Potent Personal Images Drive Creativity

Creativity research has revealed that creative individuals often try to recapture a nuanced feeling tone or subtle mood that has captivated them when they were children. It has also shown that creators repeatedly make use of something called an “image of wide scope.” Like the treasured mood, the creator acquires their image of wide scope when they are young, typically before the age of eighteen. The desire to recapture a specific mood and the urge to create something incorporating the image of wide scope are driving forces propelling the creator down particular paths. Mood and image can meld and their role in the creative process is complex.

Devils Tower Is a Potent Image

Like the fellow in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, creative people struggle to express a significant “image of wide scope.”  (Image: public domain.)

An image of wide scope may be just about anything: a striking visual image such as a tree standing alone on a ridge, a haunting melody heard at an emotional moment, a fascinating object like a decorated box filled with odds and ends, a mysterious (to a child) device, a notable place such as the last house on the edge of town.

The idea of “wide scope” refers to the image’s ability to evoke, stand for, or imply the possibility of, many other things. The concept goes beyond metaphor in that it suggests more than just similarity. There is a haunting emotional component in the evocation of a treasured mood or feeling tone. When creators make repeated use of an image of wide scope, the technique leads to recurring themes in their work.

For Einstein, the wide scope image was a compass controlled by the Earth’s invisible magnetic field. He had been entranced by a compass when just four or five years old and become convinced there must be “something behind things, something deeply hidden.” Later, he would add the concept of the continuum. The idea of a hidden continuum steered his research, influenced his view of quantum physics, and determined the nature of his famous “thought experiments” and theories.

Virginia Woolf remembered a magical holiday moment from her childhood when she woke to the enchanting sound, coming through her open bedroom window, of waves rhythmically breaking on the shore. The cherished experience suggested the eternal passing of time. She used the image of waves on the shore as the central motif in her novel, The Waves.

The branching of trees intrigued Darwin. The structure of a tree proved especially useful when he came to formulate his theories on how living organisms evolve. In fact, the tree structure may have prompted the key insight as to how different species are related. When working on his theory of natural selection, he filled his notebooks with sketches of the “tree of evolution.”

To bring this down to a more personal level, a powerful way of “doing art” is to spend time patiently exploring your most important and vivid mental images. Among these, you will find your own images of wide scope. A characteristic of the image of wide scope is its imperativeness. Creators feel compelled to express the vision repeatedly within the symbolic medium of their choice. What do you keep coming back to?

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

6 thoughts on “Potent Personal Images Drive Creativity”

  1. Un-returned or unattainable love is a common theme in my stories. I’m pretty sure it has to do with my experiences, not as a child, but as a teenager (close enough, I guess. Heh).

  2. Thomas, did you say you write fiction as well as these fascinating articles? If so, I’d like to name you in a tagging game of Q and A about an author’s novels, but I had to find it out first.

  3. I’ve been down that road myself, Dan, but have yet to muster the courage to write about the experience. The lack of inner pressure to do so suggests to me that I have worked through the pain reasonably well. You obviously have the guts to face your experience and your writing is benefiting from your attempts to lay the past to rest.

  4. I do write fiction, Lucinda, but have not yet published anything. I’m strictly a hard drive author at the moment with five novels in progress (four fantasy and one science fiction). I would love to join in, but I’m not sure how much I could contribute. I’m still new to blogging and Goodreads, so I don’t really understand what you are suggesting. How does the game work? Could I bring in other writers? Would it help if I put a sample chapter or two on my blog?

  5. Well, it involves something called ‘Pinging’ and I have to find out how to do that. I just did a link back to the person who recommended me. I think you then say something about them and do a link or ping or whatever, and you answer the qeustions which are about the name of the book, genre, what actors you’d use to be in it and so on (lol I’m not a film buff, the only actor I could find who had remotely the look of Emile Dubois looked incongruous modelling modern underwear lol).
    All the Q and A’s are on my latest post. I’ll add you to the list.
    Wow! FIVE novels in progress, i admire that. If I attempted that, in progress is where they would be – for the rest of my days.

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