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Creativity Analyzed: Psychology of the Artist

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An interview with Larry Staples, second in a series of interviews with contemporary Jungian analysts.

When I embarked on writing a memoir about my father seven years ago, I thought I'd be finished in a year, maybe two. Yet as time passed, putting Joe's story into words turned into its own kind of saga. Each memory led to a deeper memory, stirring excitement and also dread that I'd never finish. Not long ago, I reached "the end." Until I came across the work of Jungian analyst Larry Staples, I hardly had the words to describe my creative odyssey.

Staples himself knows what it's like to go against convention. At 50, he left a secure position with a Fortune 500 company, and spent the next nine years training at the Zurich Institute to become a Jungian analyst. Today he practices in the heart of Washington, D.C.; among his clients are artists, writers and even politicians. Proving the axiom that with age comes wisdom, Staples wrote his books, Guilt With a Twist, and The Creative Soul, at 76.

The following is an excerpt from our conversation on the psychology of creativity, and it's shadows: sin, guilt and anxiety.

Pythia: In Guilt With a Twist you write that creators who do something new suffer a burden of guilt. Why is that?

Larry: We feel guilty anytime we do something that's unacceptable according to some authority -- whether it's religious, secular or parental authority. The French Impressionists provoked shock and outrage, and were told by the French Ministry of Culture that they couldn't show their art. Thomas Wolfe was anathema after he wrote Look Homeward Angel, and could never return to his hometown of Asheville. Darwin was a Presbyterian; introducing his theory on evolution presented a huge conflict, and he suffered guilt all his life.

Pythia: A lot of creative dreams might get crushed under the weight of such guilt.

Larry: Many people are afraid to show their art, as it arouses childhood memories of showing a drawing or poem to their parents or teachers and being criticized, rejected or met with indifference. If this happens when we're young, it takes courage to continue, as these early experiences can stop us from creating.

But guilt also causes fear because deep down we're really afraid that when we create something that's met with disapproval, we're a bad person. And feeling bad causes us to feel anxious. The source of much of the anxiety we feel in life is the "unacceptable" thing that's trying to find it's way into consciousness: We want to do something selfish, or say something that we shouldn't. If we're creative, we want to write, paint or make something that we shouldn't. But to be alive and to be creative, we've got to experience and bear guilt.

Pythia: In fact, the message in your books seems to be that to sin is not such a bad thing. You write that you wrote Guilt With a Twist "to comfort us in the 'sins' we inevitably need to commit in pursuit of personal growth," and you point to the lives of many "sinners" who produced great good for their societies, such as Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Betty Friedan and others.

Larry: Well, we have to! The only way we can't sin is if we're dead. It's hard for me to imagine any human development based on righteousness, without ever doing something unacceptable or offending someone.

Pythia: Some might say we need guilt to keep us from doing evil things. But you point to the way guilt prevents us from living more authentic lives -- that by trying to please our parents and society, we "sin against our self."

Larry: At the deepest level we break the world down into the opposites of good and evil. But there is as well an imputed value of better or worse to all things: There's cold and warm, dark and light, masculine and feminine or rational and irrational. Usually one of those opposites is more preferable or acceptable. In fact, the things we feel guilty about often have very little to do with the Ten Commandments. We can feel guilty over whether we're assertive or not assertive enough, whether we work too hard or too little, or whether we're too fat or too skinny. So guilt always arises out of the conflict between two different actions, or thoughts or feelings.

Pythia: You also say guilt has a surprisingly useful function.

Larry: It's as if we're wired to feel guilty, because the tension that results from the collision of opposites creates energy that is essential to creativity and life. We always think that the "good feeling" comes from one side of the polarity. But it's really the contrast between the opposites -- like going from zero degrees in Canada to seventy degrees in Miami -- that gives us life. It's like the electrical energy that comes from the charge between the positive and negative poles.

Pythia: How can therapy help manage guilt and tension around creativity?

Larry: Most of us grew up with parts of ourselves that weren't allowed. In analysis, the therapist mirrors these unacceptable parts back to the client; this helps a person become more comfortable expressing their repressed feelings. In the same way, when a writer is blocked, it's because they've come to material they want to write about -- their family, for example -- but they just can't do it. Yet in order to write, paint or sing something authentic, we can't just express those parts of ourselves that were acceptable to our parents or society. We have to be our whole selves, and therapy can help with that.

Pythia: What other fears besides guilt hamper creativity?

Larry: When we really start creating, something lets go and begins to flow. It's like something takes over, and all these things that we didn't know we had inside come pouring out. But this "letting go" can be scary. A lot of people worry that they might go crazy. When we let go of the ego we may feel as if we don't have any control. But eventually the flow will stop, and the ego will come back. It's like a cork that bobs down, and then bobs back up. The same thing happens when we dream: the ego goes to sleep, and the unconscious begins to flow. Writers and artists literally dream while they're awake by diminishing the ego. The only difference between the creative process and insanity is that the ego leaves and never comes back.

Meditation practices in which we experience transcendent moments when the ego drops away can help us become comfortable with these creative experiences. Therapists who know about the dynamic between the unconscious and conscious can also help.

Pythia: In The Creative Soul you write that the artist risks loss of love. It seems that loneliness often comes with being creative.

Larry: Withdrawal is yet another source of guilt for the creative person: the artist refuses invitations, or won't return calls. This can make people mad because they don't understand. But in order to do creative work, an artist has to tolerate a lot of uncomfortable feelings: criticism; anger from loved ones; rejection; loss of control when some unknown "scribe" takes over; and ambivalence around the creative act: should I write this, or that?

Pythia: And yet you also write that writer's block and "lover's block" are the same. Can you say more about what you mean by that?

Larry: I often see clients who are in relationships where they can't show their anger or selfishness, but can only say nice things. But we can't have relationships in which only half of ourselves is expressed. It's just not real. If we can't have a relationship with someone else's negative stuff, as well as their beautiful stuff, then we can't have an authentic relationship. Likewise, in order to write or create authentically, we have to express the unacceptable parts of ourselves, otherwise we're only writing from half of ourselves. Often we're afraid that we're going to lose our loved one, or, if we're in politics, our constituency. We're even afraid we might lose God.

Pythia: Maybe that's the biggest fear of all -- that if we do what we want, we'll be completely alone.

Larry: Aloneness is much more than the presence or absence of others. We can be in a crowd, or with another person, and feel lonely. Overcoming loneliness is much more about getting in connection with ourselves. We're lonely because there's a part of ourselves that we keep "in the dungeon," so to speak. When we feel loneliness, it's that "jailed" part of ourselves that we're feeling. But we'll always be lonely if we think someone else can solve our loneliness.

Pythia: You also write that when we're in the act of creating, we don't feel lonely or guilty.

Larry: That's because when we're being creative the lonely parts of ourselves come out for air and join us. The main process by which we become whole is to bring the (inner) orphans out of the orphanage, and the (inner) prisoners out of the prison. This is the way authentic, creative work makes us whole.

For more of my interview with Larry Staples, please visit my blog, "The Writer's Desk," at pythiapeay.com. And please feel free to share your creative experiences!

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