Brain Pickings

Pete Seeger on Combinatorial Creativity, Originality, Equality, and the Art of Dot-Connecting

By:

“All of us, we’re links in a chain.”

In 1987, shortly after being appointed editor of SongTalk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters, Paul Zollo began interviewing some of the greatest songwriters alive — Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Madonna, Frank Zappa, David Byrne, and dozens more — “always with the assurance that my focus is strictly on songwriting and the creative process, as opposed to the celebrity-oriented queries often directed to them by the press.” These remarkably candid and wide-ranging conversations, collected in the impressive tome Songwriters On Songwriting (public library), transcend the realm of songwriting to unmask the essential elements of ideation in just about every creative discipline, from writing to illustration to design. Indeed, Zollo’s most striking realization from the series was that despite writing songs that are “infinite and eternal — everywhere at once, untouched by time,” these songwriters themselves are deeply human, “as finite and earthbound as the rest of us.” Zollo, a songwriter himself, reflects:

[This] underscores the knowledge that all songwriters are in the same boat, and that even the most enduring and magical of their songs began where all songs begin — with a single spark of inspiration that is balanced with the mastery of craft that comes from years of work.

Pete Seeger (photograph by Annie Leibovitz)

Among the most spectacular conversations in the volume, conducted in 1988, is that with beloved folk musician and activist Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014), one of the most prolific songwriters of the past century. In reflecting on his ample creative output, Seeger echoes Henry Miller on originality and speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that everything is a remix:

Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little.

[…]

It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.

He later adds a remark that applies just as much to creators of all stripes — artists, writers, inventors — as it does to songwriters:

I look upon myself and other songwriters as links in a long chain. All of us, we’re links in a chain. And if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.

Pointing to the legacy and spirit of jazz as a perfectly illustrative example, where “the melody which you sing the first time is just considered as the bare bones” and improvisation builds upon it, Seeger echoes Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that “words belong to each other” and adds:

Even the most original song you can think of is liable to have a good deal of tradition in it. After all, the major scale and the minor scale were invented thousands of years ago… And the English language was invented a long time ago, and the phrases that we use. And we’re just rearranging these ancient elements.

Seeger later revisits how this layering of ideas and language fuels the creative process and the circumventive quest for Truth:

The nice thing about poetry is that you’re always stretching the definitions of words. Lawyers and scientists and scholars of one sort or another try to restrict the definitions, hoping that they can prevent people from fooling each other. But that doesn’t stop people from lying.

Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.

My father also had a nice little simile. He said, “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. And you can’t lay your hand on it. All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’”

In discussing how his Vietnam War song “Our Generation” was born, Seeger once again acknowledges the combinatorial nature of creativity — that slot-machine quality of ideation that Paula Scher so memorably described, which David Lynch has also echoed. Seeger tells Zollo:

I [came] across the phrase in some little radical magazine: “Our generation wears sandals like the Vietnamese.” And I took that line and built a song out of it.

That quite often happens to me. I’ll read one phrase somewhere. A middle-aged woman in Ohio wrote a poem that said, “The month of April, when we pay for the burning of the children.” Talking about the income tax, of course. That’s where we pay for the burning of the children. So I built a whole song around that, called “The Calendar.”

To further illustrate this unconscious connection-making, Seeger recounts reading a short passage in a chapter of a famous novel about Czarist Russia, which gave him the basic idea for a song. He diligently copied the passage in his pocket notebook but, true to the pivotal role of unconscious idea-incubation in the creative process, it was another two or three years until he revisited it — unconsciously:

I’m sitting in a plane, kind of dozing. And you know, when you’re dozing, that’s when the creative ideas come.

Suddenly, the passage from the novel came to mind, as did a line he had written five years earlier but never used in a song. His unconscious mind brought the two together — for isn’t that capacity the definition of the creative mind? — and his beloved song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was born.

Later, in discussing his famous anthem “Rainbow Race,” a song that had come to him at six in the morning, Seeger echoes Stephen King’s belief in wakeful dreaming and the power of “creative sleep,” considering the conditions most conducive to such unconscious dot-connecting:

I don’t know how other people are, but a number of my ideas come early in the morning or late at night. When the brain is somehow released from the pressures of the day.

He goes on to elaborate:

In solving a problem, you often have to make connections between two things that aren’t usually connected. You know, E.M. Forster, the novelist, was asked, “What are your words of wisdom for future generations?” He said, “Only connect.”

[…]

Your brain often suppresses such idle connections because you’re busy with the business of the day. You’re doing whatever you’re supposed to do. But there come times when you’re no longer doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re just kind of rambling, making strange connections.

(A photographer whose work I admire tremendously, for its ability to connect place and presence with unparalleled emotional resonance, recently used the phrase “mumble with my eyes” to describe her work — a phrase that inadvertently captures what Seeger is describing with wonderfully poetic elegance.)

In considering the relationship between creative integrity and commercial success — a question increasingly timely in our age of vacant made-to-sell pop hits — Seeger contradicts Picasso and speaks unambiguously of commercial culture:

Bless my stars that I met people who had nothing but contempt for the commercial world… I write a song because I want to. I think the moment you start writing it to make money, you’re starting to kill yourself artistically.

When asked about his relationship with the Bible, Seeger — a longtime proponent of gender equality — offers a wonderfully wise lament on the role of organized religion in the history of gender relations:

I don’t read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I’m amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn’t a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically.

It’s quite obvious that once upon a time the human race shared everything equally; it was like living in a garden. And then we got smart and invented farming. And all of a sudden we had class society and injustice and male supremacy and a whole lot of other cruddy things.

But the priests wanted to keep women in their place. So they invented the story about Eve and the apple. You can see that was invented by a bunch of male supremacists: “These women are misleading you. They are evil. They misled you before; don’t let them do it again.” Women threatened the power of the priest. They undermined the priests’ power with their husbands: “Oh, don’t listen to that priest. Listen to me, honey.”

But cultural conflict, for Seeger, has its silver lining. In talking about his song “Last Train to Nuremberg,” he echoes Anaïs Nin on the role of emotional turbulence and tells Zollo:

Crisis brings out some of the best art the world has ever known. Whether it’s somebody being in love or a country at war or revolution.

Songwriters On Songwriting is absolutely fantastic in its hefty 750-page entirety, featuring fifty-one more equally dimensional and insightful conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young. Complement it with writers on writing.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Whitman Illuminated: “Song of Myself,” in Breathtaking Illustrations by Artist Allen Crawford

By:

“He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.”

Visual artists have long been drawn to the literary classics, producing such masterful homages as William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses, John Vernon Lord’s illustrations for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.

In Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself (public library), artist Allen Crawford brings Whitman’s undying text to new life in gorgeous hand-lettering and illustrations, transforming the 60-page poem originally published in 1855 as the centerpiece of Leaves of Grass into a breathtaking 256-page piece of art. His elegant, lyrical play of text size and orientation layers over Whitman’s poem a kind of visual rhythm that not only harmonizes with the original verses but enriches them and gives them uncommon dimension.

Crawford, who lives in the outskirts of Philadelphia where Whitman settled at the end of his life, writes in the foreword:

Whitman wanted to create a new form of verse, one that was indigenous to America. He wanted to break free not only in form but also in content: He sought complete candor, not allegory or symbolism. His sensibility was American: exuberant, rough, and wild. He reveled in the vitality and sublimity of the physical. He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.

[…]

With this book, I’ve tried to make the vigor of “Song of Myself” tangible. I’ve attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd. The text and imagery in this book are intended to be in keeping with Whitman’s unfurnished sensibility.

[…]

I found that in order to add anything at all to Whitman’s panorama of people and places, I had to add a dimension of my own. Events in my daily life affected my approach to each spread, and the Philadelphia of today seeped into the Philadelphia of Whitman’s day. Thus, you’ll find a variety of contemporary or near-contemporary images in this book. Not doing so would have been a disservice to Whitman’s work, which attempts to create a new form of verse for The Here and The Now.

Crawford, who lists among his inspirations artist Matt Kish’s illustrations for Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, labored over Whitman’s magnum opus in his basement for a year, working well into the night and spending 8–10 hours on each illustrated spread for a total of 2,560 hours by his own rough estimate. On particularly cold winter days, he logged his hours clad in multiple layers of house robes and a Russian fur hat.

Especially enchanting is Crawford’s heavy use of science-inspired imagery in his contemporary version of the illuminated manuscript, a medieval medium of religion.

All 256 pages between the beautifully fabric-bound covers of Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself are imbued with pure magic, the kind that takes you by the soul-strings and plays you like a billowing ballad.

Illustrations courtesy of Tin House Books; photographs my own

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

The Backfire Effect: The Psychology of Why We Have a Hard Time Changing Our Minds

By:

How the disconnect between information and insight explains our dangerous self-righteousness.

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind,” I wrote in reflecting on the 7 most important things I learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings. It’s a conundrum most of us grapple with — on the one hand, the awareness that personal growth means transcending our smaller selves as we reach for a more dimensional, intelligent, and enlightened understanding of the world, and on the other hand, the excruciating growing pains of evolving or completely abandoning our former, more inferior beliefs as we integrate new knowledge and insight into our comprehension of how life works. That discomfort, in fact, can be so intolerable that we often go to great lengths to disguise or deny our changing beliefs by paying less attention to information that contradicts our present convictions and more to that which confirms them. In other words, we fail the fifth tenet of Carl Sagan’s timelessly brilliant and necessary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking: “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.”

That humbling human tendency is known as the backfire effect and is among the seventeen psychological phenomena David McRaney explores in You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (public library) — a fascinating and pleasantly uncomfortable-making look at why “self-delusion is as much a part of the human condition as fingers and toes,” and the follow-up to McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, one of the best psychology books of 2011. McRaney writes of this cognitive bug:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

But what makes this especially worrisome is that in the process of exerting effort on dealing with the cognitive dissonance produced by conflicting evidence, we actually end up building new memories and new neural connections that further strengthen our original convictions. This helps explain such gobsmacking statistics as the fact that, despite towering evidence proving otherwise, 40% of Americans don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. The backfire effect, McRaney points out, is also the lifeblood of conspiracy theories. He cites the famous neurologist and conspiracy-debunker Steven Novella, who argues believers see contradictory evidence is as part of the conspiracy and dismiss lack of confirming evidence as part of the cover-up, thus only digging their heels deeper into their position the more counter-evidence they’re presented with.

Nicolaus Copernicus's simple yet revolutionary 1543 heliocentric model, which placed the sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe, contradicted the views of the Catholic Church. In 1633, Galileo was detained under house arrest for the remainder of his life for supporting Copernicus's model.

On the internet, a giant filter bubble of our existing beliefs, this can run even more rampant — we see such horrible strains of misinformation as climate change denial and antivaccination activism gather momentum by selectively seeking out “evidence” while dismissing the fact that every reputable scientist in the world disagrees with such beliefs. (In fact, the epidemic of misinformation has reached such height that we’re now facing a resurgence of once-eradicated diseases.)

McRaney points out that, despite Daniel Dennett’s rules for criticizing intelligently and arguing with kindness, this makes it nearly impossible to win an argument online:

When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.

This also explains why Benjamin Franklin’s strategy for handling haters, which McRaney also explores in the book, is particularly effective, and reminds us that this fantastic 1866 guide to the art of conversation still holds true in its counsel: “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

McRaney points out that the backfire effect is due in large part to our cognitive laziness — our minds simply prefer explanations that take less effort to process, and consolidating conflicting facts with our existing beliefs is enormously straining:

The more difficult it becomes to process a series of statements, the less credit you give them overall. During metacognition, the process of thinking about your own thinking, if you take a step back and notice that one way of looking at an argument is much easier than another, you will tend to prefer the easier way to process information and then leap to the conclusion that it is also more likely to be correct. In experiments where two facts were placed side by side, subjects tended to rate statements as more likely to be true when those statements were presented in simple, legible type than when printed in a weird font with a difficult-to-read color pattern. Similarly, a barrage of counterarguments taking up a full page seems to be less persuasive to a naysayer than a single, simple, powerful statement.

In 1968, shortly after the introduction of the groundbreaking oral contraceptive pill that would revolutionize reproductive rights for generations of women, the Roman Catholic Church declared that the pill distorted the nature and purpose of intercourse. (Public domain photograph via Nationaal Archief)

One particularly pernicious manifestation of this is how we react to critics versus supporters — the phenomenon wherein, as the popular saying goes, our minds become “teflon for positive and velcro for negative.” McRaney traces the crushing psychological effect of trolling — something that takes an active effort to fight — back to its evolutionary roots:

Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism? A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happen is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information that lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something that threatens your beliefs, something that conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.

This process is known as biased assimilation and is something neuroscientists have also demonstrated. McRaney cites the work of Kevin Dunbar, who put subjects in an fMRI and showed them information confirming their beliefs about a specific subject, which led brain areas associated with learning to light up. But when faced with contradictory information, those areas didn’t fire — instead, parts associated with thought suppression and effortful thinking lit up. In other words, simply presenting people with information does nothing in the way of helping them internalize it and change their beliefs accordingly.

So where does this leave us? Perhaps a little humbled by our own fallible humanity, and a little more motivated to use tools like Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit as vital weapons of self-defense against the aggressive self-righteousness of our own minds. After all, Daniel Dennett was right in more ways than one when he wrote, “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself.”

The remainder of You Are Now Less Dumb is just as wonderfully, if uncomfortably, illuminating. Sample it further with the psychology of the Benjamin Franklin Effect, and treat yourself to McRaney’s excellent podcast, You Are Not So Smart, which will, of course, make you smarter.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.