to dwell on obscurity – on things different from the normal world. Meditate, draw, write, look at the stars, watch the clouds, take a walk in the woods, travel – there are tons of options, just make sure it's different from the normal world, and make sure you're conscious and aware of the magic of that moment and of that activity. If you're not careful, the demands of everyday life can snatch it away from you.
I also feel that this is why we shouldn’t saturate our free time with too many sitcoms, news, mainstream media and entertainment - things that instantly gratify us, numb us and elevate our moods for a short time, and keep our minds trapped within the normal world. Instead, we should let our thoughts descend into the darker, more unfamiliar areas from time to time.
Having understood this, it might be interesting to watch a film and stop it midway – with the character suspended in their special world – and use that energy for creative work, and then finish off the movie later? It sure is worth a try!
What do you think? Do you feel this describes how you feel about creativity, art and beauty? And what are your methods to gain access to the special world?
Hi, I'm Armaan, the creator of Rainswept and Forgotten Fields. On this blog, I post weekly updates about my games' development (or as often as possible!)