I roam over these maps in search of my next destination, calibrating the time zones and coordinates with the rhythmic beating of my own heart trying to adjust itself to where it will land. But no matter how long I stare at the curves of these continents, I cannot trace the path of my Beloved… the longitude of my true longing… or the altitude of my joy.
Last weekend I attended a talk by award-winning Canadian architect Siamak Hariri about his experience over the past ten years of working on the continental Baha’i temple of South America, currently being built in Santiago, Chile.
Before going into the details of the project, he began his talk by talking about the “creative process” that he undertakes in all his work as an architect to achieve such unique, beautiful, and complex designs that are not only works of art, but functional buildings.
While I know next to nothing about architecture, I found his description of the creative process spoke as much to any art form, and as a writer I saw some immediate parallels in many of the themes that I describe below. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive summary of Hariri’s talk, but rather to share a few of his points that speak to any manifestation of the creative process, in trying to bring something out of the invisible world into the visible, in any art form.
You have to fall in “crazy love”
Hariri began his talk by telling the Persian mystical love story of Leyli and Majnun. Majnun, he said, was a “crazy lover”, who longed for his beloved Leyli with such fervor that he could not eat or sleep, and doctors feared he would die of longing for his heart’s desire. One day while seeking her, a watchman appeared from the shadows and started to chase Majnun. Majnun began to run and then another watchman appeared, and then another, until he was running for his life. Reaching a dead end, he saw no option but to scale the wall before him that in any other circumstance would have seen impossible. But as he dropped down on the other side, what should he find but his beloved Leyli, and he was finally united with his beloved.
Love is what makes us push through, to persevere, to overcome obstacles, to be driven at times what feels to be an unseen hands, or to keep pressing forward, driving oneself forward when inspiration feels distant.
Seek inspiration everywhere
Hariri showed a series of images that he collected in the early stages of thinking of a design for the Chile temple. The images were varied and at first appeared unrelated – the sun shining through the branches of treetops, a chair with interesting curves, a whirling dervish spinning so fast that the camera blurred its motions.
He didn’t know if or how many of these things would ultimately contribute to the design of the temple. Sometimes it was just the feeling that an image evoked that twigged some respones. But it was only through all of these sources of inspiration that he arrived at a final design and image of designing a “temple of light.”
In the story of Leyli and Majnun, the people berate Majnun for seeking Leyli in the dust, as she was made of pure spirit. “I seek her everywhere,” was his response.
We were asked to think of that trust game in which you close your eyes, stand stiff straight, and fall backwards, trusting that the person behind you will catch you before you fall. The creative process is a bit like falling backwards, not seeing what is behind you, feeling that drop in the pit of your stomach in a moment of uncertainty, but ultimately trusting that something will catch your fall. And in Hariri’s experience, he told us, something always has.
Majnun, upon discovering his Leyli after the pursuit of the watchmen, says that had he known where they would lead him, he would have blessed them from the start. That’s how we should think of our own moments of uncertainty and fear, trusting they will lead us on to something we do not expect.
Playing Through the Messy Bits
Sometimes, Hariri told the audience, when he is trying to work through an idea or stuck on something, he just likes to play with modeling clay and see what happens – often it takes him in a new direction, or opens his mind to a possibility he hadn’t expected to find. I find in writing, play is important for the same reason – that’s when some of the most exciting discoveries happen.
A Simple structure gives strength
While a fairly complex superstructure, each piece of the building is unique and requiring a complex lattice frame woven within each wing, the Chile temple looks far from simple as far as architecture goes. However, the structural integrity of the entire building rests on three perfect circles – one at the base, one at the widest point of its diameter perhaps a third of the way off the ground, and the smallest circle at the temple’s peak. The complexity that stems from this to give the temple its unique effect depends on simplicity at its core – a rule I hear again and again for how to tell a good story, at the heart of which must be a strong message or core, upon which more elabourate themes can then transpire and unfold.
Achieving the Impossible
What Hariri did not focus on explicitly in his presentation – but what came though implicitly – is the tremendous amount of hard work, collaboration, dedication and time that is given month after month, year after year, once the vision has been set – that’s when the work begins. For example, the create a “temple of light”, the architect envisioned a structure made of a translucent alabaster-like glass. But how can you build a glass structure on an earthquake-prone coastal city? A team spent a year and a half dedicated to creating a new form of glass that would balance the right combination of function and visual effect to achieve what they were looking for. Thus in this case, art begets innovation as vision drives the creative process to new heights.
Overall, I find sometimes that whether we are artists or architects, writers or musicians, at times we get so caught up in the minutiae of what we are doing that we forget that we are a part of a broader process that demands of us different things and different times. This isn’t only true for art either, but in many aspects of our lives and relationships. Taking a step back from it reminds us that the process as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and we can move forward each moment when driven by the force of our crazy love.
I had written honest once,
or so I was convinced,
but words beautifully arranged
can make liars of us all
with symbolic intentions
So now I shy from allusions
and emblematic turns of voice
and notes that linger in the air
quivering with significance.
I rise early now
with the sun
uncloaking shadows to dust
I live simply
and pay visits to visions no longer.
still they surprise me in dreams.
Before she started her writing career, Amy Tan sat down and wrote a story about a little girl who plays chess. Amy Tan didn’t play chess herself, and so clearly this wasn’t a story about her, right? But as she wrote, what unfolded was an intricate and intimate account of the struggle for power between a mother and a daughter, which Amy was shocked to realize
So, did she write what she knew, or what she imagined?
My take on the whole “write what you know” vs. “write what you don’t know” debate in fiction is that is sets up a dichotomy between supposed “authenticity” and “pure fiction” that is, in fact, artificial.
A writer could write a piece of fiction about someone far away from the writers’ experience – perhaps in another time, or world, or perhaps just leading a completely different life with entirely different motivations than the author. Yet her very ability to put herself in another’s vantage point, to imagine the thoughts and emotions of another being in another world, depends on exposing some truth known to the author through her own world.
“Imagination is the closest thing to compassion,” Amy Tan once said. And I think this is the crux at which the line blurs between truth and fiction.
Of course we can do express what we imagine well or we can express it poorly, and it is often in the details where the authenticity of the voice can begin to unravel. That’s where the benefit of writing from one’s lived experience can come in, or the need to immerse oneself so deeply in learning about another time and place that ultimately becomes part of us. It becomes our experience.
Tennyson once wrote: “I am part of all that I have met.” We project ourselves into our experiences in order to make meaning to what would otherwise appear to be a random collection of isolated experiences. It is through thinking, reasoning, and meaning-making that the conceptual construct of a process is borne. And in turn, all that we have met becomes a part of us.
And why, might I ask, does inspiration only hit
when I’m supposed to be doing something else?