For ten days I’m writing about what it really takes to be Highly Creative and whether greater opportunities make for greater Creativity. Yesterday I wrote Thinking Complex Thoughts–but, Showing No Great Acts, as Children.
Highly Creative people intuitively know life. Often, this knowledge comes with deep loss, either real or symbolic.
In Greek Mythology, the white-winged horse–Pegasus, symbolizes dimensions of divine creativity unperceived by mortals.
In her bestselling Harry Potter series, writer J.K Rowling introduces another mythical creature, the Thestral. Thestrals are also winged horses, but unlike Pegasus, they are spooky and disturbing to spot. Their leathery, bat-like wings seem more pre-historic than heavenly and the penetrating stares of their full-white eyes, bother. The flock of Thestrals at Harry Potter’s school is used mainly to pull the carriages transporting students. Only certain people can actually see Thestrals at work. Most students think the carriages run on their own power and don’t question how they actually work.
When Harry Potter first sees the Thestrals, he asks a fellow student, Luna,
What are they?
They’re called Thestrals. They’re quite gentle, really… But people avoid them because they’re a bit…
Different. But why can’t the others see them?
They can only be seen by people who’ve seen death.
Rowling’s Thestrals incorporate the ancient idea that a knowledge of good (life) and evil (death) facilitates perception of full truth. Rowling herself, had just begun writing the first Harry Potter book, when her mother died. In an interview, she said,
I know I was writing Harry Potter at the moment my mother died.
I had never told her about [him].
Barely a day goes by when I do not think of her. There would be so much to tell her, impossibly much.
Rowling said the death left her “a wreck”, and was the inspiration for Harry’s orphan status. Rowling’s experience with loss is not unique among the Highly Creative throughout history. Benjamin Franklin tells of his loss in his Autobiography. He said,
In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation.
In 1851, Charles Darwin’s ten year-old daughter Anne died, leaving Darwin crippled with guilt and devastated to the point of near insanity. Eight years later, he published his theory of Natural Selection. His book, The Origin of Species, incorporated death– for the first time in the history of Western civilization, as a natural part of the life cycle–rather than a result of Sin. American writer Mark Twain, also watched a loved one die–his wife. In his Autobiography, Twain wrote,
In all my (nearly) seventy-four years I have seen only one person whom I would marry, & I have lost her.
Journalist Tim Adams writes of Twain’s further losses. He says,
This sense of loneliness was compounded by the fact that Twain had by then also buried two of his four children – a good deal of his reminiscence [for his autobiography] comes in response to moving little scraps of notes that his daughter Susy had prepared for a book about him, before she died; another daughter, Jean, would predecease him in the course of his narration.
Twain saw life differently forever after. He wrote,
Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or does n’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And does n’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?
A very short list of other Highly Creative people who experienced deep loss before Creating follows:
- German chemist August Kekulé lost his wife a few years before he published his famous theories on the structure of benzene in 1865.
- Writer J.M. Barrie‘s older brother died at age 13. His parents never got over their loss. Barrie used this confusion he carried from childhood to create Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up.
- Nobel laureate Marie Curie lost her husband, Pierre, before her major discoveries.
- Thomas Jefferson became an orphan at age 13.
- Novelist Charlotte Bronte first lost her mother and then her five siblings, at regular intervals, throughout her short life .
- Coco Chanel’s mother died when she was 13. Her father then left his six children to fend for themselves.
- The mother of modern Management, Lillian Moller-Gilbreth lost a six-year old child to tuberculosis.
Not all loss is ushered by a physical death. Some loss is more symbolic. For example, architect Frank Lloyd Wright‘s parents divorced when he was 14 years old. His father sued his mother for lack of physical attention and left the young Wright as the sole financial provider to his mother and sisters. Contemporary writer Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, also experienced deep loss through divorce, her own.
Deep loss opens the eyes and mind to dimensions of life unperceived by those who have not yet tasted life– in full. Highly Creative people intuitively know life because they have seen death, either real or symbolic, and channel this intuition for Creation.