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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Legendary Composer Aaron Copland on the Conditions of Creativity, Emotion vs. Intellect, and the Trap of Public Opinion

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“The main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.”

In 1970, long before our present barrage of books on creativity, even before Vera John-Steiner’s pioneering investigation of the creative mind and the influential tome The Creativity Question, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to tackle the question of what makes creators create by bridging the sociological and the psychological approach, which previous frameworks of studying creativity had kept separate. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 celebrated figures in the arts and sciences — from choreographer Merce Cunningham to cognitive scientist and linguist Noam Chomsky to astronomer Harlow Shapley — and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library) — an ambitious effort not only to understand the creative mind, but also to expose the false divide between intuition and intellect and to debunk the then-dominant, still-toxic notion that creativity in the arts is the product of hot emotion, while creativity in the sciences that of cool intelligence.

Rosenfeld captures the book’s ethos of integration beautifully:

There do not exist two distinct and separate types of mind, one for the arts and humanities, the other for the sciences… You must possess both intuition and imagination to be creative in the sciences as well as the arts… There is science in all good poetry and vice versa.

Among the most eloquent and interesting interviewees is the influential composer (and the one-time object of Leonard Bernstein’s infatuation) Aaron Copland, recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the Pulitzer Prize in composition.

Copland begins by considering the nature of creativity:

It is very difficult to describe the creative experience in such a way that it would cover all cases. One of the essentials is the variety with which one approaches any kind of artistic creation. It doesn’t start in any one particular way and it is not always easy to say what gets you going.

I’ve sometimes made the analogy with eating. Why do you eat? You’re hungry. You are sort of in the mood to eat, and if you are in the mood to eat, the food tastes better; you’re more interested in what you’re eating. The whole experience is more “creative.” It’s the hunger that stimulates you to eat. It’s the same thing in art; except that, in art, the hunger is the need for self-expression.

How does it come about that you feel hungry? You don’t know, you just feel hungry. The juices are working, and suddenly you are aware of the fact that you want a piece of bread and butter. It’s about the same in art. If you pass your life in creating works of art in one field or another, you recognize the “hunger” signs and you are quick to take advantage of them, if they’re accompanied by ideas. Sometimes, you have the hunger and you don’t have any ideas; there’s no bread in the house. It’s as simple as that.

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

Copland’s concept of creativity is similar to the notion of chance-opportunism common to great scientific minds — the art of being prepared not only to capture great ideas when they occur but to also direct attention to them and shepherd them into a fruitful direction. Copland points to the importance of cultivating the right parameters for this process — something psychologists have since confirmed in examining the ideal environment for creativity — and outlines the conditions most conducive to productivity:

If you were to set up the ideal situation, I’d have to be in my studio, where conditions are conducive to work and where I don’t have any distractions. It’s difficult to write music on the subway train; it can be done, but it’s not usual. If I feel in the mood to write, something starts me off. I might feel sad. I might feel lonely. I might feel elated. I might have gotten a good letter from somebody. Something starts me off.

At first glance, Copland’s experience seems to contradict Tchaikovsky’s famous proclamation that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” But the notion of mood, as Copland uses it, seems to be less about awaiting some mythic stroke of inspiration as about being attentive to those essential triggers — the starter-offers — that catalyze the creative process. In fact, he echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is the root of creativity, but for him the key to catalyzing the creative process isn’t merely attunement to one’s emotional state — rather, it’s a delicate dialogue between the hotness of emotional excess and the coolness of the intellect:

Whenever you write, you see, nothing will happen unless the creative fantasy is alive. One the other hand, to be alive with creative fantasy suggests, to me, improvising at the piano. But, if you merely improvise, you might never find your improvisation again. And that’s where coolness comes in. You watch yourself being fiery, or sad, or lonely; otherwise you won’t be able to get it down on paper. Writers probably have this same problem of writing fast enough so that they can get it all down while they are under the spell. You can’t be sure how long it will go on. Outside interruption is definitely out. In music, you have to get it down on score paper. Otherwise, you might forget it… If you go on being fiery all the time, by the time you stop being fiery, you will have lost the whole thing.

Copland reflects on his daily routine:

I happen to be a night worker… I don’t know why. Once I read a statement made by Thomas Hardy, in which he said, “Seven-eighths of the intimate letters that are written are written after 10:00 in the evening.” I connected that statement with writing music and working at night, because composing is a kind of intimate letter writing. You are expressing your inward feelings in musical terms.

In a sentiment that legendary songwriter Carole King would come to echo two decades later in her insightful meditation on the interplay between inspiration and perspiration in creative work, Copland returns to this notion of mood:

Musical composition works best when you are in the mood. You can coldly sit down and write anything, but the results will often not be satisfactory either to yourself or to the people who hear it. Nevertheless, it can be induced to a certain extent.

Still, Copland considers emotion not only a far more powerful creative agent than thought but also the primary gateway to self-awareness — an idea quite radical in rationalism’s shadow, which has conditioned us to believe that we think our way into our experience rather than feeling our way into it. Copland writes:

In music, it’s more likely to be an emotion rather than a specific idea or thought that leads to a composition. It’s comparable to a person who starts to sing to himself, though he is not even aware he’s begun to sing. Then, if he suddenly begins to become aware that he’s been singing something with a sad sound to it, he wonders what he’s feeling so sad about.

[...]

Music is a language of the emotions. You can practice it either on a very plain and elementary basis, or you can practice it on a highly complex one. But, it generally gives off some sort of generalized emotional feeling…

Staying with the question of feelings, Copland makes a curious remark about the role of depression in creative work — one that resonates with what psychologists have since confirmed about the relationship between creativity and mental illness and one that counters the “tortured genius” myth:

Too much depression will not result in a work of art because a work of art is an affirmative gesture. To compose, you have to feel that you are accomplishing something. If you feel you are accomplishing something, you won’t feel so depressed. You may feel depressed, but it can’t be so depressing that you can’t move. No, I would say that people create in moments when they are elated about expressing their depression!

Creative work, Copland argues, is invariably a self-portrait of the creator’s unique inner life. His description almost exudes an element of fatedness in the relationship between an artist and his or her art:

The kind of emotion that some of my music expresses would be a reflection of the kind of person I am, because I couldn’t have written that kind of music unless I was that kind of person. The fact that I don’t write other kinds of music means that I am not that other kind of person.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

More than the mere exorcism of emotion, Copland argues that the magic of music lies in its ability to translate our concrete thoughts and feelings into an enchanting abstract experience, and the degree of fluency in such abstraction is what sets great musical talent apart:

Everyone is supposed to like music, but people who are really musically gifted don’t seem to have the need for having music’s significance made specific. They can think about music and enthuse about it, and that’s all that’s necessary.

[...]

One of the reasons why cultivated music is one of the glories of mankind, one of the real achievements of mankind, is that we are dealing in amorphous, highly abstract material without any specific thought content.

This, Copland argues, is largely a matter of education — an education the general public simply does not have, which renders many people incapable of appreciating truly great and visionary music. Perhaps his most poignant point, indeed, has to do with the problem of public opinion and the artist’s eternal struggle not to confuse external approval with self-esteem and not to succumb to the trap of people-pleasing. Copland writes:

Composers, unfortunately, have a serious problem with the present-day public. It’s as if you’re talking a language to them which they don’t fully understand… There is some discouragement in writing in a language that you know in advance can’t be fully understood except by people who have bothered with the language sufficiently to feel at home with it.

But the main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.

Even more than self-gratification, Copland argues, artists’ highest responsibility is to capture the cultural backdrop of their time:

[Today's artists] are the only ones who can express the spirit of what it means to be alive today.

That’s what makes the creation of art seem important. You’re not just expressing your own individuality. You, as a person, are an exemplar; you are one of the people living now who can put this thing down. In another twenty years … the world experience will be different, so the need becomes very pressing. You have a sense of urgency, of being occupied with something essential and unique. To leave our mark of the present on the future — what could be more natural?

He parlays this into a final meditation on the creative impulse as our most potent ally in our incurable longing for immortality, as well as a central component in art’s therapeutic potentiality:

The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant. i don’t think about this when I write my music, of course, but I think about it after the act, and believe it to be the moving force behind the need to be creative in the arts.

The Creative Experience is a wonderfully stimulating read in its entirety. Complement it with another seminal treatise on creativity from the same era, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler — who happens to be one of Abt and Rosner’s 23 subjects — and with one of the twentieth century’s first systematic explorations of the creative mind, the 1942 lost gem An Anatomy of Inspiration by Rosamund Harding.

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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’ 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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