On Being Creative

NewyorkstoriesThis is a somewhat modified repost of an entry originally published in September of 2014. I thought I’d revisit and update it because I’m teaching an introduction to creative writing course this semester, and my class and I have been covering the creative process over the last couple of chapters.

Artists and their Art

I’m going to start by illustrating my points from two films: New York Stories and Bullets Over Broadway. I won’t be discussing it here, but I would also recommend the film S.O.B.

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 from him.

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 at the end we see him recruit a new young female protégé, one clearly hoping to be mentored by him, and for his part clearly intended to serve as his perverse, dysfunctional inspiration for his next project.

Now just hold this picture in your mind while I move on to the next film: Bullets Over 220px-Bullets_over_Broadway_movie_posterBroadwayBullets 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 not only a bad actress but 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 how to develop your creativity. I have two questions for you:

1. Are you willing to kill for your work? What are you really willing to do to create something great? For anyone with any kind of moral compass, the answer is always “No, I’d never kill anyone,” 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 knew what she was doing.

Everyone wants a great review: don’t get me wrong. But while you’re creating, what you think is 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 or beliefs underlying your art: just the work itself. That’s why Scorsese’s representation of the true artist was someone 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. Suicides for art are generally committed 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, a sacrifice made within the creative work itself.

Creativity vs. Narcissism

rawmaterialNext, 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? In each case, the author’s creativity comes from some kind of inner emotional core, but that emotion varies widely by artist. It may be fear in some people, anger in others, romantic love in others, sex in others, or depression, or joy, or politics, or God, or just one specific woman or man… all of these result in very different creative products.

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 artmemehere 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.


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.

Art and Its Sources

My history of creative writing began in a small way in high school, but in a much bigger way in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I started publishing poetry. And then I started graduate school in 1999, and my creative writing stopped almost completely. Around 2009 I started teaching 200 level creative writing classes, so I started writing again, and then in 2014 I hit some inspiration yet again and started writing poetry much more prolifically than I had in the past. In every period in which I wrote, 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.

10644949_713856375336016_5831366228878047703_nThat’s just not always the case subjectively, though. On more than one occasion during these writing spurts, I’ve had people close to me ask me some specific questions about my personal life because of the poems I’ve written. Are you okay? Need to talk? Alright, who is she? 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 the emotion present in the finished 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. 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 bad, which is always just fear of rejection. I’m going to break up with him/her before s/he breaks up with me.
    • Do whatever it takes to grab that emotion that will allow you to create.
    • But don’t be a sociopath. People are always more important than things: “Every thing that lives is holy.”
    • Create. If you want to be creative, create.

10371963_649270955163324_8959216672163100761_nI’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. You need to know its history, master its conventions, understand the theories behind it. 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. By “academically” I don’t necessarily mean for college credit, but by studying the field systematically. 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 coward. Create. Become a god.


Intuition and Creativity

I’m fortunate enough to be teaching an Introduction to Creative Writing class this semester. Last Thursday was the first day of class. I encouraged my students to pay attention to the people around them: how they spoke, acted, seemed to think, as that will help them write characters. But that led me down a bit of a tangent about how intuition works.

It’s not uncommon for many of us to think we can know, or at least guess well, what other people are thinking. I don’t think that’s all that unusual, and I don’t think it’s particularly mysterious either. I suggested to my students that our minds are big pattern recognition machines. We pay attention to a variety of verbal and non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, facial expression, body language, hand gestures, and maybe even scent — which would certainly be unconsciously registered for most of us — and filter all of those cues through our past experiences, our prejudices, and our expectations to figure out what’s really going on with the person in front of us.

I pointed out that because half of intuition is our own experiences and expectations, we need to be careful with what we infer about other people. Even if we’re reading them right, we’re still not really reading their minds, so we should never presume to know what they are really thinking. At best, we’re only seeing a little bit of them at that moment. Really getting to know what and how someone thinks takes time and honest conversation, and however often we think we’re right, I think the truth is we almost never follow up so that we can find out our real track record. As a result, most of us go through life trusting our intuition more than we should. Intuition is a valuable but very incomplete tool, so it’s a mistake to trust it exclusively.

However, what happens if we turn intuition on its head? Suppose we set it aside, momentarily, as a guide to external reality and use it instead as a way of creating characters? We could instead take that mental picture we’re building up of this other person — which is only partially correct at best — and use it as the beginning of a fictional character. Suddenly, our powers of pattern recognition feed our imagination as we use them to develop, in detail, fictional characters who have fully developed gestures, body language, tone of voice, etc. I think this way of using intuition can never go wrong, because while we may start with a real person as raw material, we don’t have to stop there. We can make our characters any way we want them to be.

Brian Eno on Creativity

Interesting, brief talk by Brian Eno on creativity. Anything he has to say about this topic is worth listening to. At one point Eno compares a “cowboy” (explorer) to a “father” (stay there and tend the land), expressing preference for the cowboy. It’s an interesting comparison that Kierkegaard makes in Either/Or II with slightly different terms: I think he compares a conqueror to a farmer, but Kierkegaard prefers the farmer. Behind this comparison is his controlling trope of the seducer vs. the husband, the man who takes a woman and then moves on vs. the man who loves and marries her.

I think the best creative works combine the two impulses: cowboys and conquerors are always just fathers and farmers still looking for their homes. We see this kind of figure in films like Braveheart and Gladiator: the hero fights to avenge or to recover his lost home.

I think the real question, also, is about what is being created. Being a constant cowboy in music is a good thing. But suppose you really are building a nation, a community, or a home? Being a constant cowboy makes you very destructive in those cases. And what might happen if a musician were more the father/farmer type than the cowboy type? Instead of constantly seeking new sounds, musics, etc., these musicians would be developing their genre — expanding what it can do. So does this mean the cowboy in music never makes it past a superficial exploration of his or her new sound? Or maybe, in the end, developing your sound always means transforming it into something new?


On Being a Student (in an Institution…)

Before I get around to talking about being a student in an institution (I write about being a student outside of an institution later), I would like you to consider three kinds of machines and how they differ: a hammer, a photocopier, and a computer.

These three kinds of machines represent three levels of complexity.

Three Kinds of Machines

English: A standard household claw hammer.
English: A standard household claw hammer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A hammer is an example of the simplest type of machine. You can perform maybe three tasks with a hammer (beat things with it, pull nails, and use it as a paperweight), but it’s really just designed for two specific tasks — beating things and pulling nails. It’s very good at one or two tasks, but only those. A hammer actually doesn’t make a good paperweight, by the way. Because you can do other things with it, you’ll want to take it off your papers and use it, and then it quits being a paperweight. The best paperweights are useless for almost all functions but being paperweights. And of course if something really is only good for just sitting there, it may as well look good while it’s serving that purpose. Most importantly, the hammer is an inert object. It just lays there until you pick it up. It doesn’t do anything at all until you pick it up and do something with it.

Now, you might say that you can do many different things with a hammer, like chip wood, drive nails, or beat holes, but those are all just different ways of beating with it. You might say that you can throw a hammer, but unless you’re throwing the hammer at something, you’re throwing it for no reason at all (at least, no reason peculiar to a hammer — if you’re in a distance throwing contest, you could throw hammers, rocks, or frisbees), and throwing a hammer at something is just beating on it from a distance.

The next kind of machine, machines like photocopiers, are a little more complex. They too only perform one task, though. The photocopier in my office can scan and copy, but those are just two different ways of doing the same task, which is reproducing an image. It can staple and sort, but those tasks are only important because they are related to the copier’s primary task, which is reproducing an image.

When the spawn of Satan bothers to work at all, that is.

Photocopier of MaliceWe might think that what makes copiers more complex than hammers is the proliferation of moving parts. Since both copiers and hammers seem designed to perform a single task, it’s hard to compare them only on the basis of the work that they do. We might say that the single task that copiers perform is more complex than the one or two tasks that hammers perform, and that would be true, but I wouldn’t emphasize just number of moving parts as the most important order of complexity, or just the complexity of the task. I want to emphasize something else: copiers can be programmed to do their single task on their own, and once you’ve programmed them and started them running, they run until they’ve completed the task. So I can program my copier to make 500 copies double-sided and corner stapled, and once I’ve done so, it chugs away making copies and stapling them until the 500th copy is finished.

When the spawn of Satan bothers to work at all, that is.

This level of functionality is very different from a hammer, which just lays there until someone picks it up and uses it.

The most complex machine I’d like us to consider is a computer. Computers, like copiers, also need to be programmed, but their programming can get very sophisticated. Its normal functioning involves performing a highly diverse number of very complex tasks all at the same time, most of which the user is unaware — programming that runs beneath the user interface. Computers, as the most sophisticated type of machine under consideration here, can perform the most number of tasks and can work the most independently.

Now let’s consider the difference between any of these machines and a human being. Human beings can be programmed, but we can also program ourselves, and we can choose our programming. Furthermore, human beings are not limited in their behaviors to their programming — we can act beyond the parameters of our programming (in other words, creatively), and we can act in ways contradictory to our programming (in other words, annoyingly — but we can be deliberately annoying, unlike a computer, which is just passively annoying). Human beings are also capable of being self-directed. We can choose what to do and then go do it without any external stimulus. Even the most complex machines — computers — do not choose when they run independently. They’re just running established routines. When they act outside of those established routines, they crash.

Like the spawn of Satan that they can be.

Four Kinds of Students

I would like to suggest that our four options here represent four different types of students: hammers, photocopiers, computers, and human beings, and that student attitudes and institutional practices lead students to be one of these four types.

1. “Hammer” students do nothing until they’re forced to do it. School isn’t for learning but for earning grades. Curiosity and the potential for self-development play no role in this student’s motivation at all. This kind of student will do just what they are told to do and no more. They will do it when they are told and at no other time. Until they are told, they will lay there and do nothing. They are completely passive learners.

  • Institutional practices encourage students to behave like hammers when assessment drives education: students are not human beings developing their intellectual, social, creative, and emotional potentials, but are just test takers. The purpose of teaching in this model is to have students earn high grades with high test scores, and lessons offer no motivation for learning but test performance.
  • You might want to note that hammer students are still students. They participate in the educational task rather than resist it. They just do so as minimally as possible. Students who actively resist the educational task are prisoners. So are their teachers.

2. “Photocopier” students will work on their own to perform just the task(s) that instructors give them, but they won’t work beyond their given task. They repeat and repeat and repeat, but that’s it — they do not innovate, add, or create in relationship to the assigned tasks.They are better than hammers in that they have willingly accepted the educational task and will work on their own, but they are largely passive learners.

  • Institutional practices that encourage students to be photocopiers include teaching methods that emphasize only the acquisition of knowledge rather than the application of knowledge or the development of skills. Acquisition-based teaching requires students to take in information and then spit it back out in its original form. The more accurately the student can repeat acquired knowledge, the higher the student’s grade. The human mind is here being treated like a photocopier with no creative or critical potential at all.
  • Students taught to be photocopiers often want step by step instructions for all assignments. They feel anxious when they’re given a goal without being told exactly how to meet it.

3. “Computer” students are often A students. They can work on a variety of complex tasks independently, having developed a number of skills that they have learned to integrate into multiple kinds of tasks. They are capable of working on their own. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem here is that these students have not developed their potential for creative or critical thinking. They may write very competent, accurately documented, and grammatically correct papers but have problems with thesis development. They may have learned to write a thesis, but their best work is only a combination of what they’ve already been given. They never surprise their instructors, and they often tend to focus on figuring out what the instructor wants to hear and repeating that back to them in their papers. Depending upon the class, doing so can be a very complex task.

  • Institutional practices that encourage the development of this kind of student include limiting work to just one kind of methodology, or critical paradigms to just one or two — in short, students are not exposed to a meaningful diversity of ways of thinking about a topic or performing a task. Most of all, they are never encouraged to take risks in their thinking, to be creative. Instructors who write assignment instructions that tell students how to write their papers in significant detail (e.g., answer these questions about these possible literary works using this methodology) may be unintentionally derailing the development of student creativity and critical thinking skills.

4. Students who are fully developing themselves as human beings within an educational context see learning as play. Not frivolity, but serious play, the kind of play that creates new things with old materials, that relates existing material to the outside world and to one’s personal life, that changes and transforms and sees new possibilities for course material.

  • Institutional practices that encourage the development of this kind of student emphasize critical thinking, thesis development, creativity in thought, and problem solving (especially by posing impossible to solve or open-ended problems. Solving problems defined by the methodology is computer thinking — students may follow a complex routine, but they’re still following a set routine rather than thinking on their own). The best instruction explains the reasons for the class within the context of a student’s discipline and overall education, and it relates course material to big questions whenever possible.

Vending Machines

How Do We Respond?

First, I need to add a paragraph here that was not in my original draft. One reader reminded me that students can be photocopiers in one class, computers in another, and human beings in a third. That’s absolutely right. These are different ways that students postion themselves, or are positioned by institutional practices, in relationship to a specific course. Even hammer students may not necessarily be hammers in all of their classes. So while I’m describing four different kinds of students, I don’t mean to imply (though I probably have) that each individual student is one of these four types in some globally-defining sense of the word. It’s best to think of these four types of students as four types of student responses to material that can vary for an individual student from class to class.

If you are reading this blog as a student, I would like to encourage you to try to be a human being in all of your classes, however they are taught. Good students make the most out of even bad classes because they are driven to learn, not driven for grades or driven by their instructors. What you learn and do in class is of no benefit to your instructor. Your education, first and foremost, benefits yourself. Your instructor is not your employer — he or she is working for your benefit in class, as the work that your instructor assigns benefits you, not the instructor. For more details, read my next post.

If you are reading this blog as an instructor, I would like you to ask yourself about your classes — and what kind of student you’re creating with them. Are you treating your students like simple machines, complex machines, or human beings? I know that some classes, especially when taught to some student populations, need to be run on the lower end of the scale rather than the higher. Some students need to start out as hammers or copiers and then move up. I think courses designed like ladders — in which students attempt higher degrees of complexity as they move through the course — are best designed for beginning, introductory, or remedial students. We also need to consider this hierarchy in our curriculum design. By the time students are attempting 300 and definitely 400 level classes in their major, most assignments should be designed to serve the highest possible developmental ends.

I hope I’m being clear, though — I’m not laying the responsibility for student learning solely upon the instructor or solely upon the student. Students are responsible for being the type of student that they have chosen to be, and instructors are responsible for their educational practices and the type of student that they create with them. The success or failure of educational practices is dependent both upon the student and the instructor.

I would also like to suggest that this paradigm can help us define different management styles too. What kind of human being are we creating by our management practices? What kind of employees do we have, and what kind should we expect given institutional policies and our treatment of employees?