Photo by Jeff Pang.
Each morning before dawn, novelist Nicholson Baker would slip out of bed without waking his wife, creep downstairs without stirring his kids, make a pot of coffee, light a fire in his wood-burning stove, flip on his laptop – the only other light besides the flames – and write.
In that dark twilight space between wake and dream, Baker created a quirky novella that celebrates the extraordinary of the ordinary: A Box of Matches. His naïve narrator, a medical textbook editor who lives in Maine with wife, kids, and duck Greta, riffs on everything from the pleasure of how a dishwasher’s top rack rolls out to the exhilaration of scrubbing first thing in the morning a dish left out overnight (“smiling with the clenched-teeth smile of the joyful scrubber”).
What Baker and his narrator embody are what novelist Jonathan Rosen says every great writer possesses: wonder.
And wonder is the vital blood-stuff of Google, of the SyFy TV channel, of fashion designers, of Lady Gaga.
If you really want to be indispensible in your work, if you truly hunger to taste reality, if you honestly want to create and innovate from a mind-carousel space of delight and centeredness, then bring on more wonder. But be careful. It can give you more than you bargained for.
“Life is a spell so exquisite,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “that everything conspires to break it.” Wonder holds us spellbound. It does so in part by calling everything we think we know into question. For a moment, we cease to know. What we deem real is a dream. What we dream is real.
Here are four ways to cultivate creative wonder by exploring the twilight zone at the intersection of night and day, reality and dreams, conscious and unconscious.
Each can be the starting point for a specific piece of work – or just a way of cultivating your sense of wonder and capacity for imagination.
Ask ‘What If?’
Jorge Luis Borges, like a curious boy, poses ‘What if?’ questions and then lets his stories work them out to their logical or absurd conclusion. Gabriel García Márquez wonders “What if an angel appeared in our own village?”
Pablo Neruda filled a volume with such thought problems, titled The Book of Questions. Alan Lightman’s novella Einstein’s Dreams is structured as if each chapter were one of the physicist’s dreams about time. Each chapter then plays out the dream, fueled by one of Lightman’s time questions: “What if time were at the center of town?” “What if in a village time ran backward?” Writers never stop asking questions (which is one reason we’re so dangerous to people with unchecked power and so annoying to our friends).
Throughout a typical day, ask yourself, “What is real?” and “What if?” Get in the habit of listing playful questions about reality. What if deer attacked people? (Horror story.) What if the older woman down the street fell in love with your husband? (Fiction, you hope.) What if we ate with our ears? What if mud made us cleaner than water? How do rose petals swim? (Lyrical poetry.)
Get up in the Middle of the Night
Great cinema, music, design, and much true art – awakens that deep interior space most of us access only at night in REM romps.
Walk through your house in the dark. Walk down your street at 3:00 a.m. You might feel as if you’re walking through someone else’s dream.
Log an Entire Day and Night
Keep a list of observations from the moment you arise, recalling brief dream images from the night before; then, note incidents from your morning routine, from work, from dinner, and finally from dreams again. Wonder in your note-taking like Nicholson Baker’s Emmett about the miracle of such small stuff.
If at day’s end you have fewer than twelve entries, don’t flagellate yourself for not heeding everything; congratulate yourself for altering your awareness even slightly. Be persistent. Try more the next day.
Tap Your Creative Unconscious with Bodywork
Twilight time—that state we usually experience either just as we’re falling asleep or as we’re waking up—is a rich time to draw upon dream images. Where wake and dream overlap, this twilight time can also be induced through meditative yoga movements and breathwork.
Apparently, for us to recall unconscious imagery or memories, our brains must contain some alpha brain waves mixed with theta. Neuropsychologist Erik Hoffman, who led a study on eleven experienced yoga teachers in Scandinavia, used an EEG and follow-up psychological measurements to measure the yogis’ brain-wave activity after two hours of a form of yoga called Kriya Yoga. The study showed significant theta-wave activity in both hemispheres, especially in the less dominant right hemisphere, often associated with more intuitive functions.
Choose a form of bodywork that appeals to you – such as yoga, tai chi, reiki, qi gong or simply focusing on your breath – and make it a regular daily practice. Be prepared to be surprised at the results!
What About You?
How do you enter a waking dream state to shake up your old ways of viewing a project or ‘reality’?
Do you have any stories about how you or someone you know keeps alive that native genius of wonder?
About the Author: Jeffrey Davis is a writer and creativity consultant who leads programs, trainings, and retreats around the world for creatives, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and colleges. He also writes the Tracking Wonder blog at Psychology Today and the Hut of Questions blog at trackingwonder.com.