What Is the Creative Process? Book Review

The Creative Process: Reflections on Invention in the Arts and Sciences

Edited With An Introduction by Brewster Ghiselin

Reviewed by Julie Sara Porter

What is the Creative Process? Book Cover of the Book The Creative ProcessWhat does it mean to be creative? What is the creative process? Where does inspiration come from? Where do the great thinkers and artists get their ideas? How does someone take an idea into fruition and turn it into something physical? What actually is the Creative Process? Is a creative person’s mind different from other people’s?

These are questions that many have asked over the centuries. Even creative people themselves don’t have the answers or at least don’t have the same answers. Their inspirations, ideas, and processes are as varied as their talents.

The book The Creative Process: Reflections on Inspirations in the Arts and Sciences explores how many approach their creativity. Professor Emeritus and Doctor of Humane Letters h.c., University of Utah, Brewster Ghiselin gathered chapter excerpts, letters, and essays from scientists, mathematicians, composers, painters, sculptors, novelists, poets, short story authors, playwrights, philosophers, and psychologists. Each one explained how they get their ideas and how they proceed with turning those ideas into reality. This book is as creative as the people within it.

Mathematicians and Scientists

“Mathematical Creation” by Henri Poincaré

Most people would think that mathematicians are purely logical and scientific in their approach to such theories. Henri Poincaré‘s essay revealed that mathematicians are more right-brained than most people believe.

The mental process between mathematicians and numbers is more intuitive and imaginative because they recognize patterns and treat the numerical process like a work of art.

Even the answer to solving equations relies more on imagination than putting together the formulae as Poincaré learned when he wrote his first memoir on Fuchsian functions. He sat at his desk and pored over the function for fifteen days hoping to find a solution. The process eventually came to Poincaré after a sleepless night of various ideas formulating in his head.

The results emerged when he took a trip to Caen for a break from his work. While going on a geological expedition and walking along the beach, the results to Poincare’s functions became clear. This essay shows that sometimes the answers to a problem come when we aren’t looking for them.

“Letter to Jacques Hadamard” by Albert Einstein

This book is an interesting journey in some of the biggest names in the Arts and Science. One of the biggest names is that of Albert Einstein.

In a letter to his colleague, Jacques Hadamard, Einstein described his thought process as he worked on his scientific theories. He wrote that he was unable to think in words or sounds but instead in visuals and movements. He got images in his head and then conceived of the process in creating them.

This letter is short but echoed throughout Einstein’s life. One story said that he originally visualized his theory of relativity as streaks of light. He then calculated the formula based on the components of the light that he saw in his mind. This letter showed that there are many ways to arrive at a theory and that some bright people are able to think in pictures when words get in the way.

Musical Composers

“A Letter” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Sometimes the creative type is just as baffled as anyone else about where their inspiration comes from. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is such an example.

In a letter to an unknown recipient, Mozart said that he didn’t know where his compositions came from. Sometimes he hummed them to himself and other times he said that he just heard them in his head.

His process was just as confusing as the original spark of information. Mozart wrote that when he wrote down the compositions, he almost never had to rewrite them. They formed so perfectly in his mind as if from divine influence that Mozart just transcribed the music that was in his head. Mozart’s letter suggested that he believed his musical talent was a gift from a Higher Power and that he felt that he was a vessel to channel that power as music.

“The Composer and his Message” by Roger Sessions

Roger Sessions‘ essay, “The Composer and his Message” is a much more detached and earthier explanation of creativity than Mozart’s divine influence.

Sessions took the reader through three steps: Inspiration, Conception, and Execution to show how a composer’s creative process works.

The Inspiration is the first idea which takes small forms like a few notes or a melody. Sessions described inspiration as the initial energy. The Conception involved the form of a musical piece by moving the first few notes into something longer like the original outline of the inspiration. The piece takes form but isn’t fully finished only sketched out. The final step, Execution shapes the music into a full piece with phrases, motifs, chords, etc. Execution turns the original idea, then the sketched outline, into the final physical results.

“The Musical Mind” by Harold Shapero

Many composers like other creative people rely on memory and study to express themselves. However, instead of using words, they used tonal memory. Their connections to memory came in the form of various sounds, wrote Harold Shapero.

Shapero believed that one way to strengthen that connection between composer and tonal memory is to study the works of other composers. When a musical person listens to those works and pays attention to the musical styles, movements, and phrases they adapted them to their memory. They direct the music to express and share the memory with listeners.


“Letter to Anton Ridder Van Rappard” by Vincent Van Gogh

Many of the people in this book wrote about how they work from memory. Then there are others, like Vincent Van Gogh, who prefer to work with more emotion, commenting on how they feel, not the exact details of what they remember.

In his letter to Anton Ridder Van Rappard, Van Gogh said that he drew different versions of the same model. He selected the picture that was the most different and expressed his strongest emotion about the subject.

Van Gogh also wrote that he did not use detail in his lighting and shading. Instead, he preferred to suggest things in his work. He wanted to retain the dreamlike quality of his paintings and have people guess what they see in them without him telling.

“Making Pictures” by D.H. Lawrence

It can be difficult for some to shift from one medium to another, but others actually thrive on it. When he was forty, D.H. Lawrence decided to become a painter.

The author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Sons and Lovers revealed that he never had a formal art lesson, but he painted anyway. He believed that painting expressed his inner emotions, something that he felt modern artists did not understand.

Lawrence wrote that many of the modern artists that he knew missed the point when they drew geometric shapes instead of landscapes and discussed artistic theories rather than practicing art. Instead of art, Lawrence believed they treated painting as a science by removing the passion and spontaneity of the medium.

“Notes on Sculpture” by Henry Moore

Sculptors have to rely on certain dimensions that other visual artists don’t, such as shape and size. Henry Moore wrote that those dimensions develop the sculptor’s creativity and imagination.

Often the sculptor creates a mental picture of the shape in their minds. The shape might be a familiar one as pebbles and other natural objects were to Moore.

When Moore examined the pebbles’ shape and form, he recognized little details such as tiny holes inside the pebbles. He then used those details in his sculptures.

Moore also referred to a sculpture’s size as a way of expressing artistic intent. A large sculpture, for example, might symbolize vastness or magnificence. Moore cited that Stonehenge, for example, would not be as impressive if it were built on a smaller scale.


“The Process of Inspiration” by Jean Cocteau

Far from divine influence, Jean Cocteau believed that there is more conscious effort in writing. He believed that the moments in daily life such as emotional events and stories inspire a person. Those moments capture the writer so much that they feel that they have to write about it thereby bringing that memory to life.

Cocteau’s play Knights of the Round Table is such an example. Cocteau revealed that after he was tired of writing, he took a break. He then dreamt of a play in a three-day structure filled with characters and themes that interested him. In his dream, he observed the play as a spectator and was so enraptured by the performance that upon awakening, he began to write the play down.

“The Making of a Poem” by Stephen Spender

Instead of dreaming of inspiration, Stephen Spender preferred to walk his readers through the steps of how a poem is created. These steps helped to reveal where a poem comes from and how the poet puts their work together.

One of those steps is Concentration. A poet must be willing to devote time to their art, away from distractions from the outside world so they can organize, fine tune, and edit their work. Another step is Inspiration. A poet can find ideas anywhere from a sunny day, to a decent breakup, or even a phrase as Spender did when he wrote down “A language of flesh and roses” and composed a poem based on that source of inspiration.

Another important step is Memory. Poets recall certain events and even when they don’t get the specific details right, they use their senses and emotional connections to recall and write down the event. Another step is Faith which Spender wrote is not necessarily in the religious context. Spender defined faith as belief in the poet’s vocation of capturing the world around them and sharing their view with others. They also have a deep intuitive connection with nature, the supernatural, history, and other people that the poet chooses as their subject.

The final step is Song. Poets often infuse their works with an intended rhythm, meter, and sometimes rhyme. Even blank verse poems have a certain form to them that allows the poet to capture their own style in the poem.

“How ‘Flint and Fire’ Started and Grew” by Dorothy Canfield

Sometimes even the seemingly shortest works take the greatest of efforts. In her essay, Dorothy Canfield revealed how a chance encounter on a nature walk led to her short story, “Flint and Fire.”

While walking, Canfield encountered an elderly man. After talking about trivial things, the man wistfully said that the brook near his house sounded louder than usual. Canfield knew the man’s grandfather had drowned in that brook. This conversation led her to think about grief, loss, and guilt over past memories and became the springboard for her short story.

Canfield also wrote about the changes and revisions that she made to the story. For example, she changed her lead character’s age and gender so the man nor his family would think it was about him. She also wanted to write about young lovers, so she inserted them into her story as well, changing one of the character’s motives from the original tale. After she wrote down her idea, Canfield spent several hours revising and editing her story to remove mistakes and change the dialogue to make it sound more authentic. When she was satisfied, she finally sent the story to her publisher.

“Reflections on Writing” by Henry Miller

All creators strive for authenticity. One of the ways that they do that is to find their unique voice. Henry Miller realized this when he began his novel writing career.

Uncertain of his own talents, Miller studied the works of his favorite authors such as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Hamsun, and Mann. He tried to write like them and gave up in despair. He threw out his previous works and began to write again in his own style, using his own voice. He realized that he made a better Henry Miller than a Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Miller continued to trust his own voice throughout his writing career to the point that he allowed the voice to guide the process. He never planned his novels in advance. Instead, he wrote whatever came to mind, no matter how seemingly nonsensical or trivial. He then used his instinct and intuition so that the writing leads to the creation of his novels.

What Is the Creative Process? The Answer of Psychology

“Psychology and Literature” by Carl Gustav Jung

If these essays weren’t enough to convince anyone that a creative person’s mind is different from others, Carl Jung’s essay on the Creative Process would certainly clarify it.

Using novelists and poets as his example, Jung believed that creative people were in touch with an intuitive almost psychic side. This intuitive side allowed the creative type access to dreams, symbols, mythology, personal experiences, and the Collective Unconscious. The creator then uses that intuitive information stored in their brains to create their works.

Jung also explained why so many writers and artists lead such troubled lives and are subjected to drug addiction, mental illness, and other difficulties. Jung believed that they are torn between their intuitive, creative side, which inspires them to work on their projects and their human side, which desires social contact, friendships, family, and a sense of belonging. The creator sometimes foregoes the human side for the intuitive and surrenders to their passionate desire to create. They sacrifice much of their humanity to produce such art.

This passionate desire comes at the expense of relationships and their own health. This struggle produces memorable works of art, science, and literature but also gives the world a creator who can’t always adjust to living in a normal world outside of their creation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *