Brain Pickings

An Anatomy of Inspiration: A 1942 Guide to How Creativity Works

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“The true novelist, poet, musician, or artist is really a discoverer.”

Such is the labyrinth of literature: Some time ago, Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity led me to the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas, through which I discovered one of the best things I’ve ever read, The Art of Scientific Investigation, which has in turned led me to An Anatomy of Inspiration (public library). Written by music historian Rosamund E. M. Harding (1899-1982) in 1942, this slim but potent volume sets out to reverse-engineer the mechanisms of creativity through the direct experiences of famous creators across art, science, and literature. From Tchaikovsky’s letters to Jane Austen’s diaries to Mark Twain’s daily routine as relayed by his daughter, Harding teases out the common threads of creation and weaves them together into a framework for optimizing creativity, stressing its combinatorial nature and its reliance on eclectic knowledge.

Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations. And not only the more he knows about his own subject but the more he knows beyond it of other subjects. It is a fact that has not yet been sufficiently stressed that those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity.

Harding goes on to give a number of examples: Pasteur was a bachelor of literature in addition to being a doctor of science; James Watt rested his mind from honing the steam engine with archeology and poetry; Emmanuel Kant read classics, mathematics, physics, astronomy, metaphysics, law, geography, and travel; Goethe was a collector of art and science ephemera, and took a close interest in the engineering of canals, harbors, and tunnels; George Eliot was obsessed with philology:

Success depends on adequate knowledge: that is, it depends on sufficient knowledge of the special subject, and a variety of extraneous knowledge to produce new and original combinations of ideas. Technical skill must be so far developed that it is never a hindrance to the flow of ideas. The thinker does not sit down and say to himself: ‘now I am going to think out the relations between so and so.’ The process is not so much an active as a passive one. In short the thinker dreams over his subject.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35.' Click image for more.

One particularly interesting notion Harding puts forth is that of “fringe-ideas” — ideas on the periphery of the thinker’s particular inquiry, but resonant in tone and thus able to enhance and flow into the creative process:

[M]any ideas outside the subject become associated with it by a kind of interest association and acquire a similar tone. Thus they tend to become available at the same time as the ideas directly connected with the subject itself. The variety of interests tends to increase the richness of these extra ideas — ‘fringe-ideas’ — associated with the subject and thus to increase the possibilities of new and original combinations of thought.

Harding offers an articulate rebuttal of the genius-myth that modern neuroscience has since debunked:

The old-fashioned idea that in-born genius is enough by itself without a solid foundation of knowledge, is the reason why [famous creators] set themselves against the use of this term and their pupils against the state. Without the rock of knowledge genius has no foundation to make it durable. In the words of Eugene Delacroix: ‘Natural gifts unsupported by culture may be said to resemble the honeysuckle, charming in its grace, but without odour, that I see hanging from the trees in the forest.’

Echoing the importance of a gestational period of unconscious processing, Harding points to the art of the pause:

There is much to be said in favour of laying a work aside to mature; for one thing it gives the judgment time to operate; the mind is able to return to the work from time to time with a fresh outlook; and check it from many different angles. It follows also that if new ideas are to be set aside to develop and newly finished works left to ‘mature,’ there must be several things on hand at the same time in various stages of development. The continuity of attention is purposely shorted and interrupted partly on account of the rest this gives.

Harding goes on to prescribe the following method for capturing and harnessing ideas:

(i) The ideas occurring when in the glow of inspiration are (a) briefly noted down and (b) checked.

(ii) (a) The subject is worked upon immediately, the thinker being wholly absorbed by it to the exclusion for the time being of everything else, or (b) The subject is set aside to develop and is then worked upon after an interval of time has elapsed, (c) the first draft of the completed work or half of it perhaps is put aside to ‘mature’ for a while; then it is again revised before publication.

(iii) Working at two or more subjects concurrently.

(iv) Working up the imagination to the state of vision and sometimes an audition.

(v) Trusting to feeling (or intuition, instinct).

(vi) Procedure when baffled by a problem; namely, laying the work aside and turning to something else. This process may be repeated many times during the course of a long work of any kind.

Long before we knew the science of internal time, Harding offers a temporal recipe for creativity:

On the whole it appears that morning or night hours are the most favourable to the flow of ideas. It has been shown that a difficulty unsolvable the day before is sometimes solved in the morning upon waking. In fact the value of morning hours when the mind is fresh has long been recognized as a time to be consecrated to important work.

[...]

Night-time when awake is perhaps the best time of all for the flow of ideas…. The spiritual aloneness that comes over the thinker when the world sleeps, carrying with it the sense of detachment so essential to a creative thinker may account partly for the fascination and spell of working by night. It is, however, a spell, to be resisted since it may lead to practices dangerous alike to bodily and mental health: Byron, sometimes writing on Hollands and water, Schiller on strong coffee, wine-chocolate, old Rhenish, or Champagne, the poet Crabbe at one time on weak brandy and water and snuff, and Balzac on endless cups of black coffee.

Harding also points to the importance of bodily posture and the habit of motion that many creators cultivated: Dickens and Hugo were avid walkers during ideation; Burns often composed while “holding the plough”; Twain paced madly while dictating; Goethe, Scott, and Burns composed on horseback; Mozart preferred the back of a carriage; Lord Kelvin worked on his mathematical studies while traveling by train. Harding offers:

It is possible that the rhythmical movement of a carriage or train, of a horse and to a much lesser degree of walking, may produce on sensitive minds a slightly hypnotic effect conducive to that state of mind most favourable to the birth of ideas.

Corroborating Henri Poincaré’s insistence on invention as choice and George Lois’s conception of creativity as discovery, Harding writes:

The true novelist, poet, musician, or artist is really a discoverer. Ideas — the theme of a plot, a poem, a picture, a theme of music — come to him as a gift. The idea, ‘the seed-corn’ as Brahms called it, he allows to develop naturally. There may come a point where it branches in one or many directions; he is free at this point to follow one or other. And it is here and here only that the judgment or choice of the true artist may legitimately be exercised. In fact the artist is in much the same position as a gardener growing prize rose trees, who in order to produce beautiful roses lops off unwanted shoots and suckers.

With its countless anecdotes from some of mankind’s most remarkable creators and its synthesis of common ground, An Anatomy of Inspiration is, if not a blueprint to true creativity, at the very least an invaluable lens on the nooks and crannies of the creative process.

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