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09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Legendary Composer Aaron Copland on the Conditions of Creativity, Emotion vs. Intellect, and the Trap of Public Opinion

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“The main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.”

In 1970, long before our present barrage of books on creativity, even before Vera John-Steiner’s pioneering investigation of the creative mind and the influential tome The Creativity Question, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to tackle the question of what makes creators create by bridging the sociological and the psychological approach, which previous frameworks of studying creativity had kept separate. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 celebrated figures in the arts and sciences — from choreographer Merce Cunningham to cognitive scientist and linguist Noam Chomsky to astronomer Harlow Shapley — and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library) — an ambitious effort not only to understand the creative mind, but also to expose the false divide between intuition and intellect and to debunk the then-dominant, still-toxic notion that creativity in the arts is the product of hot emotion, while creativity in the sciences that of cool intelligence.

Rosenfeld captures the book’s ethos of integration beautifully:

There do not exist two distinct and separate types of mind, one for the arts and humanities, the other for the sciences… You must possess both intuition and imagination to be creative in the sciences as well as the arts… There is science in all good poetry and vice versa.

Among the most eloquent and interesting interviewees is the influential composer (and the one-time object of Leonard Bernstein’s infatuation) Aaron Copland, recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the Pulitzer Prize in composition.

Copland begins by considering the nature of creativity:

It is very difficult to describe the creative experience in such a way that it would cover all cases. One of the essentials is the variety with which one approaches any kind of artistic creation. It doesn’t start in any one particular way and it is not always easy to say what gets you going.

I’ve sometimes made the analogy with eating. Why do you eat? You’re hungry. You are sort of in the mood to eat, and if you are in the mood to eat, the food tastes better; you’re more interested in what you’re eating. The whole experience is more “creative.” It’s the hunger that stimulates you to eat. It’s the same thing in art; except that, in art, the hunger is the need for self-expression.

How does it come about that you feel hungry? You don’t know, you just feel hungry. The juices are working, and suddenly you are aware of the fact that you want a piece of bread and butter. It’s about the same in art. If you pass your life in creating works of art in one field or another, you recognize the “hunger” signs and you are quick to take advantage of them, if they’re accompanied by ideas. Sometimes, you have the hunger and you don’t have any ideas; there’s no bread in the house. It’s as simple as that.

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

Copland’s concept of creativity is similar to the notion of chance-opportunism common to great scientific minds — the art of being prepared not only to capture great ideas when they occur but to also direct attention to them and shepherd them into a fruitful direction. Copland points to the importance of cultivating the right parameters for this process — something psychologists have since confirmed in examining the ideal environment for creativity — and outlines the conditions most conducive to productivity:

If you were to set up the ideal situation, I’d have to be in my studio, where conditions are conducive to work and where I don’t have any distractions. It’s difficult to write music on the subway train; it can be done, but it’s not usual. If I feel in the mood to write, something starts me off. I might feel sad. I might feel lonely. I might feel elated. I might have gotten a good letter from somebody. Something starts me off.

At first glance, Copland’s experience seems to contradict Tchaikovsky’s famous proclamation that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” But the notion of mood, as Copland uses it, seems to be less about awaiting some mythic stroke of inspiration as about being attentive to those essential triggers — the starter-offers — that catalyze the creative process. In fact, he echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is the root of creativity, but for him the key to catalyzing the creative process isn’t merely attunement to one’s emotional state — rather, it’s a delicate dialogue between the hotness of emotional excess and the coolness of the intellect:

Whenever you write, you see, nothing will happen unless the creative fantasy is alive. One the other hand, to be alive with creative fantasy suggests, to me, improvising at the piano. But, if you merely improvise, you might never find your improvisation again. And that’s where coolness comes in. You watch yourself being fiery, or sad, or lonely; otherwise you won’t be able to get it down on paper. Writers probably have this same problem of writing fast enough so that they can get it all down while they are under the spell. You can’t be sure how long it will go on. Outside interruption is definitely out. In music, you have to get it down on score paper. Otherwise, you might forget it… If you go on being fiery all the time, by the time you stop being fiery, you will have lost the whole thing.

Copland reflects on his daily routine:

I happen to be a night worker… I don’t know why. Once I read a statement made by Thomas Hardy, in which he said, “Seven-eighths of the intimate letters that are written are written after 10:00 in the evening.” I connected that statement with writing music and working at night, because composing is a kind of intimate letter writing. You are expressing your inward feelings in musical terms.

In a sentiment that legendary songwriter Carole King would come to echo two decades later in her insightful meditation on the interplay between inspiration and perspiration in creative work, Copland returns to this notion of mood:

Musical composition works best when you are in the mood. You can coldly sit down and write anything, but the results will often not be satisfactory either to yourself or to the people who hear it. Nevertheless, it can be induced to a certain extent.

Still, Copland considers emotion not only a far more powerful creative agent than thought but also the primary gateway to self-awareness — an idea quite radical in rationalism’s shadow, which has conditioned us to believe that we think our way into our experience rather than feeling our way into it. Copland writes:

In music, it’s more likely to be an emotion rather than a specific idea or thought that leads to a composition. It’s comparable to a person who starts to sing to himself, though he is not even aware he’s begun to sing. Then, if he suddenly begins to become aware that he’s been singing something with a sad sound to it, he wonders what he’s feeling so sad about.

[...]

Music is a language of the emotions. You can practice it either on a very plain and elementary basis, or you can practice it on a highly complex one. But, it generally gives off some sort of generalized emotional feeling…

Staying with the question of feelings, Copland makes a curious remark about the role of depression in creative work — one that resonates with what psychologists have since confirmed about the relationship between creativity and mental illness and one that counters the “tortured genius” myth:

Too much depression will not result in a work of art because a work of art is an affirmative gesture. To compose, you have to feel that you are accomplishing something. If you feel you are accomplishing something, you won’t feel so depressed. You may feel depressed, but it can’t be so depressing that you can’t move. No, I would say that people create in moments when they are elated about expressing their depression!

Creative work, Copland argues, is invariably a self-portrait of the creator’s unique inner life. His description almost exudes an element of fatedness in the relationship between an artist and his or her art:

The kind of emotion that some of my music expresses would be a reflection of the kind of person I am, because I couldn’t have written that kind of music unless I was that kind of person. The fact that I don’t write other kinds of music means that I am not that other kind of person.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

More than the mere exorcism of emotion, Copland argues that the magic of music lies in its ability to translate our concrete thoughts and feelings into an enchanting abstract experience, and the degree of fluency in such abstraction is what sets great musical talent apart:

Everyone is supposed to like music, but people who are really musically gifted don’t seem to have the need for having music’s significance made specific. They can think about music and enthuse about it, and that’s all that’s necessary.

[...]

One of the reasons why cultivated music is one of the glories of mankind, one of the real achievements of mankind, is that we are dealing in amorphous, highly abstract material without any specific thought content.

This, Copland argues, is largely a matter of education — an education the general public simply does not have, which renders many people incapable of appreciating truly great and visionary music. Perhaps his most poignant point, indeed, has to do with the problem of public opinion and the artist’s eternal struggle not to confuse external approval with self-esteem and not to succumb to the trap of people-pleasing. Copland writes:

Composers, unfortunately, have a serious problem with the present-day public. It’s as if you’re talking a language to them which they don’t fully understand… There is some discouragement in writing in a language that you know in advance can’t be fully understood except by people who have bothered with the language sufficiently to feel at home with it.

But the main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.

Even more than self-gratification, Copland argues, artists’ highest responsibility is to capture the cultural backdrop of their time:

[Today's artists] are the only ones who can express the spirit of what it means to be alive today.

That’s what makes the creation of art seem important. You’re not just expressing your own individuality. You, as a person, are an exemplar; you are one of the people living now who can put this thing down. In another twenty years … the world experience will be different, so the need becomes very pressing. You have a sense of urgency, of being occupied with something essential and unique. To leave our mark of the present on the future — what could be more natural?

He parlays this into a final meditation on the creative impulse as our most potent ally in our incurable longing for immortality, as well as a central component in art’s therapeutic potentiality:

The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant. i don’t think about this when I write my music, of course, but I think about it after the act, and believe it to be the moving force behind the need to be creative in the arts.

The Creative Experience is a wonderfully stimulating read in its entirety. Complement it with another seminal treatise on creativity from the same era, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler — who happens to be one of Abt and Rosner’s 23 subjects — and with one of the twentieth century’s first systematic explorations of the creative mind, the 1942 lost gem An Anatomy of Inspiration by Rosamund Harding.

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Wisdom in the Age of Information and the Importance of Storytelling in Making Sense of the World: An Animated Essay

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Thoughts on navigating the open sea of knowledge.

For my part in the 2014 Future of Storytelling Summit, I had the pleasure of collaborating with animator Drew Christie — the talent behind that wonderful short film about Mark Twain and the myth of originality — on an animated essay that I wrote and narrated, exploring a subject close to my heart and mind: the question of how we can cultivate true wisdom in the age of information and why great storytellers matter more than ever in helping us make sense of an increasingly complex world. It comes as an organic extension of the seven most important life-learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings. Full essay text below — please enjoy.

We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.

This barrage of readily available information has also created an environment where one of the worst social sins is to appear uninformed. Ours is a culture where it’s enormously embarrassing not to have an opinion on something, and in order to seem informed, we form our so-called opinions hastily, based on fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding.

“Knowledge,” Emerson wrote, “is the knowing that we can not know.”

To grasp the importance of this, we first need to define these concepts as a ladder of understanding.

At its base is a piece of information, which simply tells us some basic fact about the world. Above that is knowledge — the understanding of how different bits of information fit together to reveal some truth about the world. Knowledge hinges on an act of correlation and interpretation. At the top is wisdom, which has a moral component — it is the application of information worth remembering and knowledge that matters to understanding not only how the world works, but also how it should work. And that requires a moral framework of what should and shouldn’t matter, as well as an ideal of the world at its highest potentiality.

This is why the storyteller is all the more urgently valuable today.

A great storyteller — whether a journalist or editor or filmmaker or curator — helps people figure out not only what matters in the world, but also why it matters. A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom.

Susan Sontag once said that “reading sets standards.” Storytelling not only sets standards but, at its best, makes us want to live up to them, to transcend them.

A great story, then, is not about providing information, though it can certainly inform — a great story invites an expansion of understanding, a self-transcendence. More than that, it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding — of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves, of some subtle or monumental aspect of existence.

At a time when information is increasingly cheap and wisdom increasingly expensive, this gap is where the modern storyteller’s value lives.

I think of it this way:

Information is having a library of books on shipbuilding. Knowledge applies that to building a ship. Access to the information — to the books — is a prerequisite for the knowledge, but not a guarantee of it.

Once you’ve built your ship, wisdom is what allows you to sail it without sinking, to protect it from the storm that creeps up from the horizon in the dead of the night, to point it just so that the wind breathes life into its sails.

Moral wisdom helps you tell the difference between the right direction and the wrong direction in steering the ship.

A great storyteller is the kindly captain who sails her ship with tremendous wisdom and boundless courage; who points its nose in the direction of horizons and worlds chosen with unflinching idealism and integrity; who brings us somewhat closer to the answer, to our particular answer, to that grand question: Why are we here?

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Darkest, Most Controversial Yet Most Hopeful Children’s Book

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A moving cry for mercy, for light, and for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of hopeless darkness.

One of Maurice Sendak‘s most misunderstood qualities, yet also arguably the very same one that rendered him one of the most innovative and influential storytellers of all time, was his deep faith in children’s resilience and his unflinching refusal to allow the fears and self-censorship of grownups to sugarcoat the world for children, who he believed possess enormous emotional intelligence in processing the dark — an evolution of Tolkien’s assertion that there is no such thing as writing “for children,” which Sendak echoed in his final interview, indignantly telling Stephen Colbert: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!'”

But while many of Sendak’s books have been deemed controversial precisely out of this misunderstanding, from the banning of In the Night Kitchen to the outrage over his sensual illustrations of Melville, no book of his has drawn a thicker cloud of controversy than the 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library) — an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes, “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye,” reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, with enormously rich cultural and personal subtext.

Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.

On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.

But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.

St. Paul’s Bakery and Orphanage, where the story is set, is a horrible place reminiscent of Auschwitz. In the game of bridge, “diamonds are trumps,” a phrase with a poignant double meaning, subtly implicating the avarice of the world’s diamond-slingers and Donald Trumps in the systemic social malady of homelessness — something reflected in the clever wordplay of the book’s title itself, suggesting that homelessness isn’t limited to the homeless but is a problem we’re all in together, equally responsible for its solution.

Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls

Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do

In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, who survived him after half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had Sendak lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Sendak died thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)

All throughout, the book emanates Sendak’s greatest lifelong influence — like the verses and drawings of William Blake, Sendak’s visual poetry in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is deeply concerned with the human spirit and, especially, with the plight of children.

Complement this many-layered gem with more of Sendak’s lesser-known work, including his beautiful posters celebrating the joy of reading, his unreleased drawings, his formative, rare vintage illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and his provocative art for Melville’s Pierre.

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