Drawing by Katarina Countiss
Excerpt from Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking by John-Steiner, Vera (Book – 1997) p.72
The development of self-knowledge– the realization of one’s special talents and the best way to use them– doesn’t necessarily follow a simple linear progression. Students of creativity have identified cycles in lives of productive individuals. At times a person spends years absorbing new experiences, styles, or theoretical ideas without making his or her contributions to a field, only to be followed by a period of intense bursts of productivity.
An apparently fallow few years in the life of the great French novelist Marcel Proust were described as part of such a cycle by his biographer André Maurois:
“Superficially considered, the four or five years that followed Marcel’s military service were lost years. The truth is that he was absorbing his honey and filling the pigeonholes of his mind with characters and impressions.”
At the end of his lengthy years of apprenticeship after the death of his parents, Marcel Proust “had developed a prodigious memory peopled with scenes and conversations. He had not frittered away the harvest of his childhood and his adolescence… he had reached the age of great undertakings with his granaries filled to bursting.”
The live, active use of memory reported by artists and scientists forces us to use some caution in our language describing this central mode of thought. In the professional literature of psychology, we often use terms such as memory storage, which implies that humans file their experiences, the yields of their lives, into a dark and dusty back-chamber of the mind. A different process emerges from the accounts of poets, such as Stephen Spender, who have described the many ways in which they attempt to maintain the freshness of their perceptions throughout long periods of time. In a similar vein, Stan Ulam has commented on the importance of keeping one’s knowledge current by linking the known to new ideas and insights. Memory, then, is an ever present resource, a potential source of raw materials that are reworked in art and science…
In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding. This process is demanding; it calls upon all the inner resources of the individual—active memory, openness to experience, creative intensity, and emotional courage. It demands self-knowledge in the use of expansion of one’s talents.