(Part of an Invited Lecture at the Second International Conference on Personal Meaning, In Vancouver, BC, Canada, on July 21, 2002). (Posted on website July 27, 2002)
Adam Blatner, M.D.
(The Lecture was titled "Postmodernism and Creative Mythmaking," and the first part on Postmodernism has been written up in a separate paper on this website. I'll allude to its relevance to the subject of this paper as I address the challenge of creativity further on.)
IntroductionAt the First International Conference on Personal Meaning, in 2000, Dr. Sheldon Solomon gave a stimulating lecture on the work of the late Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wove together psychoanalysis (with an emphasis on the work of Otto Rank) and Becker's own wide background to suggest an alternative understanding of the deeper motivations of humanity–i.e., an underlying fear of death and the yearning for at least some symbolic form of immortality (Becker, 1971). The upshot of this dismal analysis was that humans must undertake a project of creative mythmaking. However, at the end, during questions, I asked the speaker if he (or Becker) had written about how creative mythmaking could be done. (My interest, of course, was stimulated by an intuition that in part, that's what psychodrama is about.) Dr. Solomon replied that, no, neither he nor Becker had taken this next step. That night, I awoke and jotted down over a score of such activities–and this was the basis of this present lecture.
This talk is in three parts. First, what does creative mythmaking consist of? Second, why is it useful to engage in this activity? And third, how can this skill be developed–in terms of its underlying principles?
What is Creative Mythmaking?Think of the meaning of life as an experience which is built up as a result of scores of component experiences. In this sense, it is similar to what I've said also about the sense of self (see my paper on this on this website), and, indeed, there is some cross-over, as the sense of self as a coherent and valued whole partakes of and in turn informs the sense of life as meaningful. I use the metaphor of life as a tapestry–a weaving together of many stories and themes. For some people, the weaving is rather thin, with holes and many loose ends. A bit of artistry is needed, and conscious effort, so that the mere eventfulness of life not be experienced as a dry chronology, or as some cynics have phrased it, "Life is just one damn thing after another."
Tapestries can be thick, with many colors of thread and types of fabric overlapping in the weaving. Life, too, can be psychologically and socially woven as stories are told and re-told, and in the telling, connections are made and patterns emerge.
So, the activities that can enhance the meaning of life are presented in greater detail in another paper on this website, but here are some of them, just to give you an idea of what we're talking about:
- telling stories of one's life, writing memoirs, writing an autobiography
- creating celebrations, ceremonies, rituals, both personal and in your community (Blatner, 2001)
- re-enchanting everyday life, adding angels, faeries, magical moments
- dramatizing those stories, using, for example, "Playback Theatre"
- "ornamenting" one's life with meaningful symbols, in the form of art in the home, an altar, favorite costumes or jewelry, scrapbooks of favorite sayings and pictures, etc.
- participating in groups of friends who are writing and/or sharing stories
- noticing certain songs that seem to be especially meaningful, and learning the lyrics
- adding dancing, making art or sculpture, writing poetry
- doing philosophy–consciously discerning some abstract patterns and working on coordinating them
- ... more on the paper that draws this list out.
Why Creative Mythmaking?The purpose of this activity is to experience your life as meaningful. People need this as much as they need to feel related to others or a coherent sense of self. It's a form of basic psychological nutrition. While other dynamic psychologists have noted the fundamental motivations of seeking relatedness ("object relations theory") or constructing and maintaining a sense of self ("self psychology"), the existential psychologists have emphasized more the need for meaning. It's not as if one is true and the others not, but rather, as with the evolving field of nutrition, simply an explication of the different kinds of human needs.
Historically, much of meaning was given by culture, the accumulated product of scores of social institutions and lines of activity. However, in the postmodern world, with so many people moving away from their home communities, and with a major expansion of the types of cultural norms presented as news and immigration expand our sense of identity, there's been a diffusion of coherence and relevance of the kinds of values that people used to grow up with. In other words, the postmodern condition tends towards alienation.
Creative mythmaking is an intentional endeavor on a personal and small group level–so far, no social institutions have emerged with this as an agenda. It is also a recognition that in a postmodern world, peoples individuality must be appreciated and even highlighted. Instead of one philosophy applying to everyone, the challenge shifts to helping each person individualize his or her own philosophy of life. And, considering the complexity of each person's individuality, this then becomes a creative activity. It's never been done before, there is no standard template, because there's never been another you with your unique blending of scores, hundreds, of elements based on your temperament, interests, time in history, region where you live, personal family and cultural background, and other elusive factors. To weave all these together requires an ongoing process of ingenuity and creative revision.
Note that the process is one which invites re-vision! It's not as if you are building a single edifice that then stands forever. Rather, you can de-construct parts and re-construct them with different meanings, purposes, ideals. Give yourself permission to build provisionally, then, to explore. Creative mythmaking should be recognized as an ongoing process.
How to Do Creative MythmakingTen principles occurred to me, and you might think of others I've overlooked. Here they are:
...Now, let's talk a little about these in greater detail.
- Spontaneity and Improvisation
- Hermeneutics and Semantics
- Group Dynamics
- The Arts
- Ongoing Development
CreativityMake creativity a core value. It requires a bit of boldness, because you need to own your own power. There are many subtle intrapsychic, family and cultural forces which inhibit creativity. Ernest Becker cited Otto Rank's frequent commentary on the nature of the guilt that tends to accompany any creative act. Summarizing Rank's ideas, it is as if there are a host of "others" out there who then become "inner voices."
The "voices" that inhibit creativity say things such as: "Who do you think you are to imagine that you could invent something better than what we have already created? How dare you show such arrogance and presumption! You are so small and foolish, and we are so big and authoritative! Your suggestion that there might be better ways to do things is an affront to our lives, as if you dare to suggest that our work is imperfect! Do you really know that what you're doing will work? What if it fails? Our work has stood the test of time! Your ideas are peculiar, different, odd, weird. Ours are established, generally agreed-upon, common sense."
One of the values of postmodernism is that it offers a philosophical foundation for marshaling arguments against the forces that inhibit creativity. People need to become vigilant to the continuing exercise of dis-empowering psychic and environmental activity, because, disguised as reasonable caution, these voices and ideas act as rationalizations for the tendency to withdraw, avoid life's creative challenges, and simply go along with the crowd. It seems safer, although, in fact, considering the way the world is changing, one could argue that avoiding the short term conflicts involved with creativity is actually riskier.
Modern businesses, after all, have ongoing policies of "quality assurance" in which they recognize that in complex organizations, changes are inevitable, errors will accumulate, and the best thing you can do is to anticipate them as best you can and take preventive action. There is no such thing as being right, because however you may have been right today, tomorrow things will be changing, new people coming on board and needing to be trained, new technologies appearing and needing to be integrated, old markets declining and new ones arising–and so being "right" becomes an irrelevant and self-indulgent illusion. We need to apply the same principles to our everyday personal lives.
SpontaneityCreativity doesn't generally happen by just sitting and thinking about a problem. For the most part, people need to get up and mess around, improvise, try out things, warm up to the problem by exploring its various facets. Playwrights and composers have been known to hum, gesticulate, enact, write and re-write, trying out earlier drafts, then re-writing again. (It was J.L. Moreno, the inventor of psychodrama, who, more than Otto Rank, appreciated the nature of creativity and made its application the core of his theory of psychotherapy. He also wrote about spontaneity, and this section is my own elaboration of his insight–as written about further in my other books on psychodrama.)
There is a risk-taking throughout this process, a continuing feeling of not quite having it right, of occasional mistake-making. People need to learn to become de-sensitized to the subtle feelings of shame that accompany this process, to recognize that this wave of awkwardness that comes with having made a mistake is no big deal. It's not really different from the way the water feels too cold and wet when you first go in swimming– remembering that you get used to it pretty quickly and then it's fun.
Improvisation is a skill that can be developed, just like skills in sports. It needs to be exercised, it can only be learned by doing repeatedly, and everyone can learn it. Many people say, "Oh, I just can't be spontaneous." What they should say is "I haven't yet learned that skill." Our culture hasn't yet widely recognized that this is a learn-able skill set.
Improvisation involves a weaving together of intuition, physical action, interpersonal inter-action, imagination, as well as the more familiar rational modes of thought. There's a cultivation of an openness to the subtle cues from the creative subconscious mind. Freud was right that the subconscious contains some material that is pushed down there because the conscious mind doesn't want to recognize or think about it; but he was wrong in not recognizing that the subconscious also contains far, far more–a great mysterious source of inspiration and creative ideas. It was Carl Jung's development of Freud's ideas that opened up our understanding of the mind to this much greater potential, this greater vision of what the soul is about. And spontaneity as a skill-building activity involves practicing a balanced receptivity to the unending images that gently flow from the creative subconscious mind–and then integrating those impulses that are relevant to the external creative challenge.
PlayThe third component of creative mythmaking has been hinted about in the earlier sections, but let us here make it even more explicit. Creativity flourishes best in a fail-safe environment, in a context in which making mistakes is no big deal. Creativity requires that lowering of anxiety about risk-taking provided by the context of playfulness.
Play in this sense isn't mere frivolity. Few are as serious as a child at play. Rather, it's a sense of the flexibility of the moment, that things don't have to immediately work, that you are free to mess with an idea or fool with a technique in the process of improving it. It's the opposite of "knowing the right answers," and we should note that too much of modern education becomes consumed with this fact-based type of learning. (Admittedly, there is a need for a certain amount of fact-based learning, what Hirsch has called "cultural literacy," but when that approach is overdone, it obscures the reality that another great portion of life doesn't rely on what is known as facts, but more on the life skills one has for dealing with situations–and many of these don't even deal with facts, they deal with relationships with people, with feelings, with the artistic sensibilities involved in a situation, with political maneuver and tact, etc. You need play skills for these dimensions of life.)
DramaThe fourth component is that of dramatizing the event. There is, indeed, a need for knowing how and when to be non-dramatic, for being matter-of-fact. However, as with fact-based-learning above (and to which it is related), non-dramatic cognitive modes, intellectual interchange, pure rationality and the like, really involves only a certain segment of life, and for many people, not that large of a segment. Yes, for many, it would be better if that segment would enlarge a bit–they could do with more rationality! This is the benefit of cognitive therapy. However, "logocentric discourse"–a fancy postmodernist term for interactions in which there is a focus on reasonable discussion–can be overdone!
There is also a place in life for breaking out and coming forth with some color, some attention-getting, with elements that have to do with feelings rather than reason. And you need to give yourself permission for a certain amount of this in your living. I think we all need maybe 5% megalomania, really believing you're great–at least in certain ways. You can sustain this within an overall attitude of humility–because humility, you see, can be overdone. That's what costume parties and carnival is for–to help people re-connect with a measure of being outrageous, for letting the superhero and king and drama queen within be expressed and enjoyed.
Drama is an artistic elaboration and integration of poetry, dance, art, and story, and it's one of the most natural functions of humanity. That's what we did back in the cave-man era: We acted out the stories of our heroic quests. Billy fell in a hole and we had to use our ingenuity to get him out. Sarah helped us capture the kangaroo, and let's tell everyone how she did that! (See my paper on this website about what heroism is really about.) So this, dimension, also, needs to be woven into creative mythmaking: Dare to make your life story somewhat dramatic.
Hermeneutics and SemanticsHermeneutics is a good word–it is the term used to describe the activity of interpreting. Of course we are always interpreting our experience, but this word helps us recognize it as an activity, puts a kind of frame around the endeavor, and having been so named, invites us to consider that there may be better and worse ways of doing it. More, Hermeneutics suggests the "art" of interpreting, and puts forth ideas and techniques for doing it well. The term has been used in religious studies, originally, and also in literary criticism. Now, let's use the general idea to help us in the challenge of creative mythmaking.
What is the meaning of all those experiences you've had? How can we interpret this welter of mere events? Well, one technique involves the noticing of certain themes and drawing them together. Another technique involves the recognition that every event was interpreted by you at the time it happened, and that might have been a time when your mind was more immature and used more childish modes of thinking.
Psychotherapy can be considered in part as an interactive hermeneutic endeavor, reviewing the client's life story–or its component hundreds of stories–and re-telling these in a more productive way. Indeed, much of neurosis might be viewed as the interpretation of life events so as to support self-defeating strategies. Therapy, then, involves the re-interpretation of these events and the re-construction of more adaptive strategies based on these more useful interpretations. (This is called "narrative psychology," and it's related to various personal construct theories.) Drawing from this development in the field of psychotherapy, we can apply it to the task of helping everyone to re-construct the meanings in their own lives to even more life-affirming ends.
A related theme here is the emergence of the field of semantics, which is related to hermeneutics in that it recognizes that words don't just "mean" things literally–their definitions or "denotations"–but they also carry emotional colorings and weight–their "connotations." Actually, messing with how words are used was the point of a great part of rhetoric–a lively core of the classical curriculum in ancient Greece and Rome. Also, using the emotional force of words has been a major component of propaganda, advertising, and editorial or biased journalism. Nowadays, we use the term "spin-doctor" for those political aides who find ways of interpreting events so as to support their candidate. But it's all messing with words.
In psychotherapy, arising from the field of constructivism in family therapy, the term "re-framing" has emerged. It's really just the use of the principles of semantics in the service of healing. For example, identifying little Johnny as ‘courageous' rather than merely ‘defiant' can make a difference in how the family perceives Johnny's behavior. The next step is again to do likewise for healthy people who are contemplating the meaning of their own lives.
MetaphorRelated to the previous topic, there are advantages for consciously employing certain analogies for the elusive complexity of life that cannot begin to be named. But still, some themes can be discerned–this is part of hermeneutics, identifying themes–and the names chosen often reflect the context that they are to then be understood as being part of. For this episode or series of episodes, it was "a spiritual journey." For that group of events, it was "the wounded healer, who uses the memories and appreciation of a certain kind of wounding to then help others who have suffered from similar wounds." It doesn't have to be thought of within the metaphor of healing, though: "My daddy never taught me how to (whatever) and I found out I needed that skill, so I'm going to make sure my kid learns it." This is working with a similar metaphor, but more on an educational model.
There are many useful metaphors in psychotherapy (see my paper on this website on this subject), and some of these can then be applied to the construction of meaning in life.
Group ActivitiesCreative mythmaking can be even more effective when engaged in as part of some group activities. It might be a personal development workshop at a growth center, or an ongoing writing group. There are women's writing groups, seniors' journaling groups, or the way various grief support groups address the deeper "existential" meanings of life. There are many advantages to group work, as enumerated by Yalom in his textbook on group psychotherapy. You get to see how many of the themes in your life are shared by others, and you get to give and receive support. Other people's creative ideas catalyze your own creative thinking. You get honest feedback on your tendencies to get too humble or grandiose.
There's also a nice equality and togetherness that is symbolized by working in a circle of from 5 to 20 people. I find the optimal size to be around 9, so that everyone generally gets to get a sufficient amount of personal attention.
The ArtsThe arts involve not only the more recognized activities of drawing, painting, sculpture, poetry, dance and movement, making music, singing, and various types of drama, but also the less obvious art forms. People can make of their garden a kind of sculpture, or the interior decorating of their home. They can make of the way they play with their kids a kind of drama, and the letters they write to friends or even on email, a type of poetry.
Creative mythmaking might include doing what the bards of yore did: In the course of telling a story, they might throw in a song or dance or small ritual. You can do this, also. As you write your memoirs, or share stories with friends or families, bring out a drawing you once did, or one you yourself didn't create, but it was meaningful to you at the time. Or recite a poem.
Story-TellingThink of your life as a welter of stories. Imagine that you are also a highly-paid and experienced biographer, a writer who has the skills of discovering the dramatic themes in a person's life and writing them up as a gripping, best-selling book. And then, imagine that your life is also the subject for this biographer's efforts. What themes would be found? What might be the title of your biography? Are there certain key phrases that seem to fit your philosophy of life? What might be some of the titles of the component chapters?
A related activity as you create your life story, or tell some of its component stories, is to allude to a legend or classical myth, or some other mythic-like image or story. In fact, your life stories do partake of these larger collective myths, at least to some degree. Let these similarities spice up your own awareness of your own personal life story, converting it into a kind of "personal mythology." A number of books have been written about this process.
Really, go on to begin to construct your memoirs or your autobiography. Consider that it might be meaningful to your grandchildren, especially in this era when people are trying to re-discover and get grounded in their roots. Talking about your own roots then serves to help anchor your decendents. More about this is in another article on this website titled "Deepening Personal Meaning."
Keep It UpThis is an ongoing process. Allow it to happen at leisure. If your death is more imminent, you might want to give it a bit more attention. Feel free to revise what you've done, to add new themes, take out obsolete interpretations. You have no obligation to be consistent. That you've changed your mind about some things really is one of the more interesting angles in this greater story.
Also, when I gave my talk, a fellow noted that you need to choose carefully your companions in this endeavor. Many people won't have the skills or even the appreciation of the nature of the activity, and they'll be put off, intimidated, bored, or in other ways bothered by your trying to engage in creative mythmaking activities with them. So check out where and how you are exploring these themes, and even if you're with more compatible souls, warm them up to what this is all about so they can feel oriented to the way you're thinking.
For example, you might be with some people who are interested in exploring the meaning of life, but their belief system is still anchored in an allegiance to some given set of doctrines, and to be effective, you'll have to work with or at least allude to the foundations of their beliefs. So there's an art form even in weaving the aforementioned principles together.
SummaryCreative mythmaking can be one of the more life-enhancing activities. It is a conscious way of countering the forces of alienation and the natural tendencies to drift into mental inertia and meaninglessness. It serves as a good way of community building, a useful family activity, and even a mode of spiritual contemplation.
ReferencesBecker, Ernest. (1971). The birth and death of meaning (2nd ed.). New York: The Free Press.
Return to top.