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I came across two quotations about the creative process recently and found such striking similarities I had to explore them further. The first is by the poet Mary Oliver, and the second by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Both are attempting to articulate how they create, how they make the unknown known. Both make reference–one obliquely, the other explicitly–to the need of stepping over “the edge” into something vague and nearly inarticulate: “formlessness” for one, the “unknown” for the other.

Where does the “extraordinary” that precipitates the creative act take place, Mary Oliver asks:

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

From “Of Power and Time,”  Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).

How do we create something out of nothing, O’Keeffe asks:

I feel that a real living form is the result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown—where it has experienced something—felt something—it has not understood—and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown—known. By unknown—I mean the thing that means so much to the person that wants to put it down—clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand—sometimes he partially knows why—sometimes he doesn’t—sometimes it is all working in the dark—but a working that must be done—Making the unknown—known—in terms of one’s medium is all-absorbing—if you stop to think of the form—as form you are lost—The artist’s form must be inevitable—You mustn’t even think you won’t succeed—Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you—catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life—only to see it turn stale compared to what you vaguely feel ahead—that you must always keep working to grasp—the form must take care of its self if you can keep your vision clear.

From Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters (public library)

Both speak of the need to step over the edge of the known into the unknown to create.

For O’Keeffe, the idea is to keep reaching for the thing just beyond one’s grasp, something felt, but not understood. That’s how you make the unknown known. How you create form out of formlessness.

For Oliver, one’s concern must be always directed toward the edge, toward bringing out the form from the formlessness beyond the edge.

That need to be always living at the edge of things, and being willing to step over the edge, is what really interests me, and has been a motif in my writing, my urge to create, for a long time. This blog, “Living on the Edge of the Wild,” was an attempt to explore this vague and mysterious something lying just out of sight, just beyond our fingertips: The Wild. The Unconscious. The Unknown.

God, perhaps, if God is that vast unknowable spirit from which all things are newly sprung.

It’s the urge to push consciousness over the edge, beyond the ordinary perception or understanding of things as they seem to be, to discover what else lies out there just beyond our grasp.

It comes like a tickle in the back of the mind–an inkling of something exciting, extraordinary, brand new. and undiscovered, just out of reach. The conscious mind cannot make the leap into the great unknown. It’s too slow and cumbersome, too full of itself and its preconceptions. Too fearful of what’s not itself. But we sense that something else can. Some deeper part of ourselves that we rarely tap into can make that leap, if we are willing to risk letting go and allow it. It’s like flying from one trapeze to another. We have to be willing to let go of what we so desperately cling to, to leap out into empty air with nothing to support us, and trust the thing we are reaching for will be there. Without that risk-taking and that trust, nothing extraordinary happens.

The thing that tickles our mind, that intrigues and arouses us, that we want to grasp, seems vague at first, formless. Like a tree hidden in the mist, we catch odd glimpses of a form we cannot recognize at first. But as we pursue our art, our painting or our poem, it becomes clearer, almost as if we are reclaiming it from the mist that has obscured it. As if it already existed perfectly formed, and we are simply the tool used to reveal it, or, at least, reveal some small aspect of what we originally glimpsed.

What we bring forth may not be perfect, may not be the thing-in-itself, but merely hint at it. And that’s enough. To have touched, to whatever degree, that which intrigues us; to have given some slight form to that vague reality which tickled the mind, which once had lain unperceived among the formless, is enough to sate us, to satisfy the creative urge. At least for a while.

For having once tapped into that deeper part of ourselves, having once stepped over the edge and touched the form within the formless, we spark anew, again and again, the urge to create. To risk letting go and trust the empty air before us will bring to our fingertips the very thing we hoped to grasp.

[A review of O’Keeffe’s letters and Oliver’s essays can be found at Brainpickings.org, where I found the original quotations. You might also enjoy “Endless Emerging Forms – Photos of Fog and Mist,” a blog post I wrote with a similar theme]

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