Practicing Creativity

Practice awareness of the whole

For life to occur, everything is governed by the wholeness from which it came.

Every creative process can be seen as a series of individual steps or actions. One brush stroke at a time, one word or sentence at a time, one brick at a time. And yet each of these individual steps are part of a singular unfolding of a whole—a painting, a book, a building. Similarly, the results of a generative creative process are themselves made up of smaller wholes and are part of larger wholes, either physical or more abstract. A building is made of rooms and part of a neighborhood, a book is made of chapters and paragraphs and part of a series, genre, or ongoing written conversation, a painting is made of distinct sections or subjects and part of the place in which it might be hung and the place it was made.

In any creative process, although we can only take one step at a time, it is vital to maintain and deepen awareness of the whole in each individual step. At any moment, beginning, middle, or end, the whole must be developed together, so that each part can be adjusted in relationship to each other part if it is to have the qualities of life and to be coherent and unified—Creativity is organic. If each part is developed on its own, they may become isolated and disjointed, separate components not in relationship to each other and not supporting and strengthening each other.

Developing and maintaining awareness of the whole, even when focused on individual small steps, is a key creative skill. To practice this requires being able to shift back and forth between paying attention to the "big picture" and the "small details" and many scales—the forest and the trees and the leaves. We must try to perceive the whole deeply within the senses and within memory, to keep it in mind and to check in with the whole after each structure changing step, so that it can guide our next individual action. In only paying attention to individual centers or small details, we lose essential perspective on the larger relationships. In only paying attention to the big picture and not zooming in to small details, we miss developing internal structure that gives the whole itself depth and scale.

Of course, wholeness involves more than the thing itself. The wholeness of a building involves the building and the people who live there. The wholeness of a book involves the author and the subject and those who will read it. The wholeness of a painting involves the canvas and the subject and the place it is made—There is a living relationship between the maker, the object, the subject, and the people who live with the object.

  • It is helpful to Sketch the whole first – roughly place the entire area of work to establish the whole right away
  • Then, develop the whole together. After working in one area for a while, move on to another area to see what change to the whole may have occured as a result of your work.
  • Progress from larger to smaller wholes, or centers, getting more specific and more detailed so that each is in proportion to its larger whole and scale and depth is developed over time.

Each act of building, which differentiates a part of space, needs to be followed soon by further acts of building, which further differentiate the space to make it still more whole.
–Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

"If you want to make a living flower, you don't build it physically, with tweezers, cell by cell. You grow it from the seed." The Timeless Way of Building

A work developed this way is always whole and always complete, even if not "finished." Even as a sketch, it can be left as it is if time or resources run out, and returned to later, or left as a complete work of its own—Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.

I want to be whole.
-bell hooks

Pages that link here

Find community in sages and scenes
Find time and space to be with people who are interested in what you're making and also how you're making it

Creativity is organic
Creative processes that result in The Quality Without a Name maintain a state of coherence and wholeness as the project's shape evolves, gradually growing as though from a seed, rather than building from a pre-conceived master plan or assembling from pre-fabricated parts

These are my draft notes on creativity—as a skill, a practice, and a mystery

Reduce batch size and increase frequency
Reduce overall project size and the size of each step

Practice morphogenetic creative processes
A morphogenetic process follows a system of simple rules (like a genetic code), and evolves through patient application of those rules

Match each action to the scale of the tool
When developing the whole, the size and scale of your tools will have a direct influence on the scale you can develop in a single step or cycle

About Practicing Creativity

These are my notes on creativity—as a skill, a practice, and a mystery. Everything you find here is in a perpetual draft state and much of it may not make sense. I hope these notes become clearer over time as I continue writing and updating them, although I hope they might be useful even in disarray.

For updates on new or revised notes, please subscribe to the newsletter!