The Creative Womb


Adolf Wölfli

Things just happen: that’s the sum total of all wisdom.

-Robert Musil, from Young Torles

Robert Musil’s witty epigraph appears just that at first. But after awhile, some deep truth to his maxim begins to dawn on me. How is it that “things just happen”?

As I continue to write poems, the nature of the creative process is slowly being revealed to me. In addition to the literal act of creating poems, I am also discovering the creative process as a powerful analogy to life. For years the creative process was an impenetrable mystery. I was under the illusion that I created, that I was the doer of my artwork. Since my recent experiences, these illusions have all fallen away, allowing me to see into the true nature of how artistic forms are brought into existence.

A poem, when it is finished, seems to have a separate and individual “self”. Like any completed work of art the poem is an independent entity, or at least has the appearance of one. But in the artist’s mind, before completion, the poem is just the opposite, unformed, a confusion of images and words, perhaps only a mood or a specific memory. Then how does a poem actually come into existence as an individual and independent entity? How does art get created?

More or less every time I sit down to write a poem the creative process is the same. For example, just yesterday I was sitting down to eat in a sandwich shop and I saw a tow-truck across the street.

As I’m eating my sandwich I watch what’s happening outside. The truck stops under a tree. It’s a mildly chilly afternoon in November. The leaves have fallen off the trees. An ineffable mood always accompanies something that catches my eye about a certain scene.

Later I remember the tow-truck and I begin to write a poem about it. This is the sketch. I feel confident saying that everything, for an artist, must begin as a sketch. The creative process is a process of incubation. After writing the sketch, I leave the poem and come back to it later that night or the next day. Now I sit down to write the poem on my computer. But this is where the poem actually gets born and begins to look nothing like what I thought it would.

As long as I allow for the malleability of the images and the language, the poem is still at this stage in a liquid form. I allow the image of the tow-truck to transform into what it wants to be. I allow the inner poem to unfold and reveal the deeper image. I coax the latent poem into a visible manifestation that can be understood and appreciated by others. Soon the poem begins to crystallize itself into a definite language and economy.

The poem comes into existence as an object foreign to even the artist herself. The artist says to herself, “This is not what I had in mind. This is not what I was thinking.”

I do not know my own creation, though my creation knows itself. The creation is neither of the artist’s making, nor of her possession. She only intends to create such and such, and as long as her vision is not imposed, but guided by a power beyond her personal self, an organic work of art will evolve and eventually manifest.

The work of art just happens. There is no other explanation.

Artists are not as much creators as they are vessels. The Christian word “kenosis,” or “the assumption of the form of a slave as an empty shape” is applicable here.[1]

The empty shape of the artist is also a fertile womb. She soaks up the visible/invisible world until fecund with experiences, perceptions, images, language, knowledge, senses, then she gives birth. I do not mean to use the “birth” metaphor lightly here. The birth of the work of art cannot be forced to come out at will. The work of art emerges only when it is ready, when the tension builds up to a precise pitch inside the artist. Thus the artist is both the fertile womb and the patient midwife at the same time.

This organic work is out of her control. The most control an artist has over her work of art is the conditions of her womb. And even that control is limited. Some artists fertilize their wombs more so than others. Some are very meticulous about what seeds they plant in their minds and hearts. Some give their wombs the proper nourishment. Others are less discriminating. The progeny of the creative process can be revealing of the conditions of the womb and the patience of the artist. Nevertheless, the organic work of art always arises out of the conditions of the womb.

I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that the creative process is also an analogy for life. All forms in reality are like works of art in that they get created out of a set of conditions. Every so-called independent entity that has the quality of “thingness”, whether that is a characteristic of a person, a new car, or an idea of the mind, came into existence by a set of conditions.

Similarly, these (mostly unknown) conditions give birth to the forms. Nobody created the forms independently, though it may sometimes appear this way. The analogy to the artist’s womb is the womb of reality. In Buddhism, this is called the tathata-garbha(the womb of suchness).

On a more practical level, how can the “womb of reality” metaphor be applied to life? If the conditions of the womb (whatever that womb may be) create us and our surrounding world, it then becomes necessary to examine the seeds that we are continually planting inside and outside of us. We have control of the work of art to the extent that we have control over the conditions of our lives.

Know that on the most basic level: things just happen. They are born out of a cosmic womb. The outcomes of my life are the result of a number of births (in reality) that have occurred outside of my range of knowing.

Sometimes I ask myself, “How did I end up living here in Bloomington?” Of course I can attempt to trace the linear cause and effect of each event and pretend to be able to be able to delineate reality. But the truth is: things just happen. Everything goes into the creative womb, and the outcomes of each independent birth, each individual manifestation, can be baffling at times.

[1] Image, Icon, Economy. Marie-Jose Mondazain. Pg.32

2 responses to “The Creative Womb”

  1. guest says:

    this is beautiful. i can't seem to find, who is the writer?

  2. Chris says:

    Thank you . . . I'm the writer . . . editor of Escape into Life . . . I wrote this several years ago

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