Stealing like an Artist: How to be Creative


Stealing like an Artist: How to be Creative Tillism طلسم

Throughout history people have taught others what they learned from those who came before them. Some of us acknowledge our sources for creative inspiration, others don't, but no one has ever created something out of nothing.

Making space for creativity

Let’s go for a stroll to the hills of Malaga. Not the hills with the botanical gardens where I went in search of the Baobab tree. These hills are further south, a fifteen to twenty minutes walk from where I live. This is where I go to make space for new creative thoughts, and sometimes to reconfigure old ones.

When I was little, I used to play with a sliding puzzle in a plastic frame. There were fifteen square pieces and an empty space. The pieces had to be moved around until the picture was completely aligned. Without that one empty space, moving the squares would have been impossible.

This is the empty space I am going in search of today, and I invite you to walk with me.

In the beginning…

We are moving away from the noise and smell of the city, so let’s stop and take a deep breath. Now release it slowly. Let the muscles in your neck and shoulders relax.

The sun is out and so are the bees. Their rhythmic hum over yellow and purple wild flowers is nature’s music. Ahead of us ducks waddle in groups on their way to the lake. Birds and butterflies flit around doing their thing. We won’t intrude on their activities. We’re doing our own thing —walking.

  • A walk in the hills
  • A walk in the hills
  • A walk in the hills

“Thought bullies”

Have you ever felt inundated with other people’s thoughts? Ideas that you’ve never fully engaged with, nor verified independently, but believe without question —opinions you agree with because, “it’s always been this way“. These ideas usually stream out of the mouths of “talking heads” on television and social media.

But we don’t have to concern ourselves with them here. Out in the open, we are, for the moment, free from “thought bullies”.

Let’s sit down for a bit on this flat rock beside the path. I want to make a quick sketch of the snails, clinging to tall grass. We’re not in a hurry to get to anywhere, so let me know whenever you want to stop.


The first piece of the creative puzzle

Don’t move. There’s a bright green lizard crawling out from the grass. Just watch quietly. It’s looking directly at me, probably thinks my dark brown leggings are a tree trunk or a wooden post. It isn’t afraid at all. Maybe it’s used to humans walking along this path.

Santa Teresa of Ávila thinks our human weaknesses are like reptiles. She says we need to be vigilant and not let them crawl inside and make themselves at home. I don’t know if I want to take her advice. This lizard has style.


Collecting the rest of the pieces

The sound of flowing of water invites me to keep going. I put my sketchbook away and get up.

I am a fountain, You are my water.
I flow from You to You.

I am an eye, You are my light.
I look from You to You.

Zeynep Hatun, an Ottoman poet, is speaking to me through the clarity of the water. And now that these words have found their place, it is only natural for other pieces to slide into theirs.

کدی سچی گل بھی لکدی اے
اک نقطے وچ گل مکدی اے

Can the Truth ever remain concealed?
When All is contained within a dot?

Baba Bulleh Shah rejects duality. I want to be like him, and like William Blake too. I want:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

The flowers around me confirm these thoughts. And then, as if on cue, a Birds of Paradise plant appears. Once again, I stop and take out my sketchbook. A blaze of bright orange-red petals flap in the breeze and an even hotter blue flame rises from their center.

“Birds of Paradise”, “Angel’s Trumpets”, “Devil’s Trumpets”, our obsession with duality is projected onto plants as if they can even choose right from wrong.

Birds of Paradise

The “Devil’s Trumpet” has a scientific name, “Datura“. For centuries medical practitioners have used it for its healing properties. It is, however, extremely toxic and can be abused as a hallucinogenic and a deadly poison. So, I ask you, where in the man-made world of dualities, would you place the Datura?

Time for Elevenses

Just around the next bend is a little pueblo with a tiny cafeteria. It’s one of those places with colorful ceramic tiles that go half way up the walls, very rustic. A nice hot café con leche will help align these random pieces of thoughts.

I hope you like coffee. I use it to brew my creative thoughts as I sketch out various combinations for my composition.

The puzzle is now complete

I have formed a cohesive thought in my sketchbook from the images and words I gathered in my morning walk. With the help of the space I have discovered in these peaceful hills of Malaga, I solved the sliding puzzle of my childhood. I am ready to go home.

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

Throughout history people have taught others what they learned from those who came before them. Some of us acknowledge our sources of inspiration, others don’t, but no one has ever created something out of nothing. Educators inspire others to develop their own ideas from those that already exist. Anniqua and I are fortunate to have spent a lifetime doing just that. And we will probably continue to do so till the very end – if there is an end…


  1. What a breath of inspiration and tranquility…I literally took a deep breath whilst reading. Thank you for this short journey through your creative process in such a vibrant and alive world. Dwelling upon this idea of false dualism, we humans often forget that we not only live on this earth but we ARE the earth. We are made of the same material. We are Mother Nature herself. Your magnificent painting exhibits just how Mother Nature expresses her beauty in a very layered and sophisticated way. Great article!

  2. So inspiring .Just love the way it was beautifully written describing how you gathered inspiration from your surrounding and combining with your thoughts and experience to formulate your art . It seems so clear when you described the whole process .

    • Thanks. I was trying to take the mystery out of the process and inspire people to believe in their own creativity.

  3. Your work is inspiring – both your images and your words. “Creating space” is something that many of us do not do often enough. It requires conscious choice to do this. Walking in the hills of Malaga is a lovely way to make that space.

    • Thank you! I hope you’ll be back soon and we can all walk together in the hiils and find spaces where our thoughts overlap. xoxo

  4. What a unique way of writing! Loved walking with you and knowing your creative thought process. Your art work is awesome. 👍🏻

    • Thank you so much, Samar. I’m glad you liked the post and that the feeling I wanted to share came across.

  5. Truly inspirational and very beautiful and thought provoking, I enjoyed walking with you in Spain. Thank you.

    • I’m glad you liked it. I’ve found that when my words come from a deeper place, they are more easily felt. Thank you.

  6. Dearest Selma, Your beautiful walk, essay and painting are reflective of your sensitive, gentle and gracious soul. Thank you for sharing your spiritual journey with us, Zeba

We'd love to hear your thoughts