On Creativity

I have a confession to make.  For most of my life, I have really not identified as being a creative person.  This might seem like a funny idea if you know me, because I do tend to generate some rather off-the-wall notions, but I generally haven’t really seen myself as someone who creates new, novel, and beautiful things.  I barely even identify as being inventive, since I feel like I still haven’t really generated the sort of amazing ideas that I might be proud to pitch for a start-up.  In a practical sense, I do make tactical solutions to problems, but I generally haven’t been the sort to solve problems people don’t yet know they have.

What’s particularly funny about this is that I do get praise for things like my cooking.  I do have a distinctive style when I cook and it continues to evolve as I gain more life experience, but I’ve never really considered my cooking a creative process.  Some of this, I suspect has to do with the fact that I’ve been cooking for myself since I was old enough to pull a step stool up to the stove, and so I regard cooking the way I regard reading or programming a computer– I have to strain to find a memory in my life where I didn’t already have these skills.  When you don’t know that you’re applying a skill, it’s hard to appreciate that you’re doing it.

But there’s actually a broader reason why I haven’t identified as creative, and that reason is because I have, for most of my life, bought into a series of cultural myths about what creativity is.  These have actually been heavily reinforced by the artistic skills which I was formally taught.  These are ideas about creativity which pervade modern American culture, which are reinforced by our telling of history, which are at odds with much historical fact, and which most people (myself included) unwittingly reinforce on a daily basis.  I’d like to go over a couple of these.

“Creativity is the process of generating some immaterial inspiration and translating it into a physical artifact which is wholly unique from all others.”  This has got to be the biggest and the most culturally destructive.  I think that this myth is repeated above all others in no small part because it pleases the artists most when they say it.  It also is partially true.  Someone well seasoned in an artistic skill will, once in a while, have some great vision and charge forth on it.  It’s happened to me– I once cooked a multi-course feast because the smell of a lemon gave me a vision of a feast on the coast of Northern Morocco.  Moments like these are incredible “flow” experiences, and so they become cherished and repeated.  But to say that this is the backbone of the creative process is like saying that earning hat tricks is the backbone of playing hockey.  Most athletes get their cherished peak moments on nights when all their lifelong-honed skills converge with a little good luck.  Most artists, I now realize, are the same way.  The difference is that people see the grind of the athletes because they play in public; an artist’s grind is more concealed, found only in archives of their notebooks and home recordings (if ever).

The second part of the myth is the notion of originality.  This is actually the part everyone repeats, and I daresay it enforces the first part of the myth.  Basically, this argues that anything which is a copy is wrong.  In some respects, I think this may be an outgrowth of our cultural feelings about plagiarism, but it is, at some level, overgrown and selective.  If I were, for example, to write a song which heavily borrows riffs from Iron and Wine, someone would tell me I was unoriginal.  If I prepared a dinner that borrowed significantly from Jacques Pepin, I will be praised for presenting a meal that is “faithful to the classics.”  So, of course, I have more cultural room to develop as a chef than I do as a songwriter, because faithfully copying a master is not criticized in cooking.

Copying, however, is essential to all learning, including in one’s artistic skills.  This is why the early and late phases of many artists’ careers look so different.  Consider, for example, The Beatles, whose early career sounded completely indistinguishable from much of the other early rock music.  Great painters like Picasso began within an established artistic milieu and slowly developed outward over time.  Even great inventors didn’t invent in a vacuum; many times they were part of a community that were all collectively attempting to invent a now-famous artifact.  The insistence on complete originality is purely a post facto rationalization generated by an artist or that artist’s representative.  It builds legends, gratifies egos, and enforces some space of the medium as someone’s “turf.”  It also happens to be a very expedient lie.

The lie happens to be a destructive one, too, because it discourages others from getting started.  Remember…when you get started, you basically have to copy.  If you’re learning an artistic skill, and you don’t think you’re copying someone or something else, it’s only because what your copying has been declared by our culture to be part of the “artistic commons.”  Whether it’s drawing a sphere with shading, sculpting a basic human form, knitting in two colors, or making duck confit, odds are you’re copying a technique someone developed long before you, but nobody makes you feel guilty for this because nobody is claiming ownership of the technique and shaming others for using it.  Yet the charge to “be original” is strong.  It is, perhaps, strongest with those who’ve been the greatest aficionados of a medium.  Music fans become musicians; art fans become artists.

And so, the enforcers of the myth now face the challenge of giving up that myth when it runs into the reality that creativity relies on a foundation of mimicking one’s role models.  It’s only after a massive backlog of works that the budding creative builds up the ability to start recombining those influences into something different.  Yet the talented aficionado is a talented critic.  As Ira Glass would say, you get into creative pursuits because you have good taste.  Skilled criticism and “good taste,” however, is the creative pursuit of mythologizing artists and their works; they, sadly, serve as a hindrance to becoming an artist, because it’s only after a lot of mimicry and “being derivative” that you have a vocabulary with which to build something different.

This leads to another part of that big myth, which is something I’ve been encountering since my childhood training in music– the idea that the creative process seamlessly moves from inspiration to execution.  You hear all these stories about famous composers writing music despite being deaf or great painters or artists sitting down to make a masterpiece in one go.  The process of developing the techniques that went into these creations, however, was a fluid and improvisational one.  Often, they come about while trying to recover from a mistake.  This is, in fact, at the core of the creative process, and it’s possibly the most relevant to a budding creative– making a lot of pieces and screwing up a lot until your brain builds a back catalog of techniques for coping with your mistakes.  Giving up the goal of technical precision at all steps leaves room for the result to stop being a function of constrained ideas and become something that arises in the moment.

This is not to say that technical precision isn’t desirable; on the contrary, it is an ultimate goal.  You cannot make something to order without technical precision.  You can’t get started on a creative improvisation without a basis of technical precision, either.  Any artist you think of as “great” has a fairly high degree of technical precision and mastery of tools and techniques.  But technical prowess should not be confused with creativity.  In fact, it is a sort of tool in the creative process, which lets you slide in and out of improvisation…

Technical skill is one of the consolations of the artist, just as grammar and syntax are the writer’s consolation.  It requires no imaginative powers, no creativity; it is just the right way of doing things.  It can provide a formidable rest, allowing one legitimately to postpone or disengage from the uncertain encounter with creative forces. –Roger Lipsey

It’s the fusion between a growing technical skill base and a willingness to engage with mistakes and odd turns in the production process, that ultimately leads to discovery.  This is a realization I only recently came to while working on my glass blowing.  I was attempting to stretch out a glass bubble for a bottle, only to end up making a holy mess of things.  In doing so, though, I challenged myself to find a way to some kind of completed work, and I ultimately ended up making an amazing ornament for my efforts.  Along the way, I learned a lot about making glass ornament caps in larger sizes and developed sculptural techniques I’d put off.

Don’t keep score based on your masterpieces; keep score based on your successful “saves.”

The cult of technical prowess is something I was taught at an early age when I took up the flute.  Most children are taught an instrument through classical training, which emphasizes the ability to read sheet music and perform under the direction of a conductor.  This is perfectly understandable, because classical training fits into a school classroom well and gets the kids playing together as a group.  It does, however, leave huge gaps in one’s musical skill base (which are often not filled in until college, if ever).  More importantly, if my informal chit-chat with other former band geeks is reliable, it leaves a significant deficit in understanding the creative process of music.  Specifically, years of being subservient to a conductor and composer creates the impression that being a creator of music will happen when you’re sufficiently good at your instrument, creating a “I’m not good enough to create” trap.  On the contrary, writing music isn’t about being a good instrumentalist…it’s an orthogonal set of skills and requires that you accept that pieces must be fiddled with until they happen, which playing completed works will never explain.

I was, at one point, getting disillusioned with my glass work because I was starting to develop technical competence but wasn’t “finding my voice,” and this is a direct result of thinking that creativity is just technical skill on overdrive.  I actually considered quitting, since I’d found yet another medium where I couldn’t create.  Since I’ve realized the source of my confusion, though, I’ve put aside time each week to have one piece where I do something absolutely crazy and new and then work to make it come together without breaking.  In so doing, I’ve come into the challenge of putting new skills and tricks into my arsenal, which I end up recombining into new things, and I’ve started to see my pieces get more and more interesting over time.

So, if you’re like me, your “inner critic” isn’t reciting that old saw about not being good enough to be creative.  No, it’s repeating concepts you’ve been using your whole life to mythologize the artists that you love.  While I do believe that a little mythologizing is great for one’s role models, it’s important to realize that these myths also aren’t the whole truth.  Creativity is not a function of being possessed of genius, rather it is an endless process of remixing from things you think are cool and worth copying combined with a willingness to improvise as you go along and see where things end up.

Creativity, ultimately, is process rather than product.  Products just fall out along the way, documenting the history of the process.