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Devils Tower Is a Potent Image

Like the fellow in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, creative people struggle to express a significant “image of wide scope.”

Creativity research has revealed that creative individuals often try to recapture a nuanced feeling tone or subtle mood that has captivated them when they were children. It has also shown that creators repeatedly make use of something called an “image of wide scope.” Like the treasured mood, the creator acquires their image of wide scope when they are young, typically before the age of eighteen. The desire to recapture a specific mood and the urge to create something incorporating the image of wide scope are driving forces propelling the creator down particular paths. Mood and image can meld and their role in the creative process is complex.

An image of wide scope may be just about anything: a striking visual image such as a tree standing alone on a ridge, a haunting melody heard at an emotional moment, a fascinating object like a decorated box filled with odds and ends, a mysterious (to a child) device, a place such as the last house on the edge of town.

The idea of “wide scope” refers to the image’s ability to evoke, stand for, or imply the possibility of, many other things. The concept goes beyond metaphor in that it suggests more than just similarity. When creators make repeated use of an image of wide scope, the technique leads to recurring themes in their work.

For Einstein, the wide scope image was a compass controlled by the Earth’s invisible magnetic field. He had been entranced by a compass when just four or five years old and become convinced there must be “something behind things, something deeply hidden.” Later, he would add the concept of the continuum. The idea of a hidden continuum steered his research, influenced his view of quantum physics, and determined the nature of his experiments and theories.

Virginia Woolf remembered a magical moment from her childhood when she woke to the enchanting sound, coming through her open bedroom window, of waves rhythmically breaking on the shore. The cherished experience suggested the eternal passing of time. She used the image of waves on the shore as the central motif in her novel, The Waves.

The branching of trees intrigued Darwin. The structure of a tree proved especially useful when he came to formulate his theories. In fact, the tree structure may have prompted the key insight as to how different species are related. When working on his theory of natural selection, he filled his notebooks with sketches of the “tree of evolution.”

To bring this down to a more personal level, a powerful way of “doing art” is to spend time patiently exploring your most important and vivid mental images. Among these, you will find your own images of wide scope. A characteristic of the image of wide scope is its imperativeness. Creators feel compelled to express the vision repeatedly within the symbolic medium of their choice. What do you keep coming back to?