A fragment of bird song turns George Meredith's head and he watches a skylark ascend, singing. He turns what he beholds or imagines into verse. Years later, Ralph Vaughan Williams reads the poem and is compelled to compose a piece of music for violin, the lark, and piano. Marie Hall helps Vaughan Williams illustrate the flight and song of the lark through the medium of her instrument. Later, the composer orchestrates the piece and that is mostly how we know The Lark Ascending today. "The silver chain of sound" reverberates from bird song to idea to poem to duet to orchestral piece to all of the recorded and unrecorded interpretations and inspiration since.
I distinctly remember sitting in the bedroom of my Cozy Court duplex on 5th Street in Santa Monica, watching Sam Waterston play J. Robert Oppenheimer on TV way back in 1982, and thinking, "I must write a song about Oppenheimer". And the weird and winding process of the song commenced.
I don't remember the trip to the library but I do remember that it was really difficult to find any book about the Manhattan Project though I did find one that described Oppenheimer's drive to and arrival at Los Alamos along with some choice anecdotes about the team at work there. I checked that book out with a copy of John Donne's Holy Sonnets. The Holy Sonnets, especially XIV, gave me the idea for the for the framework and form of the lyrics and musical parts along with a literal quotation. The rest of the song then worked its way out.
I had no inkling when I grabbed hold of that initial idea that I would build the song around the concept of Trinity, that I would regularly perform the song at anti-nuclear rallies over the next couple of years, that I'd become friends, a decade later with two physicists who'd worked on the Manhattan Project and knew Oppenheimer, or that someone I gave a copy of my Souvenir CD (on which I finally recorded the song) would take my general concept and, without acknowledgement, turn it into a libretto for an acclaimed opera.
But that's another story. But not unrelated to the question of where ideas come from, the creative process, and working through that process. And it is work. A lot of work. But not the kind of work that you can necessarily point to and assess by hours or a set of tasks, on a particular schedule. Working through the creative process, or what I am calling Creative Wayfinding is a matter of opening up to chance, drifting in a follow-your-nose sort of way, picking up books at random, turning left instead of right down an unfamiliar street, and browsing, lots of browsing through printed words, pictures, recordings, and whatnot, then isolating a relevant paragraph or poem or snippet of conversation, interview or dialogue in a film that leaps out and says, I am your next step. Pay attention to me.
That's one part of the work. Grazing for clues but not too intently. Fun but but desperately scary, too when you snap out of the magic and start dwelling on the uncertainty of the entire operation.
Now that I'm somewhat settled again, I'm back to my old habit of collecting books. Apparently, ever since I learned to write my name and address, I've been claiming books. I was horrified once to discover this fact when I opened my father's hand-varnished, olive green, leather bound volume of Arthur Quiller-Couch's Studies in Literature to find my kindergarten pencil marks carved in the flyleaf.
After selling off the majority of several collections over the past 40 years when they became too weighty, I should know better. I do know better. But I found a nearby thrift shop with a quickly rotating stock of good books at about a dollar a pop. It's cheap entertainment with high value, so here I go again, magnetizing books.
I am not a fast reader. In fact, it's difficult for me to read because of the mechanics of my vision. Also, I'm a contemplative reader by which I mean that I'll read a little and then reflect on it. And inevitably, I'll go down rabbit holes, looking up words I don't know, chasing down references. I don't mind so much, especially because, as I said, books help me swing my way through the creative process.
Right now, I am surrounded by all sorts of books. I am clawing my way through the brambles of getting back to work, having no real clear idea of where the next steps lead or certainly, the eventual destination.
I'm okay with that, too, because one of the books I recently picked up is Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. I love reading Bradbury. As much as I love Bradbury’s poetic fiction, his introductions to his books are worth the price of admission and are directed squarely at writers, or really anyone involved in the creative process.
His introduction to Dandelion Wine opens as follows:
“This book, like most of my books and stories, was a surprise. I began to learn the nature of such surprises, thank God, when I was fairly young as a writer. Before that, like every beginner, I thought you could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its eyes on eternity, and dies.”
A couple of pages later, he continues:
“Thus I fell into surprise. No one told me to surprise myself, I might add. I came on the old and best ways of writing through ignorance and experiment and was startled when truths leaped out of bushes like quail before gunshot. I blundered into creativity as blindly as any child learning to walk and see. I learned to let my senses and my Past tell me all that was somehow true.”
I read that and thought, thank you, Mr. Bradbury! I must be on the right path. Or at least I am on a path that I can kind of feel beneath my feet and I am glimpsing signposts that are starting to make sense. I've constructed enough of a vehicle to start traveling down this path and I am choosing to have faith that I am going somewhere. Life seems brighter. Maybe that's because Spring has sprung or maybe it's just a nice coincidence.
Anyway, here we are at the start of Creative Wayfinding.
Welcome. Let's see where we go from here.
Suzanne McDermott is an artist who helps creative women heal themselves and find their way from A to Z.