LEARNING TO FLY
Leonardo da Vinci had a vision that human flight was possible.
He imagined that a machine of wood, leather, and raw silk could flap its wings like a bird to rise from the ground and give us all a higher perspective.
He was a visionary, a genius, a masterful painter, and perhaps the most widely known “Renaissance man” of all time. His interests ranged from physics to natural science, philosophy to art. He was an inventor, a thinker, a sculptor, and a painter – his expertise spanned a vast number of subjects.
He was born in 1452 near the small Italian town of Vinci in the hills that gradually rise above the north side of the Arno River valley only a few miles downstream from Florence. When he was fourteen, Leonardo was sent to Florence to apprentice with the famous painter, Verrocchio. After studying with Verrocchio for six years, Leonardo’s father set him up with a studio in Florence. From that point on he worked as a freelance artist and engineer in Florence, Milan, and Rome.
There exist today eleven Codices of his written works. Some are loose collections of papers combined into a single package by later collectors. Others are relatively intact journals and notebooks preserved in their original state. Each page is literally crammed with his sketches and unique backwards handwriting – inventions, studies of anatomy, his philosophical thoughts, and ordinary things like how much he spent on dinner.
Throughout his life he was fascinated with flying.
He writes in the Codex Atlanticus of his earliest childhood memory: a Kite landed on his crib and flicked his lips with its tail. Leonardo loved birds. He would often purchase them just to set them free from their cages.
By 1505 he was again in Florence, designing and painting a great mural of The Battle of Anghiari. Beginning in that year he made drawings and documented his field observations of birds using their wings to maneuver and soar on the wind currents. The Codex on the Flight of Birds consists of 18 folios or pages bound with a simple cardboard cover. It is small enough to be carried in a large pocket. This was to be the beginning of an extended treatise on the physical laws that govern the flight of birds and would become the basis for the construction of a flying machine.
It is in his hastily drawn sketches of birds flying and turning as well as the methodically executed renderings of the anatomy of bird and bat wings that we can perceive the excitement of discovery that he felt as his observations coalesced into a thorough understanding of the properties of flight.
And it becomes clear, over time, that he was unwaveringly committed to the concept that human flight was possible – if only a machine could be designed that was capable of emulating the motion of bird wings.
Creative process begins like this: it is the courage to envision that first flight, the bravery and determination to stand alone on the edge of the real and to believe in the power of creativity enough that we can jump off into the very air of the unknown – and soar through the currents and waves of whatever happens next.
But Leonardo never actually built his human-powered lying machine, the ornithopter. However, others have built it from his design drawings. And it doesn’t work.
It was a grand vision, maybe even a beautiful object. But it doesn’t fly.
Process is not only the ability to conceive of extraordinary ideas but also the willingness and ability to do the real work necessary to develop, enhance, and expand those initial fragments of inspiration into something that actually achieves the full implementation of the potential. A beautiful drawing isn’t a flying machine any more than Beethoven’s four-note melody isn’t a full symphony. It is process that takes us from inception – the initial spark of imagination and inspiration – to completion, the fully formed implementation with all its dimensions of detail, expression, and functionality.
Process is the work we do, the application of skill and resources necessary to actually build something we can all reach out, touch, and use. Process is the means through which we have the conviction and skill to build something trustworthy enough that we can make the leap into thin air with some level of certainty that this thing is going to work.
But it is also the foundation of our ability to rise above the never-ending series of challenges and setbacks, the “learning experiences” and often-harsh encounters with human limitations that try to pull the whole thing down.
Process gives us the power to be stronger than all that; process is the stability and resilience that keeps us standing when budgets and time evaporate or there is nothing holding us up except our own vision. Process keeps everything in motion even when there’s no one else on this planet that believes it could ever be possible to rise off the ground.
Achieving human flight required a more developed vision than simply emulating the wings of a bird. It required research and discovery, new insights, and new tools to achieve the shaping of air pressure that generates the lift to get a child’s glider and an Airbus A380 off the ground.
And to be honest, it takes some velocity – not only the power of a couple of very big Rolls Royce engines that just might be lying around, but the momentum of our own energy and determination. We’ve got to stick with it. We’ve got to actually grab on to the idea and pull it forward, day after day, no matter how hard it gets. It is up to us to lift the idea higher and to do whatever it takes to get it into the air.
It took me a very long time to learn this and to prove to myself that it works. Ten years of my creative life were devoted to the composition and production of a multimedia opera. I had to confront discouragement of every kind, self-criticism, my own inability, and limited resources. It was very hard to keep going over so many years and against just about every negativity there is in the world.
As I struggled to stand up to those circumstances, it became clear that I couldn’t do it alone. I needed something stronger than my own human gut strength, ego, or willpower to bring a great work into the world.
Gradually, the source of my endurance and energy shifted. As my own personal momentum ebbed and flowed over the years, something even stronger took over: the real source of the power of creativity is not within ourselves but is contained within the value and purpose of the statement itself. The forward thrust is driven by our deep-seated recognition that the concept – the work’s message – is vitally important and has value to the world. The work is its own strength.
When I finally learned to tap into that vein, the ability to maintain forward momentum came from somewhere more reliable and permanent than my own muscle and intellect.
I understand now that within those all-night composing sessions and failed rehearsals, I was doing far more than striving to complete a musical composition. I was developing my process. Through the opera I discovered methods and systems, tools and support mechanisms, that worked for me in my own individual set of circumstances. I found a process that could achieve completion – here and now, within the resources and constraints that surrounded me.
In the decades since those days, my work with jazz musicians and composers, with my students and professionals, has shown me that the development of one’s own process is the key to creativity itself. Creativity is achieved by the methods and systems that we establish within our own unique combinations of abilities, experiences, and borders.
Ideas are the spark, the impetus. But it is our own individual process that allows each of us to bring our ideas into the real light of day.
So step up, right here. Hang your toes over the edge. Grab an idea and get to work – seize inspiration, discover, develop, implement, and bring it to completion.
Process is essential. Without process, creativity is lost, wasted, nothing. It is imperative that we all develop an individual process that we can trust, that will give each of us the strength and wisdom to keep going, that will hold us up even if we fall.
Process forms our creativity into real words and works that soar above the ground and give us all a glimpse of something better, something higher. Process makes creativity real.
It’s like really flying.
James Hegarty, Waterman Place, Saint Louis
November of 2013