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At the RISD exhibit (Photo by Jan Baker)

It’s an it.

It is a simple insight but a huge one, that an entity exists outside of yourself that is your inspiration. Some call it the artist’s gift, some call it creativity. But the idea that it is separate from you—that it can be addressed and spoken to (and cajoled and tousled with as well)—changes the dynamic considerably.

As an idea, this is rooted in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. But it does run counter to canonical views of contemporary psychology that everything is you, all the time, just you.

For those of us with a mystic’s bent, stepping away from that point of view isn’t much of a stretch. But I am always heartened when I hear a similar idea expressed by people I wouldn’t guess were ever members of my tribe.

In a recent RadioLab podcast, Liz Gilbert describes an experience she had several years ago when she interviewed the musician Tom Waits. Surprisingly, the crusty Waits shared his belief that every song has its own distinct identity and each comes into the world in its own way. He had learned this over years of struggling with the creative process. Some songs, he said, require that you sneak up like stalking a rare bird; some arrive fully formed “like a dream taken through a straw”; some are like bits of chewing gum you scrape off the bottom of a chair and wad into a new form; some have to be bullied and cajoled and given lots of tough love.

In a memorable anecdote, Waits tells about the day he finally took control of his creative anxiety. While driving down a crowded freeway in Los Angeles, he heard a melody in this head. No pen, no paper, no recording device, no way to capture this exquisite nugget of sound.

At first he dropped back into that old place of creative anxiety. But this time he looked up at the sky and said, “Excuse me. Can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist then remember I spend eight hours a day in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I’m sitting at my piano. Otherwise, leave me alone and go bother Leonard Cohen.”

Gilbert contends that this external entity actually wants you to jostle and rub up against it, to give it some edge. Pushing back is part of it and one of the ways you demonstrate that you are serious. Like Waits, she envisions a Gulf Stream of creative ideas circling the planet looking for available portals through which they can find expression. You get “portalized” by being at the studio, at your desk, doing your work on a regular basis.

As for the popular phrase, genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, Gilbert’s analogy is a memorable one: It’s 99% oyster and 1% pearl. But to get the pearl makes the rest of it a bargain.


Heron on the beach at Small Point, Maine

This is a postscript to yesterday’s post with more on the theme of the usefulness of downtime…

Sam McNerney has posted a piece on Big Think called Why You Shouldn’t Focus Too Much in which he highlights the results of several recent studies on focus and creativity.

We’re obsessed with relentless focus. We assume that if we encounter a difficult problem the best strategy is to chug red bull or drink coffee. Drugs including Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to millions to improve focus. Taking a break is a faux pas, mind wandering even worse. Yet, recent studies paint a different picture: distractions and mind wandering might be a key part in the creative process.

The research McNerney describes helps explain why “prodigiously creative” people have a proclivity for generating solutions to complex problems spontaneously. As one researcher puts it, “This spontaneity is not the result of an innate talent or a gift from the muses but actually the result of the prodigiously creative person working on outstanding problems consistently at a level below consciousness awareness.”

McNerney’s conclusion:

Whatever the reasons, the research outlined here suggests that daydreaming and distractions might contribute to the creative process by giving our unconscious minds a chance to mull over and “incubate” the problems our conscious mind can’t seem to crack…let’s remember that daydreams and distractions per se never helped anyone—there’s a fine line between taking a break and being lazy (or maybe not). The more reasonable conclusion is that when you’re stuck don’t fear distraction and despite what your boss might think, let the mind wander. This, it turns out, is something creative people do really well. Thoreau might summarize it best: “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”

Icicle propagation on a building facade in Pittsburgh: Living with constraints

A few months back I posted a quote from the artist Carroll Dunham that has a great deal of meaning for me:

The most basic thing to say about painting: it’s a limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes. But it’s a negative premise. It’s not, “I like painting because it’s so wonderful—it can do all these wonderful things.” It’s more, “I like painting because it’s so limited, it’s so uptight, so old and so flat and so rectilinear.” Within that, you’re good to go.

Recently I have been reading a lot about innovation, from breakthroughs in open innovation to high yield collaborations. Although a lot of my reading has focused on how innovation plays out in corporate settings (it is all of interest to me regardless of the context), the parallels to my personal experience are still relevant.

For example, this passage is from Jeffrey Philips on the blog, Innovate on Purpose:

What happens in with a tight brief, or a well communicated set of criteria, is that the team is then liberated to innovation within those criteria, or to achieve something incredibly new and different within that criteria. Since we all need a villain to slay or some fixed point to pivot from, having some fixed criteria or goals mean that we can then assume those goals are fixed and find all manner of outrageous ways to satisfy those criteria or goals. That’s when the really interesting ideas start flowing. Good ideas then lead to a decision making process based on the established criteria or constraints. This is a two-fer. You get better idea generation, better engagement and a team that can more easily choose the best ideas, since the constraints were clearly identified.

If you want a team to really excel at idea generation, set a big problem or goal for them, define the strategic opportunities and establish some key constraints. Then, allow them all the degrees of freedom possible outside of the constraints, and wait for the great ideas to come.

The role of constraints—be they within the confines of painting or within a team setting—continues to fascinate me. Given my personality proclivities that chafe at the very thought of limits (in that oft-circulated challenge to describe yourself in just six words, mine was “Don’t tell me what to do”), I have never tired of the limits that painting imposes on visual expression. Although Dunham is being both truthful and tongue in cheek in his comment above, I have never flinched from staying right there in the middle of that “limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have never been keen on the idea of a creativity elite. Since 1959 when C. P. Snow wrote his legendary essay “Two Cultures” about the breakdown in communication between the sciences (“the white coats”) and the humanities, other us/them dichotomies have emerged. Creativity is one of those, highlighted in recent books like Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and the Rays’ The Cultural Creatives. And my ongoing dialogue with my friend Bose about what constitutes creativity has kept this topic particularly active over the last few weeks.

An earlier post about the difficulty of measuring creativity has also been rattling around in my head. I have a personal life full of amazingly talented artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, but I have always considered my highly analytical, business-oriented partner Dave to be one of the most creative people I know. When I first read the well publicized creativity exercise used to promote open source innovation, 40 uses for a brick, I realized that’s the way Dave has always approached everything, from business problems to planning a family vacation. He sees connections that others often overlook and has an ability to keep propagating new ways of seeing.

This is different than what happens for me in the studio. And yet there is some common elemental source at work here—a shared language, a common fragrance. Parsing it any more than that seems like an unnecessary excursion. But it is my nature to leave plenty of life’s unnamed experiences only partially exposed, respectful of what is inchoate and just a little mysterious.

What set me off this morning was a back issue of the New Yorker with an article about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s painfully unsuccessful attempts to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Having just recently been enamored and awestruck by experiencing The Great Gatsby performed verbatim in a production of “Gatz” at the A. R. T. (and written about here), I was a bit unnerved by this unsettling account. It is about the harsh reality that creativity doesn’t always spill over. It has its limits, it has those domains where it cannot scale. In other words, it is a story about human longing and human limitations, of how the gap between the two can be a terrain of extraordinary misery and suffering.

Billy Wilder described Fitzgerald’s foray into Holllywood as “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job,” with no clue how to connect the pipes and get the water to flow. How could the author of one of American literature’s greatest novels be so off in another form? In Slow Fade, Arthur Krystal does a decent job of putting it into perspective:

Fitzgerald drew his faith not from camera angles or even plotlines but from sentences; and what draws us powerfully to his work is the sensitive handling of emotional yearning and regret. When he was revising “Gatsby,” he characterized the burden of the novel as “the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” As Arthur Mizener….pointed out, “it is precisely this loss which allows Gatsby to discover ‘what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.'” Perhaps Fitzgerald could have captured this heightened state of awareness in a script, but was this what the studios were looking for? Fitzgerald’s vision of becoming a great screenwriter was no more realistic than the likelihood of his returning a kickoff or writing a hit Broadway show. But, then, Fitzgerald was not one to give up on dreams; if he had, he could not have written so beautifully, so penetratingly, about their loss.

Reading this left me with a willingness to surrender to the “chop wood, carry water” that so characterizes a lifetime of work, be it in an overtly creative field or not. This isn’t a negative view; rather it is accepting where we might be brilliant and where our own personal river runs thin. Fitzgerald’s life happens to exemplify two extraordinary extremes. But that is often the nature of genius.

Siva drinking World Poison, Nandalal Bose (Photo: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi)

I have been participating in an ongoing conversation with my friend Supratik Bose about the nature of creativity. Over dinner a while ago he told me he didn’t believe something could be deemed creative unless it demonstrated market value. Bose, trained as an architect and the grandson of India’s most beloved artist of the 20th century, Nandalal Bose, doesn’t make that statement lightly. I on the other hand will argue that point for the rest of my life.

Our debate is lively and robust however, so I don’t want it to come to a “agree to disagree” stalemate. I told Bose to read Lawrence Weschler’s unforgettable account of one man’s mission to transform an artist laboring for years in obscurity to international renown. (“Shapinsky’s Karma” is a chapter included in Weschler’s book, A Wanderer in the Perfect City.) Bose told me to read Nancy Andreasen’s The Creative Brain, which I am currently doing. And this weekend he sent me the link to an article in the New York Times, Charting Creativity: Signposts of a Hazy Territory, by Patricia Cohen, which is full of timely news on this immense, unfathomably complex and provocative topic.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Creativity is kind of like pornography — you know it when you see it,” said Rex Jung, a research scientist at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque. Dr. Jung, an assistant research professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, said his team was doing the first systematic research on the neurology of the creative process, including its relationship to personality and intelligence.

Like many researchers over the past 30 years or so, Dr. Jung has relied on a common definition of creativity: the ability to combine novelty and usefulness in a particular social context.

As the study of creativity has expanded to include brain neurology, however, some scientists question whether this standard definition and the tests for it still make sense. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, argues that the standard “has outlived its usefulness.”

“Creativity is a complex concept; it’s not a single thing,” he said, adding that brain researchers needed to break it down into its component parts. Dr. Kounios, who studies the neural basis of insight, defines creativity as the ability to restructure one’s understanding of a situation in a nonobvious way.

Everyone agrees that no single measure for creativity exists. While I.Q. tests, though controversial, are still considered a reliable test of at least a certain kind of intelligence, there is no equivalent when it comes to creativity — no Creativity Quotient, or C.Q.

While Rex Jung and others are doing their scientific level best to come up with some kind of meaningful measure—Jung calls it a “Composite Creativity Index”—I’m going with the naysayers who say it can never be nailed down, dissected or completely comprehended.

I like the description of the difference between creativity and intelligence:

One study of 65 subjects suggests that creativity prefers to take a slower, more meandering path than intelligence.

“The brain appears to be an efficient superhighway that gets you from Point A to Point B” when it comes to intelligence, Dr. Jung explained. “But in the regions of the brain related to creativity, there appears to be lots of little side roads with interesting detours, and meandering little byways.”

Although intelligence and skill are generally associated with the fast and efficient firing of neurons, subjects who tested high in creativity had thinner white matter and connecting axons that have the effect of slowing nerve traffic in the brain. This slowdown in the left frontal cortex, a region where emotional and cognitive abilities are integrated, Dr. Jung suggested, “might allow for the linkage of more disparate ideas, more novelty and more creativity.”

And bless that Bose. One has to be a class act to send along an authoritative collaboration of the opposing point of view since this claim also appeared in the article:

Dr. Kounios…said that Dr. Jung was doing original and interesting work, but he maintained that trying to find a correlation between creativity and a single area of the brain is an “old-fashioned approach.”

“Creativity is a collection of different processes that work in different areas of the brain,” Dr. Kounios said, so the creative act must be broken down into tiny pieces. He also rejects utility as part of the definition, arguing that there can be brilliant and creative failures — what he calls near misses.

I’ll take all of them in—the near misses, the creative failures, the byways and the detours.


A bit of background on Nandalal Bose from the San Diego Museum of Art which mounted a traveling exhibit of Bose’s work for the first time outside Asia in 2008:

Nandalal Bose was born in Bihar, India, in 1882. At the beginning of his career in 1905, he was one of many artists and visionaries who sought to revive the spirituality and cultural authenticity of Indian art after 50 years of colonial rule and westernization. In 1919, Bose became the first director of the art school at the new university founded by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in rural Bengal. Here, traditional Indian teaching methods were favored over British-style education.

For the following three decades, Bose began to experiment with a variety of indigenous Indian, Japanese, and Chinese techniques. His work consisted more of scenes of nature and tribal and village life, as well as devotional subjects. It was his portrayal of village India without dependence on Western materials or styles that captured the attention of Gandhi and catapulted Bose to the status of national icon as the only artist Gandhi patronized.

Nandalal Bose

My friend Kathryn walks her road in the fields of Cumbria

I do not believe in creation, but in discovery, and I don’t believe in the seated artist but in the one who is walking the road. The imagination is a spiritual apparatus, a luminous explorer of the world it discovers. The imagination fixes and gives clear life to the fragments of the invisible reality where man is stirring.

—Frederico Garcia Lorca

Walking the road. In all of its many manifestations.

And for now, I am walking the road on the left coast for a week. I’ll be back online May 5.

Desert landscape near Alice Springs, Australia

I’ve gone through creative dry spells. Everybody does, but when it is happening to you, it is hard to not take it personally and forget that the condition is common. It is easier to talk about it when the episode is over. It’s a little like childbirth: Give me a while before I tell you about how it was to deliver an 11 pound child.

Reading through the rich responses to Jerry Saltz’s recent posting on the reality of being an artist (here) started me thinking (again) about the highly interior and intensely private nature of the struggle for flow. So many artists owned up to and spoke about their experience with such candor, and I was deeply touched by many of their words.

One writer included a link to Susan K. Perry, a psychologist and writing consultant, who is also the author of Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity. Over the years Perry has collected a list of the most common fears that lead to creativity blocks:

The worry that the work isn’t good enough
The fear that I have no talent.
The fear that, if anyone notices my work in the first place, they won’t like it.
The fear of appearing foolish.
The fear of not being able to finish a long project, or of dying before it’s done.
The fear that I’ve wasted my time.
The fear of offending somebody.
A terror of leaping into the abyss of the imagination.
Feeling I’m in over my head, that I won’t be able to do this without appearing stupid.
The fear that I’ll run out of ideas and never be able to produce anything again.

Does anyone ever conquer all of these demons? Probably not. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing without blushing—shivering and wishing to take cover?”

Perry points to another writer’s insights:

The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace, who, like Woolf, committed suicide, was interviewed in 1997 on NPR’s Fresh Air. Asked by Terry Gross whether, when he was a teen tennis player, his self-consciousness interfered on the court, he said, yes, of course. He went on to wonder whether perhaps those listening have “this part in their brain” that allows them to turn off thoughts of “what if I double fault on this point, or what if I miss this free throw, or what if I don’t get this strike with the entire bowling team hanging around.”

Wallace at first figured “this stuff” doesn’t occur to professionals, then added, “but when I hung out with pro players for the tennis essay, it occurred to me that they have some kind of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off.” Such self-consciousness, he said, is “literally paralyzing. You can end up like a bunny in the headlights.” Wallace couldn’t turn it off and gave up tennis.

One of Perry’s suggestions for dealing with the feeling of being frozen by a fear: Trivialize the task.

I adopted it as one of my mantras because it really works. For a writer, for example, what this means is accepting that a creative career or a creative life is a long evolving process, not a single product—and certainly not an unpolished draft of a product.

It helps to think of yourself as playing at whatever you’re doing. If it feels like work and nothing but work, maybe you’re doing it wrong. Because you can’t fail. You just try again, or you try something else, or you try in a different way.

In a different post Perry compares creativity to making love. That’s extra credit reading.

A moment of homage to the hand. My hand. Your hand.

I started the morning reading about the relationship between a person’s problem solving skills and their ability to work with his or her hands. The correlation is significant enough that some recruiters look for cerebral problem solving candidates with car repair experience on their resume (if only!) In a stimulating post about work and play by the author of Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds has assembled a good selection of videos about how important play is in every aspect of our lives. Tim Brown (from IDEO) gave a TED talk in 2008 that is worth watching, particularly to see how he engages playfully with his audience (walking the talk in a particularly refreshing way.) Also worth a watch is another TED talk (gotta live TED!) by Dr. Stuart Brown who states his point of view quite directly: “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”

There’s some definite playfulness in another book I’m reading, Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals. Their blog, Signal vs Noise, is a lively and interesting place to visit as well.

And thanks to my Tweeter buddy James Burke for alerting me to Reynolds’ site. It’s a steady flow of stimulating stuff.

March, a month to think about what green means

A few follow ons to earlier posts…

One more thought on Shenk’s book about genius…A quote from Arthur Schopenhauer:

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.

A few more places online where you can be visually stunned:

Invisible Stories

The Hermitage



Margaret Kilgallen at work

A provocative article on Slate reviews Jaron Lanier’s latest book, You are Not a Gadget. Written by Slate senior editor Michael Agger, the essay digs into many of Lanier’s ideas and just says No. Lanier, one of the leaders in the early days of virtual reality and an respected Wired alum, is not a fan of Web 2.0, the hive mind, or where things are going in that online space. “He was the guy with the dreadlocks and the giant V.R. goggles perched on his forehead, the epitome of the hippie-shaman-guru strain in tech culture,” says Agger.

One of Lanier’s contentions is that creativity in music has suffered in the era of web access. It is all retro, says Lanier, and he challenges listeners to distinguish between music being made now and what was showing up 10 years ago. Although a somewhat distanced observer of that particular world, I feel he may have a point.

But this passage really caught me:

Lanier is a survivor and has good instincts: We need to be wary of joining in the wisdom of the crowds, of trusting that open collaboration always produces the best results…But his critique is ultimately just a particular brand of snobbery. Lanier is a Romantic snob. He believes in individual genius and creativity, whether it’s Steve Jobs driving a company to create the iPhone or a girl in a basement composing a song on an unusual musical instrument.

The problem is that the Web is much bigger now, and both Jobs and the bedroom oud player must, in their own ways, strive for attention from the hive mind.

Individual creativity vs the collective hive. The 19th century (and therefore outdated) “Romantic” notion of the artist as soloist, loner, isolate. The collaborative-heavy hegemony of the Web. These are just a few of the questions that are forming a new topology of creativity.

Pluralist to the core, I have always opted for “e) all of the above.” There are so many ways to make, create, invent, engender—who can say what’s sanctioned, what’s appropriate? But is that very idea an outdated notion as well?

I recently viewed the documentary, Beautiful Losers, by Aaron Rose. The film is a subtle and understated portrait of a group of (mostly) disaffected skateboarders, graffiti artists and musicians in the early 90’s who eventually turned to visual art. Brought together by a shared lack of pretension and the desire to just have fun, eventually they became their own art movement. Mostly self-taught and suspicious of the superficiality of the mainstream art world, they were committed to an extraordinarily fierce brand of self-expression. And while many went on to be very successful, that was not the driving intention.

There is a sweetness and uncomplicated quality about the film as well as many of the artists it features. It is an art underworld version of “build it and they will come”: The teeming audiences of kids that filled the ad hoc gallery shows in the early days found their way there without the aid of Facebook, Twitter or Gawk. Could it happen like that now? Probably not. The accelerated pace of the hive mind would make the slow, organic incubation that these folks enjoyed (and I would say, needed) less likely.

But then again, maybe these pervasive cybertechnologies will constellate a new kind of creative outpouring. We’re in the middle of watching this unfold, so it is hard to know for sure. But like I said, my tendency is always to go with e).