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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

13 MAY, 2014

Pete Seeger on Combinatorial Creativity, Originality, Equality, and the Art of Dot-Connecting

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“All of us, we’re links in a chain.”

In 1987, shortly after being appointed editor of SongTalk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters, Paul Zollo began interviewing some of the greatest songwriters alive — Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Madonna, Frank Zappa, David Byrne, and dozens more — “always with the assurance that my focus is strictly on songwriting and the creative process, as opposed to the celebrity-oriented queries often directed to them by the press.” These remarkably candid and wide-ranging conversations, collected in the impressive tome Songwriters On Songwriting (public library), transcend the realm of songwriting to unmask the essential elements of ideation in just about every creative discipline, from writing to illustration to design. Indeed, Zollo’s most striking realization from the series was that despite writing songs that are “infinite and eternal — everywhere at once, untouched by time,” these songwriters themselves are deeply human, “as finite and earthbound as the rest of us.” Zollo, a songwriter himself, reflects:

[This] underscores the knowledge that all songwriters are in the same boat, and that even the most enduring and magical of their songs began where all songs begin — with a single spark of inspiration that is balanced with the mastery of craft that comes from years of work.

Pete Seeger (photograph by Annie Leibovitz)

Among the most spectacular conversations in the volume, conducted in 1988, is that with beloved folk musician and activist Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014), one of the most prolific songwriters of the past century. In reflecting on his ample creative output, Seeger echoes Henry Miller on originality and speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that everything is a remix:

Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little.

[…]

It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.

He later adds a remark that applies just as much to creators of all stripes — artists, writers, inventors — as it does to songwriters:

I look upon myself and other songwriters as links in a long chain. All of us, we’re links in a chain. And if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.

Pointing to the legacy and spirit of jazz as a perfectly illustrative example, where “the melody which you sing the first time is just considered as the bare bones” and improvisation builds upon it, Seeger echoes Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that “words belong to each other” and adds:

Even the most original song you can think of is liable to have a good deal of tradition in it. After all, the major scale and the minor scale were invented thousands of years ago… And the English language was invented a long time ago, and the phrases that we use. And we’re just rearranging these ancient elements.

Seeger later revisits how this layering of ideas and language fuels the creative process and the circumventive quest for Truth:

The nice thing about poetry is that you’re always stretching the definitions of words. Lawyers and scientists and scholars of one sort or another try to restrict the definitions, hoping that they can prevent people from fooling each other. But that doesn’t stop people from lying.

Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.

My father also had a nice little simile. He said, “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. And you can’t lay your hand on it. All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.'”

In discussing how his Vietnam War song “Our Generation” was born, Seeger once again acknowledges the combinatorial nature of creativity — that slot-machine quality of ideation that Paula Scher so memorably described, which David Lynch has also echoed. Seeger tells Zollo:

I [came] across the phrase in some little radical magazine: “Our generation wears sandals like the Vietnamese.” And I took that line and built a song out of it.

That quite often happens to me. I’ll read one phrase somewhere. A middle-aged woman in Ohio wrote a poem that said, “The month of April, when we pay for the burning of the children.” Talking about the income tax, of course. That’s where we pay for the burning of the children. So I built a whole song around that, called “The Calendar.”

To further illustrate this unconscious connection-making, Seeger recounts reading a short passage in a chapter of a famous novel about Czarist Russia, which gave him the basic idea for a song. He diligently copied the passage in his pocket notebook but, true to the pivotal role of unconscious idea-incubation in the creative process, it was another two or three years until he revisited it — unconsciously:

I’m sitting in a plane, kind of dozing. And you know, when you’re dozing, that’s when the creative ideas come.

Suddenly, the passage from the novel came to mind, as did a line he had written five years earlier but never used in a song. His unconscious mind brought the two together — for isn’t that capacity the definition of the creative mind? — and his beloved song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was born.

Later, in discussing his famous anthem “Rainbow Race,” a song that had come to him at six in the morning, Seeger echoes Stephen King’s belief in wakeful dreaming and the power of “creative sleep,” considering the conditions most conducive to such unconscious dot-connecting:

I don’t know how other people are, but a number of my ideas come early in the morning or late at night. When the brain is somehow released from the pressures of the day.

He goes on to elaborate:

In solving a problem, you often have to make connections between two things that aren’t usually connected. You know, E.M. Forster, the novelist, was asked, “What are your words of wisdom for future generations?” He said, “Only connect.”

[…]

Your brain often suppresses such idle connections because you’re busy with the business of the day. You’re doing whatever you’re supposed to do. But there come times when you’re no longer doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re just kind of rambling, making strange connections.

(A photographer whose work I admire tremendously, for its ability to connect place and presence with unparalleled emotional resonance, recently used the phrase “mumble with my eyes” to describe her work — a phrase that inadvertently captures what Seeger is describing with wonderfully poetic elegance.)

In considering the relationship between creative integrity and commercial success — a question increasingly timely in our age of vacant made-to-sell pop hits — Seeger contradicts Picasso and speaks unambiguously of commercial culture:

Bless my stars that I met people who had nothing but contempt for the commercial world… I write a song because I want to. I think the moment you start writing it to make money, you’re starting to kill yourself artistically.

When asked about his relationship with the Bible, Seeger — a longtime proponent of gender equality — offers a wonderfully wise lament on the role of organized religion in the history of gender relations:

I don’t read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I’m amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn’t a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically.

It’s quite obvious that once upon a time the human race shared everything equally; it was like living in a garden. And then we got smart and invented farming. And all of a sudden we had class society and injustice and male supremacy and a whole lot of other cruddy things.

But the priests wanted to keep women in their place. So they invented the story about Eve and the apple. You can see that was invented by a bunch of male supremacists: “These women are misleading you. They are evil. They misled you before; don’t let them do it again.” Women threatened the power of the priest. They undermined the priests’ power with their husbands: “Oh, don’t listen to that priest. Listen to me, honey.”

But cultural conflict, for Seeger, has its silver lining. In talking about his song “Last Train to Nuremberg,” he echoes Anaïs Nin on the role of emotional turbulence and tells Zollo:

Crisis brings out some of the best art the world has ever known. Whether it’s somebody being in love or a country at war or revolution.

Songwriters On Songwriting is absolutely fantastic in its hefty 750-page entirety, featuring fifty-one more equally dimensional and insightful conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young. Complement it with writers on writing.

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09 MAY, 2014

David Lynch on Where Ideas Come From and the Fragmentary Nature of Creativity

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How to throw bait in the river of ideation.

As soon as we ask what creativity is, we invariably ponder the essential question of where good ideas come from and how we can coax them into manifesting. In 1926, Graham Wallace proposed a pioneering model for the four stages of the creative process, which was adapted into a five-step “technique for producing ideas” in 1939, and went on to influence present theories about the creative process. But despite what psychologists may delineate, the best answers come from the trenches and the front lines — from the artists, writers, inventors, and other creative troopers who summon and wrangle ideas for a living.

In this fantastic conversation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, LIVE from the NYPL host and interviewer extraordinaire Paul Holdengräber poses this very question — where do ideas come from? — to legendary director David Lynch.

Lynch, who answers with equal parts irreverence and insight, speaks to the fragmentary nature of creativity and its combinatorial quality, echoing Arthur Koetsler’s seminal 1964 “bisociation theory” of how creativity works.

An idea comes — and you see it, and you hear it, and you know it…

We don’t do anything without an idea. So they’re beautiful gifts. And I always say, you desiring an idea is like a bait on a hook — you can pull them in. And if you catch an idea that you love, that’s a beautiful, beautiful day. And you write that idea down so you won’t forget it. And that idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole — whatever it is you’re working on — but now you have even more bait. Thinking about that small fragment — that little fish — will bring in more, and they’ll come in and they’ll hook on. And more and more come in, and pretty soon you might have a script — or a chair, or a painting, or an idea for a painting.

[They come], more often than not, in small fragments.

Pair with Lynch on the role of meditation in creative work, then revisit more explorations of how ideas are born from Neil Gaiman, Rod Serling, and Alice Walker.

Photograph courtesy of BAM

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02 MAY, 2014

Pixar Cofounder Ed Catmull on Failure and Why Fostering a Fearless Culture Is the Key to Groundbreaking Creative Work

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Why the greatest enemy of creative success is the attempt to fortify against failure.

“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before,” Neil Gaiman urged in his commencement-address-turned-manifesto-for-the-creative life. “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself,” philosopher Daniel Dennett asserted in his magnificent meditation on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes. And yet most of us, being human and thus fallible yet proud, go to excruciating lengths to avoid making mistakes, then once we inevitably do, we take great pains to hide them from ourselves and the world. But this, argues Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull with the help of journalist Amy Wallace in an especially enthralling chapter of the altogether excellent Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (public library), is a grave mistake itself — not only from an abstract moral standpoint, but also as a practical strategy for cultivating a strong creative culture in a company and an entrepreneurial spirit within ourselves as individuals.

What makes Catmull, who created Pixar along with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter and is now president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, particularly compelling is his yin-yang balance of seeming opposites — he is incredibly intelligent in a rationally-driven way yet sensitive to the poetic, introspective yet articulate, has a Ph.D. in computer science but is also the recipient of five Academy Awards for his animation work. This crusade to uncouple fear and failure is thus delivered not with the detached and vacant preachiness of self-help books and lifestyle manuals but with the sensitive sagacity of someone who has been, and continues to be, on the front lines of truly pioneering creative work.

Ed Catmull (Photograph by Deborah Coleman, Pixar)

Catmull begins by pointing out that failure, for most of us, is loaded with heavy baggage — a stigma that failure is bad and a sign of weakness, engrained in us early and hard. For all of our aphorisms about the upside of failure and even our most elegant contemplations of failure’s gift, we still carry deep-seated fear and paralyzing aversion to it, to our own detriment. We are so terrified to be wrong and so uncomfortable with the unknown that we often opt for safety and security over breaking new ground. Catmull writes:

We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.

Artwork from 'The Ancient Book of Myth and War,' a side project by four Pixar animators. Click image for details.

Most people, Catmull argues, would go to any length to avoid failure — but not Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, known around the studio for his frequent counsel to “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” Catmull quotes Stanton, who sees failure the way one ought to see learning to ride a bike — an endeavor practically impossible to master without falling and stumbling first:

“Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Says Andrew: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”

And yet many people, including within Pixar, often misinterpret the point. Echoing Debbie Millman’s assertion that “if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough risks,” Catmull writes:

[Many people] think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy — trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it — dooms you to fail.

Color script for 'The Incredibles' from 'The Art of Pixar.' Click image for details.

While fortifying against failure and avoiding mistakes may seem like admirable goals, Catmull argues that they are ultimately misguided. He cites the example of the Golden Fleece Awards, which in 1975 began spotlighting government-funded projects that were epic wastes of money. While such scrutiny might have its place and no doubt comes from a place of seeking betterment, Catmull argues that “failure was being used as a weapon, rather than as an agent of learning” — the awards had a chilling effect, rendering researchers and government agencies so terrified of being “awarded” that they began taking fewer risks and innovating less. (If you’ve read Stuart Firestein’s excellent book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, you’d nod wistfully upon recognizing that this flawed ethos is the fundamental premise of science funding today, where researchers are routinely being discouraged from pursuing “curiosity-driven” experimentation and are being awarded grants for safe, “hypothesis-driven” research.)

Catmull elegantly distills the result:

In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.

For people and companies seeking to do original, innovative work, this is clearly a losing proposition. Catmull offers an antidote:

If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. That is why I make a point of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar, because I believe they teach us something important: Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them… We must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.

Creating a fearless culture enables people to explore new areas and pursue ideas with much less hesitation and trepidation, “identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them.” It also fosters a greater appreciation of decisiveness, liberating us from the constant preemptive questioning of whether the path we’re about to head down is the right one. That way, Catmull argues with an inadvertent wink to Steve Jobs’s famous assertion that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” also allows people to see what they couldn’t possibly see when starting out. Catmull captures the creativity-stifling effect of overplanning:

If you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them — if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line — well, you’re deluding yourself. For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work — things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems. While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment. In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed). There’s a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.

Color script for 'Up' from 'The Art of Pixar.' Click image for details.

With a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s exquisite definition of leadership, Catmull concludes:

The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions — and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.

[…]

Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason — our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.

In the remainder of Creativity, Inc., Catmull goes on to explore the art of grappling with change and randomness, the role of honesty in innovation, and more, using Pixar’s own becoming as a springboard for broader insights on the nature and secrets of creative success. Pair it with Sarah Lewis’s indispensable exploration of creativity and the gift of failure.

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