Genesis and the Creative Process: Step 1: Beginning

Light & Shadow
Light & Shadow - © 2008

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have recently been exploring the beginning of the book of Genesis as a pattern for creative endeavors.  My purpose in doing so is not to detract from any religious interpretation, but to focus on the lessons that artists, writers, poets and other creative people can gain from reading this passage. I believe I am only scratching the surface, so welcome others thoughts on this subject.

Rather than tackling this a day at a time according to the Genesis story, I am going to break the 7 days into 3 parts, a simplified version of the steps of the creative process. The 3 stages are:

  1. The Beginning: Emptying
  2. The Middle: Working
  3. The End: Completing

Eventually I may tackle steps 2 and 3 in a blog post, but for now what intrigues me  the Beginning stage. This is the stage that many ideas never get beyond.

Day 1: Emptiness

The earth was without form and an empty waste, and darkness was on the face of the very great deep. The Spirit of God was moving, hovering, brooding over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2, Amplified Bible)

In the beginning of every creative endeavor is chaos. We start with an idea, for instance to create the heavens and the earth, but in the beginning the idea is still without actual form. It exists only in our minds. To make matters worse because we don’t have the skill of a God, we often find a gap between idea and execution.  We may think this goes away, and certainly there are moments of inspiration where it seems our ideas go directly from mind to paper, or movement, or vocal expression (depending on our art form).  But this is the exception rather than the rule.  Usually we find no matter how lucid our ideas seem in our head, when we actually go to express them concretely, the form they take at first is chaotic.

This is the starting place for all of us. At this stage there are 3 major problems facing the artist:

  1. Formlessness.
  2. Emptiness
  3. A Very Great Deep

Formlessness.  Note one of the first things the Creator does as he faces formlessness – He separates light from darkness.  Every visual artist knows it is light and shadow that give form.  We begin with our broad strokes.  What is our story about?  What are the themes?  What are the darks and lights that we will put in this painting?  What is the form of this vase?  What is the general emotion I am trying to express as an actor portraying this character?

Does this mean that we always know these things when we begin?  Actually no.  Sometimes I find that the chaos must be properly explored before I am ready to organize it.  Thus when I write, I may at times need to just write regardless of whether chaos comes out or order.  Usually I find it is a mixture of both.  When I explore a new form on the potter’s wheel, at first I may experience a chaotic collapsed pot or two until the new form flows easily from my fingertips.

Emptiness.  I believe it is emptiness that stops many a would-be artist, for emptiness can feel like a kind of death.  All art begins with emptiness.  You have a blank computer screen. A blank canvas.  A lump of clay. Words in a script that do not yet have an audible voice.  Steps in a choreography that do not yet have any sense of transcendence.  The paradox in art is that we must enter the emptiness in order to deal with it in our art.  When I first began reading about the creative process, I found almost every author spoke of this idea of beginning with emptiness.  As I explored this idea, I realized that in my most creative moments throughout my life, I had instinctually gone to this place of emptiness.  This place has been described as a place of inner quietness, a place of meditation.  Eric Maisel in his book Fearless Creating described it as “hushing”.  It is only as we enter and pass through the emptiness that we find the substance of our art.

A Very Great Deep“Darkness was on the face of a very great deep.” The deep lays beneath the emptiness and darkness, thus it is only through our delving into the emptiness that we can discover the deep. I find it interesting that the word “face” is used describe the deep (this is true in the Hebrew as well as the English).  Our face is what hides or expresses what lays deep inside us.  Whether our art will be trite or meaningful has only partially to do with our skill.  The other more substantive part is how much we can reach into the depths of ourselves and express something that transcends ourselves.

Recently, I was at a workshop where the leader did a number of gestalt exercises.  The theme of mountains came up again and again for me in the exercises.  At one point, the leader of the workshop asked us “What is the predominant feeling you are left with?”  I replied that I felt a sort of “aching longing”, to which the workshop leader replied, “it might be good to find out what that is.”  Later as I mediated on the themes that had come up, I realized the longing was something deep within that desired transcendence – that is, something inside me that longed to be extended and expressed outside of myself.  This desire for transcendence is a common theme among artists, writers, poets and musicians.  We live for the moments when we achieve it.

If this is indeed our aim, what is the answer to achieving it?  How do we enter the emptiness, pass through it, and explore the great deep?  As the Creator in Genesis 1 does, we brood.  The association of brooding with the artistic temperament is so prevalent that it has become almost cliche.  But often cliches become so for good reason.  We can’t just enter the deep and run back out.  We have to stay there.  We have to let what is there fully enter our consciousness.  I believe it takes an extraordinary person to maintain hope in such circumstance.  There is much in the deep to bring us to the point of despair, but if we can persevere until the deep finds expression and speaks to the deep in another, we will find that hope begins arise.  For this, after all, is only the beginning.

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.  All your waves and breakers have swept over me.” – Psalm 42:7