The Creative Person’s Holy Grail

American philosopher of mind and of art, Suzanne Langer, asserted that the expression of one’s vague feelings, to clarify them for oneself, is artistic creativity’s primary purpose. This is certainly true, but her further claim that communication to others is merely a peripheral by-product does not stand up to close inspection. Research has shown that artists have a powerful need to share what they have learned. Art is the medium chosen for the clarification attempt precisely because the creator can share artistic products with others. However, where the attempt to share fails, as in those cases where the artist cannot win an audience, the artist will usually continue producing art anyway.

The Sangreal or Holy Grail

Creative people get lost and become blocked when they fail to recognize that the endpoint or goal of their project has shifted. (Image: public domain.)

According to Langer, “Art is the objectification of feeling, and the subjectification of nature.” That is, artists make their feelings about the world concrete by embodying them in some form of art, but since feelings are entirely subjective, the process results in an object that presents a subjective view of the world.

Psychoanalyst Silvano Arieti coined the term “endocept” to describe the idealized image of the finished product that the creator attempts to make real and actual. The endocept is the artist’s Holy Grail, avidly sought but never satisfactorily found. Thus, as artists work towards completion they have only a vague idea of where they want to go, although they have a more definite sense of where they do not want to go.

Canadian research physicist Dr. Ursula Franklin explains this lack of clarity by differentiating between a growth process and a production process. We cannot divide a growth process into rigid predetermined steps in the way that we can a production process. Growth processes cannot be planned, coordinated, and controlled. The final product is too ill-defined. Creativity is just such a growth process.

A good creative (growth) strategy must be context sensitive, that is, the strategy must take into account where the work is, or seems to be, going as we move the project forward. As a growth process progresses, context (where the work is going) changes and the creative strategy has to be adjusted on an ongoing basis. This explains why, during the creative process, creators often feel their control over, and responsibility for, the work fluctuating. The sense of control and responsibility diminishes as progress with the work alters what is possible, what the completed work will be like. Strategy and context are out of alignment. Adjusting the strategy to meet the requirements of the new context restores control and responsibility.

To put this in another way: creators get into difficulties when they fail to recognize that where the project is going has shifted. They feel stuck, confused, or blocked. They are still trying to work towards the old, now defunct, endpoint. Once they become aware of the changed situation and adjust their strategy, they are once again able to move forward in their pursuit of their personal Holy Grail. Being aware of this phenomenon of shifting endpoints means fewer and shorter interruptions in the creative process.

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.

4 thoughts on “The Creative Person’s Holy Grail”

  1. Yeah, this sounds about right, Thomas. I had to chuckle at the “artists work towards completion they have only a vague idea of where they want to go, although they have a more definite sense of where they do not want to go.” That describes me about 90% of the time.

  2. This is why I quit working off the cuff and started using outlines. I was never much good at the major rewrites a sudden change of plan entails. I just couldn’t catch all the discrepancies between the old version and the new. Every time I went back for another look, I’d find more things that I had missed. One of the problems I always ran into was deciding where the story starts. I’d write about three chapters and then realize that I needed about three more chapters before the ones I already had! Then, of course, everything had to match up. I learned that if I try to put the story together complete in an outline, most of those changes in direction get worked out at that level where it’s easy to make big alterations in the story line and adding extra chapters is a breeze. Many writers don’t want to bother with outlines and regard them as boring obstacles to getting on with the fun part of writing. I find that, once you get used to them, constructing outlines is richly rewarding. You can really freewheel with your thinking because you know changes won’t cost you huge amounts of rewriting grief.

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