I’m going to be writing about what it means to be creative, which will lead to some advice about how to be creative. My advice won’t be usual, though, and it may even be a little disturbing, but I think it will be an accurate representation of the creative process for many people. There is other, less disturbing advice on being creative out there, and I advise you to seek that out too. But the advice I’m going to give here will probably disturb you unless you’ve experienced what I’m talking about or unless you’re a psychopath. If you’re a psychopath, please, read on. You’ll enjoy this. Much of the other advice out there really is good, by the way. If you’re not interested in the voice of the psychopath, seek it out. All of it will have some validity. I’d recommend seeking it out anyhow.
I’m going to start by illustrating my points from a couple of films: New York Stories and Bullets Over Broadway.
New York Stories is an anthology film featuring three short films by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen respectively. Scorsese’s and Coppola’s films aren’t at all characteristic of their usual work and are wonderful, magical, and worth watching. Allen’s contribution is a hilarious abstract of his entire life’s work. If you can pick up or stream these films, don’t pass them by.
Scorcese’s short, Life Lessons, is about New York artist Lionel Dobie (perf. Nick Nolte) and his much younger live-in protégé and lover Paulette (perf. Rosanna Arquette) immediately before a big opening for one of Dobie’s shows. They have become estranged but are still living together. Dobie remains sexually obsessed with Paulette, while Paulette continues living with Dobie to be mentored by him and to receive some confidence in and validation of her work as an artist.
He continually withholds his praise, however, always coming back to, “Well, what do you think?”, which increasingly frustrates her. She, in turn, teases him sexually almost to the point of torture while still withholding herself from him, largely as punishment for his refusal to validate her work. I think she would even have been happy with a clear invalidation, for that matter — so that she could know she was wasting her time. But she didn’t get anything from Dobie either way. This dysfunctional dynamic, combined with how difficult it is to live with Dobie (he can only paint with his music on at almost concert level volumes), ultimately drives her away in a rage right before his show.
But what’s particularly interesting about the film is its depiction of the artistic process. The more tense, dysfunctional, and intense this dysfunction became, the better Dobie was able to paint. Her screaming and their shared frustration seemed to fuel him creatively. On the night of the show, he attends alone, and we see him recruit a new young female protégé, one clearly hoping to be mentored and clearly intended to serve as perverse inspiration for his next project.
Now just hold this picture in your mind while I move on to the next film: Bullets Over Broadway. Bullets is about young, idealistic playwright David Shayne (perf. John Cusack) who seems to be seeking fame with marginal talent. He cuts a deal with a mob boss to get financing for his play: in exchange for financing, the play will star the mob boss’s girlfriend, Olive Neal (perf. Jennifer Tilly). To both keep her safe and to make sure that David lives up to his end of the bargain, the boss assigns hitman Cheech (perf. Chaz Palminteri) to attend rehearsals.
In the course of rehearsing the play, however, David’s bad writing is confronted by the professional actors he hired. Cheech, sitting in the position of the audience and the critic, virtually rewrites the play with David as it is being rehearsed: Cheech has a talent for character, narrative, pacing, and lines that David doesn’t. In short, Cheech is a real writer.
When the play goes to performance, it is universally praised, with the exception of Olive’s acting. Olive is presented not only as a bad actress but as something of an idiot. When that becomes apparent to everyone, Cheech does what needs to be done: he drives her out to the docks and shoots her, dumping her body in the water. Olive’s part is then played by a professional actress and the play goes on to be widely acclaimed and to a national tour.
What I’d like us to consider here are two characteristics of the artist beyond talent:
1. You’re willing to kill for your work. Short of that, you’re certainly willing to do anything else. It’s the work that matters.
2. What you think about your work is what matters. You know that because you’re the artist. You may listen to others, but in the end, it’s what you think that matters.
Now, you’re reading this post to learn to develop your creativity. I have two questions for you:
1. Are you willing to kill for your work? No, I’m not asking metaphorically. I want to know if you’re really willing to kill someone if that’s what it took to perfect a great work of art. What are you really willing to do to create something great? For anyone with any kind of moral compass, the answer is always “No,” so let me follow up with another question: If it really came down to it, would you at least be seriously tempted?
2. Do you think external validation for your work is irrelevant, at least while you are creating it?
If you don’t answer “Yes” to both of those questions, you’re not really an artist yet, and your creativity will be hampered. You’re in the position of Paulette, who wants to please an audience and get praised for it (in this case, Dobie), or David, who wants to get famous. But you’re not focused on the work itself. You’re focused on drawing external resources inward (which is narcissism) instead of projecting internal resources outward (which is creativity).
Both films affirm this answer in their own ways. Dobie’s refusal to validate or invalidate Paulette’s work was actually the best thing for her, the thing most likely to transform her into an artist. Asking, “What do you think?” directed her to the only question that matters, at least during the creative process. He was trying to get her to fall back upon her own resources, to exercise her own critical judgment of her own work, to act and think like she had some idea about what she was doing.
Everyone wants a great review: don’t get me wrong. But while you’re creating, what you think is primarily what matters. Getting feedback on the finished product — if the feedback is professional, good, and focused on your intent for your work — that helps too. But in the end, it’s what you think that really matters. But do you know what needs to matter even more than your opinion of the work? More than anything else, in fact, even more than you yourself? The work.
Not your reputation, your praise, your recognition, your self-image as an artist, your theory of art, your ideals about art, or the politics of your art: just the work itself. That’s why Allen’s representation of the true artist was willing to kill to perfect his play. It was easy for him because he was a hitman, but I think the artist part of him would have been just as willing to kill himself for his work if, somehow, that is what it took to perfect it. At least in theory: in reality, that’s never the case. These suicides are generally by pseudo-artists seeking fame.
If you know what it’s like to selflessly love your children, I think you know what I’m talking about, but I only say that with the caveat that to develop as an artist you need to understand that your work really isn’t your baby. That means you’re willing to sacrifice anything within the work itself to perfect the work. The real killing takes place during the creative process, within the creative work itself.
Next, I’d like to return to the idea that creativity is the act of projecting internal resources outward. It’s not unusual, of course, to see an artist’s work as a representation of his or her experiences. Perhaps the best statement to this effect is Wordsworth’s 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads. But that’s only partly what I’m talking about.
What I really mean to allude to here is the artist’s management of emotional resources to create art (also the subject of Wordsworth’s Preface, by the way). When you create anything, you’re usually going to have to tap in to some reserve of emotional resources that allows you to create, or to some defining experience that has somehow created the person that you are, or to a compelling emotional need. Whatever that emotional core is, you will draw from it to create, and your creations will somehow be reflective of that.
Now I’m not talking about “writing what you know,” and I’m not claiming that all art is autobiographical. That is dealing with art in the realm of fact: character, plot, setting, etc. Content is interchangeable: the emotional core of a work is what I’m talking about. What makes Stephen King keep writing horror? What makes Nicholas Sparks keep writing romance? Why did Zane Grey focus on adventure and the west? I have a friend who is an aspiring novelist who, years ago, left his wife to live with another woman for awhile. It didn’t last long: he returned to his wife, his daughters are healthy and beautiful and grown up and married, and he’s still married to his wife and childhood sweetheart. But that interruption of his marriage still haunts him and inspires a lot of his work. He writes about very dark, even demonic things, but he writes about them from an ethical position, even if those ethics are never specifically articulated in the work itself. He isn’t the demon. He’s just observed it very closely and even held its hand for awhile, and he still remembers what it looks and feels like.
Now I’d like to add a caveat here: not everyone writes like this. Some writers (let’s just talk about writers for now) — and these are among the most productive professionals — see writing as a bag of tricks that they can manipulate expertly to any effect. But this meme here exists for a reason: talking about your art is a seemingly narcissistic enterprise. That’s why I started this post with a longish discussion of two films. It’s too easy to spend too much time talking about yourself when writing about the subject of creativity.
The problem is, if you’re a writer writing about creativity, you have to talk about yourself (viz. Wordsworth). So please bear with me as I talk a little bit about myself right now to illustrate in more detail. I am going to try to limit this self talk to what is most useful while discussing creativity. When I first started writing creatively — mostly poetry, and this back in the late 80s and 90s — I found my emotional life became something of a rollercoaster. I found myself releasing emotions that I wasn’t aware existed. What I’d been before that was a generally affable Mr. Spock with some temper and stress problems. My main way of confronting the world was rationally and logically. That’s why I pursued a Ph.D. in English rather than an M.F.A. even though I was interested in writing creatively. Ph.D.-style writing came more easily to me.
When I started teaching Creative Writing: Poetry at my current institution I found myself writing poetry again. I was past graduate school, past my dissertation, soon to be past my book, so I was able to write something other than papers. And again I confronted the emotional rollercoaster. I started writing again, seriously, early this year: again another emotional rollercoaster, though perhaps this time prompted by rather than creating one. And this is scary: I found myself on rare occasion manipulating my interactions with strangers in order to be able to create something from them (And I mean total strangers, not anyone I’d ever had more than one conversation with, so if you know me, quit worrying, at least for now).
I do like messing with the people I know, but that’s a form of play, and they always know what’s going on. Okay, almost always, and I usually try to tell them if they don’t. But this was different: it was more along the lines of that U2 song “The Fly“: “It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest / It’s no secret that ambition bites the nails of success / Every artist is a cannibal / Every poet is a thief / All kill their inspiration / And sing about the grief.” My basic ethos is that you don’t use people to achieve ends. I’m very Kantian that way. But I found myself doing it.
I was willing to kill for my art.
I think I’m okay with that, but I’m watching myself very closely.
But more to the point about the creative process (see how narcissism slips in so very easily?): when I am able to write something, I have to manipulate emotional material. And that emotional material has to be linked to a word, an idea, or an image. But once I have distinct emotional material linked to a distinct image or word or line, I can write. I usually think next of poetic form — which poetic form is best suited to this content — and then I write.
Now I’ve been publishing my poems on my blog since about January of this year, and I’m moving toward publishing my first book of poetry. In every case I found some emotional content, latched onto it consciously and deliberately, found words for it, and wrote. But I’d like you to consider the variety of emotional content that we experience every day: it ranges from deep, long-term commitments to fleeting thoughts. However, when you turn any of those into a creative work, they all develop the same profile: they seem big and important.
That’s just not always the case subjectively, though. I have had people close to me on more than one occasion ask me some specific questions about my personal life because of the poems I’ve written. I totally understand that: the questions always reveal the insights of a friend who knows me. And if every poem that I wrote had the same emotional profile, particularly the one implied by the poem, I would need friends asking those questions.
Furthermore — and here we’re getting into territory that helps us interpret as well as create art — whenever I grab an emotion and turn it into a poem it becomes something else. Whatever the emotion was that I first relied upon to create is transformed in the creative process, so that the emotion communicated through the work is in somewhat different form than the emotion present in the work. T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” has become for me, therefore, more than a significant theoretical work from the early twentieth century. I now understand it as a personal statement with some applicability to me.
So, you’ve read this far: very far. About 2500 words far. I think you deserve to have it all boiled down to a few bullet points. So here you go. If you want to create,
- Care about the work itself above all else.
- As a corollary:
- Forget about yourself: think only about the work.
- Forget about being a writer or artist. Focus on writing or creating art.
- Forget about being creative. Focus on creating.
- Forget about what other people think. What does the work do for you?
- And forget that self-conscious assumption that your work is crap, which is always just fear of rejection.
- Do whatever it takes to grab that emotion that will allow you to create.
- Create. If you want to be creative, create.
I’d like to conclude by articulating an unspoken assumption that’s been guiding my thoughts so far. You actually need to know something about your art. I’ve been able to refer to a couple of texts about creativity here only because I’ve read them. You need to train your knowledge of your art academically (I don’t necessarily mean for college credit, but by studying the field), and you need to train or develop your taste. If you don’t develop your taste, you’ll be one of the worst kinds of artists: you will believe that only your own opinion about the work matters, and your opinion will suck. You’ll be an idiot about your own work. Good luck with that.
Final bit of advice: quit thinking about being creative. Quit studying being creative. Quit reading about being creative. Go out and create something. Above all else, quit being such a chickenshit. Create. Become a god.
Check out Miley Cyrus’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”
Can we forget the tongue and the nudity and the rest of the circus for a minute and check out the music?
Now once you consider the music: she nails it. I think Page and Jones should forget about recording with Plant and record with Cyrus. Call the band “Tongue Zeppelin.”
I’m not interested here in “Remember 9-11″ jingoism or patriotic speeches. I do want us to remember 9-11, of course. I want us to never forget what it must be like to be a bombing victim. I want us to remember how that event brought us all together. I want us to remember what we are still sacrificing in terms of privacy and liberty for a feeling of greater safety. I would like us to remember that we live in a dangerous world, what it feels like to confront that danger up close and personally, and I would like us to ask ourselves what we’re doing as a country to make this world either safer or more dangerous than it already is. But that’s not my focus right now.
What I would like to write about instead is my personal memory of the events of 9-11, particularly teaching college during 9-11. The Fall semester of 2001 was my first semester teaching a college course all by myself as a third-year graduate student. It was Freshman Composition, of course: first year college writing. Freshman Comp. courses aren’t so much content oriented as skill oriented: students need to learn to write certain kinds of essays, and that’s it, so once they learn content related directly to that skill, they can write about whatever they want. Instructors then pick whatever readings they decide are the best and most interesting for that particular class, and students do their writing assignments based on those readings.
For further context, I would like to place myself geographically. I attended graduate school at Drew University, which is located In Madison, NJ. Drew is about thirty miles due west of lower Manhattan, so it takes about an hour to get to Penn Station by train from Madison’s train station, making Madison a commuter town for people working in lower Manhattan. When I first researched the area, I found out it was one of the top ten most expensive places to live in the US at the time. IT and Finance people who work in NYC live in Madison and commute there daily. At least some of my students were local and had parents who worked in the financial district in NYC.
Now, can you guess what I’d assigned that semester? Among all of my readings, I’d assigned two readings from Salman Rushdie and Edward Said, both of which related to western imperialism and the Middle East. And can you guess what we were discussing the first day of class after 9-11? You got it. Yes, I was discussing Middle Eastern postcolonial theory in class my first class meeting after 9-11 during my first semester teaching.
Now forget the content for a minute. I had students in class that day who knew someone who died when the Twin Towers collapsed. Everyone was in shock — the whole world was in shock. But it hit my students literally close to home. We could see the smoke rising from the collapsed buildings for weeks after the event. It seemed like it was just always there. I remember hating the sight of it after about a week but not being able to ignore it or look away.
What did I do in class that day? I barely remember. This was my first semester teaching college. I remember I let students express their grief. I remember carefully discussing the content of the readings. I remember more shock and grief than anger at the time. I remember sitting down at the front of the class to talk rather than standing up. I remember over the next few weeks talking to angry male students who wanted to drop out of college to join the Army, and I remember trying to talk them out of it, or at least delay: If you join ROTC now and then finish college you can join as an officer and do more good.
But looking back, I think I got my first experience, without knowing it, of what college classes are really for.
First the song, then we talk.
I’ve listened to U2’s new album maybe three times now, and I think I’ve realized something: I’ve quit expecting anything from U2. And now that I’ve quit expecting anything from them, I like their albums a lot more. Songs of Innocence (I love you guys for that title) is fun to listen to, generally upbeat, doesn’t really rock on more than one song, but is more coherent musically than How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and more interesting on a first listen than No Line On The Horizon. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve liked a U2 album on first listen (maybe Achtung Baby? — since then it usually takes me about three to five years to like their albums), but I did like this one first time around. Try it yourself: quit expecting anything. Just listen.
I want them to toss the arena rock sound and record something punk again.
The man with the expanding heart could only take in. He could not eject. The man with the expanding heart always had room. The man with the expanding heart never lost anyone. The man with the expanding heart could not draw a circle. The man with the expanding heart found room for everyone. The man with the expanding heart grew comfortably. The man with the expanding heart grew large without being bloated. The man with the expanding heart felt content. Then the man with the expanding heart met. Her. The man with the expanding heart grew once again to accommodate. Her. The man with the expanding heart grew beyond all bounds. The man with the expanding heart grew to the surface of his skin. The man with the expanding heart grew to overflowing. The man with the expanding heart grew to create. The man with the expanding heart grew until he had to stop. The man with the expanding heart did not stop. ...but it was too late for the man with the expanding heart. The man with the expanding heart grew a heart bigger on the inside than on the outside... and lost himself.