Human beings are capable of some truly amazing things. Scaling Mt. Everest. Flying around the world. The internet. The New York Yankees. Yet arguably, the most amazing activity we engage in on a regular basis comes from within and remains one of the great mysteries – our penchant for creativity. It’s something so powerful and so essential that it’s difficult imagining how we would fare without the ability to think outside the box or create something from nearly nothing. This phenomenon is the subject of two recent books Inspired: Understanding Creativity – A journey through art, science, and the soul by Matt Richtel and Conversations by Steve Reich.
As its title suggests, Inspired tries to make some sense of our ability to create. Richtel takes a wide and inclusive view of the term creativity. While everyday uses of the term generally refers to artistic endeavors, Inspired makes the convincing case that true creativity spans industries, movements, and endeavors. The artist at work in the studio or sitting in mental isolation surrounded by a crowded bar belong to the category, but, according to Richtel, so does a mechanic toiling in a garage or the CEO steering a company toward profitability. They all belong to the creative class. In a number of ways, even antibiotic resistant bacteria can qualify.
Richtel’s “creative” is more of sophisticated problem solver than prophetic dream-weaver. The ability to invoke ambitious solutions from people’s minds. In other words, it is about ideas, something we all possess with varying degrees of originality.
It doesn’t come from one particular kind of place, environment, or circumstance. Creators are not one thing. Inside of us, multitudes, the seed corn of variety, novelty, creation – songs, stories, murals, speeches and policies, medicines, technologies, recipes, turns of phrase. They are distinct moments made by individuals, as vast as life, as natural as the instinct to survive.
The reason more people lack creativity is not because they lack the ability, but rather most potential creators suppress their natural inclinations. At the heart of the problem lie bad habits acquired in schools and corporate culture, both of which reward conformity and stifle individuality.
Conversations by Steve Reich addresses many of the questions taken on in Inspired only in a narrower sense. Over the course of nineteen interviews with other artists, Reich and company tease out aspects of the creative act. Time and again, the roots of their creations lie less in stereotypical “aha” moments of grand inspiration and more in a deliberate and disciplined process with a precise goal in mind.
In one conversation with Michael Gordon, DESCR, Reich recounts how Music for 18 Musicians came to be –
When I finished Music for Mallet Instruments, I thought, “I want to continue this,” and I started having rehearsals and expanding the ensemble, but I wanted to get rid of the electric organ and make it all acoustic. So, the strings, the violin, and cello in Music for 18 became the sustaining instruments and replaced the organ. The voices grew from three to four. The mallet percussion and pianos increased. But you’re right, everything I had done since 1965 except for the last part of Drumming was multiples of the same instrument against themselves. That was necessary to achieve an interlocking web of counterpoint where you couldn’t separate out different voices by timbre, by which instrument was playing.
And in an interview with producer-recording artist Brian Eno, Reich digs a little deeper and in the process highlights the central role the “Idea” plays in guiding the creative endeavor.
So ambient had some roots in what I had been doing anyway, as I told you, about these kinds of ways of making pieces of music asynchronously. But the thing about It’s Gonna Rain that really crystallized that thought was, okay, what about heaving a number of cycles that run independently of each other?... And that idea was what all the ambient music I did was really based on, the idea of saying, “I shall choose a number of musical elements, quite carefully, and then I shall set them into motion to play against each other and to constantly be throwing up new clusters and new combinations.” And if I don’t like it, I’ll change something and do it again. So the composition was a sort of empirical process, starting with the idea of setting a number of asynchronous process in motion…
The process of elimination appears in Inspired as well during an interview Richtel does with Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist who studies quarks and string theory.
“I migrated unwittingly from fundamental physics to biology,” he said, sounding a bit surprised himself by the transformation… “Was there a way of showing that all organisms are actually manifestations of the same kind of underlying mathematics? Questions like: Why is it that you’re going to be dead within fifty or one hundred years? Why sleep for eight hours a night? Why are some cities more creative than others? “One of the hardest things is: What is the question? Creating the right question is often a large part of the problem,” West told me.
One of the things that sticks out in Conservations and in Inspired is something anathema to the 21st century zeitgeist – expertise. The conversations between Reich and his fellow creatives are incredible for the richness they provide. In fact, the amount of knowledge at their disposal shows that they aren’t just experts; they are also students of their art, constantly seeking out and learning new things to incorporate into their art. Part of this is due to insecurity. As Reich readily admits, there were moments when he doubted his technical ability. This forced him to take more creative approaches to problems. The other factor at play for Reich is an acceptance that he does not know everything and must keep an open mind in his quest for more answers to his question.
Richtel, for his part, makes the controversial case that a lack of inquisitiveness couple by a ready acceptance of the status quo plays a role in hindering the creativity of the devoutly religious. He cites the work done by Scott Cormode and Gack Goncalo,
The authors posited three reasons why, with each reason supported by and drawn from prior research… “Believers’ passive followership mindset, in which they look at the world through a prism of God as the all powerful, all seeing, and all knowing leader, might inhibit creativity… A second broad reason… is because “passive followership toward God not only discourages independent thinking but it might also prioritize the established worldview… “Finally, believers’ sense of passive followership toward God affords them a sense of certainty. Feelings of certainty may be comforting but not necessarily advantageous in the creative process…”
Unfortunately, and by no fault of his own, the science of creativity provides Richtel with a handful of insights. That is because Science’s understanding of the brain is only slightly better than its understanding of creativity, though they are making undeniable strides. To his credit, Richtel embraces Science’s shortcomings and flips them on their head. In the process, he hints at the possibilities that lie ahead and fosters a real sense of wonder. Anyone who wants more will have to turn to their own creative abilities.
Matt Richtel’s Inspired and Steve Reich’s Conversations offer complementary views of creativity. They further our understanding of it from different angles but converge on the same point. Invoking the muse is all well and good, but there is a lot more grit and grind in the creative process even if its origin remains a mystery.
WORDS: Marc Landas.