Posts Tagged ‘what is real creativity’

“The Courage to Create”, a reading of Dr. Rollo May’s book.

November 7, 2017



(Watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels, “Italian Dawn” 2007)


Recently I have come to believe  it takes courage to continue on in our interests:  people are challenged because others want to pigeon-hole an artist.  Perhaps this is human nature.  Labeling  artists makes them easier to grasp, and we can be kind of slippery.  But overall, it is rather uncomfortable to have to feel that you need defend your talent or interests. Having to explain yourself to people who just don’t get it….the creative impulse, is exhausting.  Further, it takes time and energy that should be used in creating things.  And anyway, what is this creative impulse?

Recently I have been reading Rollo May’s “Courage to Create”.  This book is an eye opener.   It’s  a little dated, having been written in 1975, and points to cultural issues, political issues of that era. However, the issues of creativity are timeless.

I am going to pose some of his arguments and also some of my own conclusions.  I do this because I believe the issue that is so many times pressed, that creativity is all about will-power, is wrong and limited.  Actually, defeating.

I am struggling to understand the deeper issues around creativity and Dr. May has produced one of the best books that breaks through to new territory.

Rollo May (a world distinguished psychologist) wrote lucidly about creativity.  Besides being in a medical field, he was also a gifted watercolorist.  Actually, he was many things and embraced for his humanistic writings by people all over the world. In his “The Courage to Create”, May parcels out his theories of courage in six parts which I will cover in only a small way.  Very crucial to this issue of courage is what he defines as not the absence of despair, fear, insecurity but the capacity to move ahead in spite of all these things.  I think many creative people do this without thinking: However,  I think we are deeply mired in these negative obstacles but we move ahead anyway, full of doubt, haltingly.  We do it because of our personal, emotional involvement with creativity.  It’s the issue of acknowledging courage that throws a new and confusing concept in the mix. Perhaps we create more by instinct, or that we can’t not create. Something to do with the ‘pounding in the blood’, the intense concentration that erases all else in front of us….for good or bad.

May made the observation that a chief characteristic of this courage was that it required a centeredness within our own being, without which we would feel ourselves to be a vacuum.  The ‘emptiness’ within corresponds to an apathy without and apathy adds up, in the long run, in my belief,  to cowardice.

For me apathy extends to an inability to move, to think.  Just giving up on life. And creativity.  I have known people who end up forever apathetic. (I also have come to understand the relationship between apathy and violence.  Apathy ultimately becomes a ‘black hole’ in the psyche….a disconnect from humanity, and this becomes ripe for violence.)  People might be very talented, but they hit a roadblock in their pursuit of creativity and they give up. They don’t pursue because they don’t feel this centeredness.  They just give up.  They may have talents, but they flail around and in the end, they abandon the process.  I would suggest that they feel ‘outside’ to all attempts of creativity, and this certainly goes against this required “centeredness” that Rollo May speaks of.

We must base our commitment to the center of our own being, or else no commitment will be authentic.  And real courage isn’t bravado or rashness.

This issue of centeredness is interesting.   It accounts for many years of feeling alien, different, out of sync with the people either you meet or know from family ties. It basically is a denial of ‘difference’ in order to feel ‘connected’ to people.  I have found that it also means that I ‘dumb down’ myself just to ‘fit in’.  (This phenomena is seen in women, first in girls, where we deny our strength, our speed, our intellectual prowess because we think boys will be rattled by what we can do) . In the end (and beginning, middle) it’s just not worth it: this behavior delays, denies any creativity that might be brewing. This behavior denies the courage to create. And that creativity is the center of self.


In humans, courage is necessary to make being and becoming possible.  In nature, this isn’t exactly so, as an acorn becomes an oak by automatic growth, but a man or woman becomes fully human only by his or her choices and the exhibited commitment to them. Our self-worth is predicated on our choices. (I can’t say this enough!) This is a hard lesson to learn because it doesn’t come fast or easy.  It’s something that comes only with an understanding of what choices lead to clarity, against choices that derail us.  And it’s time consuming and something we have to do over and over.   It is also key to avoid the people who more than doubt, but would rather see us fail.  There is jealousy in such people, and even a closeness of relationship, as in family, can bring this ‘quality’ out into the open and allow destructiveness to blossom.


May describes the physical, moral, social courage and finally, what he sites as the most important courage of all….creative courage.  Whereas moral courage is the righting of wrongs, creative courage is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which, in part…. a better society can be built.

Why is creativity so difficult?  Why does it require so much courage?

George Bernard Shaw put forth something that has a profound truth to it:  “Creativity provokes the jealousy of the gods”.  And a creative person, IF she or he is authentic to their art, is always in some sort of turmoil.  Either internally, because of doubt and fear, or externally because the gods:  those in authority, or something like this, the status quo…are never accepting of something new and strange to them.  I remember a gallery owner who challenged me as to whether I was a painter or manufactured sculpture.  I was both, but this rather narrow woman could not accept this. My painting was fine, and my sculpture was fine, but she demanded that I choose between one medium or the other.  I couldn’t and was very confused by her mentality.  Now I can understand her limitations.  For a while her perspective deeply affected my thoughts about my own creativity, and then I came to my senses.  Who was she to limit my creativity, regardless of medium? (Her gallery closed soon after because what she carried was rather boring and stilted ‘art’.)


I faced this mentality for decades with a close family member who tried to diminish my own attempts in being creative.  She was no paragon of creativity, preferring to produce ‘safe’ poetry that was pretty dull, trite, sentimental  stuff. IF she had applied herself to the study of poetry, perhaps she could have written better verse.  However, she skimmed the surface, preferring it to be a product of her ego, and for her, that was enough.

We need to get out of the way of our creativity at times!  Regardless of emotional ties, we need to see what boxes people attempt to stuff us into.  If we are truly committed to the center of our own being (and we know what that entails) we will break free of this enforced dullness, this oppression.  It leads only to a depressing state of affairs.  Some people can try to enforce this dullness because they aren’t the people who create.  And some are just envious of another’s creativity. My mother ‘suffers’ (or actually others suffer from her) from narcissism.  And narcissists deny anything of creativity that they can’t claim…especially if it is produced by a family member.  This came home to me in a real way when the last letter I received from her in 2012 stated this after the publication of my third book:  “I can never be truly proud of you because you haven’t allowed me into your artistry.”  Well, hell mother…had I done so, there wouldn’t BE any ‘artistry’ as you call it.  But further, this statement from her, a functioning narcissist, is the leitmotiv of a true narcissist.  It is always about them, regardless who holds the pen or paintbrush. This isn’t a fertile ground for true creativity: it’s just a reflection of shallow ego.


How Religion Also Screws With Creativity


In Judaism and Christianity, the second commandment states:  “You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens, earth or sea”.  But this commandment holds the fear that every society has about its artists, poets, writers, those that express their authentic creativity:  These are the people who threaten the status quo.  In Russia for generations, and in many countries today, the struggle to control speech, art, dance, writings, poetry, etc. is continuous.  We see this in our own country in many ways.  And we certainly see this in Muslim/ Middle East countries (and India and Pakistan) where women especially are denied access to their creativity. To do so will upset the status quo and get you in a world of trouble. And probably stoned to death.

Mythology’s Impact

Our human psychology and social evolution is also seriously impacted with mythology. The Greek myth of Prometheus, who was chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus, (because he gave humankind fire) where a vulture would eat away his liver, only to have it grow again at night.  Zeus was outraged, the gods were angry, and it is very common for artists to be exhausted at the end of the day, to despair of ever completing their vision, to have their ‘liver’ grow back at night, and for them to have a fresh perspective the next day. Artists strive with renewed hope and vigor in the smithy of their soul. (Funny, in my studies of the Berber culture, the liver is the seat of the soul, and the soul is destroyed if the liver destroyed.)

It is obvious to most artists that the creative artist and poet, etc. must fight the actual gods of our society- the gods of conformity, apathy, material success and exploitative power.  These are the usual ‘idols’ that are worshiped by the multitude.  And it is across the board regardless of culture.

The Nature of Creativity

There is no general agreed upon definition of this nature, especially amongst psychologists and the therapeutic field.  Some hold that creativity is reductive: in other words, they reduce creativity to some other process.  Also, it’s an expression of neurotic patterns, or “regression in the service of the ego.”  This last immediately smacks of a reductive theory.

No wonder artists, creative people, have a hard time of it!  When your attempt at creativity is seen as neurotic you lose confidence.  You seriously doubt your sanity. And the general public isn’t at all helpful.

But there is a consideration (of which I won’t belabor here….) that when we define creativity, we must make the distinction between its pseudo forms and its authentic forms. Superficial creativity (art forms) that deal with only appearances or decoration, but not with reality is part of this collection of pseudo forms.  True artists give birth to some new reality….and it is usually fought against by the multitude because of its alien-ness. Picasso was a good example of this, (and his creativity took so many forms and not all of them embraced) and it can take generations for acceptance by the status quo.  And then the artist probably is dead and only the super wealthy can afford the genuine art. 

The Encounter.

 Dr. May is big on this issue of encounter. He states that escapist creativity is that which lacks encounter. (the reality of encountering life, etc. and it’s impact upon creativity. In escapist, exhibitionistic forms of creativity there is no real encounter, no engagement with reality).   We all know people who have great, elaborate ideas:  they can talk about them forever, but they never actualize them.  They are all fantasy and in the end….they lack the encounter with reality. I have found, (being a poet) that poets are some of the worst offenders of this encounter.  Recently, I left a prestigious poetry and literary journal because the vast majority of poets and writers wrote abstract, academic work that had no reflection of the myriad problems of their respective countries. (unfortunately, these were all male poets.) They refused to.  In fact, I was told basically ‘not to rock the boat’.  How much more interesting and informative it would have been to read essays on the social issues of India, Pakistan, Africa, etc. and some solutions to the troubling issues of these countries…especially  concerning the oppression of women.  I have little patience with what I feel is an ingrained misogyny of many writers who just “aren’t interested” in these social issues, and consider them beneath the level of ‘true’ creativity.  I put these writers and poets on the level of escapist creativity that lacks true encounter.  I try to avoid them like the plague.

The Difference between Talent and Creativity.

And that brings up the question of the difference between talent and creativity.  A few years ago, a woman who was a writer and artist was a house guest.  She said she was writing a novel, and as she elaborated on it, I could see that she hadn’t put down a word.  She was making it up as she talked. It was all fantasy, all in her head, and not in a very collected state. I shouldn’t have been surprised.  As I knew her from five years on different writing sites, she had exhibited a lot of emotional issues:  she couldn’t face them, but they certainly directed her life and her ‘creativity’.  She refused any consideration of therapy and continued to stroke her wounds. (and cut herself for psychological reasons..)   At that time, I tolerated her behavior.  Now?  I avoid her.  We are all responsible for the choices we make in our lives. She certainly had talent, but her creativity (the act) was truncated. She refused the encounter with reality in her own life and her creativity suffered because of it.  She stuck to unicorns, dragons and flowers.

I’ve had this struggle of encounter with a therapist for a number of years.  The concept of encounter also allows us to make clear the important distinction between talent and creativity.  Talent might well have its neurological parts and can be studied as ‘given’ to a person.  But creativity can only be seen in the act.  Picasso is again a great example of this: great talent, great encounter with life and this produces great creativity.  He is great because of his intensity of encounter.  It is not necessarily pretty or polite, but it should be intense on a fundamental level.

This is the second part of the creative act:  the intensity of the encounter. Genuine creativity is known by this force or power.

Many readers of this essay will recognize the altered state that comes when one is deeply involved in their creative process:  time disappears, sound doesn’t impinge upon the project, hunger is ignored, a single mindedness becomes absolute until the creative person comes to a stopping point, either through exhaustion or something that intrudes too hard to ignore.  The creative spell is broken.  But it definitely is an altered state.

I have written only a few words about this intensity of encounter, but I intend to write more as I figure it out.  I also want to get to what in my own life has been a propellant in my creativity.  And that is that Creativity is born in the Encounter with Opposition.  True creativity needs this frisson to birth or reveal itself.


The Courage to Create, Part II


I came across a part of Rollo May’s book, “The Courage to Create” that had a particular interest to a number of readers who were raised by narcissistic parents.  I am posting Dr. May’s words here just for further contemplation and discussion.  I find this idea of May to be intriguing and thoughtful. 

It is a particular discovery concerning a class difference in the behavior or the result of narcissistic parents on their daughters.  In my opinion, it is true and reveals the basis for the misery of many young women from the early teen years but with an interesting class difference.  Readers can draw their own conclusions.  I think Dr. May revealed something very powerful, true. 

Dr. May was studying the issue of rejection and anxiety of young women by narcissistic parents, mainly the maternal rejection. (This made it into the book under the section: “Creativity and the Unconscious”) What was surprising to him was what he and other psychologists had assumed to be true, that they would be hardened, apathetic so that they didn’t feel the rejection?

“Where they sociopathetic or psychopathetic types who didn’t feel rejection? (these were young women who were unwed, pregnant and basically thrown out of their birth families, some the victims of incest) No, they weren’t.

As one, named Mary said: “We have troubles but we don’t worry.”

One day I was walking down the street,  I was tired, and out of the blue, it struck me that all these women were from the proletarian class.  And as quickly as that idea struck me, other ideas poured out.   A whole new hypothesis broke loose in my mind.  I realized my entire theory would have to be changed.  I saw at that instant that it is not rejection by the mother that is the original trauma which is the source of anxiety (in the daughters…);  it is rather rejection that is lied about.

The proletarian mothers rejected their children, but they never made any bones about it.  The children knew they were rejected; they went out on the streets and found other companions, (and I believe mother substitutes…JKB) There was never any subterfuge about their situation.  They knew their world—bad or good—and they could orient themselves to it.  But the middle-class young women were always lied to in their families.   They were rejected by mothers who pretended they loved them.  This really the source of their anxiety, not the sheer rejection.  I saw in that instantaneous way that characteristics, insights from these deeper sources, that anxiety comes from not being able to know the world you’re in, not being able to orient yourself in your own existence. “

Above From “The Courage to Create”, Rollo May, 1975

Though Dr. May is talking about how concepts can be overturned, how the unconscious holding to something that might not be true in theory (what he was taught by his professors) there comes a point hopefully, where a radical rupture with what is ‘known’ is overturned and something new, a new development in theory …is formed.

I will just put forth my own speculation, and this is because of my own experience with a narcissistic family member and also from my own class position, or that of my mother.  Middle class parents, or upper class parents have a social position to ‘protect’.  They would be ‘shamed’ for outright rejection of their children, be ostracized by their peers, social class, IF they were open about their hatred, dislike, contempt, etc. of their children, and especially when the mother is the narcissist and a daughter is her scapegoat.  They are protecting themselves, and hence the extended lies about their pretended love of their children.  They will talk in ‘glowing terms’ (to outsiders) about the very children they dismiss, demean, abuse privately, but they don’t want to get ‘caught’ doing this by their social ‘club’.  That would mean that they failed in some important way as a parent.  Within dysfunctional families of a particular class, it’s all about protecting the ‘image’ of the family.  Further, it’s all about protecting the narcissist. (However, the longer this behavior of the narcissist continues…say decades, they lose the impulse to cover their behavior:  they rewrite history to say the victim, the scapegoat has left the narcissist, caused the ‘riff’,  thereby pulling sympathy for themselves from anyone who doesn’t know the actual history of the narcissist.)

I remember an incident in an ex family.  The adult children were heavily involved in drugs.  They were a prominent upper class family, with much social connections to protect.  One of the sons wrapped his sports car around a telephone pole, and his mother said that “they had enough money to make anything disappear.”  Again, it’s all about protecting image.

So, we have discussed this issue before of rejection by narcissistic parents, and our anxiety is never really knowing where we are in the family.  We are kept unbalanced, anxious, by the (sometimes sociopathic) behavior of narcissistic parents.  Our anxiety comes from not being able to know the world we are in, not being able to orient ourselves in our own existence. “ 

And the narcissists in our lives take great sadistic pleasure in doing this, in increasing our confusion, our inability to know our place in the family.  They depend upon this.

For me, this above relates to what I wrote in the first part of this essay, that our creativity comes from our core, our centeredness, knowing ourselves and believing, taking courage in our abilities regardless what and who are trying to throw us off our mark. When we attain clarity as to the functions of a dysfunctional family, or family member (and there usually isn’t just one….other members are impacted and take on the behavior of the Chief Narcissist) we can put these destructive people behind us and go on to developing our creativity and living a better and fuller life.  They are only boulders in the road, though seemingly solid ones,  and we have to go around  or over them.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2015



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