MacArthur Geniuses on the Relationship Between Uncertainty and Creativity
“Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes. Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.”
By Maria Popova
The history of the term “genius” is as long and convoluted as the term’s modern usage is nebulous and arbitrary. It’s hard to even agree on the greatest genius who ever lived, yet alone on who today is worthy of the label. But if there is one entity that confers that honor more unambiguously than anything else, it is the MacArthur Foundation’s fellowship, colloquially known as the “genius grant,” which occupies in today’s popular imagination a place partway between fairy godmother and patron saint of creativity.
In the late 1980s, former trial lawyer Denise Shekerjian read a newspaper account of how the prestigious award was bestowed upon the creative individuals selected by the MacArthur Foundation’s secret committee — a mysterious phone call informed the lucky recipient that she or he has been awarded a generous six-figure grant ($350,000 then; $625,000 now), with no strings attached, to continue pursuing her or his chosen field of creative endeavor. Fascinated by the notion, Shekerjian set out to investigate what made these fortunate individuals worthy of the generous grant and the “genius” status it conferred.
The result was the slim, near-forgotten, and immeasurably insightful 1991 book Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library | IndieBound) — a collection Shekerjian’s conversations about creativity with 40 diverse recipients of the coveted award — artists, writers, scientists, composers, filmmakers, a translator, a Mayan epigraphist, and a creative universe in between. Applying the essential pattern-recognition of creativity, Shekerjian then synthesized these interviews into several core insights on what it takes and what it means to reach genius-level creativity.
Among them is the concept of “staying loose” — an antidote to the misguided myth of the “a-ha moment” as a core of the creative process, emphasizing instead the zigzag nature of the creative life and the importance of “the long period of uncertainty that precedes the magic moment of epiphany,” or what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” and what Rilke meant when he extolled “living the questions.”
Lamenting how traditional accounts of genius focus on the precise moment of creative breakthrough and thus “neglect the very soil from which the creative flower blooms,” Shekerjian — whose prose is itself delight-granting genius — considers why at the outset of a creative journey “a period of uncertainty is a helpful state of affairs” and writes:
Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes. Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.
For many of us, staying loose is an uncomfortable, unsettling feeling if sustained for too long. Ambiguity is confusing, even alarming. We like to frame our inquiries in sharply delineated terms and prefer clean, tidy resolutions to yes or no dictions. Fuzzy circumstances, the ragtag and bobtail of daily uncertainty, exhaust us. It’s much nicer, we think, to have our options cast as either black or white, entirely excluding the hazy middle zones of gray.
Creative people, by contrast, seem to have a great tolerance for the ambiguous circumstances that begin most projects and are more accepting, even welcoming, of this unstructured time. They aren’t lusting after quick outcomes or definitive bottom lines. They are more willing to entertain a prolonged period of leisurely drifting about, curious to see where the unpredictable currents will take them. From this lightness of spirit come the fruits of imagination; there will be plenty of time for the sweat of exertion later on.
Many of the MacArthur “geniuses” she interviewed echoed this notion of staying loose — from poet Douglas Crase’s case for “the dim and mushy start” of a poem to Mayan scholar David Stuart’s faith in the revelatory discoveries that come about by randomly sifting through stacks of hieroglyphics. But one of the most enchanting articulations comes from poet, novelist, and essayist Brad Leithauser, who was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1983:
In every field, things get so specialized. The generalist — and artists are often, by necessity, generalists — winds up feeling a sense of futility. At the moment I’m trying, for example, to write about Kobo Abe, the Japanese novelist. I’m reading him, as I have to, in English. There are Japanese souls who have spent the last few decades pondering him. Am I going to come up with anything new and special? Well, my hope is yes. I cling to the optimistic belief that the haphazard and the hopscotch, the creature that sips among many flowers, may actually come up with something. It’s finally an irrational belief, in most cases, an unrealistic goal. But one holds to the sense that just sipping broadly enough, from enough flowers, strange and fruitful pollinations will arise.
(Shekerjian herself is a wonderful meta-testament to this notion — at the time she began working on the book, there were 6,822 “hits on creativity in print” in the library database, a number that seems laughably endearing today when a search for “creativity” yields 173,000,000 Google results in 0.49 seconds, but one that she found discouraging at the time. And yet she performed precisely this kind of loose flower-hopping that rendered her book exceptional then, and even more exceptional now, even amid our Googletopia where we struggle to extract true wisdom in the age of information.)
Staying loose is also how legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman — “a master of uncertainty, the grandmaster of the documentary,” per Shekerjian, and the recipient of the “genius grant” in 1982 — makes his celebrated movies.
Shekerjian points to his first film, Titicut Follies, which tells the story of the inmates at the Massachusetts Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The 1967 film was so controversial that after winning a number of film festival awards, a federal judge ruled that it could only be shown to mental health professionals and law students, leading Wiseman to later boast that it was “the only document of any sort — films, books, plays — in American constitutional history that has a partial ban on its use other than a matter involving national security or obscenity.” And yet, despite the restrictions, the film took on an underground life of its own and went on to become a cult-classic among civil libertarians. (Since the dawn of the digital-media age, the film is now available to all.) Wiseman went on to make a film a year, exploring “the way we live, our institutions, our stress.”
He was thirty-six at the time and, as Shekerjian puts it, “too old, some might say, to have given up his solid law career in order to take up, willy-nilly, some artsy thing like filmmaking.” But, like writer Michael Lewis, he did. His crew consisted of a photographer and a young writer named David Eames, who later wrote about his experience with Wiseman in a New York Times article, articulating the subtle but crucial difference between staying loose and being wholly unmoored from any creative vision:
I don’t think Fred had any notion that this project, so vaguely conceived, so loosely defined, so fuzzy and wacky and chancy, would turn out to be, a long year later, a film called Titicut Follies. Which is not to suggest he didn’t know what he was doing… Part of his genius lies in his unilateral trust in his own instincts and his unswerving dedication to them.
All of his movie projects begin the same way: with only a very broadly constructed feeling for the subject matter, almost no preparation or research, and as few preconceptions as possible about what he’ll find in the institution he has decided to investigate.
He enters a scene quietly, casually. He leans up against walls, he wanders, he lingers, he observes. He doesn’t work with a script… He doesn’t stage the action. He doesn’t direct the people he shoots. In these initial weeks of the project, he isn’t interested in proving a point or fleshing out a theory or chasing down an angle. He rambles. He roams. He sinks into the chaotic welter of detail and doesn’t worry about trying to make sense of it all.
The approach is loose, hazy, open. Some of what he films makes no sense to him… He’ll think about it later. In the meantime, he stays open, available.
The point, in essence, is that the “temperament of receptivity” Oscar Wilde believed was required to appreciate art is also required to create it — a permeable membrane between mind and world is what allows the creative force to flow through, to transmute one into the other and back again, until the final work of genius is birthed. Much of creative genius, however, lies in the editing process that chooses what flows in and what flows out — what French polymath Henri Poincaré had in mind when he asserted that to invent is to choose. Considering the role of critical judgment in Wiseman’s genius, Shekerjian captures this elegantly:
The editing process — creating form from chaos — is at the heart of his art.
“Staying loose” is essentially a matter of open-mindedness, or what modern psychologists like to call “divergent thinking.” Writing in an era when cognitive psychology — the very discipline whose output now feeds an entire industry of pop-psychology publishing — was “an emerging territory of science,” Shekerjian highlights the work of pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and cites one particularly fascinating study he conducted with a colleague:
In the experiment, art students were asked to select and arrange objects from which they were to create a still-life drawing. Analyzing the results, the team discovered a relationship between the procedures of the students and the quality of their products and professional standing seven years later. The most creative among them (as judged by their eventual commercial success, which in a field as slippery as creativity is as valid a standard as any) played with more objects, inspected them more carefully, and chose more unusual objects for their compositions. They tended not to have a clear and precise idea of the sort of principle they wanted to capture in their drawings, but rather discovered the arrangement through the handling, positioning, and repositioning of the objects. And even as they proceeded to finalize their drawings, they continued to change and adjust the position of the objects as well as to experiment with different paper.
This, Shekerjian notes, is empirical evidence that “staying loose in the early stages of a project greatly improves the chances for a more creative result.” But there is another reason to “embrace a period of rambling discovery” — it opens us up to unexpected influences that might at first appear unrelated to our creative endeavor but end up enriching it enormously. This is what legendary educator Abraham Flexner meant in his spectacular 1939 case for the usefulness of useless knowledge. (The recent boom in biomimicry in solving design problems is an excellent example.) Considering this parallel benefit of staying loose, something she poetically terms connected irrelevance, Shekerjian writes:
What blocks a creative solution to a problem is often an overly narrow and single-minded concentration from a single frame of reference. The person who can combine frames of reference and draw connections between ostensibly unrelated points of view is likely to be the one who makes the creative breakthrough.
This notion of breaking out of a single frame of reference, Shekerjian observes, is common to many MacArthur “geniuses.” The poet Joseph Brodsky reported listening to music to enhance his poetic prowess and touched on it in delivering the greatest commencement address ever given. Wiseman reads poetry and looks at art “to see how others have solved some of the same problems he faces.” (There is, of course, the famous example of Einstein coming up with some of his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks.) Shekerjian writes:
Staying loose, allowing yourself the freedom to ramble, opening yourself up to outside influences, keeping a flexible mind willing to entertain all sorts of notions and avenues — this is the attitude that is most appropriate for the start of any project where the aim is to generate something new.
Uncommon Genius — which also gave us legendary science writer and essayist Stephen Jay Gould on how dot-connecting powers creativity — remains a must-read. Complement it with Werner Herzog on creativity and Julia Cameron on how to unblock the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow.
Published November 19, 2014