Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration
By Alexander Slagg
The Fountainhead of Creativity
You hunt them, you get in your little boat, you paddle onto the dark water, and you wait. You set your nets and you wait. And sometimes you pull up your nets and something the size of a freight train has gone through them, and sometimes minnows. But occasionally something will come into the net that is not so small as to be trivial and not so large as to be incomprehensible. This thing can be wrestled with for hours and eventually brought home to show the startled folks back on shore.
— Terence McKenna
I am inspired by this quote from Terence McKenna, the ethnobotanist, philosopher, and celebrated psychedelic guru, who passed away in 2000. He’s talking about his use of psychedelics as a way for generating transformative ideas. But for me, he could be talking about the creative process itself. This is how I imagine it.
Where do our creative ideas come from? I imagine an underground lake or aquifer, similar to the kind where McKenna’s boat has rowed out onto. We humans spend most of our lives above ground, on the surface. Our conscious, day-to-day lives unfold up there. Each of us individuals living out our personal adventures topside. But beneath the surface of all this conscious activity there is an aquifer, an underground ocean of subconsciousness shared by everyone. This is where creative ideas come from.
Being born into the conscious world, we inherit a legacy of cultural experience and knowledge. You only have to look out your window to see buildings, roads, sidewalks, sewer and telecom systems, an entire landscape left by those that came before us. Each of us comes along as just the latest link in a chain of experience that can be extended back tens of thousands, maybe millions, of years.
The same holds true for the internal human landscape, where creative ideas take shape. Look at stories. Storytelling is a basic human function. Whether it’s retelling the day’s events to a spouse, a detective drama on TV, or a children’s bedtime story, humans use stories to share information in all sorts of contexts. Generations of storytellers have collectively created the archetypes, the worn pathways, that we all use as the building blocks for our stories. The separated lovers, the adventuring hero, the remote wise sage, the evil king, the helpful animal friend. Think of how many lips Grimm’s fairy tales passed through before you first heard Little Red Riding Hood.
This can be a difficult idea to swallow, especially for artists, who often pride themselves on the “originality” of their ideas. We all have egos and we all like to imagine ourselves as independent beings operating off our own individual compasses to navigate life. The thought that there may not be any “original” thoughts or stories to tell seems ridiculous.
Another way to approach this is the Buddhist concept of emptiness: We do not have individual identities, we are empty, a small part of a much larger experiential unfolding, which is life itself. What we refer to as our “selves” is a singular manifestation of this unfolding, the crest of a single wave in the ocean — so it is unique and individual in that sense. But in reality, we’re facets of some all-encompassing diamond, our creative ideas the glimmers and sparkles we give off.
The underground aquifer is related to that notion of emptiness. Individual human beings don’t have an individual subconscious, per se, but share a collective unconscious, an interconnected human experience unfolding on a subconscious level. Maybe that aquifer even extends to other living beings: plants, animals, anything with life force. What kind of story might a rabbit or a carrot have to tell?
I think that because human beings spend so much time focused on the above ground conscious world, that most of us allow this subterranean connection to atrophy. Most of us don’t exercise our subconscious muscles enough.
But not the artists. While everyone has the necessary human software to draw from the aquifer, it is the artists that have exercised and kept this connection updated and functioning. Humanity certainly needs its lawyers, traders, warriors, and doctors. All have a space to occupy beneath the sun of the conscious world above.
But that’s only part of the human experience. There’s so much more going on beneath the surface of things. And it is the dreamers, the artists, that travel between the worlds, rowing out onto that vast underground lake to hunt, netting the wisdom and meaningful experiences of all who have come before us and returning to the surface to share their bounty with others.
Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well offers a literary lounge, where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Feel free to share your own experiences by commenting on a post.