‘This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.’ - SHUNRYU SUZUKI
As soon as I signed my second book deal, I quit my day job and started writing full-time. Unwise? Maybe. But I had written a book before – twice – and assumed I could do it again.
I soon realized that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write. I was writing constantly. But my stories just petered out. Or I had to force them into a shape that didn’t feel right.
And then I realized what the trouble was. I had lost my ‘beginner’s mind’.
This quality seems to deteriorate with age and with experience, however. If you ask the average adult to paint a picture they’ll say, ‘I can’t paint’. Then they’ll agonize over whether they’re doing it right and finally give up in disgust. This is because adults think too much – and thinking actually seems to inhibit creativity.
Science backs this up. According to neuroscientists, insight – those sudden leaps in comprehension – arrive when the brain’s prefrontal cortex instructs the logical left hemisphere to shut down in order to allow the intuitive right hemisphere to wander freely. You will have experienced this yourself when you’re trying to remember someone’s name. The more you wrack your brains the more distant the answer feels. “Never mind,” you say. “It’ll come to me.” Sure enough, when you’re no longer thinking about it, the answer pops into your head.
The message seems clear: if we want to be creative we need to stop thinking, and start acting on our intuition instead. And we need to keep acting on it, moment to moment, following that risky trail. Rather than knowing where we’re going, we must allow ourselves to be led. And that’s the most magical thing about writing. By following our hearts instead of our minds, we seem to be able to intuit a pattern of greater harmony – and therefore beauty – than we could have planned. Shaun McNiff in Trust the Process says, “I learn over and over again that the creative process is an intelligence that knows where it has to go. Somehow it always finds the way to the place where I need to be, and it is always a destination that never could have been known by me in advance.”
We need to learn to be comfortable with not knowing the answer. Some artists and writers are good at this. Agnes Martin, an abstract painter, says:
“I have a vacant mind, in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for….”
It’s this same ‘vacant mind’ that Keats is referring to in his letter to Robert Gittings:
“A Man of Achievement especially in literature, must possess this ‘Negative Capability’, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable searching after fact and reason.”