Permission, Pressure, and The Creative Process (2)

So, do you recommend King’s book to young writers and inventors? What does King advise?


I recommend the book to anyone interested in the creative process. But that particular section is especially full of insight. The first important idea here is the phrase, “good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere.” That’s the irrefutable mystery. We simply don’t know where they come from.


King explicitly says, “two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.” The two previously unrelated ideas that met when Bill Keith bit into that cookie were, one, snatches of music scales and melodies can be played in a “criss-cross” pattern across the strings, rather than linearly up and down the banjo neck, and, two, right-hand picking patterns allow a sequence of strings to be played very fast. As a result of this collision of ideas, Keith was able to play “real” fiddle tunes, rather than embellished approximations.


The third important idea King makes is, “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” Keith recognized the potential value of that cookie-triggered insight and was willing to go with it, to see where it might lead. And as a result, he reinvented the instrument. Other players have used his discovery to play not only fiddle tunes, but bebop and Bach partitas. The next time you hear a little snatch of banjo on NPR’s “All Things Considered” listen closely. You’re probably hearing something played in Keith’s style.


So how would you define the creative process, then?


Well, maybe we can define the creative process as “an event which occurs when two (or more) previously unrelated ideas come together, forming something new.” We could probably argue over that all morning, but for the sake of this conversation, it will do.


I don’t believe creativity is rare. In fact, I think it is so common we’re oblivious to it. Look around you. There probably isn’t anything in view which isn’t the direct result of one or more creative insights acted upon. What is often rare is action taken as a result of creative insight. We’re all guilty of inaction to greater or lesser degrees. Why is this?


I think there are two main reasons. First is we tend to undervalue our own insights. Many of us have pretty low opinions of our own processes. The other reason is we’re afraid. We’re afraid of failure. We’re afraid of “wasting our time.” We’re afraid of looking bad in front of our fellows. We’re afraid of ridicule.


We’ve all had the experience of looking at or hearing about someone else’s work and thinking, perhaps even saying, “I could have done that.” The fact is, yes, you probably could have. In fact, you might have even done it better. But the harsh fact is, you didn’t.


Now I don’t put that out there with the intent of triggering some sort of blame-fest or orgy of self-flagellation. That’s no help at all. It eats the energy we could use to respond more usefully. But energy from anger can goad people into productive action.


A more useful response is, “I haven’t done it yet.” The door is open. An invitation extended. Permission granted.


Do you run up against these issues in your own writing?


Yes, I find I need permission to act creatively. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish I wasn’t so needy. I wish I was a “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead” kind of guy. But I’m not. I’ve had to have permission from others and I have to give myself permission to act creatively.


I believe permission is one of the necessities for creativity.


This whole business of permission is really tricky. Outside permission (and approval) for our efforts, granted or denied, when and by whom, can shape, stall, or even end our creative lives. Stephen King first got permission to write fiction from his mother. Later, in school, he was shamed for his efforts by a teacher. My own experience with music-making and writing was just the opposite.


The dedication of King’s book On Writing is telling. He writes:


“This book is dedicated to Amy Tan, who told me in a very simple and direct way that it was okay to write it.” (pg. 9)


He needed permission from another novelist to write the book. He writes elsewhere how his wife’s support and encouragement were essential to his persevering in the early years of his career and continue to be. So I’m not the only quivering mass of insecurity out there. I find King’s frank admission of insecurity in spite of his success a real comfort. And indirectly, a form of permission.


Permission. We need it. If we can’t find it in our immediate surroundings, we’re often stuck. There is a tiny number of us who can tough it out and give ourselves permission to move forward without the support of others. But that’s a lonely road and most of us are unwilling to take it. But we can seek out permission. When we’re young, if we don’t get it at home or school, maybe we get it from like-minded friends, from a mentor or individual teacher, or from the example of a successful hero or heroine. As we grow older, those same like-minded friends, co-workers, colleagues, lovers, spouses, and even our children can give us the permission and support we need for our creative efforts.


The other kind of permission―self-permission―can come either as a result of encouragement, or as a reaction to hostility or indifference to our creative dreams and drives. “I’ll show them!” you might say to yourself, or even out loud, and maybe you will. Maybe you will. The desire for revenge is not the finest motivation for action, but the heat of anger can get us in gear.


Self-permission is essential. It doesn’t have to be strong or very convincing, but we need to allow ourselves to make a start. It can grow out of a supportive environment. But one can have all the support in the world yet still not act for whatever reason―laziness, busy-ness, or fear masquerading as one of these. And as a result, creation doesn’t happen. Nothing happens. Poems, computer code, paintings, buildings, businesses― nothing. These things don’t create themselves. They need active causative agents to bring them into being. They need you and me.



Permission, Pressure, and The Creative Process (2)