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Archive for the ‘inspiration’ Category

One of my minor irritants is the way that the word “creativity” is used in our culture. Too often, it is applied too freely, while other times it is used in a way that suggests that the speaker has little sense of what creativity is about.

These mis-uses matter to me, because creativity is central to my life and self-image. In fact, I might summarize my life so far as a series of movies closer and closer to the point where I could focus on creativity – specifically, writing – and make a living from it. I have an idealistic view of creativity, considering it one of the highest values to which humans can aspire, and the expression of all that is best in us.

Taking the subject so seriously, I feel the slightest pinch of annoyance when it is used too loosely. These days, “creativity” is used in all kinds of places where it shouldn’t be – not just of a craft (which is sometimes just an art with a low social status), but of marketing, business strategy, or simply lifestyles. Frequently, “creative” almost becomes a synonym for “skillful” or “interesting.”

I can accept this usage as an analogy. Like a Venn diagram, all these things overlap to a certain degree with creativity; for example, they all involve skill, hard work, and ingenuity. But, for the most part, to describe such things as creative seems to exalt them more than they deserve, just as comparing an executive to a Japanese samurai or Antarctic explorer does. The connection is a bit of a stretch and should not be taken literally.

What creativity has that these other things lack is sincerity – an aspiration to achieve the highest results regardless of effort or sacrifice. Instead, the motivation of such things is more mundane – utilitarianism, selling products, getting a promotion, or closing a deal, perhaps. The purity of intent I associate with creativity is either totally absent from them or secondary. A marketing campaign may be apt or clever, but if you insist that it literally creative, then I can’t help thinking that we need another word for what a musician or a writer does.

I have the same sort of annoyance when I hear people talk about waiting for inspiration to strike – or, as I recently heard, someone talking about the time of day when they are most creative.

To a large extent, I can see scheduling your work for a time when you are least likely to be interrupted (although as I write that, I can’t help reflecting that if many writers, especially women with family or social demands, like Jane Austen or Sylvia Plath, had waited for the perfect moment, they never would have finished anything). And I appreciate the rare gift that arrives fully formed in my mind that needs only minor touchups to the first draft to complete it.

But, in my experience, the correlation between when you feel most creative and when you do your best work is practically non-existent. At times, a passage that feels like a gift from the gods becomes, in the cold light of revision sloppy, incomplete, or worthy only of deletion. Even more frequently, the passages that work best in my work originate, not in an instant of inspiration, but in reworking upon reworking. Most of the time, creativity seems to reside not in some magic attunement with the sources of inspiration, but in the ability to take pains to get something right. Yet I doubt that most people — even many artists — can be persuaded of the fact.

I suppose that both these misunderstandings about creativity reflect the high value that we place upon it. In modern industrial culture, creativity is widely seen as the highest form of accomplishment (consider how we remember artists but rarely business executives, and the importance of musicians and actors in popular culture). Everyone wants to be seen as creative, and many of us seem to want the maverick image that artists have had in our culture for the last two centuries. But, as these examples also prove, most of us have no real idea of what creativity might actually be.

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My friend Bob Ley has been an art collector as long as I’ve known him. The office where he practices psychology is carefully decorated with unique paintings and antiques – mostly modernist, with a tendency to primitivism and abstracts, but all of them a welcome change from the endless reprints of 19th century impressionists or the bland corporate art visible elsewhere. “I’ll never understand why my friends will pay $100 for a print of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and then another $400 for the frame,” he says, “When for the same price they could get an original work of art.” After my purchase of a custom West Coast bracelet a couple of weeks ago, I know what he means.

Buying original art may be expensive, but it’s also very satisfying. For one thing, in West Coast art, at least, it means experiencing another level of quality. I’ve long been aware of the vast difference in quality between the bracelets and masks in tourist shops in Vancouver and the true art galleries; you don’t need the price difference to see the difference in quality. But when you enter the world of custom art, you discover a new standard altogether. It’s not that the art galleries are full of shoddy work, or that you can’t find quality pieces in the tourist shops if you search carefully. Rather, there’s a freshness in custom work that you don’t usually see in designs knocked off for the tourist shops, or even for limited editions. Custom work tends to engage the artist in ways that other work doesn’t, simply because it’s unique.

For another, when you commission an original piece of art, you experience the pleasure of being a patron. Besides the beauty of the piece itself, you have the pleasure of knowing that, if not for you, the piece wouldn’t have come into existence. The artist, of course, is the primary creator, but, as patron, you have a minor secondary role. On a small scale, you can glimpse why Lorenzo de’ Medici was such an enthusiastic supporter of artists.

Even more importantly, you can view new art with a clean eye, in a way that’s rarely possible with works firmly enshrined in the canons of great art. Short of a radical step such as the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, I doubt that anyone can appreciate works from the high renaissance like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the same way that people in the sixteenth century could. We’ve not only seen these works too often, but we’ve been told too often what to think of them. While some appreciation can be gained by seeing such works in person as opposed to in a print or an illustration, for the most part we’ve lost the power to see these works for themselves. With newer, less familiar works, we can still see the accomplishment for themselves.

This ability is important, because living with art enriches and relaxes us. A room designed by an architect of genius is simply a comfortable place to live or work, although many people would be hard-pressed to notice or tell you why. A room decorated with art that you can still see with fresh eyes has much the same effect. Both are at the opposite end of the spectrum from public institutions with deliberately mediocre art. What’s more, such rooms become more comfortable as people spent more time relaxed in them; the way we use room really can create an impression or aura that we can respond to (which is why I don’t frequent the coffee shop in the old gatehouse of the BC Penitentiary – there’s been too much misery, however justified, in the place for it ever to be a place I’d care to linger).

In the same way, with my new bracelet, I walk a little straighter and my stride has a bit more of a bounce because I am always aware of its weight on my arm, and the way it catches the light. Moreover – even better than an artistic room or a room full of art – I carry the bracelet with me, and can enjoy a closer look at the design whenever I want.

That, really, is the ultimate pleasure in commissioning a new piece of art for yourself: You not only have a unique relation to it, but your life is broadened by an appreciation of something breathtaking and new.

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Inspirational poems and songs are pieces that reaffirm our core values and beliefs. This is not a great age for belief of any sort, so inspirational works are often equated with religious ones. However, even an agnostic like me can find inspirational poems and songs.

In my case, the situation is complicated by a temperament that requires that a piece has to have artistic merit as well as reaffirm in order to move me. I don’t expect inspirational works to necessarily demonstrate the same talent as poems or songs that I value as art, but, because many works that try to inspire wind up being insipid, they leave me massively unmoved. When I’m looking for inspiration, a Hallmark greeting card just won’t cut it. Still, over the years, I have found a few that satisfied me on both accounts.

For instance, earlier this year, I decided to write an email that might be hostilely received. As I psyched myself up to press the Send button, my mind flitted to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Looking Glass.” The poem is perhaps sexist in its assumption that aging is a distress to all women, but what I remember best is its insistence that sometimes you have to face up to what makes you afraid, even if the result is unpleasant.

The poem concerns Elizabeth I in late middle-age, stealing herself to look in the mirror:

Backwards and forwards and sideways did she pass
Making up her mind to face the cruel looking glass.

She is haunted, if only in her mind, by Mary Tudor and Robert Dudley, and, in the end she tells herself:

Backwards and forwards and sideways though I’ve been,
Yet I am Harry’s daughter, and I am England’s queen!

Then she draws herself up in front of the mirror, and sees what she must have known all along: That she is aging, and no longer beautiful. I always like to think that I’m the sort of person to face up to unpleasant truths, so the poem is apt to come back to me whenever I’m dealing with something whose results I may not like.

Another inspirational piece for me is Stan Roger’s “The Mary Ellen Carter.” The song is about a group of sailors – fisherman, most likely – whose ship goes down. They decide to salvage the ship, despite being mocked. The chorus apparently kept at least one man alive while trying to survive a shipwreck. It certainly kept me going in the worst period of my life:

Rise again! Rise again!
Let her name not be lost to the knowledge of men,
All those who loved her best and were with her till the end,
Will make the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again.

The song is sung when all the work is done, and the sailors plan to raise the ship tomorrow:

And the drunken lying rats
That left her to a sorry grave,
They won’t be laughing in another day.

There, Rogers leaves them to deliver the moral – the only moral, incidentally, that I have been able to tolerate:

And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go,
Turn to and put forth all your strength of hand and heart and brain,
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

Rise again! Rise again!
Though your heart it be broken, or life about to end,
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again!

Endurance, success being the best revenge, never giving in – yeah, I can get behind all of that.

More recently, OysterBand, another of my favorite musical groups, came up with a song that has always seemed a deliberate echo of “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Advising listeners to “lift your head up /gonna rise above,” they launch into the chorus:

And we’ll rise where shadows fall,
And we’ll fly where money crawls,
Looking out for a higher love,
Not gonna fall, gonna rise above.

And we’ll fly where shadows fall,
Till the pain can’t touch you at all,
Crazy things you were thinking of,
Rise above, rise above!

The independence and determination of this song also speaks to me.

Technically speaking, these aren’t the best works by any of these artists. Yet we all need some reinforcement of our core values from time to time, if only to get up on Monday morning. For better or worse, these are the works that keep me moving most often, although from time to time others join the play list: A stray line or two from Shakespeare, a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, and a satire by Robert Graves among them. I’m sure they all speak volumes about the kind of person I am.

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“All it takes is some grains of faith,
A few kilowatts of sweat and grace.”

– Ray Wylie Hubbard

One of the most persistent myths among wannabe writers is that they need to be inspired to write. However, professional writers know better. For them, inspiration is less a form of divine grace than a habit of mind. And, in some ways, it’s less important that the sweat of regular, disciplined work.

Oh, most professionals know the joy of being in what computer developers call “The Zone,” that trance-like state where you can see the whole of your current project laid out before you and can seemingly do no wrong. It’s a heady feeling, and probably explains why Isaac Asimov, when asked if he would rather write or make love, pointed out that he could write for twelve hours a day.

But here’s the secret: Work you do while inspired isn’t always flawless, or even better than what you write when the words come slowly. Sometimes, it’s complete junk. It just feels easier. Later on, you may even have trouble telling what you wrote while inspired from what you wrote while sweating every syllable.

That’s the main reason why most professional writers don’t worry about inspiration, or wait for it. Often, of course, they have no time to do so; for most of us, a deadline is the surest cure for writer’s block around. But, more importantly, it’s not reliable, and professionals soon learn from experience that it’s also over-rated.

Instead of striking a pose and waiting for the Muse – that favorite pastime of wannabes more in love with the image of the author than with writing – professionals soon learn to cultivate a state of mind where they are always watching for potential material. Writers of fiction are looking for plot elements and characterizations, or maybe the odd turn of phrase. Non-fiction writers like me are always looking for subjects that they can turn into articles. After a while, the search becomes automatic, a little piece of you that sits back and observes while the rest of you interacts with the world. Some writers even go so far as to keep a notebook or PDA at hand for jotting down notes, although many prefer to keep notes mentally.

(Personally, I think that mental notes make for richer material, since they can make new connections with the rest of the contents with your brain, while written notes just sit there lifelessly, but that’s just me. You might be different).

Once you have the habit of looking for material, you will rarely have trouble finding something to write about. For instance, I can almost always find four or five topics that relate to free software with an hour or so of thinking and browsing the Internet. Give me a free afternoon, and I can find enough topics to fill my quota for the month. As the American fantasist Fritz Leiber once wrote, “It’s part of my entire adjustment to life, to view things from the perspective of gathering story material.”

This approach to inspiration is one of the key differences between amateurs and professionals, but it’s not the only one. Just as importantly, writers write. It’s only amateurs who spend their time waiting for inspiration, or talking about what they plan to write. True writers sit down regularly – usually, daily – and write. They may be in different moods or states of health from day to day, and they may write more one day than another, but they write.

Why? Partly because Asimov’s joke is true: even if you don’t want to go as far as he did, writing is more fun than almost anything else. But, just as importantly, writing is like any skill or activity from singing to playing a sport: it’s easiest with practice. The more you write, the less effort it is. When you’re in practice as a writer, you no sooner have an idea than you start seeing seeing what points you can make about it and the gaps in it that you need to fill – to say nothing of the structure that you need to express it. Sometimes, how you develop an idea may change dramatically as you work with it, but, if you’re in practice, then you can usually see the possibilities early on.

Just as a trained runner often needs less warmup than a Sunday jogger, so a professional writer finds the act of writing easier. That, really, is the reward of disciplined work – although if you’ve never written regularly and long enough to experience it, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Of course, sweat also comes in with revision and editing. Possibly the best advice I’ve ever heard from a writer is Robert Graves’ comment that a writer’s best friend is the wastebasket. Many pieces of writing are made by careful editing or destroyed by its lack.

But editing, in my experience, is a far less desperate an activity than writing itself. By the time you get to editing, you know you have something to build on and improve. Compared to writing the first draft, editing is not nearly as harrowing – it’s usually just a matter of putting in the work. Editing is more an analytical process than a creative one, so in general it’s less mysterious than writing and easier to learn, even though it’s no less important.

These comments will seem obvious to most working professionals. However, I am equally sure that wannabe writers will read them, nod solemnly – and then go right back to their old habits of waiting for inspiration.

But if you’re ready to write seriously, then maybe they will reassure you that you’re doing the right thing. The romantic myths about writing are lovely, but they’re not a substitute for pragmatism and hard work. They no more make a successful writer than the myths about personal romance make for a successful marriage.

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