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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

15 FEBRUARY, 2013

Alexander Graham Bell on Originality, Plagiarism, Language, and Education

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“Our most original compositions are composed exclusively of expressions derived from others.”

When Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism after the publication of her autobiography, The Story of My Life (public library), Mark Twain sent her a note of solidarity and support, assuring her that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Shortly thereafter, Alexander Graham Bell — father of the telephone — wrote Annie Sullivan, Keller’s teacher, a letter with a similar sentiment. Bell argued that it is “difficult for us to trace the origin of our expressions” and “we are all of us … unconscious plagiarists, especially in childhood” — a notion neurologist Oliver Sacks has affirmed more than a century later with his recent insights on memory and plagiarism, and one the poet Kenneth Goldsmith has institutionalized with his class on “uncreative writing.”

April 2nd, 1903.

Miss Annie Sullivan

73 Dana Street,
Cambridge, Mass.

Dear Miss Sullivan:

I have read Helen’s book with interest and delight. . . .

Why in all the world did you not tell us about those letters to Mrs. Hopkins, when we were preparing the Volta Bureau souvenirs; they are of the greatest value and importance, and contain internal evidence of the fact that you were entirely wrong when you gave us the idea that you proceeded without method in the education of Helen, and only acted on the spur of the moment, in everything you did. These letters to Mrs. Hopkins will become a standard, the principles that guided you in the early education of Helen are of the greatest importance to all teachers. They are TRUE and the way in which you carried them out shows — what I have all along recognized that Helen’s progress was as much due to her teacher as to herself, and that your personality and the admirable methods you pursued were integral ingredients of Helen’s progress.

Now what I want to impress upon you is this: – That it is your duty to use your brilliant abilities as a teacher FOR THE BENEFIT OF OTHER TEACHERS.

I don’t want to bother you with this thought too much at the present time; but, as soon as Helen has finished with Radcliffe College, I AM GOING FOR YOU.

You must be placed in a position to impress your ideas upon other teachers. YOU MUST TRAIN TEACHERS. . . . It is a fallacy to suppose that blindness is an ADVANTAGE to a deaf child — it is a fallacy to suppose that language can be intuitively acquired. Once we realize that language is acquired by imitation — it becomes obvious that language comes from without, not from within. The most startling demonstration of this fact was contained in the Frost King incident. We all do what Helen did. Our most original compositions are composed exclusively of expressions derived from others. The fact that the language presented to Helen was in the early days, so largely taken from books, has enabled us in many cases to trace the origin of her expressions but they are none the less original with Helen for all that. We do the very same thing. Our forms of expression are copied — verbatim et literatim — in our earlier years from the expressions of others which we have heard in childhood. It is difficult for us to trace the origin of our expressions because the language addressed to us in infancy has been given by word of mouth, and not permanently recorded in books so that investigators — being unable to examine printed records of the language addressed to us in childhood — are unable to charge us with plagiarism. We are all of us however, nevertheless unconscious plagiarists, especially in childhood. As we grow older and read books the language we absorb through the eye, unconsciously affects our style. Books however do not affect our language to the same extent that they affected Helen because our habits of language, have already been formed before we come to read books. Nevertheless our style IS affected, hence the very great importance of selecting with care, the kinds of books to be read by children.

It is ridiculous to expect that a deaf child – or a hearing child for that matter — shall talk or write good English, unless good English has been PREVIOUSLY presented to the child in spoken or written form — and in sufficient quantity to impress Good English expressions upon his mind. Then — and then only — will he spontaneously use good English in expressing his own thoughts. This thought lies at the ROOT of the instruction of the deaf. Once we clearly grasp this conception we can see the cause of the poor English used by the deaf. It makes one sad to see how this principle is persistently violated in all of our schools for the deaf — but you have pointed out the remedy and have clearly demonstrated the truth of your position by an illustrious example.

My best wishes go with you and Helen, and in conclusion allow me to repeat — what I began with — YOU MUST TRAIN TEACHERS.

Yours sincerely,

Alexander Graham Bell

Keller’s autobiography is now in the public domain and available as a free download in multiple formats.

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13 FEBRUARY, 2013

Uncreative Writing: Redefining Language and Authorship in the Digital Age

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“An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.”

“And your way, is it really YOUR way?,” Henry Miller famously asked. “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Mark Twain consoled Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism. Even our brains might be wired for the necessary forgettings of creativity. What, then, is the value of “originality” — or even its definition?

A recent interview on The Awl reminded me of a wonderful book by Kenneth Goldsmith — MoMA’s first poetry laureate, founder of the massive grassroots audio archive Ubu Web, and professor at my alma mater, UPenn’s Kelly Writers House — titled Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (public library; UK). Much like Vannevar Bush did in 1945 when he envisioned the future of knowledge and presaged the value of what he poetically termed “trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” Goldsmith examines the importance of sorting existing ideas and makes a case for the cultural value of stealing like an artist, particularly as we’re building our new literary canon.

Goldsmith writes in the introduction:

In 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, ‘The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as ‘The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through the thicket of information — how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize and distribute it — is what distinguishes my writing from yours.

He samples a beautiful concept that broadens our definition of genius:

Literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term unoriginal genius to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius — a romantic isolated figure — is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined a term, moving information, to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

(Though, one might argue, information is only valuable when it’s synthesized into knowledge, which is then in turn transmuted into wisdom — so, perhaps, an even better concept would be moving wisdom.)

Goldsmith goes on to examine how technology has sparked a new culture of transformation as authorship:

Today, technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing … inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name but a few.

[…]

There’s been an explosion of writers employing strategies of copying and appropriation over the past few years, with the computer encouraging writers to mimic its workings. When cutting and pasting are integral to the writing process, i would be mad to imagine that writers wouldn’t exploit these functions in extreme ways that weren’t intended by their creators.

Except, of course, none of this is new. We already know that as far back as the Middle Ages, authors were making remarkable florilegia, the Tumblrs of their day, by literally cutting and pasting text from existing manuscripts to create entirely new contexts.

Still, Goldsmith is careful not to disparage traditional literature but laments the stale values it has instilled in us:

I’m not saying that such writing should be discarded. . . . But I’m sensing that literature — infinite in its potential of ranges and expression — is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time. I find this to be a profoundly sad moment — and a great lost opportunity for literary creativity to revitalize itself in ways it hasn’t imagined.

Perhaps one reason writing is stuck might be the way creative writing is taught. In regard to the many sophisticated ideas concerning media, identity, and sampling developed over the past century, books about how to be a creative writer have completely missed the boat, relying on clichéd notions of what it means to be ‘creative.’

For the past several years, Goldsmith has been teaching a Penn class after which the book is titled, inverting the paradigm of traditional “creative writing” courses. His students are penalized for any semblance of originality and “creativity,” and rewarded for plagiarism, repurposing, sampling, and outright stealing. But as counterproductive and blasphemous as this may sound, it turns out to be a gateway to something unusual yet inevitable, that certain slot machine quality of creativity:

The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly ‘uncreative’ as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices. After a semester of forcibly suppressing a student’s ‘creativity’ by making them plagiarize and transcribe, she will approach me with a sad face at the end of the semester, telling me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being ‘creative,’ she produced the most creative body of work writing in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity — the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training — she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.

Goldsmith echoes legendary designer Charles Eames, who famously advised to “innovate only as a last resort,” and writes:

Having worked in advertising for many years as a ‘creative director,’ I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity — as [it has] been defined by our culture with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films — is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the ‘creative class’ but also as a member of the ‘artistic class.’ Living when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time to question and tear down such clichés and lay them on the floor in front of us, then reconstruct these smoldering embers into something new, something contemporary, something — finally — relevant.

In addressing the most common contestations to his ideas about accepting all language as poetry by mere reframing — about what happens to the notion of authorship, about how careers and canons are to be established, about whether the heart of literature is reducible to mere algorithms — Goldsmith seconds a sentiment French polymath Henri Poincaré shared more then a century ago when he noted that to create is merely to choose wisely from the existing pool of ideas:

What becomes important is what you — the author — [decide] to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and — more important — what to leave out. If all language can be transformed into poetry by mere reframing — an exciting possibility — then she who reframes words in the most charged and convincing way will be judged the best. I agree that the moment we throw judgment and quality out the window we’re in trouble. Democracy is fine for YouTube, but it’s generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art. While all the words may be created equal — and thus treated — the way in which they’re assembled isn’t; it’s impossible to suspend judgment and folly to dismiss quality. Mimesis and replication [don’t] eradicate authorship, rather they simply place new demands on authors who must take these new conditions into account as part and parcel of the landscape when conceiving of a work of art: if you don’t want it copied, don’t put it online.

Ultimately, he argues that all of this is about the evolution — rather than the destruction — of authorship:

In 1959 the poet and artist Brion Gysin claimed that writing was fifty years behind painting. And he might still be right: in the art world, since impressionism, the avant-garde has been the mainstream. Innovation and risk taking have been consistently rewarded. But, in spite of the successes of modernism, literature has remained on two parallel tracks, the mainstream and the avant-garde, with the two rarely intersecting. Yet the conditions of digital culture have unexpectedly forced a collision, scrambling the once-sure footing of both camps. Suddenly, we all find ourselves in the same boat grappling with new questions concerning authorship, originality, and the way meaning is forged.

The rest of Uncreative Writing goes on to explore the history of appropriation in art, the emerging interchangeability between words and images in digital culture, the challenges of defining one’s identity in the vastness of the online environment, and many other pressing facets of what it means to be a writer — or, even more broadly, a creator — in the age of the internet. Complement it with the equally subversive How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

Photographs: Cameron Wittig (top); Grand Life Hotels (bottom)

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11 FEBRUARY, 2013

Thomas Edison, Power-Napper: The Great Inventor on Sleep & Success

By:

“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”

It took Thomas Edison superhuman feats of biology to fuel his astoundingly ambitious to-do list. He reportedly slept a mere three to four hours at night, “regarding sleep as a waste of time, ‘a heritage from our cave days,'” as James Maas tells us in his 1997 productivity bestseller Power Sleep (public library). In fact, Edison is often accused of having forever disrupted our internal clocks with his invention of the lightbulb — some researchers go as far as estimating that artificial light has stripped modern life of 1-2 hours of sleep per night. David K. Randall writes in Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, one of the best science books of 2012:

Thanks to Edison, sunset no longer meant the end of your social life; instead, it marked the beginning of it.

[…]

Yet all of the artificial light in use around the world before Edison developed his lightbulb amounted to the brightness of a match compared to the lights of Times Square.

The Incandescing Electric Lamp, one of Edison's 1,093 inventions, was patented on October 30, 1883. His first functional incandescent electric lamp was successfully tested at his Menlo Park Lab on October 21, 1879, which marked the beginning of the electrical age.

Image: Henry Ford Foundation

Indeed, Edison had so much faith in the power of his invention to liberate people from the burden of sleep that he made some boldly outlandish causal inferences. In Sleep Thieves (public library), Stanley Coren quotes the inventor:

When I went through Switzerland in a motor-car, so that I could visit little towns and villages, I noted the effect of artificial light on the inhabitants. Where water power and electric light had been developed, everyone seemed normally intelligent. Where these appliances did not exist, and the natives went to bed with the chickens, staying there until daylight, they were far less intelligent.

So contemptuous was Edison’s attitude towards sleep that he wrote in 1921:

People will not only do what they like to do — they overdo it 100 per cent. Most people overeat 100 per cent, and oversleep 100 per cent, because they like it. That extra 100 per cent makes them unhealthy and inefficient. The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake — they have only different degrees of doze through the twenty-four hours. … For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream. It’s real sleep. When by chance I have taken more I wake dull and indolent. We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunities. Just to satisfy my curiosity I have gone through files of the British Medical Journal and could not find a single case reported of anybody being hurt by loss of sleep. Insomnia is different entirely — but some people think they have insomnia if they can sleep only ten hours every night.

In hindsight, of course, his assertions were not only scientifically misguided but also rather hypocritical. We now know that sleep is essential to overcoming creative blocks, and it turns out, so did Edison. While he carried his lack of sleep as a kind of badge of honor, he had a duplicitous little secret: Power-napping. Not only were napping cots scattered throughout his property, from labs to libraries, but he was also frequently photographed sneaking his stealthy shut-eye in unusual locations.

Edison's office, with napping cot

Image: Mike Roush

The cot in Edison’s library

Image: Holly Korus

Thomas Edison taking a midday nap under a tree in the Blue Ridge Mountains (1921)

Image: Bettman/Corbis via TIME

Thomas Edison sleeping at his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory (1924)

Image: Henry Ford Foundation

Thomas Edison napping at the Ford Edison Camp in Hagerstown, Maryland, with President Warren Harding (right) and automobile tire magnate Harvey Firestone reading the newspapers in the background (1921)

Image: Edison-Ford Winter Estates Museum / Brian Bennett

'Tearing off a nap after 72 hours of continuous work' (1912)

Image: National Museum of Education

Edison used napping to counterbalance the intensity of his work. Most days, he took one or two brief naps — on his famous cots, outdoors in the grass, and even on a chair or stool if no better option was available. Per multiple first-hand accounts, he always awoke from his naps reinvigorated rather than groggy, ready to devour the rest of the day with full alertness and zest. Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Martin write of the West Orange laboratory in Edison: His Life And Inventions (public library):

As one is about to pass out of the library attention is arrested by an incongruity in the form of a cot, which stands in an alcove near the door. Here Edison, throwing himself down, sometimes seeks a short rest during specially long working hours. Sleep is practically instantaneous and profound, and he awakes in immediate and full possession of his faculties, arising from the cot and going directly “back to the job” without a moment’s hesitation…

Edison’s diary, which he kept only briefly while on vacation in the summer of 1885 and which was eventually published in 1971, reveals an even more conflicted and ambivalent relationship with sleep. On Sunday, July 12, he writes playfully, but in evident circadian distress:

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

Awakened at 5:15 a.m. My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams. Turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion. Succeeded. Awakened at 7 a.m. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G. Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination a la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.

Awakened at 8:15 a.m. … Arose at 9 o’clock, came down stairs expecting twas too late for breakfast. Twasn’t.

[…]

Had dinner at 3 p.m. Ruins of a chicken, rice pudding.

[…]

The sun has left us on time, am going to read from the Encyclopedia Britannica to steady my nerves and go to bed early. I will shut my eyes and imagine a terraced abyss, each terrace occupied by a beautiful maiden. To the first I will deliver my mind and they will pass it down down to the uttermost depths of silence and oblivion. Went to bed worked my imagination for a supply of maidens, only saw Mina, Daisy and Mamma [G]. Scheme busted. Sleep.

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

On July 14, contradicting his contention that he never dreams, Edison notes:

In evening went out on sea wall. Noticed a strange phosphorescent light in the west, probably caused by a baby moon just going down Chinaward, thought at first the Aurora Borealis had moved out west. Went to bed early dreamed of a demon with eyes four hundred feet apart.

Then, on July 19:

Slept as sound as a bug in a barrel of morphine.

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

Only July 21, another poetic vignette:

Slept splendidly — evidently I was inoculated with insomnic bactilli when a baby. Arose early, went out to flirt with the flowers.

One thing that becomes apparent from Edison’s habits and cognitive dissonance about sleep is his extreme compulsion for productivity. In fact, Dyer and Martin cite an anecdote in which Edison tells his friend Milton Adams:

I have got so much to do and life is so short, I am going to hustle.

And hustle he did. Writing in 1885, Sarah Knowles Bolton marvels at Edison’s remarkable work ethic:

Five feet ten inches high, with boyish but earnest face, light gray eyes, his dark hair slightly gray falling over his forehead, his hat tipped to the back of his head, as he goes ardently to his work, which has averaged eighteen hours a day for ten years, he is indeed a pleasant man to see.

You perceive he is not the man to be daunted by obstacles. When one of his inventions failed — a printing machine — he took five men into the loft of his factory, declaring he would never come down till it worked satisfactorily. For two days, and nights and twelve hours — sixty hours in all — he worked continuously without sleep, until he had conquered the difficulty; and then he slept for thirty hours.

He often works all night, thinking best, he says, when the rest of the world sleeps.

In the same fantastic 1901 tome that gave us Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success, Orison Swett Marden sets out to discover the secret to Edison’s success, camping out in the vicinity of the inventor’s New Jersey laboratory for three weeks awaiting a chance to interview him. When he finally does, he is particularly interested in the inventor’s “untiring energy and phenomenal endurance” and asks 53-year-old Edison a number of questions about his daily routine, including his relationship with sleep:

‘Do you have regular hours, Mr. Edison?’ I asked.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I do not work hard now. I come to the laboratory about eight o’clock every day and go home to tea at six, and then I study or work on some problem until eleven, which is my hour for bed.’

‘Fourteen or fifteen hours a day can scarcely be called loafing,’ I suggested.

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘for fifteen years I have worked on an average of twenty hours a day.’

When he was forty-seven years old, he estimated his true age at eighty-two, since working only eight hours a day would have taken till that time.

Mr. Edison has sometimes worked sixty consecutive hours upon one problem. Then after a long sleep, he was perfectly refreshed and ready for another.

Still, Edison used much of the time others invested in sleep not merely for mindless sleeplessness but for building his networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity:

‘I’ve known Edison since he was a boy of fourteen,’ said another friend; ‘and of my own knowledge I can say he never spent an idle day in his life. Often, when he should have been asleep, I have known him to sit up half the night reading. He did not take to novels or wild Western adventures, but read works on mechanics, chemistry, and electricity; and he mastered them too. But in addition to his reading, which he could only indulge in at odd hours, he carefully cultivated his wonderful powers of observation, till at length, when he was not actually asleep, it may be said he was learning all the time.’

Marden proceeds to inquire about Edison’s legendary work ethic, producing an anecdote you might recall from the timelessly fantastic How To Avoid Work and affirming the recurring theme of focused persistence as the key to success:

‘You lay down rather severe rules for one who wishes to succeed in life,’ I ventured, ‘working eighteen hours a day.’

‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘You do something all day long, don’t you? Every one does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain with most men, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing, or thinking. The only trouble is that they do it about a great many things and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed. Success is sure to follow such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have an object, one thing, to which they stick, letting all else go. Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.’

Complement with the science of internal time and how dreaming regulates depression.

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