Two weekends ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a water color workshop taught by artist/ teacher/ writer Jeanne Carbonetti at her beautiful and restful home and studio in rural Chester, Vermont. I am not a watercolorist, but rather a dabbler in the arts, seeking an antidote to months of focusing on words in an intensive creative writing experience. I hoped to learn something more about the medium than the primitive amount I knew and to enjoy the sensation of dabbing color on paper. What I did not expect was a well-thought through theory of the creative process.
I love getting my mind around a good theory, and Jeanne’s did not disappoint. Her ideas, which are inspried by Eastern thought, are applicable to creative pursuits of all kinds and perhaps to a life as a whole. She poses a seven stage “cycle of creativity.” As someone who currently feels creatively stuck, I was at first pleased to learn that only in one of the seven stages is one actually producing!
Jeanne likens the process to an oyster creating a pearl. Each stage poses a task, a challenge, and a gift, and Jeanne illustrates each one with a work from literature. The process is more fully described in two of her books: Making Pearls: Living the Creative Life and The Heart of Creativity: Imagination, Inspiration, and Destiny.
Here are the 7 stages, briefly summarized from my rather crude notes, omitting the stories and the analogies to light:
1. WAITING (Desire): The desire forms. Maybe there is an image floating in your mind. Be alone and let it form. The Challenge of the Heart: Making sure that it is your desire and not someone else’s.
2. OPENING (Fantasy): This is a time of experimentation, a time when you fall in love with the idea. The Challenge of the Heart: To see the truth behind the fantasy or dream.
3. CLOSING (Goal): The oyster closes his shell around the seed that will become the pearl. Imagination has become a goal. You don’t want other energies to take you away from it or casting negative energy on it. The Challenge of the Heart: You know what you want to happen but you can’t force it. This is the ONE stages that seems as though it is true production.
4. HOLDING (Dream): This stage is a plateau. Your goal is becoming real on the “quantum level,” but it’s not there for other people to see yet. (The pearl has grown, but the oyster can’t let go of it yet.) The Challenge of the Heart: Holding onto your dream in the face of all your chores. There may be a feeling of not wanting to commit.
5. RELEASING (Mission): You are one with your mission. The Challenge of the Heart is not to “get missionary” about what you are doing. Let others do their thing; you don’t need to talk about yours.
6. EMPTYING (Vision): You are letting go of your ego, and a higher self is taking over; you are one with your creation. The Challenge of the Heart is to ground your vision. You will let it be whatever it is and will know when it is finished.
7. SITTING (Destiny): The pressure is now off until the process starts all over again.
How did this cycle play out for me in my artistic retreat? I arrived enthusiastically, my unopened tubes of color and sterile brushes in hand. I had no anxiety because I had no expectations. I enjoyed myself, but I struggled through my first few paintings, trying to apply Jeanne’s techniques and then taking in the suggestions she gave me. I was never at one with my creations. They were all experiments, misformed pearls at best that allowed me to learn about the properties of the paint. I watched as some of the other artists confidentally filled gigantic pieces of paper. It hardly mattered when I ripped one of my creations as I removed the masking tape. The painting was good in parts but not as a whole. Finally, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to paint small, to create tiny works of focused art. When I let go of the external voices, in less than half an hour (with a gap in between for the holding period), I produced my favorite painting of the weekend, my perfect little pearl (for a novice). It felt right and true. I was content for a brief moment. And now I sit and wait.