Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

10 MAY, 2012

All Ideas Are Second-Hand: Mark Twain on Plagiarism and Originality, in a Letter to Helen Keller

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“The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.”

The combinatorial nature of creativity is something I think about a great deal, so this 1903 letter Mark Twain wrote to his friend Helen Keller, found in Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2 (public library | IndieBound), makes me nod with the manic indefatigability of a dashboard bobble-head dog. In this excerpt, Twain addresses some plagiarism charges that had been made against Keller some 11 years prior, when her short story “The Frost King” was found to be strikingly similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.”

Keller was acquitted after an investigation, but the incident stuck with Twain and prompted him to pen the following passionate words more than a decade later, which articulate just about everything I believe to be true of combinatorial creativity and the myth of originality:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Steve Jobs, of course, knew this when he famously proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things” — and Kirby Ferguson reminds us that Jobs didn’t technically invent any of the things that made him into a cultural icon, he merely perfected them to a point of genius. Still, this fear of unoriginality — and, at its extreme, plagiarism — plagues the creative ego like no other malady. No one has countered this paradox more eloquently and succinctly than Salvador Dalí:

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

Letters of Note

Top image, ‘Miss Keller and Mark Twain, 1902,’ courtesy of American Foundation for the Blind

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10 MAY, 2012

Her Idea: An Illustrated Allegory about Procrastination and the Creative Process

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A charming all-ages picture book about the endless dance between idea and execution.

The question of where good ideas come from and how creativity works has long fascinated artists and scientists alike, but the most believable and useful of answers often seem to spring from experience and intuition. Last week, the 99% Conference explored not just how ideas originate but also what it takes to make them happen through an admirable roster of speakers, including Australian designer and illustrator Rilla Alexander, who presented Her Idea — a story within a story about a girl named Sozi, who loves ideas but can never seem to finish them. Despite the delightful children’s aesthetic, the parable is really an allegory for procrastination and the frustrations of the creative process all too familiar to us alleged adults.

Hmm, maybe later
Not today anyway
It’s such a big task
And she’d much rather play

The book was accompanied by an equally clever and whimsical exhibition.

With its all-ages appeal, Her Idea is a fine addition to these timeless children’s books for grown-ups, and its clever cover joins the rank of these die-cut books to die for.

Images courtesy of Rilla Alexander

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04 MAY, 2012

A 5-Step Technique for Producing Ideas circa 1939

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“The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.”

Literature is the original “inter-net,” woven of a web of allusions, references, and citations that link different works together into an endless rabbit hole of discovery. Case in point: Last week’s wonderful field guide to creativity, Dancing About Architecture, mentioned in passing an intriguing old book originally published by James Webb Young in 1939 — A Technique for Producing Ideas (public library), which I promptly hunted down and which will be the best $5 you spend this year, or the most justified trip to your public library.

Young — an ad man by trade but, as we’ll see, a voraciously curious and cross-disciplinary thinker at heart — lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

Right from the introduction, original Mad Man and DDB founder Bill Bernbach captures the essence of Young’s ideas, with which Steve Jobs would have no doubt agreed when he proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things”:

Mr. Young is in the tradition of some of our greatest thinkers when he describes the workings of the creative process. It is a tribute to him that such scientific giants as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein have written similarly on this subject. They agree that knowledge is basic to good creative thinking but that it is not enough, that this knowledge must be digested and eventually emerge in the form of fresh, new combinations and relationships. Einstein refers to this as intuition, which he considers the only path to new insights.

To be sure, however, Young marries the intuitive with the practical in his formulation:

[T]he production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.

In a chapter on training the mind, Young offers:

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.

Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up [of] so called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.

[…]

So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.

But the most compelling part of Young’s treatise, in a true embodiment of combinatorial creativity, builds upon the work of legendary Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (of Pareto principle fame) and his The Mind and Society. Young proposes two key principles for creating — that an idea is a new combination and that the ability to generate new combinations depends on the ability to see relationships between different elements.

The first [principle is] that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.

[…]

The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.

[…]

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

STEP 1: GATHERING RAW MATERIAL

Young talks about the importance of building a rich pool of “raw material” — mental resources from which to build new combinations — in a way that resonates deeply with the Brain Pickings founding philosophy, and also articulates the increasing importance of quality information filters in our modern information diet. This notion of gathering raw material is the first step in his outline of the creative process:

Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.

Even seven decades into the past, Young knew that the future belongs to the curious. His insistence on the importance of curiosity would make Richard Feynman nod in agreement:

Every really good creative person…whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested — from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.

[…]

The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical designs. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.

(I once used a similar analogy with LEGO.)

STEP 2: DIGESTING THE MATERIAL

In his second stage of the creative process, digesting the material, Young affirms Paola Antonelli’s brilliant metaphor of the curious octopus:

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

STEP 3: UNCONSCIOUS PROCESSING

In his third stage of the creative process, Young stresses the importance of making absolutely “no effort of a direct nature”:

It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.

[…]

[W]hen you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

STEP 4: THE A-HA MOMENT

Then and only then, Young promises, everything will click in the fourth stage of the seemingly serendipitous a-ha! moment:

Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.

It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.

STEP 5: IDEA MEETS REALITY

Young calls the last stage “the cold, gray dawn of the morning after,” when your newborn idea has to face reality:

It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.

When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.

* * *

Years later, upon reissuing A Technique for Producing Ideas, Young recounted the many letters he had gotten from “poets, painters, engineers, scientists, and even one writer of legal briefs” who had found his technique empowering and helpful. But what’s perhaps most interesting is the following note he made to the postscript of a reprint:

From my own further experience in advertising, government, and public affairs I find no essential points which I would modify in the idea-producing process. There is one, however, on which I would put greater emphasis. This is as to the store of general materials in the idea-producer’s reservoir.

[…]

I am convinced, however, that you gather this vicarious experience best, not when you are boning up on it for an immediate purpose, but when you are pursuing it as an end in itself.

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27 APRIL, 2012

Dancing About Architecture: A Field Guide to Creativity

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“It is the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things that don’t ordinarily go together that marks out the person who is truly creative.”

It seems endemic to the human condition that we’ll never cease longing for insight into where good ideas come from, how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, and the five-step action plan for making it manifest. Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity (public library) by Phil Beadle is unusual in that it’s both a strong, pointed conceptual vision for the nature and origin of creativity, and a kind of activity book for grown-ups that invites you to learn how to implement the skill set of creativity through a series of hands-on exercises applicable wherever your creative journey may take you, from the studio to the classroom to the boardroom.

Much of Beadle’s insights echo Sir Ken Robinson’s work, but Beadle emphasizes another, in my opinion far more important, aspect of creativity: its combinatorial nature:

We create the new not generally through some mad moment of inspiration in fictionalized accounts of ancient Greeks in baths (though the conditions for this can be forced into existence), but by putting things together that do not normally go together; from taking disciplines (or curriculum areas) and seeing what happens when they are forced into unanticipated collision.

[…]

The mind, at its best, is a pattern-making machine, engaged in a perpetual attempt to impose order on to chaos; making links between disparate entities or ideas in order to better understand either or both. It is the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things that don’t ordinarily go together that marks out the person (or teacher) who is truly creative.

This point resonates deeply with the founding philosophy of Brain Pickings, and is one articulated by a great many thinkers and creators. Steve Jobs famously said that “creativity is just connecting things”; Paula Scher spoke of the mental collaging that sparks a moment of creation; As Austin Kleon put it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life”; William Gibson called for cultivating “a personal micro-culture”; Paul Rand maintained that the role of the imagination is “to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection.”

In the foreword, Ian Gilbert articulates the same idea another way:

Nature abhors a vacuum and the same applies in your head. The trouble is, if there’s nothing to replace the gap left behind when you clear out all your old rubbish then some new rubbish will come along to fill it… So, where do the new ideas come from to fill the void left by eliminating your old ones? This question of the derivation of ideas was one that was approached by an advertising man called James Webb Young in 1939. His short book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, became the seminal book on how to get ideas, good ones, into your head… Webb Young suggests the following five-step plan to generating great ideas:

[1] Gather the raw material

[2] Digest the material

[3] Don’t think

[4] Wait for the ‘Ah ha!’ moment to appear (and be ready when it does. Keep a notebook by your bed)

[5] Expose your idea to the light of day and see if it stands up to the glare

Part of the first step that we often overlook, however, is the need to feed our brains with all sorts of ‘raw material’ and not just the sort most related to our work. If all you do, as an educator, is read education books then you will never be very creative. You will never succeed in doing what Steve Jobs […] calls making a ‘dent in the universe’. Genuine creativity needs a collision of ideas, something that will never happen if all your thoughts travel in the same direction. Arthur Koestler in his seminal book on creativity, The Act of Creation, talks about ‘bisociation’. An idea travels in one direction and then suddenly is broadsided by another traveling in a different one. It is used in humor all the time. What’s blue and white and climbs trees? A fridge in a denim jacket. That sort of thing.

Dancing About Architecture goes on to explore, both in practical terms and as a broader cultural vision, how we can foster this combinatorial capacity in our individual creative journeys as well as in formal social frameworks like the education system and the workplace.

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