Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

26 MARCH, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald on Mastering the Muse and How This Side of Paradise Was Born

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“…as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse she trotted obediently around and became an erratic mistress if not a steady wife.”

On March 26, 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was published, a tale of love gone awry in the grip of greed and status-seeking as a young man, whose story parallels Fitzgerald’s own life, undergoes a harrowing sexual and intellectual awakening.

The publication of the novel carried a special kind of urgency for Fitzgerald. The previous summer, Zelda Sayre, whom the 22-year-old author had spent several years courting, had broken up with him on the grounds that he couldn’t maintain the life she wanted for herself. Determined to win her back, Fitzgerald set out to become a successful novelist. He built upon an earlier unpublished novel entitled The Romantic Egotist and sent the new manuscript to his editor, Maxwell Perkins. In this letter from the excellent F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, dated July 26th, 1919, a young, hopeful, and full of earnest aplomb Fitzgerald articulates a broader truth about how creativity works:

This is in no sense a revision of the ill-fated Romantic Egotist but it contains some of the former material improved and worked over and bears a strong family resemblance besides.

But while the other was a tedious, disconnected casserole this is [sic] definate attempt at a big novel and I really believe I have hit it, as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse she trotted obediently around and became an erratic mistress if not a steady wife.

(Cue in Elizabeth Gilbert on genius and mesmerizing the muse and Jonah Lehrer on the importance of letting go before arriving at a solution.)

In another letter to Perkins, dated August 16th, 1919, Fitzgerald explains his title choice:

The title has been changed to
This Side of Paradise
from those lines of Rupert Brookes
…Well, this side of paradise
There’s little comfort in the wise.

In the same letter, Fitzgerald does the math on the book:

Book One contains about 35,000 words
The Interlude ” ” 4,000 words
Book Two ” ” 47,000 words
Total ” ” 86,000 words

Then, later in the letter, a more meditative take on the math:

The book contains a little over ninety thousand words. I certainly think the hero gets somewhere.

I await anxiously your verdict.

Sincerely
F Scott Fitzgerald

This Side of Paradise was published to great critical success. Zelda, whom Fitzgerald dubbed “the first American flapper,” soon agreed to marry him and they embarked upon a tempestuous relationship, riddled with the author’s alcoholism, Zelda’s schizophrenia diagnosis, and the couple’s general inability to cope with celebrity at such a young age.

Bonus: Last October, This Side of Paradise was released as a beautifully minimalist Penguin Classics hardcover designed by the inimitable Coralie Bickford-Smith, who captures the elegance and glamor of the Art Deco era in her signature style of subdued yet infinitely expressive patterns.

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26 MARCH, 2012

The Importance of Frustration in the Creative Process, Animated

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“Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment.”

Last week, Jonah Lehrer took us inside “the seething cauldron of ideas” with Imagine: How Creativity Works, his long-awaited (by me, at least) new book. Now, from Flash Rosenberg — Guggenheim Fellow, NYPL artist-in-residence, live-illustrator extraordinaire, and Brain Pickings darling — comes this wonderful hand-drawn teaser for the book, distilling one of Lehrer’s key ideas in Rosenberg’s signature style of simple yet visually eloquent line drawings.

When we tell stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problem was impossible. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthrough. We tell the happy ending first.

The danger of this scenario is that the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost. Because it’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.

For a related treat, see Rosenberg’s live-illustration of John Lithgow reading Mark Twin at the New York Public Library.

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20 MARCH, 2012

How Creativity Works

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Inside the ‘seething cauldron of ideas,’ or what Bob Dylan has to do with the value of the synthesizer mind.

In his 1878 book, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche observed:

Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”

Some 131 years later, Elizabeth Gilbert echoed that observation in her now-legendary TED talk.

The origin, pursuit, and secret of creativity are a central fixation of the Idea Age. But what, exactly, does “creativity” — that infinitely nebulous term — really mean, and how does it work? This inquiry is at the heart of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer — who, in my opinion, has done more for the popular understanding of psychology and neuroscience than any other writer working today, and who has previously examined such fascinating subjects as how we decide and why we need a “fourth culture” of knowledge.

Lehrer writes in the introduction, echoing Nietzsche’s lament:

The sheer secrecy of creativity — the difficulty in understanding how it happens, even when it happens to us — means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, until the Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”

He notes how the mysteriousness and hazy nature of creativity have historically confounded scientists, and how its study has become a meta-metaphor for creativity itself:

How does one measure the imagination? The daunting nature of the subject led researchers to mostly neglect it; a recent survey of psychology papers published between 1950 and 2000 revealed that less than 1 percent of them investigated aspects of the creative process. Even the evolution of this human talent was confounding. Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity—the human imagination has no clear precursors. There is no ingenuity module that got enlarged in the human cortex, or even a proto-creative impulse evident in other primates. Monkeys don’t paint; chimps don’t write poems; and it’s the rare animal (like the New Caledonian crow) that exhibits rudimentary signs of problem solving. The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.”

Reflecting David Eagleman’s insistence upon understanding the unconscious operations of the brain as a key to understanding ourselves, Lehrer counters the idea that imagination can’t be rigorously studied:

Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special. That’s why this book begins by returning us to the material source of the imagination: the three pounds of flesh inside the skull. William James described the creative process as a ‘seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.’ For the first time, we can see the cauldron itself, that massive network of electrical cells that allow individuals to form new connections between old ideas. We can take snapshots of thoughts in brain scanners and measure the excitement of neurons as they get closer to a solution. The imagination can seem like a magic trick of matter — new ideas emerging from thin air—but we are beginning to understand how the trick works.”

Lehrer nods to the combinatorial nature of creativity:

Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.”

At the heart of Imagine is an important redefinition of “creativity”:

[T]he standard definition of creativity is completely wrong. Ever since the ancient Greeks, people have assumed that the imagination is separate from other kinds of cognition. But the latest science suggests that this assumption is false. Instead, creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes. (The brain is the ultimate category buster.)

[…]

For most of human history, people have believed that the imagination is inherently inscrutable, an impenetrable biological gift. As a result, we cling to a series of false myths about what creativity is and where it comes from. These myths don’t just mislead — they also interfere with the imagination.”

The opening of the book’s wonderful trailer winks at Steve Jobs’s famous quote that “creativity is just connecting things”:

Lehrer goes on to explore the workings of creativity through subjects as diverse as Bob Dylan’s writing methods, the birth of Swiffer, an autistic surfer who invented a new surfing move, the drug habits of poets, Pixar’s secret sauce, the emergence of collaborative culture, and a wealth more.

But what makes Imagine outstanding is that the book itself is an epitome of an increasingly important form of creativity — the ability to pull together perspectives, insights, and bits of information into a mashup narrative framework that illuminates a subject in an entirely new way.

This practice, of course, is centuries old, dating at least as far back as medieval florilegia. But Lehrer’s gift — or, rather, grit-honed skill — for connecting dots across disciplines and directions of thought, and gleaning from these connections original insight, is a true testament to the role of the author as a curator of empirical evidence, theory, and opinion. In the excellent Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner called this the “synthesizing mind” — and Lehrer’s is positively a paragon:

The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. Valuable in the past, the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates.”

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