Something astoundingly unique about humans is that we can summon into being. An idea, a thought, a substance, even another of our kind. We can—and do—conceive originality.
Everything has a single point of beginning. I have found myself stumbling over them recently.
What makes something come forth from nothing? How do things originate? Do they emerge fully formed like Greek gods? Do they warm backbenches until summoned? Do I have a latent supply of patience I don’t know about? A book waiting to be penned?
What makes something step forward from nothing?
Dancer and Emmy Award–winning ballet choreographer Twyla Tharp writes in The Creative Habit that her single point of beginning comes forth in emptiness. Every day, she seeks an empty white room, and every day, she arrives to create:
To some people, this empty room symbolizes something profound, mysterious, and terrifying: the task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something whole and beautiful and satisfying. It’s not different for a writer rolling a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter (0or more likely firing up the blank screen on his computer), or a painter confronting a virginal canvas, a sculptor staring at a raw chunk of stone
Some people find this moment—the moment before creativity begins—so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away.
An empty white space to expand into, coupled with a belief or resolution that such expansion is possible (because, Tharp argues it must be), constitutes the perfect condition for beginnings. Tharp has launched countless beginnings throughout her outstanding career, starting with empty rooms.
The blank space can be humbling. But I’ve faced it my whole professional life. It’s my job. It’s also my calling. Bottom line: Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.
Mark Strand, former US poet laureate and one of my favorite contemporary poets (he’s a reliable guide to nonexistence, fungible time, and the tensions of our inner and outer selves). Strand said although his development as a reader of poems was inseparable from being a poet, he remembered one remarkable point of beginning:
‘You, Andrew Marvell’ by Archibald MacLeish was the first poem about which I felt passionate, the first that I thought I understood, the first that I actually wished I had written. My own poems—the few that I wrote in my adolescence—were feverish attempts to put ‘my feelings’ on paper, and little more. Their importance, at least for me, their only reader, was exhausted by the time they were written. In those days, my life was one of constantly shifting weather, and the world within was rarely in sync with the world without. No wonder the linearity, the cool emotional order of ‘You, Andrew Marvell’ appealed to me.
MacLeish’s poem named the feelings that held a young Strand hostage and, thus, brought his own poetry into conscious existence. Thoughts awaiting expression, which Strand, through a lifetime of writing, bestowed.
When we tap our subconscious, directly or indirectly, we jostle small, even insignificant, imprecise sparks we can seize, shape, and arrange. Perhaps our post-inception arranging of things into something precise is as important as the beginning of those sparks themselves.
Using language remarkably similar to Strand’s, dramatist Harold Pinter discusses summoning characters into being, and shaping them into use.1
I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. […] Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word, or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. […] [A]s I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends. […] It’s a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that point have had no existence.
Whether it is filling empty space or summoning ideas to trigger additional ones, the more we know how things begin, the more we can prime their existence. Create time and place to engender thoughts and ideas, whether in a moment of rich mental ability sprung by a balance of work and play or triggered by silence and calm.
Isolating a single point of beginning is vital, it reminds us that we, all of us, can originate. The act of originating—what a power, what a wonderful gift. No matter how we do it, we create something original simply by living.
Leonard Cohen wrote in his poem “There Is a Moment”:
There is a moment in every day when I kneel before the love I have for you. Then I remember that I am still that man, and I know that my life’s work is to be that man […]. Once again the thought of you has rescued me from the puzzle of my indifference [..]
I like these lines; they describe a point of beginning.
And then there is Cohen’s use of the word “indifference.” Something to be saved from, something love saves him from. Indifference is the opposite of conception, the opposite of originating thinking. It is a cluttered space of nonprecious things, gone to decay and slipping into ruin, or worse, stasis.
Someone once asked me why I began to write. Simply, to conceive an original thought. Although I rarely do. A unique permutation of words, sure, but thoughts? Most have been long said. In fact, that is the point of The Examined Life: to collect and connect those similar points. To bind us unmistakably to everything that’s preceded and everything existing.
And yet… originality. That single point of beginning. It happens. You do things all day, every day, that have never been done. You, have never been done.
Seek a single point of beginning. Gather the small things and bring them to greatness. Bring things into being. Avoid indifference.