Permission, Pressure, and The Creative Process (1)

Advocate: John, I understand you have been asked to give talks on creativity to computer scientists in California. Can you tell us a bit about that?


Yes, a lot of my ideas on creativity came together when I was invited to attend an OOPSLA (Object-Oriented Programing, Systems, Languages and Applications) Conference in San Diego, California in October, 2005. I am not a computer guy. I’m a poet, musician, and teacher, but I was asked by Dr. Richard Gabriel, a computer scientist (and poet and musician), to co-lead a daylong workshop on creativity. I think the reason Richard asked me to participate is he and I share some common beliefs about creativity.


First is that everyone is creative. By this I mean everybody has the potential to do interesting, imaginative work. Another shared belief is there is no difference between the creativity found in the fine arts and creativity found in technical fields, the sciences, child-rearing, business management, education, or any other human activity. The products may differ, but the process is the same. And as for myself, I see creativity as a spiritual issue. But I’m not going to address that part of it here.


So, what is the creative process in your opinion?


Well, first of all, what does it mean, to create? My little dictionary says, “to bring into being, to cause to exist.” I like that. Simple. Elegant, even. No issue of size or importance. It could be an omelette or a new branch of mathematics. At the end of the process, there’s something there which wasn’t there at the beginning.


I see. But what do writers have that computer scientists, or other creators might possibly be interested in?


What we in the arts have that we can offer people in other fields is something of a tradition of paying attention to our interior processes. Often discussion of achievements focuses on the result, the product, and not on the process which led to the result. As I was originally preparing for the workshop I went to see the Leonardo da Vinci Cordex Leicester. Bill Gates owns it now and he sends it to one exhibition a year. It was fun to look at the notebook of such a teeming mind. I was surprised to learn Leonardo had figured out that moonlight is really reflected sunlight and that the earth is both round and in motion. This was a century before Galileo. How did he discover that? What led him to his conclusions?


Interesting. Do we know what led da Vinci to his conclusions?


Not really. But we can begin to make guesses by looking at other inventors. At about that same time I also read that of all his inventions, Thomas Edison was most proud of the phonograph. Why? Was it the simplicity, the elegance of the early mechanical versions? A bigger question for me is, how did he come on the idea in the first place? What was the process which led him to the insights necessary to create a technology which records, stores, and reproduces sound? He himself was deaf. Was his own hearing impairment a factor in the process?


So you think Edison’s internal world, such as his hearing impairment, was a great part of his inventions?


Perhaps. I’m interested in the path by which something comes into being. The poet William Stafford once said that for him, the product wasn’t so important, but that the process was precious. We’ll look at Stafford’s process a little later.


Here’s another example of creative insight. Here I’ve got more information, so I think the example is more useful.


In the late 1950s, a young banjo player named Bill Keith had a problem. He was already a pretty good musician, copying the styles of Earl Scruggs and other Bluegrass banjo players he admired. In this style a somewhat simplified melody is woven into flashy right hand picking patterns. As a result, the melody is surrounded by a lot of embellishment notes. Keith’s problem was he wanted to play more melody and less embellishment. In particular he wanted to play fiddle tunes, fast, often complex traditional dance melodies. But the picking patterns he loved got in the way of the melody.


The story is the solution came to him one night at party in Cambridge as he bit into a chocolate-chip cookie. The new idea was to play melodies “contra-logically.” It is possible to get high notes on low-pitched strings, along with relatively low notes on the higher-pitched strings. By using left-hand fingerings which put the melody notes on different strings he was able to play tunes extremely fast using the right-hand picking technique he’d already mastered.


I’m sure you are not saying the creative process is related to chocolate chip cookies (though I eat enough of them when I write), but what you mean is it is connected to something other than just logic―maybe a counter-logic too?


Well, yes, we are getting closer. Another example of insight, or inspiration, if you like, comes from novelist Stephen King. Now King has been the first to admit he isn’t writing High Art. He once said his novels were the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and an order of fries. But literary ranking is not the issue here: Creativity is. King has created over forty novels, books which have sold, like McDonald’s hamburgers, in the millions and millions. He has also written a fascinating book titled On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft. In it he writes:


“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seen to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” (pg. 37)



Permission, Pressure, and The Creative Process (1)