Why You Get Good Ideas in the Shower;

A Phenomenology of Deletion

My New Camera

Two camps have divided photographers for the past 100 years. Each insists that their respective system to frame a scene is superior. The first and most popular is the SLR (single-lens reflex), wherein the shooter is presented with an exact representation of what the lens is “seeing.” Light entering the lens bounces off a series of perfectly placed mirrors, eventually finding its way to the viewfinder. In terms of framing, these cameras work the same way one takes pictures on their phone: what you see is what you get.

On the other side of the photography sphere is the rangefinder. Generally associated with photography purists and enthusiasts, the rangefinder at its surface appears to be a much more antiquated way of framing. Instead of seeing the exact depiction of the to-be photo, the rangefinder has a separate viewfinder, detached from the lens. In this viewfinder, one sees a wider field of view than what the lens will capture. Thus the photographer is assisted through the inclusion of frame lines that demarcate what will and will not end up in the final image. (The viewfinder of an SLR followed by a rangefinder.)

While it would be easy to assume that this seemingly subtle difference would have little in the realm of philosophical implications beyond the niche world of geeky photographers, it acts as a guiding metaphor for an insight I made after making the switch from an SLR to a rangefinder. After switching, I began to notice, and slowly value, that which lied just beyond the frame lines. Though that content would not end up in the picture, the new system equipped me with more creative control—I could now choose to include, or exclude, the elements outside of the frame. If something in motion was about to enter, I could now see its trajectory and prepare to time my photos accordingly. The SLR shows one what they have; the rangefinder shows one the many possibilities of what they could have. In a way, it is a small, significantly less dramatic microcosm of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Endnote 1): one only knows what one seees, and that becomes one’s conception of what one knows. The rangefinder expanded what I saw (quite literally) and, in doing so, what I knew.

What is a photo but a small selected slice of the world? Most photographers dedicate their effort to the inclusion, that is to say, what they slice from the world, yet most forget that in this choosing of a slice is the exclusion of infinitely more. Yes, this is an obvious point on its surface, but in many areas of creative perception, photography, and beyond, it is so obvious as to be blindingly obvious. In taking a photo, one is simultaneously not taking, not choosing, all that was excluded—and does not this area deserve more emphasis? To miss this would be to miss the majority of the visual-perceptual process at hand, to focus only on the slice, and forget that which it was cut from. 

With these thoughts in hand, I began to shift my focus. I have started to notice other elements of the creative process which lie “beyond the frame lines” and lay unseen and devoid of their due attention. Deleuze writes of the cinematic image that its frame “does not just demarcate what is interior to it but also implicates what it excludes.” (2,3), This relationship carries at the level of perception and creativity, yet the excluded half—no majority—gets excluded itself from our curiosity. The vast majority of academic literature written on the phenomenon of creativity focuses on the elements “inside the frame.” That is, those processes, environmental factors, personality attributes, and “raw inspiration datum” that end up in some way, transformed or neatly grafted, in the final creative act. 

But what isn’t dictates what is!

I propose a new theory of creative perception, one which equally emphasizes the “left out” as much as the “left in,” the outside as much as the inside, and the deleted as much as the produced. What is needed for a complete understanding of creative perception is grasping this dual phenomenon. Both are codependent and fundamentally linked, yet the question “What more should I add?” invariably gets asked factors more often than the question “What should I delete?” 

A Creative Metaphysics

Creativity, at its core, is creation. It is the process of making alive what was not before. Creativity is the making of anew, the process of animation. However, creativity is not—as some like to imagine it to be—making something from nothing. Rather, creativity is making something from something. For any given creative output, there are necessarily inputs. Nothing comes from nowhere; though magical, creativity is not magic. Pablo Picasso put it simply: “Art is theft.” (4) Traceable or not, there is a genealogy to all original ideas. However, this does not diminish the creative act; on the contrary, it shows precisely the wonder of the creative process.

Like genetics, creativity is a quasi-combinatorial phenomenon whereby addition yields something altogether unfamiliar. “If you always think that 1 + 1 is 2, you will never do anything different…1 + 1 is 3”—Albert Adria (5), head chef of El Bulli, easily the world’s former most innovative restaurant. It is an emergent phenomenon whose integrated whole can not be fully reconstructed through even the most rigorous analysis of its components. Despite this, understanding these components is crucial to understanding the creative process as a whole. 

From this, we may begin to shed light on the mysterious metaphysical mechanisms that the creative process follows. To-be ideas must necessarily form from what I term the “surrounding possible.” This space contains a sea of raw inspiration datum that may (or may not) seep into the yet-to-be demarcated space of the idea through its semi-permeable membrane. Let us term this space the “idea space.” Of course, this raw inspiration datum has no consistency in such dimensions as time, discipline, scale, place, importance, the degree to which a given datum is at the fore/back of one’s immediate consciousness, etc.—and this heterogeneity is precisely why any given idea will be creative (in fact, the more heterogeneous, the more creative).

The surrounding possible, in some sense, is its own universe. It contains infinite numbers of possible collisions that have yet to be made. We may think of it as having an endless amount of “potential energy.” New ideas emerge at the nexus of previously uncombined ones; the surrounding possible is the entirety of the “uncombined”—the primordial soup. Like the first microorganisms to form on earth, new ideas slowly take shape from this warm, fertile space, a little life coming into the vast universe.

It becomes apparent, then, that there are two ways to further one’s creative processes—by either expanding the surrounding possible or by furthering one’s ideation genesis from it. Expanding the surrounding would be an “expanding of one’s universe,” increasing the size of one’s uncombined, uncollided inspiration datum sea. Doing this, as one might imagine, is quite simple—in fact, you are doing it right now: reading, watching, listening, traveling, engaging, conversing, perceiving, more. The absorption of more, however seemingly insignificant, will expand one’s sea of inspiration. While this is most definitely (and quite obviously) a crucial component, understanding (and possibly leveraging) how the surrounding possible gives birth to new creative insights, to new idea spaces, proves to be a more fruitful endeavor. Already contained within us are infinite possibilities; the germination of anew from them is the bottleneck. This is the area on which we will set our focus.

Creativity is Substation

The formation of an idea is the construction of an idea space within the surrounding possible. It is a “focusing in on,” a selection of some idiosyncratic spontaneous collision within the surrounding possible notable enough to set one’s focus on; It is a demarcation. In carving out this small space within the surrounding possible, an idea is born. The components of a to-be idea already exist—however unrecognizable—, and as such, an “idea” is distinct from “raw inspiration” only insofar as it is small, focused, and combined. However big, an idea is a narrow space within the larger sea of the surrounding possible.

Unfortunately, one can not simply will insights into being. One can not lay out one’s surrounding possible before them (which would be laying out one’s entire mind), like some kind of map, take a metaphysical marker, and draw a line around some interesting looking to-be combinations. “I have never thought to combine my understanding of calculus with my theory of political capitalism—why don’t I try combining them and see what new ideas spring forth?!” The initial demarcation, those spontaneous collisions, the insight moment, lies out of our conscious control; there are elements of our creative metaphysics that we are and are not able to will, at once, into happening. The insight moment is not one of them.

There is no one—that I know of—who can simply sit down and begin to ideate. The cartoon lightbulb over animated characters’ heads is never seen with an on switch! We are inspired at seemingly random moments: in the shower, on long bike rides, making coffee, daydreaming. This is because the surrounding possible is simply too vast to explore and thus to demarcate consciously. However abstract, large, and comprehensive we may be able to think, any moment of thought is a mere microcosm of our larger inspiration sea.

Similarly, once a demarcation has been “drawn” (an idea formed, an insight made), we can not consciously add to it. The border of an idea space is porous. Once ideas are initially formed, they are far from complete; colliding with, absorbing, and being influenced by other inspiration datum in the surrounding possible, taking shape. However, here again, due to the impossibility of consciously perceiving the entirety of the surrounding possible, we can not consciously choose what gets added. 

So, then, what do we have control over?

In the “drawing” of an idea space’s bounds is the exclusion of infinitely more. Though, as we have discussed, we can not conceive of this “infinitely more,” the surrounding possible, the scope of the idea space is small—its smallness its defining characteristic. This is to say that unlike the larger sea of inspiration, a creative idea, once had, is (obviously) able to be fully apprehended. Thus, if able to be apprehended, it is able to be reduced—and this is a powerful notion. In excluding, deleting, and reducing, exists choice. Not choosing is a choosing itself. This is more than mere simple refinement; it is the core of our conscious creative agency. 

The power of deleting is in the ability to shape the bounds of an idea. The kept is necessarily defined by the delated; the picture is the result of the all that was not excluded. In deletion, there is formation. An idea, not fully formed, can only—consciously and at will—be removed from, chipped away at. Many imagine insights happening spontaneously, at once, fully formed like a princess cut diamond laying bare on the sidewalk. However, creative ideas are often gems in the rough—their beauty only revealed—their creative force only realized, via removal. Creativity is subtraction. “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. (6)

We have just outlined the power of deletion pertaining to the idea space. However, another and perhaps even more important element of our conscious creative agency is another form of deletion: that of the surrounding possible. While we may not be able to simply ideate at will, we can create conditions and circumstances for ideation to occur more fruitfully. The surrounding possible has infinite possibilities. However, they are spread far, unable to collide at high rates. While it is impossible to—at-will—“draw the line” (be inspired at will), it is possible to draw a line around the line-to-be. That is, demarcate to promote a demarcation. What is meant by this is to delete vast swaths of the surrounding possible, take but one cup from one’s inspiration sea, and use its smallness to one’s advantage. What one is left with is not an idea but fertile grounds for one.

A common and tangible manifestation of this second-order deletion is the well-documented phenomenon that “constraints foster creativity.” Give the painter every shade of paint, all of the brush sizes, and any possible subject matter, and there is no sense of where to start. They can paint the entire universe; how is one to choose which part? Give the painter black paint, a rule only to paint with right angles, and the subject matter of a pumpkin, and creative production follows. 

Dr. Seuss wrote Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words. His editor bet him he couldn’t write another book with only 50, so Dr. Suess wrote Green Eggs and Ham, one of the best-selling children’s books of all time (7). The idea of the book was born from the fertile grounds of these (deleted) conditions.

(In such circumstances, enough of the surrounding possible is removed to leave the remaining portion dense enough to allow for creative collisions. It is a counterintuitive but true phenomenon. Start with less, end with more. While the popular conception of constraints fostering creativity embodies creativity as subtraction, the metaphysical structure has bearing beyond word limits and paint choice.

The Body as Deletion

I am a runner. I maintain that the benefits of running are as much for my health as they are for my creativity. Often the only app open on my phone is the notes app. Almost without fail, while running, I will stop on the side of the road, pull out my phone, and jot down some musing that has arisen inside of me. Sometimes, these lead to nowhere; other times, they are the “dirt” from which my best ideas grow. I have heard a similar phenomenon from friends and other anecdotal evidence in various forms; “my best ideas come when I am in the shower, ironing, biking, moving, cooking, knitting, walking, etc.” There appears to exist some connection between creativity and embodied movement. Often these are repetitive, mundane tasks that have no apparent creative associations. However, what ties these various actions together are various instances and manifestations of deletion and reduced conditions. 

In running, my mind is occupied. My body, constantly in motion, making micro-adjustments in speed, foot placement, and breath, utilizes the majority of my cognitive functioning, like a computer running a taxing program. My mind, then, is left with little to occupy itself with; the surrounding possible has been reduced, sectioned off. Through its embodied movement, the body deletes my mind’s possibilities and, in so doing, allows for more creative collisions.

The realm of the mind is abstract, intangible, and infinite. The realm of the body is tangible and finite; it has limitations to its possibilities. Unlike the mind, it can not wander the universe—make universes. There is a reason so many creative disciplines are embodied—dancing, painting, playing music, etc.—they occur at the nexus of these two realms. In embodied movement, our minds are occupied, allowing the remaining portions to live out their creativity in fertile, dense, generative, deleted grounds.

The body deletes the mind and can at times allow its full creative power to manifest. “Art that comes from the head isn’t any good.” (8)  The body-as-deletion is the interplay between the body and mind, realizing each’s unique creative powers. With its built-in limits, the body dramatically increases the mind’s creative velocity through the limitations it imposes.

Many speak of “the knowledge of the body,” the painter’s hand its own being, floating across the canvas with pre planned perfection. Merleau Ponty, perhaps best able to articulate such a theory, wrote, referencing Paul Valery: “The painter ‘takes his body with him,’ says Valery. Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.” (9) However, the creative “genius” of the body lies not in some other, detached, mysterious epistemology, but instead exists in its deletion and interplay with and of the body. The body does the mind’s minding—and indeed better than the mind.

The shower, the bike, and the kitchen are precisely the same in their creative functioning, deleting the outside, allowing for a sense of scope.

How, then, are we to realize our full creativity sitting in a chair, immobile, moving only but our fingers fractions of an inch—our minds left with nowhere to start? The current way of things in so-called “knowledge work” appears to be devoid of any embodied, creative action. Last summer, I worked fully remotely for a tech company. I was told to propose a few creative solutions for a complex business problem. I was not instructed how to do so—that is, how to ideate. Was I supposed to simply sit in my chair, waiting for the creativity to happen, like a fountain biblically opening forth in the desert? Like so many other times, the idea came while running. 

Creative Perception

There is perhaps no act more creative than that of perception. Creativity’s most common associations happen on the time scale of an instant—the idea being brought forth, at once, at the speed of the metaphorical lightbulb flicking from off to on. In our daydream of the chemist, the scientist hunched over her microscope looks at the cell structure, stands up with a burst of excitement, and yells to her chemist peers, “The cure to malaria! We have found it!”

However, creativity happens at the speed of perception (like the speed of light, there are fundamental limits to its nature). Creativity is an ongoing process, happening in and out of the background, only occasionally surfacing to the fore. Despite its shyness, it is always there, just out of our conscious reach. 

“For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.” (10) For Camus, the world is devoid of any inherent meaning. Though—and this is likely hard for many of us to imagine—this was not anything to fear, not anything “bad.” He suggested instead that we revel in the knowledge of the fact and embrace it. However, in his denial that looking outward to theology, philosophy, science, literature, etc., amounts to anything meaningful, it is clear Camus would find himself in the minority. 

What Camus missed was that in the act of human’s attempt to find the elusive inherent meaning of the world is meaning-making itself. To search for meaning is to make it—and this carries at the level of perception.

Creativity is creation, making something—making meaning. The world, the things we perceive, apparently devoid of any inherent meaning, is made full of it. Thus perception is an act of creation, meaning-creation, an ongoing creative process. Perception is a two-way street; we at once take from the world, apprehend, perceive, and throw back into it meaning. This is how my camera differs from my eye—it only takes. What I am terming here as “creative perception” is not a special sort of it; it is perception. Thus such phenomena as “creative bursts” are not a flipping on and off of a switch but rather a ramping up and down of—to perceive is to be creative, and thus to be human is to be creative. We are always in the creative mode.

However, as is evident by “creative bursts,” our creative perception, though always active in varying degrees, is not always engaged in its highest capacity, and it is here where deletion offers us a path forward. In deleting some of our creative perception, it is given focus (in much the same way as the aforementioned creative metaphysics). Creative perception deletion happens across many dimensions, and below I will outline some which I have been able to identify having observed my own perception.

Deleting Speed

 Perceiving slowly is its own deletion, uncompressing and stretching perception over a longer period of time, eliminating what falls off of either edge. Bachelard writes of the act of reading, “It is necessary to read it in slow reading. We understand it too quickly (the writer is so clear!). We forget to dream it as it has been dreamed. In dreaming now, in slow reading, we are going to believe in it.” (11) Though here he is writing of a particular sort of perception—reading—this applies at all levels of perception. Indeed, perceiving slower than the speed of perception allows an “opening up of,” our “perception able to perceive,” our background creative perception marching to the fore.

This is precisely why, after discovering film photography, I have found myself almost exclusively using the medium to shoot with. While I love the overall look of film photos, the appeal for me lies in the act of shooting a film camera. My digital camera has more settings than there are moons of Saturn. My film camera has but two: aperture and shutter speed. Built into shooting film—compared to digital—are hundreds of deletions. With my film camera in hand, my perception limited by the film camera’s possibilities, I am able to see and photograph the world more slowly, more carefully—and thus more successfully.

Writing by hand, save cards, is a largely forgotten way of putting thoughts to paper. Writing on a keyboard—as I am now—I can, with some practice, almost write at the speed of thought. This is not possible when writing by hand.

 Now more than ever, in our society where we seek speed and efficiency for speed and efficiency’s sake, our creative perception is in jeopardy. Our perception, our ideas, need time to open up, to unfold, to germinate, to breathe. We are told, “Create faster! More efficiently!” Ironically such a strategy produces fewer ideas less often. If we want to create faster, we must slow down. 

Perception as Deletion, Deletion of Perception

Seeing is deleting—deleting all that we don’t see. Merleau Ponty writes simply: “We only see what we look at” (12). What a brilliant yet obvious observation! Let us take it further and invert it: “We don’t see what we don’t look at,” further still, “we only see everything that isn’t what we are not looking at.” Our sight is the product of a built-in deletion. Involved in the act of seeing is leaving out the rest of the world. In even the most confined of small spaces, there is an infinite number of angles and perspectives from which to see it, yet involved in seeing such a space is only one, and thus the elimination of infinite other possibilities. 

We can not “get outside of our vision,” can not leave the bounds of its deleting power. Despite this, we seem to be in an ongoing and constant attempt at doing so; Merleau Ponty notes, “What would vision be without eye movement?” (13) Built into both sight and our human nature exists this tension; sight is deletion, yet the movement of our eyes attempts to subvert the limitation.

However, this limitation is not a curse; it is a blessing. Able to see all, we would surely flounder in perceptual overload. Indeed what will allow our creative perception to flourish is not an eye-opening but an eye-focusing.

I had one of my most creative-perceptual experiences at the MET, where I stared at a surrealist painting by artist Dorothea Tanning entitled Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) (14). The painting was small, the focus of my vision was limited to the bounds of the 16 × 24 inch frame. Looking at the painting, the rest of the world became irrelevant—deleted. There exists a world of detail in every square inch—painting or not. To derive the most meaning, to creatively perceive well, is to make worlds from inches. Our perception needs focus to flourish.

The subway (and for non-new yorkers, the car and the plane) is a temple for creativity. In New York, where we are almost always submerged in perceptual abundance—car honks, police sirens, out-of-earshot conversation, traffic lights, flashing signs, speeding electric bikes—our creative perception can barely keep up with the speed and scale that the environment demands. When underground in the subway, we are trapped in place, staring at metal siding, our phone service unavailable, the complexity of our perception dramatically reduced. 

In reading, we are wholly engrossed in the 12-point font. Our entire perception is limited to the frame lines of the page. In listening to music, headphones delete the outside world, our sight is no longer relevant. During our best meals, the world appears to become nothing more than a delightful swirl of flavors. During a massage—I need not even explain! 

These perceptual experiences (and ones like them) limit what we can perceive, leaving swaths deleted. The taken out gives scope to the left in. In these circumstances of deletion, the remaining is allowed to open up and fully realize itself. The smallest moments, experiences, and modes of perception often have the most to say. To derive the most meaning from the world—to creatively perceive—is to look at its details with wonder and awe.

Deleting the Used-To

In high school, I ran cross country and loved it. Halfway through my first season, I injured myself by doing too much too fast. At first, my coach and I thought it was shin splints, a very common strain that isn’t a “true injury.” However, after my pain never seemed to go away, an MRI revealed that I had a stress fracture in my right leg. I was given a fracture boot and told to keep significant weight off of the leg for two months. Never have I been more acutely aware of my right leg than when it wasn’t functioning. When we are sick (perhaps with a pandemic level virus…), when we lose our sense of smell or taste, we are acutely aware of its nonexistence —moreso than its existence.

Deleting the used to, the every day, clearly demonstrates that to reduce is to focus in on—perhaps in this case to our detriment. (This section was deleted. Highlight if you wish.)

Phenomenology of Deletion, Phenomenology as Deletion

To think about the world broadly and the fundamental questions our being in it poses, we need a starting point. To answer—let alone grasp—such large and abstract questions, we need a way in, something to hold onto. It is extremely difficult, and at times impossible, to, from a neutral starting point, charge headfirst into the most expansive and consequential questions. To begin, we need to find an entrance.

A phenomenology of deletion is the elimination of intellectual and perceptual clutter. To find our way in, our entrance, we need something tangible, graspable, and most importantly, small. Often I will find myself thinking and writing about art, a single painting even, and end up nowhere near where I started, much closer to those fundamental questions of our being in the world than I thought possible by means of a canvas, paint, and frame. But I have since found that this is no accident. In fact, to get there, we need something small: a piece of art, a slightly unsettling experience, an off-hand comment, a peculiar observation, a new metaphor.

In some ways, the act of deletion, the “focusing in on as a disregard for,” is at the core of the phenomenological method itself. “‘You see, mon petit camarade,’ said Aron to Sartre—‘my little comrade’, his pet name for him since their schooldays—‘if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!’” (15)

Further still, many phenomenologists write their books and essays using such poetic language—and this is not a matter of style—it is a necessity! The discipline of phenomenology, whose applications and insights are so broadly expansive, is so large that for the phenomenologist to first themselves ideate through their words, and second to arise within the reader expansive understandings, must write in such reduced terms—so much deleted—as to be left with something adjacent to poetry. 

Do not treat all seemingly insignificant experiences as such (the inspiration for this paper came from making a seemingly inconsequential camera switch)! Document them rigorously. Do not be afraid to throw out; reducing is distillation. The core of our creative agency is subtraction. Seek limitations: slowness, non-complexity, the body’s bounds. To practice a phenomenology of deletion is to look for the small, delete the rest, and from its smallness, open up the larger expanses embedded within it. Add a backspace button to your philosophical toolkit, and do not be afraid to use it.

End Notes:

  • 1) Plato, et al. Allegory of the Cave. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2018. 
  • 2)Ellis, Audrey. “From Animation to Activation: Improvisational Dance as Invitation and as Interruption.” Stony Brook University, 2021. 
  • 3) Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and BarbaraHabberjam (London: Athlone Press, 1986). p. 458
  • 4) Kleon, Austin. Steal like an Artist. Workman Publishing Company, 2012. p. 1
  • 5)  Goldblum, Jimmy, director. Chef’s Table: Albert Adriá. Netflix, 28 Sept. 2018, https://www.netflix.com/title/80007945. 
  • 6)  Saint-Exupéry Antoine de. Wind, Sand and Stars. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. p. 28
  • 7)  Chang, Rachel. “Dr. Seuss Wrote ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ on a Bet.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 28 Feb. 2020, https://www.biography.com/news/dr-seuss-green-eggs-and-ham-bet. 
  • 8)  Kleon, Austin. Steal like an Artist. Workman Publishing Company, 2012. p. 54
  • 9) Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind.” The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, Northwestern Univ. Pr, Evanston, 1968. p. 116
  • 10) Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Everett/Edwards, 1973. p. 115
  • 11)  Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Reverie. Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. Gaston Bachelard. Transl. from the French by Daniel Russell. BEACON PR, 1971.
  • 12)  Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “Eye and Mind.” The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, Northwestern Univ. Pr, Evanston, 1968. 
  • 13)  Ibid.
  • 14)  Tanning, Dorothea. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music). 1943, The MET, New York, New York. 
  • 15) Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. Vintage Canada, 2017.
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