Last week a facebook friend sent me a greeting through chat, and I didn’t answer. Since I never want my friends to feel that I don’t notice their messages, I was looking for an excuse to give when I would feel like answering again. There was no deep or serious reason for my silence, I was just preoccupied. I started pondering that word – for the English language is native neither to me, nor to that friend. Unhinging the prefix from ‘occupied’ I wondered why I would not just say that: I was occupied, I was busy. But that would not have been true, literally. I would have had time for a message. It was just that I did not want to be engaged in conversation for some days. My mind just asked for some un-occupiedness – not being busy communicating, but having its capacity for itself.
Then I wondered, as I did more often, whether ‘for itself’ really can be said – meaningfully? In that mood that one doesn’t feel for communication, is one not, actually occupied in that other sense? Busy like a telephone line can be busy? Posessed even by something? The mood I am talking about is the one that often leads to creativity – it seems you are doing nothing, thinking nothing, not communicating – and after some time, seemingly from nowhere, new ideas pop up. A philosopher friend who died nine years ago, and who loved to play with words, called this the ‘incubation period’. Comparing an outburst of creativity to the breakthrough of illness. Silence before a storm, so to say. The bored, empty days one needs to let something unexpected present itself.
What happens when one is preoccupied in this sense? Creative people used to claim that they were inspired by their ‘muse’, a goddess supposed to breath creative insights into a person. Later, when such spiritual powers were not so much in fashion anymore, the muse was often the name for the adored mistress of an artist. But also then, the reference was to the spiritual side of a sexual relationship: the being in love, the passion. In all cases the mind, or whatever other seat of ‘me’, is not with itself, it is occupied by something which draws it away from the everyday. The everyday, the laundry, the dishes, the car, the garden can take care of itself. The facefookfriends, even real life friends too. When you are preoccupied you are in a sense ‘out of your mind’.
My beloved, referring to knowledge he got in his West African upbringing, explained me once that especially creative people are ‘followed’ by the spirits. My answer, a question, was: ‘ah, that is because with them the spirits can have more fun?’ He continued that the spirits help the creative mind, they are actually part of that creativity. The flip side of this being that they can also stir things up too much, and get someone into trouble. That would be the reason that we see so much creative people struggle with drugs, depression, paranoia, and things like that. Those troubles are just the spirits gone out of control.
So how is it? It is true that when I write, or paint, I am not consciously constructing what I make. There is what we nowadays call ‘the flow’. A form of rapture that makes me wonder about some of the sentences I wrote when reading them back. And again. What ‘I’ do is make preparations. Cleaning the room, laying the books or brushes ready. Making sure that I will not be distracted by communication or chores that have nothing to do with the creative task. And then there is that boredom, that emptying, perhaps, to make it possible that ‘the creative spirit’ will come over me and do its work. It has to be treated with kindness, but also with discipline. Yes, it should not be fed with an excess of pride or excitement – that will summon up it’s dark side: loneliness, depression, dissatisfaction that can come and haunt.
The spirit of creativity thrives best on a simple diet, and appears when there is some good old boredom around – the pre-creative silence, that precedes this spirit occupying the creative human being. Could that be the deeper meaning of us saying of the human being in this preparatory phase that he or she is pre-occupied? I do not claim to know how it works, so I value different descriptions of what happens. And to any of my friends I would like to say: when I am ‘not available’ it could be just me being preoccupied.