Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

In the last couple of generations, modern industrial culture has seriously reduced the range of acceptable emotions. Certain emotions are not only unpleasant, the conventional wisdom goes, but should be avoided at all costs. However, the older I grow, the more I become convinced that this attitude is not only wrong, but actively harmful.

One of the most obvious examples of this attitude is the insistence on extroversion. Today, the model of the well-adjusted person has become an outgoing optimist who lives and works in groups, and feels uncomfortable alone. Not only are projects in schools and businesses increasingly done in teams, but even yoga and meditation, originally intended for private reflection, is done primarily in groups. By contrast, anyone with a preference for occasional privacy is seen as maladjusted at best, and at worst a potential perpetrator of another campus shooting.

This either-or distinction is a distortion of Carl Jung’s original concept, which described two poles of behavior, and was never intended to label people. Nor did Jung intend to condemn either extreme. Equating introversion with maladjustment is as accurate as it would be to condemn extroverts for being irresponsible and unable to focus; both extremes might include such behaviors, but actually cover a far broader ranger of behavior.

More importantly, as Anthony Storr points out in Solitude, many forms of creativity and original thought seem to require extended periods of introverted behavior. For that matter, the most successful forms of collaboration tend to be like the one used in free software, in which people work alone in the initial stages of their works, then collaborate for peer review and tweaking. By devaluing introversion, we are probably also undermining creativity – which may explain why movies with three or more names on the script rarely produce anything memorable.

Similarly, certain states of mind, such as depression and anger, are seen not only to be unpleasant, but to be avoided and medicated as quickly as possible. More – any decisions or conclusions reached in these undesirable states are questioned, or excused as being the indication of an unsound mind.

In some cases, that might be so. But always? Probably not. Depression and anger are natural reactions to events like the death of someone close, or being treated unfairly.. While dwelling endlessly on such things is unhealthy, accepting them for a certain amount of time is probably necessary for coming to terms with them. Denying this need, or trying to shorten the time in which such emotions are indulged may be as mentally unhealthy as removing a cast before a bone has had time to knit back together is unhealthy physically.

As for these emotions offering a skewed version of reality, why do we assume that the optimism that we believe is typical of a well-adjusted person is any more accurate of a perception? Personally, I have seen more projects – and companies – spiral downward because of decisions made by an optimist who was unable to admit when something was going wrong. A depressed person might at least anticipate problems so they could be countered, or admit problems when actually faced with them. In the same way, an angry person might drive themselves harder for success. Instead of accepting only one attitude as realistic, I suspect that we need to accept a much wider range of emotions as sometimes offering useful perceptions.

Yet another example is the nervousness and anxiety typical of someone who moves into a new job or set of responsibilities. When you stop to think (and even when you don’t), there are valid reasons for feeling uneasy. There are many things you can’t know about your new position, and you want to prove yourself to colleagues and ultimately become a success.

Many athletes and performers recognize such feelings – actors call them “flop sweat.” But rather than pretending that these feelings don’t exist, they worry when that not having such feelings will lead to a flat and uninspired performance. The trick, they will tell you, is to control these feelings, to channel them into the performance. If you can do that, you will have the extra edge that leads to outstanding performance.

However, we don’t admit that flop sweat is natural, let alone teach people how to cope with it. Instead, we give it a name like Impostor Syndrome, elevating it to a psychiatric condition – which except in a small minority of cases, it usually is not – giving the sufferers one more thing to worry about and elevating the feelings into some vast, impersonal force. Instead of teaching them how to reduce the anxiety by practice or planning, we encourage the sufferers to give themselves affirmations, or seek the approval of others. We encourage them to look for placebos rather than solutions that are known to work, and, as we do so, we are probably both preventing the development of competence and encouraging mediocrity.

I am not the sort of Puritan who believes that suffering is necessary for success, or needs to be sought out. But I do believe that it must be confronted directly, not avoided. Too often, in our panic to avoid the least unpleasantness, we limit ourselves and short-circuit the processes that are necessary for accomplishment and competence. We mean well, but in enforcing extroversion and pleasantness, we may also be suppressing necessary and useful emotions.

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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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In the six weeks since my partner died, I have spent much of my spare time cleaning the townhouse. Neither of us were particularly tidy people – although we both placed a high value on hygiene – and we hadn’t done a thorough cleaning in years. She had been sick a long time, and in the last few years, we had had better things to do. Recently, I have been undoing the years of neglect, and finding, somewhat to my surprise, that I am enjoying the process of tidying, and finding it both satisfying and therapeutic.

For a long time, I have referred to reducing clutter as “easing the karmic burden.” That is meant as a wry reference to the idea of not burdening yourself with possessions, but it seems to me literally true. Getting rid of non-essentials feels very much like organizing myself, or perhaps getting rid of distractions.

Then, too, I suppose that creating order out of chaos is one definition of creativity. Organizing my desktop or library may not be actually creative, but it feels like it is. In a milder way, the sense of accomplishment that comes from tidying feels much the same as that when I complete an article or a poem.

In the last six weeks, those feelings have been especially important to me. But, even more to the point, I’ve needed something meaningful or useful as a distraction from grief. I haven’t been capable of much original effort (which makes writing articles painful, let me tell you), but tidying has been something I could accomplish without a great deal of thought.

Moreover, in this case, tidying has been a way of dealing with grief. As I sort through a closet, I remember when something was bought, or who gave it to whom, and what we said at the time. I find parts of our lives that I had forgot about, or even parts of Trish’s that I only knew vaguely, or not at all – something I would have said was impossible after all the years of our marriage. I have even discovered gifts that she had bought for me, but never given. At times, I’ve broken down while cleaning, and worked with streaming eyes, or had to sit down and rest because I was overwhelmed.

I sometimes think that, had I known the scope of the task I was undertaking, I never would have started it. But, mostly, I think I wouldn’t have missed the experience for any reason. In tidying my external environment, I’ve been doing some internal sorting as well. If I finish the process in a few weeks, as I intend, in many ways I’m going to miss it.

I don’t know if I will keep the townhouse as tidy as I’ve already made several rooms and plan to make the rest. I think I will, at least for a while, because the result appeals to the austere side of my nature. But if I backslide, that wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen, because the effort of tiding will have already served its purpose for me.

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The Geek Feminist Blog, which is always a source of intelligent reading as I start my daily routine, recently posted an answer to question about how to maintain self-confidence. The poster responded with suggestions, several of which were about how to boost self-esteem – for instance, talk to supportive friends, celebrate your accomplishments, and “don’t forget to be awesome,” which apparently means to feel good about yourself and what you do. However, what neither the poster nor most of the commenters on the entry ever seemed to consider is that self-doubt might have any advantages, or, at the very least, be preferable to self-esteem.

One of the peculiarities of North American culture is that it emphasizes the extrovert. In the popular conception, to be confident and outgoing is to be successful – and not just at one end of a personality perspective.

By contrast, to be diffident and private is nearly synonymous with sociopathy. Geeky high school kids, for example, are widely viewed as the ones most likely to gun down their classmates.

Yet, when you stop to think, both these views fall far short of reality.

Confidence is based on experience, on having gained an understanding of a situation or the ability to handle a situation. But the problem is that North America favors the appearance of confidence – especially in men – and is careless about whether it is real or not. The result is a culture in which, all too often, criticism is ignored and those who argue risk being branded “not a team player.” The dangers of risk-taking are ignored, because to doubt is to show a lack of of confidence and to reveal yourself as being less than leadership material.

Sometimes, the result pays off, because audacity can take people by surprise. But, if you look around business, more often the result is rash, ill-considered, or just plain wrong decisions whose shortcomings a moment’s reflection would have revealed.

For instance, I once worked for a company that brought in a CEO armed with the latest managerial theories. His inevitable response to any company financial crisis was to purge the staff. He would protect his officer team, but otherwise his purges were random. Frequently, he fired key employees who were the only ones who understood major parts of the software that the company was producing. Not that he meant to fire key employees, but the problem was he couldn’t recognize them and was just as likely to fire them as anybody else.

The result? Survivors were demoralized, because not even the jobs of key players were safe. Often, a few months later, the key players were hired back at the more expensive rates of consultants. Other times, the company blundered on alone, trying to recover the lost knowledge instead of doing original development. Four purges and two years later, the company sold its resources and ceased business. What looked like bold and decisive action to the board of directors in the long-term destroyed the company because it was uninformed.

By contrast, self-doubt carried to extremes causes indecision. But what few people seem to consider is that, kept within reasonable limits, self-doubt can be a healthy and creative attitude. Where the artificially confident plunge unthinkingly ahead, the self-doubter looks for information and considers alternatives. Afraid they have left something out, they ask for feedback from other people. Before they act, they double-check, and try to allow some flexibility. While they may miss opportunities that require immediate response, the self-doubters are far less likely than the self-confident to do something wrong – or, if they do, they may have a plan to correct or mitigate the problem.

In other words, doubting yourself can be a source of creativity and painstaking. In fact, of all the accomplished writers and artists I have known, and of all the entrepreneurs I have known who were successful over a period of years or decades, not one of them fell into the category of the artificially self-confident. They might have a facade of confidence, especially the entrepreneurs and especially the men, yet talk to them in private and you would be in no doubt that they were self-doubters. Some of them were not the most naturally gifted, yet they succeeded because their self-doubts drove them to compensate for their perceived deficiencies.

What I have suggested seems a paradox: those who appear most likely to succeed aren’t. Yet I think this paradox is central to creativity and planning.

Robert Graves expressed the paradox elegantly in his poem, “Broken Images:”

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

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(The following is a recreation and expansion of the talk – or maybe “rant” is a better word – that I gave at the Tazzu WordPress Camp on April 30. The talk was titled by Rastin Mehr, but I decided to keep it for the sake of irony.)

I’m a little surprised to be here tonight. Two years ago, the last thing I thought I’d be doing was blogging.

Back then, I thought that bloggers were self-important amateurs. When I looked at the topics for blogging conferences, I was reminded of academic seminars, and it all looked so serious and earnest that I wanted to shake the nearest blogger and say, “For God’s sake, well you get over yourself? Why don’t you just shut up and write?”

For me, blogging was like vanity publishing, or playing tennis with the net down: You could do it, but wouldn’t you always wonder if you were good enough to make it on your own?

Yes, I know there are a handful of bloggers who are respected for their in-depth coverage of a subject and who have essentially become professional journalists. Pamela Jones of Groklaw springs to mind. But these bloggers probably would have been well-known anyway, and had they gone the traditional routes to recognition, on the way they might have shed some of the amateur self-indulgence that often still mars their work.

As for the majority of bloggers, they’re never going to be recognized and they’re never going to monetize their blog in anyway. In fact, even most of those who succeed in living off their blog are probably only going to do so by focusing on the marketing to the expense of content – if not their integrity.

Yet here I am today, a blogging addict. I still haven’t changed my opinions of most blogs, yet despite my reservations, I still believe that the worst of them has value.

Why I blog

My own reasons for blogging are probably peculiar. I started because, while I am a professional journalist who covers free and open source software, there are other subjects that I want to write about. Mostly, I stay away from free software subjects, although I know that I can get thousands of hits a day if I discuss them. But I can do the same and get paid for it, so I have no great interest in increasing my audience.

Still, for a professional (which really is just a name for an exhibitionist with respectable outlets for their proclivities), writing implies an audience, no matter how small. In fact, philosophically speaking, a writer without an audience can hardly be said to be a writer at all. Even Samuel Pepys, the famous secret diarist, seems to have developed the idea of a future readership as he went on. So, if I’m going to write, I do want a few people to react to it, if only a handful.

For me, writing a blog entry is a warmup for my paid work, or a way to bleed off excess energy when I’m done for the day. It’s a place where I can experiment with structure and subject matter, and learn about the short personal essay as an art form. Sometimes, I even use it as a sandbox for subjects that I later write a paid article for, its content enriched by the feedback from commenters.

But all these are idiosyncratic reasons. Why do I think blogging holds value for anyone?

Reasons for blogging

My answer begins with my past occupation as a university composition instructor. I used to ask students to keep a journal during the semester with a minimal number of entries, to be graded simply on whether it was done or not done. Early on in my thinking, I realized that, if I were still teaching, I would have graduated to asking students to keep blogs. The trendiness of blogging would encourage them in a way that private journals never could.

The reasons I assigned a journal also applies to blogs. Unless you are doing an entry level manual job, the ability to write clearly is always going to give you an edge in your profession. The medium of your writing, whether it’s paper or a computer file doesn’t matter. And if you want to write well, the only way to do it is to keep in practice. You wouldn’t expect to play a guitar well or run ten kilometers easily if you only tried once every three weeks, so why would you imagine that writing is any different?

More importantly, writing is an ideal way to explore your thoughts. I think it was the American writer William Faulkner who said he wrote to learn what he thought on a particular subject, and that idea is in tune with my own experience. It’s only after I stop researching a subject and start thinking how to structure an article that I know my opinion on most of what I write about. When an interviewee asks me what the point of an article will be, most of the time, my only honest answer would be, “I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet.” So, if my own experience holds true for others, writing is a way to self-knowledge. Through the act of writing, you can under both your subject and yourself better.

Even more importantly, writing is one of the lowest-entry creative tasks that you can do. Admittedly, blogging requires access to some relatively expensive hardware, but a computer is relatively cheap compared to say, a painter’s supplies or a dancer’s outfits. If you have to, you can even do blog from a public library terminal, reducing your costs to next to nothing. And if you believe with Abraham Maslow, that everyone has a basic need for creativity – well, how can you argue with a trend that gives everyone who wants it a means of self-expression?

All this, and blogging is fun, too. For some, it’s a way to keep in touch with their friends. And for those who, in the words of Ray Wylie Hubbard, “are condemned by the gods to write,” doing so becomes nothing short of addictive. And if you are an addict (“Hello, my name is Bruce, and I’m a writing junkie”), then you know that nothing quite compares. Personally, I’ve always appreciated the response that science fiction writer Isaac Asimov made when asked if he would rather make love or write: “I can write for twelve hours a day.”

In this commercial, supposedly hard-headed days, these reasons for valuing something may be slight. And it’s true – blogging has more to do with a liberal education than going to law school or getting your MBA. For most of those who blog, the activity is not going to pay off, definitely not in the short term and almost certainly not in the long term. Get used to it.

Yet contrary to the conventional wisdom, choosing to do something without the potential for a return can be neither stupid nor naive. When you’re talking about something like blogging, it means you have your priorities straight, and you know the intrinsic worth of what you’re doing.

I have no claim to wisdom or influence, but, if I did, I’d urge bloggers to stop taking themselves so seriously and just enjoy what they are doing. If you’re blogging, you’re helping yourself to think better and can have fun while you do so. I mean, what more joy do you need? In my experience, money come and goes, but personal growth stays with you forever.

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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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