Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Werner Herzog’s No-Bullshit Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers and Creative Entrepreneurs

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Why all creative work is the product of “a furious inner excitement” and how to cultivate the best possible “climate of excitement of the mind.”

Psychologists have long championed the idea that the ability to remember and integrate experiences is a central component of creative work. In Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — the same wide-ranging beast of an interview that gave us the legendary filmmaker’s thoughts on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you loveWerner Herzog lays out a spectacular case for the value of experience, of having lived wide, as the essential tool of creativity.

A decade before Kickstarter, he offers idealistic yet practical advice to aspiring filmmakers, which applies with equal poignancy and precision to just about any field of creative endeavor:

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.

Later in his conversation with interviewer Paul Cronin, Herzog goes on to outline his unconventional vision for the ideal film school based on this very notion that all creative work must be rooted in lived experience and not in theoretical teaching or technical skill:

You would be allowed to submit an application only after having travelled, alone and on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of nearly two thousand miles. While walking, write about your experiences, then give me your notebooks. I would immediately be able to tell who had really walked and who had not. You would learn more about filmmaking during your journey than if you spent five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. Somebody who has been a boxer in Africa would be better trained as a filmmaker than if he had graduated from one of the “best” film schools in the world. All that counts is real life.

My film school would allow you to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind, and would produce people with spirit, a furious inner excitement, a burning flame within. This is what ultimately creates films. Technical knowledge inevitably becomes dated; the ability to adapt to change will always be more important. At my utopian film academy there would be a vast loft with a boxing ring in one corner. Participants, working every day with a trainer, would learn to somersault, juggle and perform magic tricks. Whether you would be a filmmaker by the end I couldn’t say, but at least you would emerge as a confident and fearless athlete. After this vigorous physical work, sit quietly and master as many languages as possible. The end result would be like the knights of old who knew how to ride a horse, wield a sword and play the lute.

A diverse repertoire of experience, Herzog argues, offers the creative person “legs to stand on” — a kind of insurance against the loss of dignity and independence:

If a filmmaker has no other legs to stand on, he can be easily broken. When someone knows how to milk a cow, there is something solid about him. A farmer who grows potatoes or breeds sheep is never ridiculous; nor is a cattle rancher or a chef able to feed a table full of hungry guests. The eighty-year-old man who brought me a bottle of wine from his vineyard before my first opera opened in Bologna could never be an embarrassment, but the film producer who takes to the red carpet at every opportunity and keeps his awards polished will always look foolish. I have seen dignified ninety-year-old cello players and photographers, but never filmmakers. My way of dealing with the inevitable is to step out of my job whenever I can. I travel on foot, I stage operas, I raise children, I cook, I write. I focus on things that give me independence beyond the world of cinema.

His most important advice, however, is also the one that seems most obvious but remains the hardest to stomach — a straightforward formulation of the psychology-backed idea that grit rather than mere talent is the key to success:

Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.

Elsewhere in the interview, Herzog addressed one of the eternal struggles in filmmaking and other creative careers, offering his no-bullshit advice on the question of funding. Indeed, A Guide for the Perplexed — not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher’s equally engrossing 1978 philosophy book of the same title — is an immeasurable trove of idealism and practical wisdom in its entirety. Complement it with Ira Glass on the secret of success in creative work and advice to aspiring writers.

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Psychology of Why Creative Work Hinges on Memory and Connecting the Unrelated

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“In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding.”

Literature is the original internet — an endless rabbit hole of discoveries, with each citation, footnote, and allusion essentially a “hyperlink” to another text, another idea. I was recently reminded of this by a passing mention in Ronald Kellogg’s 1994 book on the psychology of writing, which led me to a fantastic 1985 volume titled Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking (public library). In this masterwork of insight, psycholinguist Vera John-Steiner cracks open the minds of 100 different creative individuals — writers, artists, composers, choreographers — via original interviews and an analysis of their existing notebooks, journals, letters, and scientific records, shedding light on the central elements and essential patterns of creative thought.

While John-Steiner expanded on seminal work like Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s model of creativity and Howard Gardner’s influential theory of multiple intelligences, she pioneered a new framework for understanding creativity based on qualitative research and interdisciplinary perspective. An early champion of an idea now ubiquitous in today’s ever-growing catalog of books on creativity, John-Steiner approached her research with visionary clarity of conviction: “That ‘creativity’ is beyond analysis is a romantic illusion we must now outgrow.”

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

One of the most important and enduring of John-Steiner’s insights on the “invisible tools” that propel a life of creative work and set artists apart from the rest is the concept of memory and how it empowers us to connect seemingly unrelated ideas — one of the defining characteristics of the creative mind and the basis of combinatorial creativity. She writes:

Among the invisible tools of creative individuals is their ability to hold on to the specific texture of their past. Their skill is akin to that of a rural family who lives through the winter on food stored in their root cellar… The creative use of one’s past, however, requires a memory that is both powerful and selective.

Mozart, she notes, called this his “bag of memories” — a mental reservoir of experiences and impressions “accumulated during the childhood years of intense wonder, a source to which many creative people return again and again.” Similarly, Ingmar Bergman wrote that “to make films is also to plunge again by its deepest roots down to the world of childhood.” She cites author Judy Blume, for whom this mental library of memories is especially dependent on sensory impressions:

I remember smells, feelings. I will walk in a house and say, this is B. N.’s home. This is the way his house smelled on a winter morning. All the sensations are there to be brought back.

This highly selective nature of creative memory is a supreme testament to the fact that memory is not a recording device and that, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks would put it decades later, “memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.” John-Steiner quotes the English poet Stephen Spender, who captured this beautifully:

Memory is not exactly memory. It is more like a prong, upon which a calendar of similar experiences happening throughout the years, collect. A memory once clearly stated ceases to be a memory, it becomes perpetually present, because every time we experience something which recalls it, the clear and lucid original experience imposes its formal beauty on the new experiences. It is thus no longer memory but an experience lived through again and again.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But certain domains of creativity, like science or the sort of writing that relies on a heavy use of research and historical facts, demand that the creator’s access to memory be a lot less abstract and a lot more methodical. Indeed, this need explains the odd strategies many famous authors employed in organizing their ideas. John-Steiner points to Darwin’s particularly obsessive organization strategy, possibly one of his techniques for alleviating his chronic anxiety — he “carefully indexed all the books he had read and organized the material into portfolios that he consulted at the beginning of each new project.” Reviewing other examples of similar practices, John-Steiner puts it in no uncertain terms:

A powerful and personally developed structuring of information — an active and selective memory — is as necessary for scientists as it is for poets.

But perhaps the most potent use of memory in the creative mind is the cross-pollination of accumulated ideas and the fusing together of seemingly unrelated concepts into novel configurations — something Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the greatest science essayist of all time, captured when he said that his sole talent is “making connections.” John-Steiner quotes a similar sentiment by the Polish-born mathematician Stan Ulam:

It seems to me that good memory — at least for mathematicians and physicists — forms a large part of their talent. And what we call talent or perhaps genius itself depends to a large extent on the ability to use one’s memory properly to find analogies, past, present and future, which [are] essential to the development of new ideas.

Returning to Judy Blume’s approach to writing, which includes writing manuscript pages and taping them into a notebook for later use while the author’s mind “races head to this or to that,” John-Steiner points out how this technique bespeaks the fact that “the human mind is multi-channeled not only in the way in which we record experience … but also in the way in which writers, poets, and composers think while engaged in a new work”:

While Blume composes her narrative in a focused forward movement on her typewriter, she is also aware of the more diffuse associations that accompany her writing.

She cites her interview with the legendary composer Aaron Copland, who remarked that when this associative process works in an optimal state of flow, “all different musical materials run to their proper places.”

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

This utilization of remembered ideas and their combination into new concepts, John-Steiner argues, can occur both consciously and unconsciously — the latter best evidenced in the unconscious incubation stage present in just about every formal model of the creative process. This is powered by our multiple modes of analyzing and retaining information — sensory, perceptual, semantic, and episodic. She explains:

An experience is processed in multiple ways, as each type of memory “storage” has its own special characteristic. The stories of one’s life are recorded in episodic memory, and these are tagged according to the time and place of their occurrence. More abstract knowledge lacks such coding; instead it is recorded in a more formal structure such as biological taxonomies or other facts, which are organized according to hierarchical concepts.

Each domain of creativity prioritizes a different mode of memory as a primary source of raw material. Citing painter Paul Gauguin’s self-admitted “remarkable memory,” John-Steiner notes the importance of “a precise visual imagination that activates the exceptional abilities of this artist-designer”:

Mental images are an important resource for the working artist’s talent.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Noting that memory is a crucial resource in “keeping one’s knowledge current by linking the known to new ideas and insights,” she adds:

In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding. This process is demanding; it calls upon all the inner resources of the individual — active memory, openness to experience, creative intensity, and emotional courage. It demands self-knowledge in the use of expansion of one’s talents.

In the remainder of Notebooks of the Mind, John-Steiner explores the many “invisible tools” of creative work, including the role of revision, the interplay of anxiety and ambition, the power of finding the right mentors, and the importance of working from a place of love while remaining open to all your feelings. Complement it with Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions of creativity and the psychology of optimizing your brain by honing emotional memory.

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25 AUGUST, 2014

The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily Routine

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How to sculpt an environment that optimizes creative flow and summons relevant knowledge from your long-term memory through the right retrieval cues.

Reflecting on the ritualization of creativity, Bukowski famously scoffed that “air and light and time and space have nothing to do with.” Samuel Johnson similarly contended that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” And yet some of history’s most successful and prolific writers were women and men of religious daily routines and odd creative rituals. (Even Buk himself ended up sticking to a peculiar daily routine.)

Such strategies, it turns out, may be psychologically sound and cognitively fruitful. In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library), cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments affect the amount of time invested in trying to write and the degree to which that time is spent in a state of boredom, anxiety, or creative flow. Kellogg writes:

[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Kellogg reviews a vast body of research to extract a few notable findings. Among them is the role of background noise, which seems to fall on a bell curve of fecundity: High-intensity noise that exceeds 95 decibels disrupts performance on complex tasks but improves it on simple, boring tasks — noise tends to raise arousal level, which can be useful when trying to stay alert during mindless and monotonous work, but can agitate you out of creative flow when immersed in the kind of work that requires deliberate, reflective thought. (The psychology of writing, after all, as Kellogg notes in the introduction, is a proxy for the psychology of thinking.) The correlation between skill level and task difficulty also plays a role — feeling like your skills are not up to par raises your level of anxiety, which in turn makes noise more bothersome.

These effects, of course, are relative to one’s psychological constitution — Kellogg surmises that writers more afflicted with the modern epidemic of anxiety tend to be more disconcerted by noisy environments. Proust and Carlyle appear to have been among those writers — the former wrote in a cork-lined room to eliminate obtrusive sounds and the latter in a noiseproof chamber to ensure absolute silence — whereas Allen Ginsberg was known for being able to write anywhere, from trains to planes to parks. What matters, Kellogg points out, are each writer’s highly subjective requirements for preserving the state of flow:

The lack of interruption in trains of thought may be the critical ingredient in an environment that enables creative flow. As long as a writer can tune out background noise, the decibel level per se may be unimportant. For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Turning an eye to research on the specific timing and duration of writing sessions, Kellogg points to several studies indicating that working for 1 to 3 hours at a time, then taking a break before resuming, is most conducive to productivity, not only for writers but also for athletes and professional musicians — a finding since repeated in more recent research. He also cites a 1985 study of circadian rhythms — something scientists have since explored with swelling rigor — which found that performance on intellectual tasks peaks during morning hours, whereas perceptual-motor tasks fare better in the afternoon and evening. Hemingway, in fact, intuited this from his own experience, telling George Plimpton in a rare 1958 interview:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until morning when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.

Location and physical environment also play a role in maintaining a sustained and productive workflow. Bob Dylan, for instance, extolled the virtues of being able to “put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind.” Reviewing the research, Kellogg echoes Faulkner’s memorable assertion that “the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost” and notes that writers’ dedicated workspaces tend to involve solitude and quiet, although “during the apprenticeship phase of a writer’s career, almost any environment is workable” — most likely a hybrid function of youth’s high tolerance for distraction and the necessity of sharing space earlier in life when the luxury of privacy is unaffordable.

But the key psychological function of such dedicated environments isn’t so much superstitious ritualization — an effort to summon the muse through the elaborate juju of putting everything in its right place — as cognitive cueing. Kellogg considers the usefulness of a special space used solely for writing, which cultivates an “environment that cues the desired behavior”:

This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness. Once the writer’s attention turns to the ideas that pop into consciousness, the composing process flows again. Particular features of the environment may serve as specific prompts for retrieving, creating, and thinking.

For instance, a scene outside an office window, a painting hanging on the wall, or a plant sitting in the corner may become associated with thinking deeply about a particular text under development. Staring at the feature elicits knowledge representations bearing on the problem at hand.

This strategy is rather similar to the one most often recommended for treating insomnia — instituting a regular bedtime and using the bedroom as a space dedicated solely to sleep, in order to optimize the brain’s ability to enter rest mode upon going to bed and cue that behavior each night just by entering that environment. (Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the most successful writers are also zealous in their sleep habits.)

The sleep habits vs. creative output of famous writers. Click image for details.

In fact, Kellogg cites a 1990 treatment program, developed by research psychologist Bob Boice developed for educators and other professionals who must write for a living and who were struggling with writer’s block, which uses a similar approach:

A key component of [Boice’s] program is the rearranging of the writing environment. He recommends that the writer “establish one or a few regular places in which you do all serious writing” and “nothing but serious writing; other writing (e.g., correspondence) would be carried out elsewhere.” Boice insists that magazines, novels, and other nonessential reading material be banned, social interactions minimized or eliminated, and cleaning and straightening up of the place delayed until a writing session is completed. By following these recommendations, the writer creates a space solely to think and write, avoiding extraneous activities. This space, therefore, becomes associated with all the mental products of creating meaning and can then serve as a unique retrieval cue for those products.

Note that these strategies were developed more than a decade before modern smartphones existed and long before social networks like Facebook and Twitter were moaning their constant 95-decibel siren calls for our attention. Today, Boice’s treatment program would no doubt also require the elimination of smartphones and any medium of social networking from the dedicated writing environment, among countless other “nonessential” forms of communication that the past, as is usually the case, could not have envisioned of the future.

Thomas Mann seems to have captured many of the principles Kellogg unveils in a single exquisite letter to the Austrian writer and journalist Viktor Polzer:

For writing I must have a roof over my head, and since I enjoy working by the sea better than anywhere else, I need a tent or a wicker beach chair. Much of my composition, as I have said, has been conceived on walks; I also regard movement in the open air as the best means of reviving my energy for work. For a longer book I usually have a heap of preliminary papers close at hand during the writing; scribbled notes, memory props, in part purely objective — external details, colorful odds and ends — or else psychological formulations, fragmentary inspirations, which I use in their proper place.

In the closing of the chapter, Kellogg considers what the wide variation of such routines and rituals reveals:

The diversity in environments chosen by writers, from Proust’s cork-lined room to Sarraute’s Parisian cafe, suggests the flexibility of human thought. A person can think in any environment, though some locations become habitual for certain individuals. The key is to find an environment that allows concentrated absorption in the task and maximum exposure to retrieval cues that release relevant knowledge from long-term memory.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Indeed, despite all these fruitful strategies for optimizing creative flow, the bigger truth — something I wholeheartedly believe — remains: There is no ideal rotation of the chair or perfect position of the desk clock that guarantees a Pulitzer. What counts, ultimately, is putting your backside in the chair — or, if you happen to be Ernest Hemingway or Virginia Woolf, dragging your feet to your standing desk — and clocking in the hours, psychoemotional rain or shine. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

Complement The Psychology of Writing — which goes on to explore such cognitive crannies as the intricacies of symbol-creation, the role of personality in writing, and the impact of drugs and daydreams on the creative process — with Anna Deavere Smith on discipline, a guided tour of the daily rituals of famous writers, and some pointers on how to hone your creative routine.

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