Friday, 30 April 2010
Maisel's kind of creativity can be fiendishly productive. If you're doing, doing, doing, focussed for hours and days and weeks, all sorts of things start to appear.
I found academic work like that. The more I thought, and read, and wrote, the more ideas appeared. Sometimes they came at a speed I could hardly keep up with. Concentration is easy for me, if I'm interested; the problem is remembering to stop. And yet, despite the endless stream of emerging ideas and questions that my fiendish activity generated, it was when I did stop - to go for a walk, to finish for the day - that the really interesting connections emerged. This isn't news, I know. You probably have a pad and pencil by your bed for just such moments.
One of the things that interests me now is the balance between the two. If the most interesting ideas emerged when I backed off, why didn't I back off more? Why did I tire myself out engaging, bringing different ideas into contact with each other, letting words keep coming out onto the screen, if I would have had even better ideas if I'd walked away?? Perhaps those colleagues of mine, the ones who manage to do all the things I could never seem to fit in, had learnt this art....
It's as if all the time you're trying to make things happen with your conscious mind, trying so hard to create conditions that will result in novel appearances, there's a simultaneous, but different, process going on beneath the level of your conscious awareness, which you have no access to. The processes that are going on at this other level are effortless. They're like a natural law, like the tide. Or perhaps more like an ant colony - constantly moving, adjusting, processing, producing, shifting, responding. If you can get out of your own way, it seems you can sometimes create a little channel from this level, up, out, away from itself. If you're lucky, into your conscious world. Onto your page.
Someone commented recently on the amount of effort that must have gone into creating thinkpic. That's the weird thing. It was no effort at all. It just appeared.
Wednesday, 21 April 2010
Using emergence to think about creativity, you might say that the more interactions there are between sufficiently diverse elements (the complex adaptive system here is you - all of you - mind, body and emotion - thinking, doing, feeling - trying to survive), the more likely it is that something interesting will emerge.
The interactions might be between your mind and ideas in a text, or between your eyes and the marks you're making on a piece of paper, or between your history of experience and memory and a painting in an exhibition. The more you allow for the right kind of interactions, through time, the more likely it is that something will appear.
The appearing aspect of creative work is well documented. Artists might talk about it being as if something is drawing 'through' them; writers talk about characters in a novel 'having a life of their own', or of being 'guided' by something beyond themselves. This is an athiestic blog, so I'm not talking about anything other-worldly here (I'm not even interested in the word 'spiritual', I'm afraid....). Similarly, in science, numerous discoveries are documented as having appeared in dreams, or to have suddenly emerged into thought in some other way (eureka! etc).
When Maisel talks about trying to work yourself up into a frenzy of immersion, presumably he's trying to create the conditions that make it possible for this kind of emergence to take place. His ideas fit with, and contribute to, cultural ideas about creative people as tortured and driven; convoluted, miserable, possessed, obsessed, responding to an inner compulsion to work endlessly. This kind of focussed attention, the amount of time involved, the practice of actively making connections between diverse things, certainly make sense in terms of trying to generate conditions for the emergence of novel forms.
But then there's another model of creativity, the one I've been referring to throughout this blog, which talks about letting go, release, lack of forcing, allowing. This also seems to facilitate the emergence of novel forms, but perhaps through a different kind of mechanism? In this case, you're not increasing the nature, scope and intensity of the interactions, but actually reducing them. Letting go of busyness, doing, acting. Sitting, without action, and gradually lessening thought and intention, letting your mind and body become still.
In the space created by increasing nothingness, unexpected forms can rise silently to the surface, move into the place that has been made for them. Making space and stopping interactions, at least at the level of consciousness, perhaps allows for other, hidden kinds of movement, resulting in emergent forms that would otherwise never be noticed, or perhaps never even get a chance to be born. Anish Kapoor; 'an artist has to be able to sit in an empty room, and wait for something to happen'. Alice Walker, writing The Colour Purple, sitting in a cottage alone in the woods every morning, waiting to see if her characters would visit. If they didn't, she got up and went to chop wood.
Thursday, 1 April 2010
I keep coming back to the idea of emergence as a way of thinking about creativity. As well as being used in quite general ways, in everyday conversation, emergence has a particular meaning in relation to what might be called complex dynamic systems.
Some biological examples of this kind of system are ant colonies, beehives, human bodies, human brains, weather systems, and ecological systems in nature. Not without controversy, the features and behaviours of this kind of system have also been described in human-created systems such as cities, neighbourhoods, crowds, and financial systems. What all of these types of system have in common is that they are made up of numerous components (too many to measure, and with some degree of difference from each other), and these components are all connected in multiple ways (ie. one component might be connected with ten different parts of itself to thirty other, different systems). On top of this, these multiple, and multipley-connected, components, are all interacting, all of the time. They're interacting only with what's immediately connected to them, though (they have no idea what's going on in other parts of the system). The point of all this connection and interaction is that it makes the system continually responsive to changes in its environment; as things around it change, little bits of the system can immediately respond and make changes that will enable it to survive. This type of system is also open to its environment - it's not a closed system, but is constantly exchanging matter and energy with what's around it.
Two other things are important in understanding these systems. The first is the way it starts off (its 'initial conditions') and the second is that any such system is always dynamic, always in movement, and, it moves through time. When you put all these things together, you get emergence. What the hell is that, you may ask?
Emergence is actually very difficult to explain and understand if you want try to see it in a step by step way. The basic idea is that, when you have multiple components within this kind of system interacting through time in response to the immediate environment, every now and again some new kind of order, such as a new behaviour, for example, just suddenly seems to appear, as if from nowhere. The flock of birds suddenly changes direction, the financial market collapses, the mess of thoughts in your mind suddenly produces clarity. What makes this kind of occurence different from other processes is that you can't track the thing that emerges back, in a straightforward, linear way, to the things that gave rise to it.
Let's take the emergence of a thought or idea as an example. You can't say, ok, I thought that thing, and then that one, and then that one, and those three thoughts added up together make the three I currently see. One minute there are thoughts, and bits of thoughts, and non-thought feelings, and bodily movements (making a cup of tea, shuffling your papers), all mixed up together, and most of it only half conscious - and the next moment, you suddenly see the answer/know what to do/can write the sentence.
I want to build on this idea in relation to human creativity, which is why I've begun trying to explain it. If it seems confusing, that's normal. Ideas about emergence and dynamic systems are always hazy - that's one of the great things about these ideas - they absolutely resist a clear, step by step explanation. What I'm trying to explore in talking about creativity is, by its very nature, hazy, full of the unexpected and unseen. It seems to me that this requires a different kind of language, and a different kind of thinking, to the talk and thinking that always tries to wrap things up neatly....