Artistic Thinking Bookshelf: The Courage to Create

Meditations for Cultivating Creativity in Your Teaching and Your Students

Rollo May’s The Courage to Create (W. W. Norton & Company, Reprint edition, March 17, 1994). Add your favorite titles to the Artistic Thinking Bookshelf.

Courage to CreateHeraclitus’ proverb you never step into the same river twice applies to books as well. I recently reread Rollo May’s The Courage to Create and it was not the same book I stepped into 30 years ago. Then I was in the midst of a liberal arts college education and I marveled at how May drew from creative thinkers across intellectual domains. Interweaving ancient and contemporary references gave these lectures an expansive, timeless quality, but my understanding of them was narrowly academic. Now I reread May as I craft a curriculum on creativity research and consider ways to cultivate creativity in the classroom, and I marvel at how applicable and urgent his writing is.

Like many writing today about creativity, May begins by recognizing the inherent risk in being creative. Creativity, by definition, challenges the status quo and exposes the nonconforming creative spirit to external criticism and internal self-doubt.

Dogmatists of all kinds — scientific, economic, moral, as well as political — are threatened by the creative freedom of the artist. This is necessarily and inevitably so. We cannot escape our anxiety over the fact that the artists together with creative persons of all sorts, are the possible destroyers of our nicely ordered systems. For the creative impulse is the speaking of the voice and the expressing of the forms of the preconscious and unconscious; and this is, by its very nature, a threat to rationality and external control.

May highlights with some glee this disruptive, non-conforming nature when he writes “Poets may be delightful creatures in the meadow or the garret, but they are menaces on the assembly line.” And while May draws heavily on the arts, romanticizing the “heroic” efforts of artists, he recognizes the importance of cultivating creativity in all walks of life and in common personal interactions.

Creativity must be seen in the work of the scientist as well as in the artist, in the thinker as well as in the aesthetician; and one must not rule out the extent to which it is present in captains of modern technology as well as in a mother’s normal relationship with her child. Creativity, as Webster’s rightly indicates, is basically the process of making, of bringing into being.

Where May eloquently distinguishes himself is his existential call to action. You don’t just need to brave your fears to be creative, May argues that the courage to create is a moral imperative.

If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution.

May’s call for a reimagining of a new empowering social order is as meaningful today as when he first wrote this in the shadow of the cold war with its promise of mutually assured destruction.

Whatever sphere we may be in, there is a profound joy in the realization that we are helping to form the structure of the new world. This is creative courage, however minor or fortuitous our creations may be. We can then say, with Joyce, Welcome, O life! We go for the millionth time to forge in the smithy of our souls the uncreated conscience of the race.

From this foundation May explores the nature of creativity, the role of the unconscious, and the importance of leading a receptive and mindful life that is open to ambiguity. Throughout, May speaks to creativity’s relationship with form, constraint, and collaboration with the medium, the audience, and the world.

While The Courage to Create was not written with the intention of shaping classroom practice, it offers meditations for cultivating creativity in your teaching and your students.

The importance of tapping into emotions, as well as the mind

Reason works better when emotions are present; the person sees sharper and more accurately when his emotions are engaged.

The integration of objective and subjective realities (also, an answer to the current debate about close reading?)

World is the pattern of meaningful relations in which a person exists and in the design of which he or she participates. It has objective reality, to be sure, but it is not simply that. World is interrelated with the person at every moment. A continual dialectical process goes on between world and self and self and world; one implies the other, and neither can be understood if we omit the other. This is why one can never localize creativity as a subjective phenomenon; one can never study it simply in terms of what goes on within the person. The pole of world is an inseparable part of the creativity of an individual. What occurs is always a process, a doing — specifically a process interrelating the person and his or her world.

Creativity grows from an intensity of awareness and periods of receptivity

In this sense genuine artists are so bound up with their age that they cannot communicate separated from it. In this sense, too, the historical situation conditions the creativity. For the consciousness which obtains in creativity is not the superficial level of objectified intellectualization, but is an encounter with the world on a level that undercuts the subject-object split. “Creativity” to rephrase our definition, “is the encounter of the intensively conscious human being with his or her world.

The hard work of and anxiety in creative pursuits

Creative people, as I see them, are distinguished by the fact that they can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of the “divine madness,” to borrow the term used by the classical Greeks. They do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being. They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.

How constraint and limits give creativity form

Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem.

The defining juxtaposition between imagination and form

Imagination is the outreaching of mind. It is the individual’s capacity to accept the bombardment of the conscious mind with ideas, impulses, images and every sort of psychic phenomena welling up from the preconscious. It is the capacity to “dream dreams and see visions…Imagination is casting off mooring ropes, taking one’s chances that there will be new mooring posts in the vastness ahead….As imagination gives vitality to form, form keeps imagination from driving us into psychosis.

Author Videos

The American existential psychologist Rollo May (1909-1994) speaks about:
creativity and dealing with boredom
imagination and mystery

Video Book Reviews

• Bill Shaeffer book review is a thoughtful step-by-step walkthrough of the book’s content.
• Brian Johnson discusses The Courage to Create in this 10-minute video on
• While this is not specific to The Courage to Create, Eric Dodson’s 10-minute video overview of Rollo May explores his overarching existential psychotherapy.

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