"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Protect Your Energy

Creative ideas require incubation. Talking about an idea too early can sap the energy right out of it.

Observation: Most of us feel obligated to talk about our creative ideas on demand.

This week I was teaching another group of favorite students on Whidbey Island at the Northwest Pacific Art School. The third class day usually includes a critique of pieces in progress.

Here’s the setting: students work with white fabrics the first workshop day, tearing the fabric into swatches and immersing it in dye. The second day we dye the fabrics again and learn to make printing tools. By Wednesday we’re printing our pants off – adding flour paste resist, and using lots of luscious textile paint. Participants are propelled by visions of metallic leaf dancing on the fabric. It’s the final sublime addition to the gorgeous and complex cloth.

I’m the guide, so it’s up to me to call the printing to a halt in order to spend an hour evaluating design and color. We hang up the works in progress and talk about getting stuck and unstuck. I suggest hanging pieces on a design wall in order to get a better perspective from across the room. I suggest that sometimes another opinion can help. I suggest that a significant other is usually not the right person to ask. Everyone nods knowingly and laughs.

It doesn’t matter whether comments come from a spouse, a good friend or a colleague in a critique group. It doesn’t matter whether they’re well intentioned – meant to be helpful or a show of support, or slightly mean-spirited – a comment driven by envy or by the fear of being left out. When comments come, it’s a sign you aren’t taking care of yourself. Recognizing this gives you something to work on.

Good ideas need time to manifest. A Buddhist master once observed that sharing a newly acquired devotion to spirit or faith isn’t appropriate. Creative, spirit-filled activity requires private space. Otherwise the idea may dissolve back into the unconscious. The opportunity to sustain it will be lost.

A few ground rules help. Establish these in your own mind by inventorying your needs and creative style. Ground rules could include:

- An agreement within your household that a closed door signals an artist in early exploration mode; one who prefers not to be disturbed.

- An agreement within your household, that comments, while eventually welcomed, are to be invited rather than freely offered. If I leave a new piece on the wall in the living room so I can see it when I walk in the front door, my daughter just pretends it doesn’t exist until I am ready to ask for her opinion.

- One of the biggest joys of friendship is respect – part of the opportunity friends share to nurture each other. I want my good friend Niki to see my work. I want to know what she thinks. But she doesn’t volunteer an opinion until I invite one and I extend that courtesy to her in return.

- Critique groups are different beasts, but there are rules of thumb for them, too. The main thing is to decide why you are there and what you want from the group. If you practice articulating your needs to the group, and you are also clear about what you don’t want from them, you’ll probably get better advice. It will be the advice you really needed, uncluttered by personal preference or comments concerning parts of the piece that can’t be changed or undone.

All of this requires attention to detail, and sharing in a friendly, thankful and open way. We’re grateful when our loved ones are interested in our projects. We don’t want to offend anyone, or create an atmosphere where we can’t share the joys of the process. And it isn’t as if we don’t ever want advice. But it’s up to you to protect your fragile ideas through the hardening off stage – like protecting young plants until they are strong enough to be transferred outside into the cold spring soil. Eventually you’ll want to share the flowers and fruits of your labors with everyone around you. But during the initial thrust of new growth, you need to be protective.

Take a shot at discussing this with the people who love you, and offer to do the same thing for them. And feel free to use this essay as the starting point. Let’s see if we can deepen not only our attachment to our process, but also to those who inspire, delight, frustrate and embolden us. A little creative communication goes a long way. Wouldn’t it be terrific if it gave you the privacy you crave?


  1. What you've said is so important. Your observations are right on. Very well put.

  2. i like the buddhist advice... creating is a spiritual practice, for me at least. thank you for another excellent post.

  3. when people ask me "what are you working on?" I tell them I don't talk about works in progress. I'm an author and some people feel they have a right to a "public" person. I am not public. I am very private and my work is done in solitude. As for my household, my husband knows my dirty look.

  4. I've been thinking about this posting since yesterday; I enjoy mulling things over: At an earlier much more insecure stage of development, I'd ask all my friends and relatives their opinion about what I was working on. It turned out that they didn't always say what I wanted to hear and I learned that I didn't need their approval--quite a development! When I feel unsure about a piece now, I restrict whom I ask. There are some whose opinion I respect and who respect me. The decisions need to be mine, it's my work. Not always easy or simple, but I'm learning and owning my work. Thank you for the nudges to insight.

  5. Your life has given you wisdom far beyond your years. I find that my energies and creative ideas frequently fly away when I release them before their time. It is like talking about doing them becomes doing them. I end up with another UFO which, if completed does not sing the song originally promised when it first began to whisper in my ear. My installation piece in The Red Show didn't completely reveal itself to me until it was hung by the staging genius who hung the show. When I saw what he had done with what I presented to him I had goose bumps and my heart sang.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful blog. The topic meshes perfectly with Making Room for Making Art by Sally Warner, which I just finished reading, and The Woman's Book of Creativity by C. Diane Ealy, which I am in the midst of devouring. Thank you again for sharing your insights.

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  8. I agree that creative ideas require incubation, a state of stillness and of waiting in order to capture what comes forth. Recently I ran across a quote from Cy Twombly that speaks to that period of incubation, "When I work, I work very fast, but preparing to work can take any length of time."