Book Excerpt: Listening to Design

The creative impulse is what moves you and powers the design process. It is an energy that causes you to say yes or no to a thought, feeling, image or pair of shoes. It may call you to go jogging or to play the harmonica. It may come from running with dogs or working in the garden. It may even come from choosing what clothes to wear.

Whatever is calling you—whether you hear, see, feel, sense or think it—you have been summoned. The great question is then whether you will respond to the call. Warning: you may not hear trumpets. There may be no twenty-one-gun salute.

You may hear only whispers or feel subtle tremors.

You may need to be really listening inwardly. What brings the creative impulse may be a book that speaks to you. It may be a feeling of delight in your belly. There is no single description of how each person experiences the creative impulse. For me it is a force. I always feel good when I say yes to it and often feel unsettled when I ignore it. The beauty of this call is that over time you can learn to recognize it—to be receptive to your own particular inner call of creative communication. As you get more and more practised at identifying the creative impulse, you can learn to trust it, act on it and share it. It is the subjective point of view that connects us to our personal needs and desires and ultimately to our creative instincts. When this connection is severed, vitality, the lifeblood, quickly drains from the system. No blood means no fire and no fire means no creative spirit. If you feel that you have lost your creative spirit, you might as well take a break. Indifference and creativity do not mix.

When we say, “I’ve got an idea,” what we actually mean is: “I’ve received an idea.” The truth is you cannot set about “getting” an idea. If you were able to, you could just schedule the time of your insights and ideas the way you can arrange to meet a friend for coffee. But it is impossible to schedule a particular time to get a great idea. A creative idea has to be received in its own time because it arises from the unconscious. We have no way of knowing it before we “get” it. The part of you that uses the ego to get things done may be very developed, but this is not the part of you that is in play when it comes to creating. The creative impulse comes to you and the job of the ego is to receive it. Once you have received it, know that you have been blessed. If you could simply arrange to get it whenever you wanted, there would be no anxiety or stress associated with creative work. You could simply order it online like a new shirt. It is worth reflecting that often the missing ingredient in the creative process is wisdom. Wisdom cannot be taught; it comes through the intuitive function and is received in much the same way as creativity is received.

With practice we can begin to learn that the ego is really good at investigating and asking questions. One of the conditions that most engenders creativity, however, is the creation of a receptive inner environment in which the ego asks a question and then gives space, silence and time to whatever arises in response. Allow the ego to abide in awareness. The skilful and deliberate practice of creative design work arises out of the relationship between the right questions and holding this space of becoming.creative

The felt experience of the question is very important and is often neglected. It carries the all-important emotional attitude of the inquiry; too much desire will stop the process, while being too relaxed will equally prevent anything from happening. The role of the ego is to stand guard and ensure that the most promising inner environment is poised for action.

What should you do with the creative impulse when you do receive it? Play with it! Each person has his or her own way of playing with the creative impulse. For some people it is visualized: the idea or image is held in their mind’s eye, allowed to unfold and transform. Some prefer to watch what happens when they make suggestions, seeing how the many forms of the creative impulse feel as they are played out. To nourish an idea, the creative person needs to be with and to revel in it, to watch it with affection and curiosity and to investigate it.

The creative individual needs to treat the idea like a brand-new living thing that is not yet able to stand up and walk on its own. If you are not sure where to go with a particular creative act, bring it into your heart and listen. Ask yourself, does this agree with my heart’s desire?

There are various things that can get in the way of this process: an intolerant attitude; anger; the internal voice that tells you to stop making a mess; the voice that berates you, telling you that you should have figured this out days ago; the voice that tells you it is too late and you are too stupid, that you should stop wasting your time; and the voice that says, “stop being a child.” Ignore all of these negative voices in spite of what you may hear, and tell yourself that this is your time. The creative impulse needs your complete attention and support. Give yourself permission to play with the ideas. Proceed as though the gods above are inviting you to be at one with the divine spark.

Does this mean you will not fail? Absolutely not. But it allows you to store up the kind of experiences you can draw upon when things get difficult.

And… it also gives you something to refer to for when things are going well.

Excerpted from Listening to Design: A Guide to the Creative Process, Reaktion Books, 2018. Andrew Levitt is a trained psychotherapist and a lecturer at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture.

Artwork by Fausta Facciponte, courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery.