Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

01 OCTOBER, 2012

How to Break Through Your Creative Block: Strategies from 90 of Today’s Most Exciting Creators

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Refining the machinery of creativity, or what heartbreak and hydraulics have to do with coaxing the muse.

What extraordinary energy we expend, as a culture and a civilization, on trying to understand where good ideas come from, how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, its mechanisms, and the five-step action plan for coaxing it into manifestation. And little compares to the anguish that comes with the blockage of creative flow.

In 2010, designer and musician Alex Cornell found himself stumped by a creative block while trying to write an article about creative block. Deterred neither by the block nor by the irony, he reached out to some of his favorite artists and asked them for their coping strategies in such an event. The response was overwhelming in both volume and depth, inspiring Cornell to put together a collection on the subject. The result is Breakthrough!: 90 Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination (public library) — a small but potent compendium of field-tested, life-approved insight on optimizing the creative process from some of today’s most exciting artists, designers, illustrators, writers, and thinkers. From the many specific strategies — walks in nature, porn, destruction of technology, weeping — a few powerful universals emerge, including the role of procrastination, the importance of a gestation period for ideas, and, above all, the reminder that the “creative block” befalls everyone indiscriminately.

Writer Michael Erard teases apart “creative block” and debunks its very premise with an emphasis on creativity as transformation:

First of all, being creative is not summoning stuff ex nihilo. It’s work, plain and simple — adding something to some other thing or transforming something. In the work that I do, as a writer and a metaphor designer, there’s always a way to get something to do something to do something else. No one talks about work block.

Also, block implies a hydraulic metaphor of thinking. Thoughts flow. Difficulty thinking represents impeded flow. This interoperation also suggests a single channel for that flow. A stopped pipe. A dammed river. If you only have one channel, one conduit, then you’re vulnerable to blockage. Trying to solve creative block, I imagine a kind of psyching Roto-Rootering.

My conceptual scheme is more about the temperature of things: I try to find out what’s hot and start there, even if it may be unrelated to what I need to be working on, and most of the time, that heats up other areas too. You can solve a lot with a new conceptual frame.

Designer Sam Potts suggests that heartbreak isn’t merely evolutionary adaptive strategy, it’s a creative one:

Have your heart broken. It worked for Rei Kawakubo. You’ll realize the work you’d been doing wasn’t anywhere near your potential.

From the inimitable Debbie Millman, who has kindly offered this hand-lettered version of the typeset list in the book:

  1. Get enough sleep! Sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.
  2. Read as much as you can, particularly classics. If a master of words can’t inspire you, see number 3.
  3. Color code your library. That is fun, and you will realize how many great books you have that you haven’t read yet.
  4. More sleep! You can never get enough.
  5. Force yourself to procrastinate. Works every time!
  6. Look at the work of Tibor Kalman, Marian Bantjes, Jessica Hische, Christoph Niemann, and Paul Sahre.
  7. Weep. And then weep some more.
  8. Surf the Web. Write inane tweets. Check out your high school friends on Facebook. Feel smug.
  9. Watch Law & Order: SVU marathons. Revel in the ferocious beauty of Olivia Benson.
  10. Remember how L-U-C-K-Y you are to be a creative person to begin with and quit your bellyaching. Get to work now!

Illustrator Marc Johns, whose art I have on my arm, offers:

Pretend. Stop thinking like a designer or writer or whatever you are for a minute. Pretend you’re a pastry chef. Pretend you’re an elevator repair contractor. A pilot. A hot dog vendor. How do these people look at the world?

One of my favorite musicians, Alexi Murdoch, extends an infinitely important, infinitely timely contrarian critique of creativity-culture:

Beethoven drank buckets of strong, black coffee. Beethoven was creatively prodigious. (He also went deaf and, perhaps, mad.) Sound syllogism here? I’d like to think so.

The idea that creativity is some abundantly available resource waiting simply for the right application of ingenuity to extract, refine, and pipe it into the grid seems so axiomatic at this cultural juncture that the very distinction between creativity and productivity has been effectively erased.

And so it is that, when faced with a decreased flow in productivity, we ask not what it might be that’s interfering with our creative process, but rather what device might be quickly employed to raise production levels. This is standard, myopic, symptomatology-over-pathology response, typical of a pressurized environment of dislocated self-entitlement.

At the risk of going off brief here, can I just ask: What’s wrong with creative block? Might it not just be that periods — even extended ones — of productive hiatus are essential mechanisms of gestation designed to help us attain higher standards in our pursuit of creative excellence?

Writer Douglas Rushkoff rebels:

I don’t believe in writer’s block.

Yes, there may have been days or even weeks at a time when I have not written — even when I may have wanted to — but that doesn’t mean I was blocked. It simply means I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as I’d like to argue, exactly the right place at the right time.

The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.

That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.

Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created. Don’t let some capitalist taskmaster tell you otherwise — even if he happens to be in your own head.

Musician Jamie Lidell echoes Tchaikovsky:

Cheers. Watcha gonna do with a blocked toilet? I mean, that’s all it is, right? A bung that needs pulling to let the clear waters of inspiration flow.

Maybe. Or maybe it just takes showing up. Going back again and again to write or paint or sing or cook.

Some days the genius will be in you, and you will sail. Other days the lead will line the slippers, and you’ll be staring into the void of your so-called creative mind, feeling like a fraud. It’s all part of the big ole cycle of creativity, and it’s a healthy cycle at that.

As a notorious marginalian, I wholeheartedly second this bit from digital-media artist and data viz wunderkind Aaron Koblin, head of the Data Arts Team in Google’s Creative Lab:

They say an elephant never forgets. Well, you are not an elephant. Take notes, constantly. Save interesting thoughts, quotations, films, technologies…the medium doesn’t matter, so long as it inspires you. When you’re stumped, go to your notes like a wizard to his spellbook. Mash those thoughts together. Extend them in every direction until they meet.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a special term for his method:

My strategy for getting myself out of a rut is to sit at my desk reminding myself of what the problem is, reviewing my notes, generally filling my head with the issues and terms, and then I just get up and go do something relatively mindless and repetitive. At our farm in the summer, I paint the barn or mow the hayfield or pick berries or cut fire wood to length…. I don’t even try to think about the problem, but more often than not, at some point in the middle of the not very challenging activity, I’ll find myself mulling it over and coming up with a new slant, a new way of tackling the issue, maybe just a new term to use. Engaging my brain with something else to control and think about helps melt down the blockades that have been preventing me from making progress, freeing up the circuits for some new paths. My strategy could hardly be cruder, but it works so well so often that I have come to rely on it.

One summer, many years ago, my friend Doug Hofstadter was visiting me at my farm, and somebody asked him where I was. He gestured out to the big hayfield behind the house, which I was harrowing for a reseeding. ‘He’s out there on his tractor, doing his tillosophy,’ Doug said. Ever since then, tillosophy has been my term for this process. Try it; if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll end up with a painted room, a mowed lawn, a clean basement.

But as a tireless proponent of combinatorial creativity, my favorite comes from the inimitable Jessica Hagy of indexed fame, who pretty much articulates the Brain Pickings founding philosophy:

How can you defeat the snarling goblins of creative block? With books, of course. Just grab one. It doesn’t matter what sort: science fiction, science fact, pornography (soft, hard, or merely squishy), comic books, textbooks, diaries (of people known or unknown), novels, telephone directories, religious texts — anything and everything will work.

Now, open it to a random page. Stare at a random sentence.

[…]

Every book holds the seed of a thousand stories. Every sentence can trigger an avalanche of ideas. Mix ideas across books: one thought from Aesop and one line from Chomsky, or a fragment from the IKEA catalog melded with a scrap of dialog from Kerouac.

By forcing your mind to connect disparate bits of information, you’ll jump-start your thinking, and you’ll fill in blank after blank with thought after thought. The goblins of creative block have stopped snarling and have been shooed away, you’re dashing down thoughts, and your synapses are clanging away in a symphonic burst of ideas. And if you’re not, whip open another book. Pluck out another sentence. And ponder mash-ups of out-of-context ideas until your mind wanders and you end up in a new place, a place that no one else ever visited.

Marvelous.

At once practical and philosophical, Breakthrough! promises to help you burst through your own creative plateaus. Whether or not it succeeds, one thing it’s guaranteed to do is make you feel less alone in your mental struggles — and what greater reassurance than that could there be?

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2012

T. S. Eliot on Idea Incubation, Inhibition, and the Mystical Quality of Creativity, Plus a Rare Reading

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“We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.”

In this passage from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (public library), cited in the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, celebrated poet, playwright, and cultural critic T. S. Eliot adds to previously explored theories of how creativity works by taking a curious look at how physical illness brings a near-mystical quality of poetry, driven by two key elements of creativity: the presence of an incubation period when unconscious processing of existing ideas takes place, and the removal of habitual inhibitions, or something John Keats has termed “negative capability”.

That there is an analogy between mystical experience and some of the ways in which poetry is written I do not deny … though, as I have said, whether the analogy is of significance for the student of religion or only to the psychologist, I do not know. I know, for instance, that some forms of ill-health, debility or anaemia, may (if other circumstances are favourable) produce an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing — though, in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating within the poet, and cannot be suspected of being a present form a friendly or impertinent demon. What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind; it gives me the impression, as I have said, of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden. … This disturbance of our quotidian character which results in an incantation, an outburst of words which we hardly recognise as our own (because of the effortlessness), is a very different thing from mystical illumination. The latter is a vision which may be accompanied by the realisation that you will never be able to communicate it to anyone else, or even by the realisation that when it is past you will not be able to recall it to yourself; the former is not a vision but a motion terminating in an arrangement of words on paper.

Complement this with a rare recording of Eliot reading his celebrated 1915 stream-of-consciousness poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” found in his Selected Poems:

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13 SEPTEMBER, 2012

David Byrne on How Music and Creativity Work

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“Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.'”

Great times and tall deeds for David Byrne this week: First his fantastic collaborative album with St. Vincent (which made a cameo on Literary Jukebox), and now the release of How Music Works (public library) — a fascinating record of his lifetime of curiosity about and active immersion in music. But rather than an autobiographical work, a prescriptive guide to how to listen, or another neuropsychological account of music, what unfolds is a blend of social science, history, anthropology, and media theory, exploring how context shapes the experience and even the nature of music. Or, as Byrne puts it, “how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us. Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?”

Among the book’s most fascinating insights is a counterintuitive model for how creativity works, from a chapter titled “Creation in Reverse” — a kind of reformulation of McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” into a somewhat less pedantic but no less purposeful “the medium shapes the message”:

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desires and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional story — ‘something to get off my chest’ — still gets told, but its form is guided by prior contextual restrictions. I’m proposing that this is not entirely the bad thing one might expect it to be. Thank goodness, for example, that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.

Byrne gives a number of examples from the history of music that illustrate this contextually-driven creation and what it reveals about the nature of creativity:

It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically ‘simple’ (having few kew changes) because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music, and that music is ‘better’ now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.’

He turns to nature for confirmation of this model:

The adaptive aspect of creativity isn’t limited to musicians and composers (or artists in any other media). It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal with a narrow frequency works best — the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn’t get the first transmission, an identical one will follow.

Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.

[…]

So musical evolution and adaptation is an interspecies phenomenon. And presumably, as some claim, birds enjoy singing, even though they, like us, change their tunes over time. The joy of making music will find a way, regardless of the context and the form that emerges to best fit it.

Byrne brings this evolutionary lens back full circle to the emotional content of creation:

Finding examples to prove that music composition depends on its context comes naturally to me. But I have a feeling that this somewhat reversed view of creation — that it is more pragmatic and adaptive than some might think — happens a lot, and in very different areas. It’s ‘reversed’ because the venues — or the fields and woodlands, in the case of the birds — were not built to accommodate whatever egotistical or artistic urge the composers have. We and the birds adapt, and it’s fine.

What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen (in retrospect that seems predictable and obvious), but what it means for our perception of creativity.

It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.

[…]

We do express our emotions, our reactions to events, breakups and infatuations, but the way we do that — the art of it — is in putting them into prescribed forms or squeezing them into new forms that perfectly fit some emerging context. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively; we internalize it, like birds do. And it’s a joy to sing, like the birds do.

The rest of How Music Works goes on to explore such absorbing facets of music as the intricate inner workings of the music business, the secret of successful collaborations, Byrne’s own life in performance, and how the history of recording technology shaped music.

And what makes for a particularly enjoyable read is Byrne’s decidedly non-dogmatic, non-didactic tone — instead, he wraps his keen cultural insights in a sheath of self-aware subjectivity and unapologetic personal conviction, with just the right amount of conversational candor. (In a section discussing the social shifts in the early 1900s when classical audiences were suddenly forbidden from shouting, eating, and chatting during a performance, he opines with equal parts snark and cultural sensitivity: “I do wonder how much of the audience’s fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert hall — it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.”)

David Byrne photograph via Wikimedia Commons

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