When academics want to talk about the fact that not everything happens only in the brain, but that the body sort of hangs around as well, they are prone to use the word “embodiment”. It is a fancy word, but it really only means that something involves the body as well as the mind. So an experience of love or racism or motivation can be thought of as happening only within the recesses of the brain, or we can say it is “embodied”. Most people don’t think that this is all that surprising, as we are quite aware of having bodies and them reacting in various ways to the whips and scorns of time, but academics like having big words for things.
Now, to state that creativity too is embodied would probably not surprise all that many sensible folks, but it is a really alien idea to much of the writing and thinking about creativity. Sure, some might have taken on board some of the ideas in the previous chapter, about the work and letting your hands do the thinking. In the end, however, the body – the whole body – is often forgotten. Still, creative work is not just manual labor, it is body work. We never escape our body, no matter how hard we sometimes try.
Consider your lower back. It is rarely mentioned as a key player in the rigmarole that is creativity, yet it is always there. Normally we do not think about it, except when it starts hurting. For a lot of creative people, it hurts a lot. This is because contemporary creative work can often be quite sedentary, and a lot of us (me included) do work in places that aren’t all that ergonomical. You can see us in cafés, crouched over computers, laptops, or notebooks. You can find them in offices, staring at ill-positioned screens for far too long stretches. You might even be one, intently trying to get your creation just right whilst sitting on the cheap kitchen stair you know wreaks havoc with your back.
So there we are, not quite as fit as we wish we were, and now with back-pain to deal with. Now, this pain will obviously partly be due to the creative work itself – or at least the way in which we practice the same. As it is sometimes easy to get lost in your work, and not all of us remember to stretch and move whilst doing so, aches and pains are a relatively common companion to creativity. Further, having a body in pain (check out Elaine Scarry’s brilliant book from 1985) does affect your capacity to create. Sure, some have painted masterpieces whilst crippled with pain (Renoir battled severe rheumatoid arthritis), but many feel that any kind of work is made more difficult when the body acts up in this manner.
In this manner, the lower back is always already part of creative work – for better or worse. When it is strong and supports us, we can sit for hours and write. When it feels like someone is stabbing you, our work can suffer. Yet we rarely talk of it, as it is “just” the lower back. This is also just one part of the body. I could speak of worn-out knees, or shoulder pain, or plantar fasciitis. We can create despite such ailments, but they are also reminders that creativity is not just a work of the mind, but something where the entire body is involved, in one way or another.
There is one part of the body that tends to get more love from creativity books than others, if at times implicitly. This is the gut, or more precisely the enteric nervous system. We are of course used to refer to things such as “going with your gut” and “gut feelings” when talking about creativity and decision making more generally, but not everyone knows that the gut actually contains our “second brain”. Not the same brain that most of us carry around in our cranium, but rather 100+ million connected and active neurons that reside in the walls of the alimentary canal. Most of this “brainpower” is used to deal with digestion, but the system also communicates with the brain. We for instance know that emotional states are at the very least affected by enteric nervous system, which is why notions such as gut feelings and butterflies in the stomach may be more on point than we’re led to believe!
What this means is that what creativity books often only metaphorically connect to the guts may in fact be quite viscerally (sic) a part of creativity. Our belly thinks with us, and lets us know what it thinks. Excitement at the prospect of a novel creation is not only a mental reaction, it comes from someplace deeper. Nervousness when attempting something really new isn’t just a brain-response, it involves the entire body.
We are of course our whole bodies, but increasingly it looks like we think creative thoughts with our whole body as well. We think with our hands, our back, our gut, and cerebrocentrism should be the enemy. Want to develop your creativity? Get out of your head. Feel your body. Accept its limitations, its pains and gripes. Allow your hands to do what they were meant to do: Collect, grip, build, write, carve, and so on. Trust your gut, and the wisdom in it.
The false distinction between brain and body is of course one with impressive pedigree. Introduced by Descartes, championed by those who saw intellectual work as worthier than manual such, and today leading to confusions about the nature of creative work, this is a wrongheaded but still powerful idea. It does however hold you back. By not paying attention to the embodied aspects of creativity you can lose sight of what holds you back, and what might push you farther. By denying the body, we hobble our creativity, and for what? Empty intellectual vanity.
To be continued…