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The Creative Spark

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    In my writing and my thinking and my work I’ve thought of myself as addressing artists and poets and writers. The rest of the world can take it or leave it as far as I’m concerned.”

    (from “The Problem of Aesthetics,”Joseph Campbell’s last public lecture, at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, July 21, 1987)

    When reading Joseph Campbell, many people naturally focus on the universal motifs found in mythologies of different cultures, or find themselves taken by the parallel between mythological themes and one’s own life journey – but just as significant is the central role the creative imagination plays in Campbell’s world.

    This was no affectation – Campbell enjoyed an intimate relationship with the arts all his life, from his college years jamming in a jazz band to receiving the National Arts Club’s Gold Medal of Honor for Literature at the age of eighty. And though scholars such as Marija Gimbutas, Barbara Myerhoff, and David Miller admit Campbell’s influence, a host of artists also acknowledge his inspiration – from Robert Bly (poet) and Richard Adams (author of Watership Down), to Martha Graham (choreographer), George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, George Miller (film producers/directors), and even musicians, from Beats Antique to the good old Grateful Dead.

    Joseph Campbell was torn between the Way of the Scholar and the Way of the Artist much of his life. Campbell’s work speaks for itself – but an understanding of Joseph’s lifelong immersion in the arts underscores an intimacy with the Muses we find revealed in that work. I am drawn to explore how the creative impulse manifests – but first, it seems necessary to ask the nature of that creative spirit.

    The creative act is not hanging on, but yielding to new creative movement.”  (Joseph Campbell, A Joseph Campbell Companion; Reflections on the Art of Living, ed. Diane K. Osbon, p. 262)

    In the creative moment we are tapped into a realm removed from intellect – what Carl Jung calls “the collective unconscious,” and Rollo May refers to as a reach “beyond our own death.” From this realm we bring forth forms – or rather, forms bubble up that we might capture, if we are open to them:

    When you are in the act of creating, there is an implicit form that is going to be asked to be brought forth, and you have to know how to recognize it. So, they say, you are to learn all the rules and then you must forget them. As the lyric factor is beginning to move you, the mind is supposed to watch for the emergent form, because anything that comes out of the proper ground is formed already. There is an implicit form intrinsic in it, and your job is to recognize it.”

    (Joseph Campbell, “Creativity,” The Mythic Dimension, p.183)

    But to enter this realm we must find a way to disarm intellect and sidestep the head. Our inner critic stymies creativity by attempting to straitjacket the unconscious – apparently in fear of impulsive, uncontrollable behavior. All too often that hesitation is all that’s needed to derail creative momentum.

    How then do we bypass that forbidding gatekeeper?

    For those who drink from that fountain, what do you do to let go and let it flow?


    Greetings Stephen –

    At times in my life where I have experienced true “flow state”, I was completely transcended to where time stood still and I became one with all that existed.  Specifically, it seems as I in fact became that moment, thing thing, that place.  Afterwards, I would have no recollection of what or how I was doing the literal things that I was doing.  It was almost as if I were acting as a divine channel/medium for divine inspiration to flow through me and to whomever or whatever was present.

    In my pursuit of achieving this flow state, I have read books, followed gurus, sat with monks and nuns, studied intently the works of many ascended masters, artists and philosophers.  The only thing I can say is that by completely “losing myself”, I became clear enough to act in this manner.

    Sending kindest regards,

    Steve Vansickle


    Well stated, Steve.

    I’m curious if you have a particular artistic medium (writing, painting, music, et.), or are speaking of the state of flow and creativity in relation to life in general?

    Either way, I really appreciate this observation in particular:

    It was almost as if I were acting as a divine channel/medium for divine inspiration to flow through me and to whomever or whatever was present.”

    That’s a wonderful description of what it’s like to be touched by the Muse (to put it in mythological terms).


    Thank you, Stephen.

    I started to become slightly aware of this state when I was working as a web developer for a large corporation.  Some of the code I would write, I would revisit later and could not explain how it was working, even to my own logical mind.

    After retiring from writing code, someone asked if I had ever considered writing music on a computer.  I had always wanted to be a musician, but was never encouraged to do so.  Subsequently, I began doing so and found it very much like writing code.  I was guided to an ascended master and began working more intently on it with him.  The results were phenomenal and ones where I definitively became aware that I was as I put it, acting as a divine channel.  In fact, it became so apparent that even as my literal mind would try to intervene (ie I would think I was making a mistake), it would be automatically overridden and things would continue to flow seamlessly.  Almost as if the “hand of God” was on mine and as well outside my hands where my equipment was.

    I had several other projects at the time and was experiencing this throughout them all.

    Thank you for sharing the analogy of being touched by the Muse.  I have loved Joseph Campbell’s works for quite a long time now and he always shows up whenever I am reaching the same state, like an ascended master from beyond.  🙂



    I will try to answer the question as best I can, but I think that maybe my approach is not always the same.

    For the most part, if I am drawing or painting for myself, I don’t pay much mind to any self-doubt because there is no consequence for “failure” (of execution or completion). If it doesn’t turn out well, I can try again or try something different. I can also try again at a more later time when I feel my skill level is up to the challenge.

    If the drawing or painting is for someone else, I can feel more stressed from whatever expectations I imagine this person has.
    Yet again- I can always try again or change my approach, give it some more thought, determine where the “failure” lies and how I might change that. Is it my approach? My materials? My mood? My skill level?
    The answer almost always is a manageable one.
    Over the years I have decided that as long as I like what I have created, I am not troubled much by its popularity. I am usually thinking instead about what I will make next.

    Thank you for this thought topic,




    Thank you for a thoughtful reply! I appreciate your sense of self-awareness, and especially the recognition the process is not always the same. For me, the key sentence in your post is

    Over the years I have decided that as long as I like what I have created, I am not troubled much by its popularity.”

    That brings to mind for me this observation from Joseph Campbell:

    An artist is not in the field to achieve, to realize, but to become fulfilled. It’s a life-fulfilling, totally different structure … And it doesn’t matter whether you’re first-, second-, third-rate in the public eye. Each artist, as I know them, is in fulfillment in his or her own way. It’s not a competitive field.” (The Hero’s Journey 111)

    I’m also curious about the creative spark – the source of inspiration. I hope you don’t mind if I ask, apart from, say, a specific commission, do you notice any common thread in the birth of your creations? Do ideas appear fully formed and you work toward re-creating an original vision? Or is creation more a process, something that flows through you, even surprises you, taking on a life of its own? What would you say is the balance between inspiration, intention, spontaneity, discipline, and play?

    I know it’s not easy putting that into words, but I believe there is value in considering and understanding the creative process. Campbell spoke of artists as the seers and shamans of our modern era. Seer strikes me as an apt term: seems to me art could be described as a way of seeing, or perceiving. It might well be intuitive for most artists, whatever their medium – but I also see value, for those who are not artists or don’t think of themselves as creative, in cultivating that mode of perception.

    One more question – when did you know you were an artist? Did you make a conscious decision to pursue art? Or did you over time realize that you have always been an artist.

    Don’t feel obligated (these are conversations, not interrogations), but have you the time and the inclination, feel free to shed whatever light you can on your internal process.

    Bliss On,



    I appreciate this conversation, as I don’t discuss it much with anyone (why?? I would like to surround myself with artists, but present situations make that unlikely and coupled with feeling content enough in having inner dialogue… my experiences with other artists exists in a visual state for the most part. I think we all feel differently about it and it’s fascinating just to see their output and read any comments they might have I suppose).  This reply might be long-winded, but I will attempt to articulate what it is ::for me::.
    I am inspired by nearly everything! I have so many many interests and appreciate passion in anyone. Whenever something seems interesting, or familiar, or odd, funny, clever, harmonious…

    music, stories in books or on screen, visual art, color combinations, an old photograph, a building, a toy… really anything!

    I can’t really explain what makes me decide to draw or paint something. It’s just a desire to spend time on an image or idea. Maybe try to reproduce it? It can be something that already exists or something imaginary. Sharing it with other people isn’t the main goal for me, although I do enjoy that as well, in the end. If someone else gets that brain spark from it – that another mind is out there considering this *thing* too – it is satisfying ? amusing ? fun? energizing?

    Drawing and painting is a way to document something I’m interested in. Like a photograph or a tattoo. It is also an activity I can “get lost” in. Lose track of time, everything else fades away, meditative maybe.

    Ideas sometimes are fully formed and I try to produce them onto a surface, or they are formed and as I’m working on the painting they evolve, or they are a general idea – a fog of sorts – and it is formed in the process.
    I can’t land on the balance explanation… I think that an intention is more serious when it is a commission. It requires more planning and pre-visualization. If it’s for myself, there is almost no strategy. There are patterns based on how I might execute something, and they’re from past failures and successes. Experience. When is it “done”? …sometimes it works out and you just sense it, and sometimes it doesn’t look right and has taken a turn that doesn’t line up somehow.

    As to Campbell’s idea of an artist being a seer or a shaman- yes, I agree that can be a main characteristic. Sometimes it isn’t to show something that hasn’t been seen before, but also to show something that may have been seen but ignored or overlooked. “SEE?”

    So maybe artists are not just seeing, but are those who have found a way to show?

    •When did I know I was an artist?

    I think the best way to answer that is to say that there became a time where I accepted it. When I was growing up, “artists” were historical geniuses like Michelangelo, DaVinci, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, and authors like Poe and Roald Dahl, actors and inventors which you could read about and who people talked about. I never thought I could be one. I painted anyway.
    I met someone who called themself an artist, and over time I recognized that anyone whose bliss is creative actions is an “artist”. I sold a painting. I sold another painting. It didn’t seem so absurd anymore to be included in this category of people.

    I am a mother of two boys, and their teacher as well. That is my primary job now, but I do make time for art. Sometimes I make money and sometimes I don’t. I had a very difficult time trying to choose a career path during high school and college, because I could not imagine anything I would want to do for most of the week, for the rest of my life. Making things is really it, my “bliss”. Thankfully my husband makes a steady income and I do not have to earn a living at something I don’t enjoy. I can care for my children & make things instead. I am grateful.

    I hope this all made sense! Despite an affinity for reading, I am not very good at expressing ideas in words.






    Thank you again for your generosity of spirit and time. We haven’t had a lot of responses so far; I fear the immediacy of Facebook and its dopamine feedback loop make it difficult for those plugged-in to social media to make the effort to visit a discussion board, log in, write thoughts out long form rather than in meme, and await a reply (you may already have deduced conversations unfold at a much more leisurely pace here – sometimes it takes a day or two or more for one’s thoughts to simmer and percolate to the surface).

    But quantity is no substitute for the thoughtful self-reflection of your posts.

    You write

    Sometimes it isn’t to show something that hasn’t been seen before, but also to show something that may have been seen but ignored or overlooked. “SEE?”

    So maybe artists are not just seeing, but are those who have found a way to show?”

    . . . which brings to mind the following passage from the opening paragraphs of Campbell’s Creative Mythology (The Masks of God, Volume IV)

    In the context of a traditional mythology, the symbols are presented in socially maintained rites, through which the individual is required to experience, or will pretend to have experienced, certain insights, sentiments, and commitments. In what I am calling “creative” mythology, on the other hand, this order is reversed: the individual has had an experience of his own — of order, horror, beauty, or even mere exhilaration — which he seeks to communicate through signs; and if his realization has been of a certain depth and import, his communication will have the value and force of living myth — for those, that is to say, who receive and respond to it of themselves, with recognition, uncoerced.”

    I love art (whether painting, poetry, performance, in large part because it introduces me to someone else’s inner world in a way that resonates with my own.




    About creativity, what I experience is that I am creative when I “get” something that is uniquely mine, that speaks to me and that in some way resonate with my identity. Doing so, I realized that when we are deeply personal about ourselves, we find also a universal aspect of our lives. To give you an example, each artist is very unique, and at the same time, there are many many artists in the world. So we are not repeatable and at the same time we belong to an archetype, “the artist”.

    In my experience, an artist has the ability to create because he/she is in tune with something greater than himself/herself. At the same time, this requires a great amount of freedom, and some passages might be full of uncertainty, while some people ask you “what are you doing?” because your logic is in tune with something so deep that they normally don’t notice it.


    Hello Elena,

    I only just today discovered your comment in the thread on “The Creative Spark” here in Conversations of a Higher Order. Your words certainly ring true – and seem congruent with Joseph Campbell’s own observations.

    You write

    In my experience, an artist has the ability to create because he/she is in tune with something greater than himself/herself.”

    As to what that something might be, it’s not easy to put into words – but the artistic image goes beyond words (I include literary imagery as well, which is more than just a dictionary definition) and resonates on so many levels.

    “Artists . . . provide the contemporary metaphors that allow us to realize the transcendent, infinite, and abundant nature of being as it is.” (Campbell, Thou Art That, 6)

    Art, for me at any rate, is akin to a religious experience – with the emphasis on experience:

    The priest presents for consideration a compound of inherited forms with the expectation (or, at times, even requirement) that one should interpret and experience them in a certain authorized way, whereas the artist first has an experience of his own, which he then seeks to interpret and communicate through effective forms. Not the forms first and then the experience, but the experience first and then the forms.” (Campbell, The Mythic Dimension, 226)

    Which brings me to my favorite line from your brief comment:

    “I realized that when we are deeply personal about ourselves, we find also a universal aspect of our lives.”

    There’s that personal experience!

    I am curious, Elena – what is your preferred medium? And also, does art provide your living, or at least supplement your income (I would include teaching art in that category), or is it something you have to do apart from the daily grind?


    Thank you Stephen for asking! My preferred medium is…coaching! Especially this year I have used active imagination and metaphors for my work as a coach. The intuitions that Carl Jung had about how to use imagination to cooperate with our soul have been enlightening for me. And the deep understanding that Campbell has for metaphors is inspiring for me.

    About being an artist using raw materials, I am an aromatherapist and composer of perfumes. So I have been composing perfumes and it’s a deep process.

    For supporting myself financially, I am paid as a life/creativity coach and as a perfumery/aromatherapy consultant. Not the easiest way to go, but full of bliss and potential also when there is a lot of pain (the pandemic has changed hugely how I work with people, and a lot more).

    Another concept that I like is the concept of “gift” – that is not precisely talent, but is something you have because of the life experiences you have moved through. For example in my work I use the “core gift interview”, created by the Core Gift Institute. Deep and surprising.

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