Monday, 30 April 2012

'how creativity works', again

A while ago I posted something about a new book about creativity called 'Imagination; How Creativity Works' by Jonah Lehrer. I was aware as I was posting that I seemed to be a bit intellectually disengaged from the idea of this book, and the ideas that were being extracted from it in the little video posted on brainpickings. What's wrong with me, I though, have I lost my intellectual curiosity about this thing that is at the centre of my life?

Then a week or so later, there was a review of the book in the Guardian by Steven Poole, who completely slated the book. He begins...

How did Bob Dylan write 'Like a Rolling Stone'? The pop science writer Jonah Lehrer wasn't there, but he pretends to know anyway.

He rips into the book from every angle, many of them being angles that I myself subscribe to, such as, just because we can identify the area of the brain that lights up, or the chemicals present, what does this tell us about the lived experience or ongoing dynamics of creative activity? It's not that the electrical correlates or chemical consituents aren't interesting, from an electrical or chemical point of view. It's just that knowing, for example, that oil paintings are made from canvas, pigment and oil, doesn't really get you much further on in working out how to make your own painting sing out in the way that your heart and your imagination constantly tantalise you with believing might be possible.

This morning a radio programme called Start the Week on Radio 4 devoted itself entirely to talking about creativity, and Jonah Lehrer was one of the discussants. I found it much more interesting listening to a chemist, a musician, a novelist and Jonah Lehrer having a chat about this than reading a textual argument about neurology or a critic's rant.

I'll perhaps try to summarise some of the discussion in a future post. But overall, I find myself struggling with the analysis of creativity as this seems to often be presented in books and discussions. For example, the people on this programme were all very successful, so anything that was said 'about creativity' was actually specific to some fairly exceptional people.

The musician/composer, for example, said that he got up very early, worked in the morning, and the afternoon, and the evening (though did take some time off then), and didn't drink, take drugs or smoke. Well, that's certainly interesting to hear about. But in the context of the idea of 'finding out about creativity' (as if it's some kind of phenomenon that can be pinned down and described) I wonder how much that helps the rest of us. It might be tempting to think that 'this is how you should work/be working if you want be really creatively successful'. But maybe you actually have to be pretty successful to be able to work like this (he apparently has 22 projects on the go). How much of what he describes is what creativity might look like when it's working in the world, connected to people who phone you up and ask you to do projects (which you'll be paid for), and who you regularly meet with for feedback and creative exchange?

There seems to be a kind of 'us and them' implicit in these discussions. There are those genius, 'really creative people', who are recognised and rewarded, and there are the rest of us. This view often seems to assume the 'god-given talent' view of creativity - the 'you've either got it or you haven't'. But what I'm interested in is something else.

What I'm interested in is not about 'putting yourself out there' and hoping you'll be rewarded or approved of. I'm regularly asked why I'm not exhibiting my painting, and in a conversation the other day someone suggested that perhaps the reason that some of the people I know don't realise that music is every bit as important to me was because I don't perform publicly. But right now I'm not interested in exhibiting myself, or performing. I'm interested in freeing my spirit through the act of creating; of responding to the world as it moves through me. I don't mean spirit in the 'spiritual' sense (don't know what that means), but spirit in the sense of that part of you that wants to laugh and run and skip and kick a football, to twirl around with your arms outstretched just for the sheer delight of it.This kind of freeing, it seems to me, should be possible for anyone.

I guess that's why I write this blog. It's not likely to be of interest to those who are comfortable exhibiting and performing, people who already get up every day and work all day long at their creative outputs. It's about uncoupling the idea of creativity from all those other ideas about specialness and talent, and exploring it as something else.

One of the really interesting things about this, though, is that when you read people like Green and Werner , and if you start to do work with people like Kath Burlinson and Paul Oertel, they all seem to be talking about just this kind of responsive freedom. Which suggests, in turn, as they all work with professional artists, that the 'inner freeing' thing is not just something that is relevant to those of us who are all clogged up like rusty drains.


  1. I really enjoyed that Steve Poole review - blimey, withering or what!? - I subscribe to Lehrer's RSS feed and have his new book but, as with so many other creativity advocates, it's probably best to be deeply skeptical of them (though there are many worse than Lehrer), which is probably why I found the Radio 4 discussion vaguely cringeworthy, listening to people talking about how they're oh so creative darling! Yuck. Thanks for the links.

    Great post by the way, though I don't really believe you about rusty drains - that's the other danger of reflection isn't it: self criticism?

  2. Yeah, I was thinking about the drains. I think maybe I'm confusing the work being slow with the idea of 'blocked'. I suspect that I have a model in my head which says that, having given up the day job to do this, I should be painting 8 hours a day. But what I'm learning is that it's a whole, not an obsession, and many other things have to be happening simultaneously with the painting. The 10,000 hour thing is very distracting. It may be true, literally, in terms of technique. But technique does not a painter, or a musician, make, as far as I can see.


  4. Oh mi god, brilliant, I might have to repost this. The junk seems to go with the territory, doesn't it? And in its own curious way, must fuel the process (if we thought our work was fab and were quite satisfied, would we do any work at all?)...

  5. Good isn't it? I quote it a lot - not least to myself!



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