Spirituality and Creativity

January 15th 2012

Posted by: in: From the Author, Non-fiction

Someone on a forum I’m part of posted the following question: “Is there a link between being spiritual and being creative?” This was my response:

Creativity is part of us, and part of us all whether we are specifically Christian, generally spiritual, or completely materialistic. Story-telling (the bit I’m most concerned with), like music or representative art, transcends both time and geography – people tell each other stories, make music together and daub pigments on things throughout history and across wildly different cultures.

The question arises, does spirituality feed creativity? The answer is sublimely simple – yes, of course it does, but then so does pretty much everything else. Certainly, a great deal of creativity can be expressed within a formal religious context (providing that isn’t taboo), and a society’s religion provides a context for creativity.

A further question, though, is whether spirituality can inspire sublime works of art in an individual who otherwise would be mediocre? This is a much trickier claim to pin down: if you pick some of history’s greatest artists, it’s often individual genius and a large sack of cash that’s the potent combination, rather than anything else more numinous. Despite the popular image, there’s nothing more likely to depress creativity than starving in a garret or being so dog-tired from the day job that all feelings of creativity are sapped. Patrons are critically important to the production of great art – and it’s often the patron who decides on the subject matter. You could even argue that it’s the spirituality of the patron that’s important here.

I’m lucky in this respect. My wife earned enough that when we were divvying up child-care duties, it made much more sense for her to keep going to work and for me to stay at home. When the kids got older and were at school during the day, it meant I had time to write – in the warm, with a full belly. And even luckier, no one tells me what I have to write except the publishers, and even they realise they don’t have me over the same barrel that a lot of authors find themselves bent over: I don’t rely on them for a roof over my head.

So I’m sorry to be so prosaic, but those are often the realities.

Which was pretty much an off-the-cuff response, but does include Morden’s 3rd Law of Writing “Marry someone rich”, so clearly I’ve been thinking along those lines before. I’m just wondering if part of the new publishing model that’s always just around the corner might include, how shall we term them, stipends for writers, rather than an advance?

5 Responses to “Spirituality and Creativity”

  • mdlachlan says:

    Interesting blog. I don’t know if I agree on the starving in a garret thing. I think nothing focuses the mind like desperation!
    However – a room of one’s own is undoubtedly a luxury a lot of artists would like. Personally, I find having something to prove, people doubting me or my stuff not being quite as successful as I would like the greatest spur. I had a lot of very early success with writing, film deals, overseas tours, big advances and I found it terrified me and stopped me producing my best work. Happily, now I’m nowhere near as successful, I’m determined to get the recognition my enormous ego thinks I deserve and I find things flow very nicely.
    I also wondered what you meant by spirituality. I’m not being at all arch when I say I don’t really understand what the word means.
    I am not religious, though I do have a strong superstitious sense of something ‘other’ than us – which I do my best to make my rationality damp down. I don’t think a lack of a belief in a higher power, however, necessarily immediately makes you a materialist. So, I suppose that’s my question. Before we can say whether spirituality influences creativity mustn’t we first say what spirituality is.

    • Simon Morden says:

      Hi, Mark!
      Good point – but desperation can easily turn to bitterness: “Fools! I’ll show them!” The latter half of the 20th Century could well have turned out differently if a certain A. Hitler had flogged a few of his daubings… not that every frustrated artist or writer is a psychopathic war-monger. Not even most of them.
      And I take the point about success being a two-edged sword: I think the literati call it “the second book syndrome”, whereas we genre writers are so badly paid we have to keep ‘em coming out. Fame and riches tend to come after a struggle, if at all.
      Spirituality is really hard to define (a bit like science fiction). I suppose if someone has an obvious faith in a supernatural being, you’re showing spirituality, though that excludes Buddhists. But the wider point is that your beliefs, your narrative for explaining the world to yourself (including all its political and sociological parts) necessarily influences your creativity: it’s the lens through which you see things.
      I remain to be convinced that being spiritual makes you more creative, however. I mean, how would you ever test it?

  • David Ball says:

    Good stuff, Simon.

    Certainly within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, there is a clear link between creativity and spirituality. For example, the Psalms are often a creative expression of all sorts of human feelings and yet are accepted into the hymn-book of Israel and then into the Christian faith. Music and art as well as different sorts of literature (poetry, history, hymns, love-songs, etc.) are significant parts of the Hebrew Bible. Dance and drama also formed a significant part of the Jewish faith.

    On the other hand, there has also always been a tension in the Christian tradition between what it sees as the valid expression of creativity in spirituality and what it sees as idolatry or immorality. In the first creativity is seen to take the place of God. In the second, creativity reduces life to the sensual and material. In both of these, creativity is seen to get in the way of spirituality.

  • Dan Smith says:

    FWIW. I think there is a division to be made between spirituality and organised religion but I think amongst those organised religions the monotheists do have an unresolved problem with creativity; there is one god (God) and the book (The Book) says exactly what god is like and what they did. Fundamentally God did all the creating and creation is now finished (otherwise aren’t we are implying God didn’t do things right the first time…don’t you be dissing God now). We are just here to follow the rules in The Book, as interpreted by the priesthood. Our role is to mark time until our ‘reward’, it is absolutely not to do any creating, anything like that from us would be hubris.

    The wellspring of creativity is curiosity and I think monotheism is fundamentally against curiosity also. There is an orthodox rabbi who sets up a desk and chair in the street near our lab. He has a sign ‘ask the rabbi’ and when you ask him “Rabbi, how old is the universe?” he says “So why do you want to know?”. Further conversation is entertaining but fundamentally futile. Our lab building also faces a Catholic church which celebrates a Jesuit who was trained by Cardinal Bellarmine who walked in the garden with Galileo and led him naively to believe that curiosity would lead somewhere other than the Inquisition and the rack. Surely from Mary Shelley onwards SF writing has been intrinsically hubristic because it imagines other ways of being human?

    A double edged sword the stipend, etymologically speaking the ‘stip’ bit means tiny and there is a certain humiliation in a tiny income, but I am a PhD student whose stipend runs out in September (which is indeed concentrating the mind); there is a big difference (whether it is income or genitalia) between tiny wee and nothing, rien du tout (ничего). It is overstating it somewhat but my stipend does remind me of the Woody Allen quote about life,’full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon’. Over lab beers a fellow mature PhD student said that legally the definition of a stipend is that the work done is of no use whatsoever – one day I will get even with my supervisor for laughing at that.

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