Intuition is an extraordinary faculty to be valued and nourished by every writer or artist.
However we conceptualise it, the sense of knowing something in the gut, of finding our way through inference or listening to the heart, is ancient and powerful. We do it when we pick up unspoken signals in a room that tell us the place is safe, or not.
We do it when we know a subject so well that we reach for the right solution without having to laboriously think about it, even if it’s taken years of labour to get to this point. Think of a jazz musician who’s playing seems to have transcended structure to become purely instinctive—getting to that point could take years, even decades of more formal learning.
Some of our intuition is there from birth—the chick knows when it’s time to break out of the shell, babies know how to feed… But some of it is the internalising of years of learning, art and craft. In 1983 The Getty Museum decided to buy a sixth-century sculpture for $10 million. The called in experts to verify the piece, had it X-rayed, and followed the provenance through all the historical documentation.But when two artists, one an expert in Greek sculpture and the other who had been the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arrived to see it, both instinctively knew something was not right. And they were not wrong. The sculpture had been produced in a studio in Rome in 1980.
Intuition isn’t magic, but it’s swifter than our analytical minds. It leans on knowledge that isn’t explicit, a kind of knowing without being able to articulate how we know.
The harmony of reason and intuition
Intuition may be very different to reason, but the two can exist in s harmony rather than being inimical to one another. Bertrand Russell referred to such harmony as a “largeness of contemplation” that happens when we build bridges between the two. Writing in Mysticism and Logic and other essays, he notes:
… insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means… But in fact the opposition of instinct and reason is mainly illusory. Instinct, intuition, or insight is what first leads to the beliefs which subsequent reason confirms or confutes; but the confirmation, where it is possible, consists, in the last analysis, of agreement with other beliefs no less instinctive. Reason is a harmonising, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realm, it is insight that first arrives at what is new.
It is a sentiment echoed by Susan Sontag in The Complete Rolling Stone Interview with Jonathan Cott. Always an artist and thinker who constantly resisted false dualisms, she says:
Most everything I do seems to have as much to do with intuition as with reason. . . . The kind of thinking that makes a distinction between thought and feeling is just one of those forms of demagogy that causes lots of trouble for people by making them suspicious of things that they shouldn’t be suspicious or complacent of.
To value intuition is not to decry reason, but to refuse false dichotomies that make our lives and our art fragmented and partial.
Following our intuition
Intuition is a value to the writer or artist because it is intimately linked to our creativity. Writing, sculpting, making music, painting… all art involves transforming abstract ideas into something new, tangible, novel, into finding a new way to communicate. All art collides disparate ideas to make something—a new song, a new film, a new story…
And intuition thrives when we allow our creative practice to listen to the unconscious rather than to ego, and when we trust it. As Picasso puts it:
To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.
This is not a counsel of pseudo-mysticism in favour of learning our craft and working at it. Over and over, writers and artists of every kind confirm that artistic practice demands some fidelity. We have to keep showing up. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when we think we have no ideas. Following our intuition isn’t about merely handing ourselves over the muse and chanelling something, yet at its best it can feel like the ideas and work flow through us. And I think that happens when we have the courage and grace to get out of our own way. To quote Picasso at more length from Conversations with Picasso by Brassai:
I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.
Intuition involves that we show up and then turn off both the hypercritical self-editor and indulgent the self-aggrandiser within. Only then can intuition take all the learning, all the experience, all the ideas and make something surprising of them.
Nourishing our intuition
Intuition isn’t something we can force, but it is something we can nourish. We nourish it with time, including time to daydream and do nothing, time to walk and ruminate. Ideas arise so often unbidden when we are looking elsewhere. As the film-maker David Lynch put it in an interview with Paul Holdengräber
We don’t do anything without an idea. So they’re beautiful gifts. And I always say, you desiring an idea is like a bait on a hook — you can pull them in. And if you catch an idea that you love, that’s a beautiful, beautiful day. And you write that idea down so you won’t forget it. And that idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole — whatever it is you’re working on — but now you have even more bait. Thinking about that small fragment — that little fish — will bring in more, and they’ll come in and they’ll hook on. And more and more come in, and pretty soon you might have a script — or a chair, or a painting, or an idea for a painting. […] more often than not, in small fragments.
We might nourish intuition through meditation practices or acts of guided imagination, through the deep rest of yoga nidrā, or attending to our dreams. Intuition, like dreams and the borders between waking and sleeping, has something of the liminal about it. Yet it is also a bodily and embodied faculty—how often do we feel something in our bones, have a gut feeling or experience an emotion in a particular part of the body?
And it is nurtured by listening to the earth, being in nature with attention and becoming intimate with the land we find ourselves living on.
Intuition is a value to be cultivated because it deepens our attention and our connections. It builds on our experience and our fidelity to turning up and doing the work, but never as an act of ego. Expansive and confident, it over-rides the self sabotaging inner critic and allows us to know what we know without having to endlessly rationalise it, yet without being inimical to reason.
Here’s to trusting the intuition of our stories.