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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

13 APRIL, 2012

Magic Hours: Tom Bissell on the Secrets of Creators and Creation

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“To create anything… is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic.”

Creativity is a peculiar beast. Its nebulous nature and elusive allure don’t stop us from going after it with stubborn precision, tracing its history, dissecting its neuroscience, flowcharting our way to it and itemizing it into a 5-point plan, all in the hope that, if only we understood its inner workings enough and engineered the right conditions, it would bestow its gifts upon us.

But, as any creator would attest, there are factors at play well outside our control.

From McSweeney’s and Tom Bissell, one of the finest essayists writing today, comes Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation — a collection of fourteen essays originally published in arbiters of literary culture such as The New Yorker, Believer, and Harper’s Magazine, spanning a decade of Bissell’s best writing and dissecting the creative process through such diverse subjects as Werner Herzog’s films, video game voiceovers, Iraq war documentaries, sitcoms, and David Foster Wallace.

In the first essay, entitled “Unflowered Aloes” and originally published in the Boston Review in 2000, a 25-year-old Bissell takes apart the myth that literature is destiny and demonstrates, through the works of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and William Faulkner that luck — or what the Jewish call Schlimazeltov — might be the most valuable bargaining chip in whether a creative work survives and goes on to become a cultural icon.

Take Melville’s Moby-Dick, for instance. The first true American novel was a literary flop when it was first published in 1851, sliding out of print some 36 years with a scant total of 3,180 copies sold and sending Melville into a depression from which he never quite recovered. When Oxford University Press attempted to resuscitate the novel in 1907, they asked Joseph Conrad to write the introduction, but he dismissed it as “a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for its subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 volumes of it.” Then, one day in 1916, the influential critic Carl Van Doren stumbled upon a dusty copy of Moby-Dick in a used bookstore and was inspired to write an essay about it, calling Melville’s work “one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world.” D. H. Lawrence happened to read the essay and, through a few more clicks of the Rube Goldberg serendipity machine at play, it made its way, extolled, into E. M. Foster’s Aspects of the Novel in 1927. Thus, Bissell reminds us, “Melville’s greatest work, as we today know it, was born 76 years after its initial publication.”

Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner suffered a similar fate, their works mere seashells washed ashore the island of literary recognition by the capricious currents of the vast and all-engulfing ocean of chance. Bissell concludes the essay, which is titled after a plant that may live as long as 100 years and might never flower at all, with an observation that could be very glib or very optimistic, depending on how you look at it:

What faith, then, can the poet or novelist place in his or her work’s survival? Is literary destiny simply yet another god that failed? Although I know what I now believe, I hope I am wrong. Nevertheless, I cannot help but imagine that literature is an airplane, and we are passengers on it. One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment. But the cockpit is empty. It was always been empty. The controls are abandoned. They have always been abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course.

But in this discomfiting awareness lies perhaps the self-selective secret of literature’s creators. In another essay, “Grief and the Outsider” (2003), Bissell observes:

Literature is always written by outsiders… by a person inclined not towards connecting with those around him or her but retreating into a world of nerdily private dream… To write is to fail, more or less, constantly.

This, then, begs the question — a question Bissell asks, and answers, in “Writing about Writing about Writing” (Believer, 2004):

Can writing be taught?… Of course writing can be taught… All human activity is taught. The only thing any human being is born to do is survive, and even in this we all need several years of initial guidance.

Harder to judge is the possibility of teaching a beginning writer how to be receptive to the very real emotional demands of creating literature. To write serious work is to reflexively grasp abstruse matters such as moral gravity, spiritual generosity, and the ability to know when one is boring the reader senseless, all of which are founded upon a distinct type of aptitude that has little apparent relation to more measurable forms of intelligence. Plenty of incredibly smart people cannot write to save their lives. Obviously, writerly intelligence is closely moored to the mature notion of intellect (unlike math or music, the adolescent prodigy is virtually unknown to literature) because writing is based on a gradual development of psychological perception, which takes time and experience. Writing can be taught, then, yes—but only to those who are teachable.

The essay goes on to discuss — to critique, to revere, to ponder, but mostly to critique — such classic writings about writing as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and even Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, distilling them into astute observation of what we intuitively know to be true but rarely dare let ourselves believe:

Writers who fail are not pathetic; they are people who have attempted to do something incredibly difficult and found they cannot. Human longing exists in every person, along every frequency of accomplishment. It is the delusions endemic to bad writers and bad writing that need to be destroyed. Here are a few: Writing well will get you girls, or boys, or both. Writing well will make you happy. Fame and wealth are good writing’s expected rewards. Writing for a living is somehow nobler than what most people do. What needs to be reinforced is the idea that good writing — solid, honest, entertaining, beautiful good writing — is simultaneously the reward, the challenge, and the goal.

The most heartening insight in Magic Hours, however, comes at the very beginning. As if to immunize the reader with an antidote to some of the grimmer observations that follow, Bissell offers in the author’s note preceding the essays:

To create anything — whether a short story or a magazine profile or a film or a sitcom — is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic. These essays are about that magic — which is sometimes perilous, sometimes infectious, sometimes fragile, sometimes failed, sometimes infuriating, sometimes triumphant, and sometimes tragic. I went up there. I wrote. I tried to see.

In creation — as in love — it seems timing is if not everything, then at least very much indeed. Yet without integrity and dedication even the most impeccable of timing would be devoid of magic.

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12 APRIL, 2012

John Cleese on the 5 Factors to Make Your Life More Creative

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“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

Much has been said about how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, and what we can do to optimize ourselves for it. In this excerpt from his fantastic 1991 lecture, John Cleese offers a recipe for creativity, delivered with his signature blend of cultural insight and comedic genius. Specifically, Cleese outlines “the 5 factors that you can arrange to make your lives more creative”:

  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)
  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)
  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)
  5. Humor (“The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)

The lecture is worth a watch in its entirety, below, if only to get a full grasp of Cleese’s model for creativity as the interplay of two modes of operating — open, where we take a wide-angle, abstract view of the problem and allow the mind to ponder possible solutions, and closed, where we zoom in on implementing a specific solution with narrow precision. Along the way, Cleese explores the traps and travails of the two modes and of letting their osmosis get out of balance.

A few more quotable nuggets of insight excerpted below the video.

Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.

We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.

Cleese goes on to caution against a trap in this duality, one particularly hazardous in politics:

To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But — here’s the problem — we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.

This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their nonpolitical colleagues is that they’ve become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode.

Cleese concludes with a beautiful articulation of the premise and promise of his recipe for creativity:

This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.

For a related treat, see Cleese’s reprise of the talk nearly two decades later at the 2009 Creativity World Forum.

Thanks, Simon

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30 MARCH, 2012

Why Creativity Necessitates Eclecticism: Nick Cave’s Influences and Inspirations

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What Dostoevsky has to do with the hunchback of Notre Dame, Muhammad Ali, and dandelions.

As a firm believer in combinatorial creativity, I’m always interested in the ecosystem of influences and how we honor those who inspire us. Reader Will Shaw points me to this handwritten note by music icon Nick Cave entitled “More Things to Remember…,” courtesy of Melbourne’s Arts Centre, in which Cave lists some of his influences. Will writes:

It is clear that Nick Cave was only able to reach his significant artistic heights through appropriating ideas and aesthetics from his heroes and influences and melding them into something uniquely powerful.

I agree, and am delighted to see such a diverse tapas bar of influences spanning multiple disciplines, genres, and eras, including Brain Pickings staples like Alfred Hitchcock, Vladimir Nabokov, Orson Welles, Muhammad Ali, and Moby-Dick, sprinkled with such wildcards as Saint Theresa of Avila, Popeye, dandelions, and baboons.

No doubt designer Paula Scher, author William Gibson, and artist Austin Kleon can all relate to this eclecticism implicit to and, they might argue, necessary for creativity. I certainly do.

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28 MARCH, 2012

The Idea Factory: Insights on Creativity from Bell Labs and the Golden Age of Innovation

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Successful innovation requires the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Thomas Edison was the most famous inventor in the world. He hoarded useful materials, from rare metals to animal bones, and through careful, methodical testing, he made his new inventions work, and previous inventions work better. Churning out patent after patent, Edison’s particular form of innovation was about the what, and not about the how — the latter he could outsource and hire for.

“In 1910, few Americans knew the difference between a scientist, an engineer, and an inventor” explains Jon Gertner at the beginning of his lively book about a place that fostered a home for all three, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. The difference was clear to Edison, who was generally disinterested in the theory behind his inventions, filling his Menlo Park complex with specialists to do the work he’d rather not. “I can always hire mathematicians,” he said, “but they can’t hire me.”

At Menlo Park, Edison hired scientists to do the theoretical work so that he could concentrate on testing his inventions.

To be an inventor, Gertner insists, one needed “mainly mechanical skill and ingenuity, not scientific knowledge and training.” (Qualities that the ingenious Hedy Lamarr had alongside her mechanical partner George Antheil, an unlikely artistic pair who invented an essential frequency-hopping radio signal during World War II that later gave us technologies like Bluetooth and wifi.) For more than sixty years, from the 1920s to the 1980s, Bell Labs would bring together all of the above to create essential inventions of the twentieth century: the transistor, radar, the laser, communication satellites, UNIX, and the C++ programming language.

Adventure stories about 'wireless boys' and 'radio boys' were popular around the turn of the century.

It was the child-tinkerers during the first decades of the century who would populate Bell Labs during its explosive growth in the 30s and 40s. Adventure books recounted tales of “Wireless Boys” (or “Radio Boys”) who solved dastardly crimes and helped those in need, all by building their own wireless telegraphs at home. “Wireless is a thrilling pastime!,” exclaims the author of one of these books:

To be a wireless boy and make your own apparatus is to have the kind of stuff in you of which successful men are made — men who, if they were shipwrecked on a desert isle at daybreak, would have something to eat by noon, a spring bed to sleep on by night and a wireless station the next day sending out an SOS to ships below the horizon, for help.

Around this time, Alexander Graham Bell’s American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) had a massive, government-sanctioned monopoly on all telephone subscriptions, buying regional phone companies, single-handedly manufacturing all of the parts for all of the cables, switches, repeaters, and vacuum-tubes. AT&T made the phones work, it made the parts that made the phones work, and it hired scientists and engineers to make the phones work better. During the 1920s, this third arm is what became Bell Labs.

Tesla I communications satellite for television signals and space data, 1962. (Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc. and the AT&T Archives and History Center)

In the beginning, Bell Labs was populated with grown-up wireless boys — physics, engineering, and chemistry grad students and junior professors seduced away from colleges with astronomically better pay. The new recruits were required to climb telephone poles, operate a switchboard, and sign a paper that sold all rights to any future patents to AT&T for a dollar.

The Picturephone, from the 1964 New York World's Fair (AT&T Archives and History Center)

Bell Labs was a place for discovery, which wasn’t always profitable, and invention, which usually was. During World War II, the US government invested $2 billion into the development of the atomic bomb, but they invested around $3 billion in the development of radar, much of which took place at Bell Labs. (“Scientists who worked on radar often quipped that radar won the war,” Gertner writes, ” whereas the atomic bomb merely ended it.”)

In 1961, Bell Labs moved to a campus designed by Eero Saarinen. It was sold by the company in 2006.

During the post-war reorganization of the Labs, older management was demoted, younger management given new titles, and, most importantly, every research group was interdisciplinary: chemists mingled with physicists who chatted with metallurgists who lunched with engineers. Every building in the New Jersey campus was interconnected and no one was allowed to shut their door. This was the beginning of a newly innovative time, but not the same “genius”-driven Eureka! moments that seemingly characterized the work of Edison. Gertner writes:

At the start, forces that precede an invention merely begin to align, often imperceptibly, as a group of people and ideas converge, until over the course of months or years (or decades) they gain clarity and momentum and the help of additional ideas and actors. Luck seems to matter, and so does timing, for it tends to be the case that the right answers, the right people, the right place — perhaps all three — require a serendipitous encounter with the right problem. And then — sometimes — a leap. Only in retrospect do leaps look obvious.

(“Chance favors the connected mind,” Steven Johnson famously observed in his own exploration of how innovation happens.)

The story of The Idea Factory is one of individuals, architecture, millions of tiny moving parts, deliberate work, and, of course, luck and timing. It was a culture of creativity that worked for its age, impossible to reproduce in quite the same way, nor would we want to. Today, we might subscribe to the philosophy that “creativity is just connecting things,” as Steve Jobs once said about his own idea factory, but first someone has to test, apply, develop, and manufacture all of those connectors.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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