Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

15 OCTOBER, 2012

Freud on Creative Writing and Daydreaming

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“The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.”

“Writing is a little door,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.”

Sigmund Freud — key figure in the making of consumer culture, deft architect of his own myth, modern plaything — spent a fair amount of his career exploring the psychology of dreams. In 1908, he turned to the intersection of fantasies and creativity, and penned a short essay titled “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” eventually republished in the anthology The Freud Reader (public library). Though his theories have been the subject of much controversy and subsequent revision, they remain a fascinating formative framework for much of the modern understanding of the psyche.

Predictably, Freud begins by tracing the subject matter to its roots in childhood, stressing, as Anaïs Nin eloquently did — herself trained in psychoanalysis — the importance of emotional investment in creative writing:

Should we not look for the first traces of imaginative activity as early as in childhood? The child’s best-loved and most intense occupation is with his play or games. Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real. In spite of all the emotion with which he cathects his world of play, the child distinguishes it quite well from reality; and he likes to link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and visible things of the real world. This linking is all that differentiates the child’s ‘play’ from ‘phantasying.’

The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously — that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion — while separating it sharply from reality.

He then considers, as Henry Miller did in his famous creative routine three decades later, the time scales of the creative process:

The relation of phantasy to time is in general very important. We may say that it hovers, as it ware, between three times — the three moments of time which our ideation involves. Mental work is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject’s major wishes. From here it harks back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this wish was fulfilled; and now it creates a situation relating to the future which represents the fulfillment of the wish. What it thus creates is a day-dream or phantasy, which carries about it traces of its origin from the occasion which provoked it and from the memory. Thus, past, present and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs through them.

'Calypso' by Lynda Barry

Original watercolor from my personal collection

He synthesizes the parallel between creative writing and play:

[A] piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.

He goes on to explore the secretive nature of our daydreams, suggesting that an element of shame keeps us from sharing them with others — perhaps what Jack Kerouac meant when he listed the unspeakable visions of the individual as one of his iconic beliefs and techniques for prose — and considers how the creative writer transcends that to achieve pleasure in the disclosure of these fantasies:

How the writer accomplishes this is his innermost secret; the essential ars poetica lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others. We can guess two of the methods used by this technique. The writer softens the character of his egoistic day-dreams by altering and disguising it, and he bribes us by the purely formal — that is, aesthetic — yield of pleasure which he offers us in the presentation of his phantasies. We give the name of an incentive bonus, or a fore-pleasure, to a yield of pleasure such as this, which is offered to us so as to make possible the release of still greater pleasure arising from deeper psychical sources. In my opinion, all the aesthetic pleasure which a creative writer affords us has the character of a fore-pleasure of this kind, and our actual enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds. It may even be that not a little of this effect is due to the writer’s enabling us thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame.

For more famous insights on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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10 OCTOBER, 2012

Transformation as Authorship: From Igor Stravinsky to Philip Glass by Way of Disney and Beck

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On incremental change and “unresisting imbecility.”

As a proponent of combinatorial creativity and remix as a tool of innovation, I am always fascinated by how famous creators think about inspiration, influence, and the origin of ideas, recognizing their combinatorial nature — and how bystander critics often dismiss these creative transmutations with terms as derisive as “recreativity.”

Catherine Opie for The New York Times

In a recent New York Times conversation about their forthcoming collaborative record celebrating the composer’s 75th birthday, Philip Glass and Beck explore the line between mere reworking and originality by way of transformation:

BECK: I love that story you told me, it was the first time we met, we were talking about the remix project. And someone had done a cello piece of yours, and then when you went to go see it, you didn’t recognize it.

GLASS: It was Arthur Russell. And he was a very good cellist. I was doing a theater piece for the Mabou Mines, it was some Beckett piece, and I wrote him a cello piece, and he liked the work and was playing it. And I came back about three months later, and I heard it and I said, ‘Arthur, that’s beautiful, but what happened to the piece?’ And he said, ‘No, no, that is what you wrote,’ and I said, ‘Arthur, it’s no longer what I wrote, it’s your piece now.’ And he thought I was being upset, he apologized and I said, ‘No, no, no, I think we should put you down as the composer.’ He had reached the point of transformation. The incremental changes had turned it into this other thing. I love the fact that he did that. And I love the fact that he didn’t know that he did it.

This notion of iteration and incremental change is, in fact, an essential piece of the history of innovation — and yet it’s much less glamorous and bombastic than the Eureka! myth of ideation, which can lead many to dismiss it entirely.

Glass’s remarks reminded me of something I recently read in Hello Goodbye Hello, the wonderful daisy chain of famous encounters, which recounts a very different reaction another iconic composer, Igor Stravinsky, had to his music being transformed beyond recognition — by none other than Walt Disney.

In 1939, at the height of Disney’s success, Walt met Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, at a dinner party. The two became enchanted with each other’s work and the potential each of their mediums of mastery had for amplifying that of the other, and began collaborating on a version of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Mickey Mouse — an idea Disney had been toying with for some time. That’s when Stravinsky steps in:

Disney wants a sequence showing the creation of the world, full of volcanoes and dinosaurs. But what music to use? His researchers can only come up with Haydn’s Creation, but Disney thinks it doesn’t carry quite enough oomph. At this point, Stokowski alerts him to Le Sacre du printemps by Igor Stravinsky. Disney listens to it, and is immediately gripped. He offers Stravinsky $ 5,000 for the rights, though Stravinsky will remember it as $ 10,000. According to Stravinsky, Disney hints that if permission is withheld he will use the music anyway: pre-Revolutionary Russian copyrights are no longer valid.

Stravinsky accepts; Disney steams ahead. Before long the human inhabitants of the Burbank studio find themselves working alongside animals in cages, including iguanas and baby alligators, with skilled animators studying their movements close-up. ‘It should look as though the studio has sent an expedition back to the earth six million years ago,’ enthuses Disney. He is so excited that he starts free-associating to the music: ‘Something like that last WHAHUMMPH I feel is a volcano – yet it’s on land. I get that UGHHWAHUMMPH! on land, but we can look out on the water before this and see water spouts.’ As he listens to the music, he gets so worked up that he suddenly blurts, ‘Stravinsky will say: “Jesus, I didn’t know I wrote that music!”’

Which, as it turns out, is roughly what Stravinsky does say. In December 1939, he drops into the Burbank studio for a private screening of Fantasia. The experience leaves him with the most awful memories. ‘I remember someone offering me a score, and when I said I had my own, that someone saying, “But it is all changed.” It was indeed. The instrumentation had been improved by such stunts as having the horns play their glissandi an octave higher in the Danse de la terre. The order of pieces had been shuffled, too, and the most difficult of them eliminated, though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable.’

So heated was the disagreement and so violent Stravinsky’s outrage, indeed, that when Disney tried to assuage him by pointing out what a great number of people would hear his music, the composer famously grunted:

The numbers of people who consume music … is of no interest to me. The mass adds nothing to art.

Some twenty years later, Stravinsky was still indignant when he and Disney clashed on the pages of The New York Times about the incident, where the composer called Disney’s transformation of his “Rite of Spring” an “unresisting imbecility.”

Granted, as was likely the case with Disney, not every transformation improves upon the original or has creative merit. But modern copyright law — not to mention an unfortunate portion of today’s cultural critique — continues to err on the side of Stravinsky in an era ripe for the Glass mindset. To criticize and criminalize transformative creation and remix is, at best, itself an “unresisting imbecility” and, at worst, an enormous hindrance to creative innovation.

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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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