Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

20 FEBRUARY, 2014

Beloved Children’s Book Author and Illustrator Leo Lionni on Creativity and the Secret of Great Storytelling

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“What we create … we fill in with our own thoughts and feelings.”

In 1959, beloved children’s book author and illustrator Leo Lionni created a lovely little book for his grandkids, Pippo and Annie. Little Blue and Little Yellow, a minimalist and brilliant allegorical primer on color theory and graphic design basics, went on to inspire generations of children, and the process of creating it elated and energized Lionni so much that it catapulted him into a lifelong career of award-winning visual storytelling aimed at children, but bearing timeless and ageless resonance for all.

In Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave use Eric Carle’s, Maurice Sendak’s, and other icons’ advice to children on being an artistAnnie Lionni recounts her grandfather’s approach to the creative process and his convictions about where ideas come from:

Leo Lionni

The most frequent question that children asked my grandfather Leo was, “How do you get your ideas?” He would usually start with a simple idea. Sometimes the idea would be a beginning to a story, sometimes an ending, other times it might be the main character, or the situation. But however it would start, he would work hard to create a story from that idea. He thought of it as a game of chess, moving the pieces around to create the best story possible. And so, to the question “How do you get your ideas?” he would give a simple answer — “Hard work.”

But why did Leo make books at all? Why draw, or paint, or make sculptures out of wood, glass or metal? He did all of those things and more. He always said that he had “an irresistible urge to make things.” If for some reason he couldn’t make art, he claimed that he’d make bricks or boxes or anything else that he could make with his hands.

From 'Little Blue and Little Yellow'

Above all, however, Lionni’s magic came from his full immersion in the stories, his complete identification with his characters: Annie writes:

Leo would quote a book that he read years ago — “When a painter paints a tree, he becomes a tree.” What we create, he believed, we fill in with our own thoughts and feelings. That’s why even the inanimate things in his books have human qualities — the walls, plants and stones might be humorous or stern or anything else that people can be.

But when Leo said he became a tree, he also thought that the tree became him. “Of course, I am Frederick,” he said, referring to one of my favorite characters, Frederick the Mouse. And he was Swimmy when he became the eye of the giant fish. All of his characters were part of his own self, and he thought that was probably true for every children’s book author.

Artist to Artist is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover, doubly so for the fact that all proceeds from the book benefit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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19 FEBRUARY, 2014

The 10 Stages of the Creative Process

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Listen to your hunches, sponge up ideas, let them marinate, and know when you’re done.

The question of what creativity is and how it works will perhaps remain humanity’s most unanswerable — but that hasn’t stopped us from trying. On the heels of Neil Gaiman’s recent reflection on the subject comes one from filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards and daughter of the great Leonard Shlain of Art & Physics fame. In this short installment from AOL’s The Future Starts Here series, Shlain offers ten steps to the creative process based on her own experience in film and art, expanding, perhaps inadvertently, on Graham Wallace’s famous 1926 model of the four stages of the creative process and incorporating other notable theories of yore, like John Dewey’s emphasis on hunches and T.S. Eliot’s insistence on idea-incubation.

  1. The Hunch
  2. Any project starts with a hunch, and you have to act on it. It’s a total risk because you’re just about to jump off a cliff, and you have to go for it if you believe in it.

  3. Talk About It
  4. Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your community … they’re the ones who are going to support you on this whole treacherous journey of the creative process, so involve them, engage them.

  5. The Sponge
  6. I’m going to tons of art shows, I’m watching a lot of movies, I’m reading voraciously… and I’m just sponging up ideas and trying to formulate my own idea about the subject.

  7. Build
  8. I love the world “filmmaker” because it has “maker” in it. My team and I are … building an armature — the architecture for the project.

  9. Confusion
  10. Dread. Heart of Darkness. Forest of fire, doubt, fear… [But] as hard as it is — and it is really hard — any project … gets infinitely better after I’ve rumbled with all of my fears.

  11. Just Step Away
  12. Take a breather — literally just step away from the project… Let it marinate — don’t look at it or think about it.

  13. “The Love Sandwich”
  14. To give constructive feedback, always snuggle it in love — because we’re only human, and we’re vulnerable… Set expectations for where you are in the project, then ask questions in a way that allows for “the love sandwich”: First, “What works for you?” Then, “What doesn’t work for you?” Then, “What works for you?” again. If you just ask people for feedback, they’ll go straight for the jugular.

  15. The Premature Breakthroughlation
  16. You’ll find in a project that you’ll have many small breakthroughs — and you have to celebrate those breakthroughs, because they’re ultimately going to lead to the Big Breakthrough.

  17. Revisit Your Notes
  18. I always do this throughout the project, but especially during that last home stretch… I revisit all my notes and think back, and always find a clue — that missing link that brings it all home.

  19. Know When You’re Done

Complement with a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939 and Arthur Koestler’s famous “bisociation” theory of how creativity works.

See more of Shlain’s films here.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2014

How Creativity Works: Neil Gaiman on Where Ideas Comes From

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The power of desperation, deadlines, and daydreaming.

Beneath the eternal question of what creativity is lies the mystery of where good ideas come from and how we can coax them into manifesting. It’s a conundrum that has occupied artists, inventors, and philosophers alike since the dawn of human thought, but especially so since the dawn of psychology. We have Graham Wallace’s model of the four stages of the creative process from 1926, a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939, Arthur Koestler’s famous “bisociation” theory of how creativity works from 1964, and a number of derivative modern ideas. The best answer, however, often comes from those who summon and wrangle ideas for a living, rather than merely contemplating the mechanics of the creative process.

In this wonderful excerpt from the Q&A after his December 2011 Wheeler Center interview, the ever-brilliant, ever-witty Neil Gaimanchampion of the creative life, disciplined writer, wiseman of literature, one romantic bachelor — answers every creative person’s most dreaded question: Where do ideas come from? At the heart of his answer is the recognition that creativity is combinatorial and that, like Koestler proposed, it relies on intersecting two seemingly unrelated ideas:

For me, inspiration comes from a bunch of places: desperation, deadlines… A lot of times ideas will turn up when you’re doing something else. And, most of all, ideas come from confluence — they come from two things flowing together. They come, essentially, from daydreaming. . . . And I suspect that’s something every human being does. Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea — it’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anything else; we just notice when it happens a little bit more.

Complement with Gaiman on creative doggedness, the secret of genius, and his 8 rules of writing.

Photograph by Kimberly Butler

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