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Confessions of a Screenwriter, Month Two: Exploring Creation Ex Nihilo

August 15th, 2007 | 4 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

When someone says, "I had an idea," what exactly do they mean? Where do "ideas" come from? This is a question not often-enough asked in creative writing programs, painting classes, music or film programs. It is so simple and basic as to elicit a "give me a break" reaction from some people, but I for one find it as fascinating as it is difficult to answer. Teachers usually say, "Write a five-page short story." They do not say, "Here's where to garner inspiration." Why is this? Is it because no one knows where ideas come from? Or, knowing, is it impossible to communicate it?

Dizzy and I sat down to "write a script." This intention can come from one of only a few places: 1. The desire to be like filmmakers we admire, 2. The external stimulus of some professor or boss, 3. The presence of a story inside us and the desire to put it forth. Number two was not a factor. Number one was definitely present, and perhaps the greatest motivation. But without number three, what progress can be made? It is well and good to admire and imitate great story-tellers, great artists, but without some thing, some idea or thought or feeling or psychadelic episode to relate, then no imitation is possible.

Our idea came from a dream. But this merely pushes the question one step back. Where do dreams come from? Some people say the "subconscious mind" (Jung). Some people say the "superconscious mind" (Brian Tracy). Some people say "God" (Joseph the Egyptian).

Phenomenologically, when I peer inward during the creative process, I do not see any origin from which ideas, words, thoughts, images, are springing. Or, perhaps more accurately, I see nothing. I see something, namely, Nothingness. I see a void, an emptiness. Most people are uncomfortable "staring into the void," for fear that they might find "the void staring back," in Nietchze's fine words. But is there any other way to understand the creative process, to "get behind the scenes" of what is going on?

Perhaps there is nothing more to understand, and we are at the mercy of the void to provide ideas. If they spring up, they spring up; if they don't, they don't. This hardly seems comforting for those in professional artist positions wherein their livelihood depends on the regular production of "good ideas."

Rumi has a poem wherein he says,

"All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?

... who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes?"

He captures and expresses, with painful ignorance, the mysteriousness of the thoughts, words, sights that spring up from somewhere in me, who-knows-where. Is there an answer to his questions?

Wordsworth in the Prelude says, "This faculty [Imagination] hath been the moving soul / of our long labour. We have traced the stream / from darkness and the very place of origin / in its blind cavern.

Imagination and intellectual love, for Wordsworth, has its origin in some blind cavern. It is powerful, and has been the "moving soul" of the enourmous epic poem that is the Prelude, but it's origin is in darkness, obscure hidden from sight.

Plotinus writes a playful series of essays on contemplation wherein he argues that creation follows naturally from contemplation. We see what we want to make before we make it, and we are compelled, by that seeing, to create. The prime directive, then, for the artists, would not be the act of creation, nor increasing in technical skill, or responding to consumer feedback and audience response, but it would be to train the eyes of the mind to note what is real, to perceive and receive imprint of reality, to be a student of what is. This is contemplation, roughly, for Plotinus, and this leads, according to him, necessarily to the creation of imitations of what has been seen.

Studying Plotinus' thought lead me to write the following poem, entitled "Writer's Sphere"

In fear, writers sit blocked, and painters idly paint
Blank canvases with gesso of purest white,
Unable to think or see straight, let alone create.

Do not hold your breath tight, panic, or faint;
Do not stare and wear away the empty frame with fright;
Relax, and search. To see is to make. First, Contemplate.

It is important for screenwriters, and artists of any variety, to examine Plotinus' hypothesis more carefully (Look to the Enneads, Third Ennead) and, if it is incorrect or inadequate, to offer a better alternative. How can we create before we know where our ideas come from in the first place?