Last month, the Wrightwood Arts Center packed an old church hall in the small mountain community to premiere its first documentary, “The Inspiration You Find.” More than a year in the making, the 30-minute film celebrates the arts and nature in Wrightwood, profiling a number of artists in their eclectic hillside studios.
Even more profound for me than the sweeping drone-cam panoramas of pine forests and Joshua stands was the chance to listen to our visual artists talk about the creative process.
I’ve spent almost two decades exploring the inspirational wells that poems are drawn from, interviewing hundreds of poets for Rattle magazine’s issues and podcasts, and have come to realize that poets across the board don’t know what they’re doing when writing a poem — by design. Becoming lost in a state of “unknowing” seems almost a requirement for creativity.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins compares the process to a dog trailing a scent: “Every once in a while, there’s a little notion or an observation or a phrase or some little starting point that wants to go on, that wants to go to a second step, and then I become like a little bloodhound. I kind of sniff my way through the trail and try to see what’s at the end of it.”
Yusef Komunyakaa likens it to improvisational jazz. Charles Simic says his poems “emerge in the process of fumbling around.”
No matter who I talk to, poets describe the process as a kind of search through the dark. They aren’t creating poems so much as listening for them, hearing a sense of sound, and following wherever it leads.
Following this trail myself over the years led me to British psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist, who I interviewed for this winter’s issue of Rattle (No. 78). Dr. McGilchrist’s seminal work, “The Master and His Emissary,” explores the influence of the divided brain on our conceptions of the world.
Far more complicated than pop-psychology’s ideas of the right and left hemispheres, the real and profound division is one of attention: the left brain lives in a world of objects and tasks. It sees things as isolated and static, and its attention is narrowly focused, like a telescope zooming in on a single cluster of stars, but never able to capture the entire night sky at once. The right brain, on the other hand, maintains the holistic view of the cosmos, noticing the connections and contradictions that permeate reality, and is the side of ourselves that can stare up in awe at the Milky Way.
As Dr. McGilchrist describes it, the right brain is like the spiritual master, high in a tower, watching over the complicated dances of the world. The left brain is the bureaucrat down on the ground, making sure what needs to be done gets done. Put simply, the left brain is interested in apprehension, and the right brain is interested in comprehension.
And comprehension is the stuff of poetry — symbolism, metaphor and myth.
These two sides of human consciousness help explain the creative process. Poetry is a calming of the left brain’s narrow attention in search of the holistic wisdom possessed by the right brain. It’s finding a way to silence the bureaucrat, which is your inner voice — generated in the Broca’s area of the left hemisphere — so you can hear the right’s deeper understanding. As poets often say, we write to discover what we didn’t know we knew. And that requires a kind of meditation.
So it was fascinating to watch the premiere of “The Inspiration You Find” and realize that visual artists use the same words to describe the same process of meditative discovery.
For ceramic artist Mary Duman, it’s intuitive. “It’s best if I don’t plan it or think about it much,” she says. “You lose track of time, not worrying about the past, not thinking about the future.”
Glassblower Reyna Rivera explains that sense of losing time in the exact same way poet Alan Shapiro does in Rattle No. 23: “I can sit for hours, and suddenly it’s 2 a.m.”
Neon artist David Svenson says “Glassblowing is Zen.”
Sculptor Pat Farrell explains, “I have an idea for a design, but you have to go with the flow of it.”
That’s the thread that runs through the entire documentary. Life in Wrightwood is a way avoid the bustling noisiness of the cities, to calm the mind and go with the flow. Each of the artists were drawn to the mountains, which helped draw out their art.
In his newest book, “The Matter with Things,” Dr. McGilchrist argues that the contemporary world has become dominated by the left brain, to our detriment. As he told to me, “The trouble is that most of our way of life in the modern world is geared to elements that distract our attention. It’s very hard for people simply to empty their mind of distracting thoughts.”
It seems many artists have found a solution in Wrightwood, where a sense of spiritual calm resides just a short drive off the 138.
Directed by Scott Mahoy, with cinematography by Zachariah Budd, “The Inspiration You Find” can be viewed for free at wrightwoodarts.com/inspiration.
Timothy Green lives in Wrightwood and is editor of Rattle magazine.