Brain Pickings

An Anatomy of Inspiration: A 1942 Guide to How Creativity Works

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“The true novelist, poet, musician, or artist is really a discoverer.”

Such is the labyrinth of literature: Some time ago, Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity led me to the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas, through which I discovered one of the best things I’ve ever read, The Art of Scientific Investigation, which has in turned led me to An Anatomy of Inspiration (public library). Written by music historian Rosamund E. M. Harding (1899-1982) in 1942, this slim but potent volume sets out to reverse-engineer the mechanisms of creativity through the direct experiences of famous creators across art, science, and literature. From Tchaikovsky’s letters to Jane Austen’s diaries to Mark Twain’s daily routine as relayed by his daughter, Harding teases out the common threads of creation and weaves them together into a framework for optimizing creativity, stressing its combinatorial nature and its reliance on eclectic knowledge.

Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations. And not only the more he knows about his own subject but the more he knows beyond it of other subjects. It is a fact that has not yet been sufficiently stressed that those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity.

Harding goes on to give a number of examples: Pasteur was a bachelor of literature in addition to being a doctor of science; James Watt rested his mind from honing the steam engine with archeology and poetry; Emmanuel Kant read classics, mathematics, physics, astronomy, metaphysics, law, geography, and travel; Goethe was a collector of art and science ephemera, and took a close interest in the engineering of canals, harbors, and tunnels; George Eliot was obsessed with philology:

Success depends on adequate knowledge: that is, it depends on sufficient knowledge of the special subject, and a variety of extraneous knowledge to produce new and original combinations of ideas. Technical skill must be so far developed that it is never a hindrance to the flow of ideas. The thinker does not sit down and say to himself: ‘now I am going to think out the relations between so and so.’ The process is not so much an active as a passive one. In short the thinker dreams over his subject.

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

One particularly interesting notion Harding puts forth is that of “fringe-ideas” — ideas on the periphery of the thinker’s particular inquiry, but resonant in tone and thus able to enhance and flow into the creative process:

[M]any ideas outside the subject become associated with it by a kind of interest association and acquire a similar tone. Thus they tend to become available at the same time as the ideas directly connected with the subject itself. The variety of interests tends to increase the richness of these extra ideas — ‘fringe-ideas’ — associated with the subject and thus to increase the possibilities of new and original combinations of thought.

Harding offers an articulate rebuttal of the genius-myth that modern neuroscience has since debunked:

The old-fashioned idea that in-born genius is enough by itself without a solid foundation of knowledge, is the reason why [famous creators] set themselves against the use of this term and their pupils against the state. Without the rock of knowledge genius has no foundation to make it durable. In the words of Eugene Delacroix: ‘Natural gifts unsupported by culture may be said to resemble the honeysuckle, charming in its grace, but without odour, that I see hanging from the trees in the forest.’

Echoing the importance of a gestational period of unconscious processing, Harding points to the art of the pause:

There is much to be said in favour of laying a work aside to mature; for one thing it gives the judgment time to operate; the mind is able to return to the work from time to time with a fresh outlook; and check it from many different angles. It follows also that if new ideas are to be set aside to develop and newly finished works left to ‘mature,’ there must be several things on hand at the same time in various stages of development. The continuity of attention is purposely shorted and interrupted partly on account of the rest this gives.

Harding goes on to prescribe the following method for capturing and harnessing ideas:

(i) The ideas occurring when in the glow of inspiration are (a) briefly noted down and (b) checked.

(ii) (a) The subject is worked upon immediately, the thinker being wholly absorbed by it to the exclusion for the time being of everything else, or (b) The subject is set aside to develop and is then worked upon after an interval of time has elapsed, (c) the first draft of the completed work or half of it perhaps is put aside to ‘mature’ for a while; then it is again revised before publication.

(iii) Working at two or more subjects concurrently.

(iv) Working up the imagination to the state of vision and sometimes an audition.

(v) Trusting to feeling (or intuition, instinct).

(vi) Procedure when baffled by a problem; namely, laying the work aside and turning to something else. This process may be repeated many times during the course of a long work of any kind.

Long before we knew the science of internal time, Harding offers a temporal recipe for creativity:

On the whole it appears that morning or night hours are the most favourable to the flow of ideas. It has been shown that a difficulty unsolvable the day before is sometimes solved in the morning upon waking. In fact the value of morning hours when the mind is fresh has long been recognized as a time to be consecrated to important work.

[...]

Night-time when awake is perhaps the best time of all for the flow of ideas…. The spiritual aloneness that comes over the thinker when the world sleeps, carrying with it the sense of detachment so essential to a creative thinker may account partly for the fascination and spell of working by night. It is, however, a spell, to be resisted since it may lead to practices dangerous alike to bodily and mental health: Byron, sometimes writing on Hollands and water, Schiller on strong coffee, wine-chocolate, old Rhenish, or Champagne, the poet Crabbe at one time on weak brandy and water and snuff, and Balzac on endless cups of black coffee.

Harding also points to the importance of bodily posture and the habit of motion that many creators cultivated: Dickens and Hugo were avid walkers during ideation; Burns often composed while “holding the plough”; Twain paced madly while dictating; Goethe, Scott, and Burns composed on horseback; Mozart preferred the back of a carriage; Lord Kelvin worked on his mathematical studies while traveling by train. Harding offers:

It is possible that the rhythmical movement of a carriage or train, of a horse and to a much lesser degree of walking, may produce on sensitive minds a slightly hypnotic effect conducive to that state of mind most favourable to the birth of ideas.

Corroborating Henri Poincaré’s insistence on invention as choice and George Lois’s conception of creativity as discovery, Harding writes:

The true novelist, poet, musician, or artist is really a discoverer. Ideas — the theme of a plot, a poem, a picture, a theme of music — come to him as a gift. The idea, ‘the seed-corn’ as Brahms called it, he allows to develop naturally. There may come a point where it branches in one or many directions; he is free at this point to follow one or other. And it is here and here only that the judgment or choice of the true artist may legitimately be exercised. In fact the artist is in much the same position as a gardener growing prize rose trees, who in order to produce beautiful roses lops off unwanted shoots and suckers.

With its countless anecdotes from some of mankind’s most remarkable creators and its synthesis of common ground, An Anatomy of Inspiration is, if not a blueprint to true creativity, at the very least an invaluable lens on the nooks and crannies of the creative process.

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Celebrating John Cage: 40 Years of Visualizing Music Notation Around the World

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“To be an artist, you must immerse yourself with great passion in all that surrounds you.”

Last week’s exploration of John Cage’s remarkably inquisitive, spiritual approach to music reminded me of an old favorite: Notations 21 (public library) — an homage to John Cage’s iconic 1969 Notations, originally released for its 50th anniversary and seeking to inspire “open communication between all fields of study.” The vibrant 320-page tome by composer Theresa Sauer explores how 165 composers and musicians around the world have experienced, communicated, and reimagined music visually by reinventing notation in the past 40 years, deriving inspiration from Cage’s work.

In this short film from Streaming Museum’s John Cage Centennial Tribute, Sauer captures the essence of the project beautifully:

I believe that to be an artist, you must immerse yourself with great passion in all that surrounds you. We can decide if our communication, experiments, processes, and risks that we take have the courage to face being different. But I ask, in my work, the questions — and, as John Cage said, it is about whether the questions are good ones.

John Cage’s influence on our world is unable to be measured, and yet he planted seeds of thought in our minds — and the most amazing seed of thought is the concept of asking questions. The composers and artists represented in continue to ask questions about communication, sound, creativity, our environment, and our experience.

Notations 21 is absolutely exquisite — take a closer look here.

Thanks, Paola

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The New Swiss Army Knife: Bill Gates Predicts the iPhone in 1995

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What Siri and the appification of faxing have to do with the difference between envisioning and enacting.

In 1995, exactly 20 years after starting Microsoft as a 19-year-old, Bill Gates penned The Road Ahead (public library), in which he envisioned the future of computers, information, and the internet. Now, another almost 20 years later, the book stands as a lucid presentiment of much of the technology we not only use but take for granted today. Particularly fascinating is this excerpt from a chapter titled “Appliances and Applications,” in which Gates envisions what’s essentially the iPhone:

What do you carry on your person now? Probably at least keys, identification, money, and a watch. And maybe credit cards, a checkbook, traveler’s checks, an address book, an appointment book, a notepad, something to read, a camera, a pocket tape recorder, a cellular phone, a pager, concert tickets, a map, a compass, a calculator, an electronic entry card, photographs, and maybe a loud whistle to call for help.

You’ll be able to keep equivalent necessities — and more — in an information appliance I call the wallet PC. It will be about the same size as a wallet, which means you’ll be able to carry it in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, and play both simple and sophisticated games. At a meeting, you might take notes, check your appointments, browse information if you’re bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call-up photos of your kids.

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Wallet PCs with the right equipment will be able to tell you exactly where you are anyplace on the face of the earth. The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that orbit Earth right now broadcast signals that enable jetliners, oceangoing boats, cruise missiles, some cars — and even hikers with handheld GPS receivers — to know their exact locations. Such devices are currently available for a few hundred dollars, and eventually they’ll be built into many wallet PCs.

[...]

Off the roads, on a hike in the woods, the wallet PC will be your compass and as useful as your Swiss Army Knife.

In fact, I think of the wallet PC as the new Swiss Army knife.

Gates goes on to even presage Siri:

The wallet PC will connect you to the interactive network while you travel and tell you where you are. A voice from its built-in speaker will let you know that a freeway exit is coming up or that the next intersection has frequent accidents. It will monitor digital traffic reports and warn you that you’d better leave for the airport early, or it will suggest an alternative route. The wallet PC’s color maps will overlay your location with whatever kinds of information you want — road and weather conditions, campgrounds, scenic spots, even fast-food places. You might ask, ‘Where’s the closest Chinese restaurant that’s still open?’ and the answer will be transmitted to your wallet by wireless network.

[...]

Eventually we’ll also be able to speak to televisions, personal computers, or other information appliances. At first we’ll have to stick to a limited vocabulary, but eventually our exchanges with our appliances will become quite conversational.

So how come Gates predicted but failed to invent — or, more importantly, create a culture around — this “Swiss Army knife” of the future? “Ideas are cheap and abundant,” legendary management guru Peter Drucker famously proclaimed, “What is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.”

Steve Jobs, it seems, had it right all along: “Real artists ship.”

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