General ArtNeurologyScienceWriting

The Superstition of Creativity

Tom Waits

In yet another episode of what is appearing to be a rash of fluffy, credulous Radiolab podcasts (the latest of which was brilliantly pulled apart by Carrie over at Skepchick, among others glorifying a guy who sold his own hookworms on the internet for medical purposes and a long wishy-washy analysis of a bible verse), the usually fantastic truth-seeking duo of Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich set their sights this week on the topic of motivation, specifically in the areas of addiction and the creative process.

They spoke with Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, who had some fascinating insights into stirring one’s creative inspiration. She said her original breakthrough came after an interview of Tom Waits (one of the world’s greatest songwriters, in my humble opinion) she did for GQ. In her words:

[Tom Waits] spoke about the creative process, I think, more articulately than anyone I have ever heard. He was talking about how every song has a distinctive identity that it comes into the world with, and it needs to be taken in different ways. He said there are songs that you have to sneak up on like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and there are songs that come fully intact like a dream taken through a straw. There are songs that you find little bits of like pieces of gum you find underneath the desk, and you scrape them off and you put them together and you make something out of it.

And there are songs, he said, that need to be bullied. He said he’s been in the studio working on a song and the whole album is done and this one song won’t give itself over and — everyone’s gotten used to seeing him do things like this — he’ll march up and down the studio talking to the song, saying “The rest of the family is in the car! We’re all going on vacation! You coming along or not? You’ve got 10 minutes or else you’re getting left behind!”

She recounted another story he told her, a story of what was supposedly the originating moment of this behavior, when he was driving through eight lanes of Los Angeles traffic and was struck by an idea for a beautiful melody. He had no recording device, no pencil, no way in the world to possibly remember this creative fragment for long enough to get home and get it down on paper. His negative internal voice, the one every artist has (the “little hater,” as one of my music professors liked to call it) began agitating him, telling him he wasn’t good enough, that times like this were the reason he wasn’t ever going to be successful — and he looked up at the sky and talked to the melody. He informed it that he was driving, and that if it really was so important, it could come to him at any of the other eight hours a day he was in the studio.

Throughout the podcast, Gilbert continuously says things like “I believe that the angels reward people who are at their desks at 6:00 in the morning working,” or “I know the difference between something I thought of and something I was given.”

Yes, Radiolab blindsided us with another mystical episode without any real substance. But can this topic really ever be approached from a critical, evidenced-based angle?

This is the reason why so many artistic minds hold on to woo and superstition. Creativity is abstract and ephemeral. Inspiration cannot be found through rational means. I personally like the thought of talking to my ideas, trying to get them to bend to my wishes through pleading or scolding or bullying, but a skeptical angle it is not.

My own approach to problems of the mind, whether they’re over inspiration, jealousy, or heartbreak, is to think about the evolutionary basis for my feelings. The idea of my seemingly irrational emotions having a reason and a function is incredibly comforting. As utterly ridiculous as it sounds, the knowledge that, for instance, I only feel bad that that boy rejected me because the strong emotions involved with the pursuit of procreation give my species an evolutionary edge makes me feel a million times better. It grounds me and makes me feel like I’m part of a bigger process. This is probably taking Darwin’s theory to the very edge of reality, but it works for me.

So what’s the basis for the problem of inspiration? Oliver Sacks writes about patients who have suffered strokes or developmental problems like Williams syndrome or autism who find themselves with an outpouring of musical creativity, like a faucet that won’t turn off. This idea has led researchers to try to figure out not what makes us creative, but why we aren’t creative more often. Theories abound, one of which suggests that mechanisms for unfettered creativity and artistic ability might be within everyone early in life, but for whatever reason they begin to be inhibited as the brain matures. They’ve tested this by using special stimulation to turn off certain brain functions temporarily, but there isn’t enough data to know either way.

Whatever the reason, I venture to say that creativity is not rational, and any means one uses to get to their final masterpiece is fair game. Some may wait for inspiration to “talk” to them, some may create one piece and work it and rework it until it’s perfect, some may write or draw or compose piece after piece after piece until they come up with something of any worth at all. Is it so bad that artists might turn to superstition during this process? Is it even possible not to?

What’s your method? Do you adhere to rationality even as you bang your head against the wall for an idea? Do you do similar superstitious things as Mr. Waits? I’m curious.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

Related Articles


  1. I much prefer to think of any raw inspiration that comes to me as the result of complex reactions within my brain.

    I’d rather random chemistry to the idea that there are forces shoving ideas into my head.

  2. Hi there!

    Once, when I was 18, a lyrical love poem came to me in my head fully-formed, as if I was remembering a song from somewhere. That was the only time. Everything else, I’ve had to chase down and force it to fit on paper. When I do, one of two things happens: 1) I read it over, and think: “Wow, that’s crap! That sounded SO much better in my head”. or 2) I read it over, and think: “Oh right, that’s a Doors lyric (or something) no wonder it sounded so familiar”.

    Sometimes, when I stick with the “Wow that’s crap” lines, I can either tweak them a little and make them appear presentable, OR, I re-read them again and decide: “Okay, it wasn’t so bad after all. It actually sounds pretty good…”.

    So lately, I’ve been just forcing myself to write. Just giving the Muse enough time to come to me. Yesterday, I looked over a chapter that I had been slaving over for hours, and thought: “Okay, what is this, TWO pages? All that work for just two … oh wait, no, no that would be FOUR … four pages! MUCH better!” <3

    I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with "talking" to songs, or poetry, or chapters if it will get them to come through. Think of it this way: You're already deluding yourself by thinking of your brain as "YOU". It's really just a collection of neurons and synapses and crap. Even the idea of consciousness is kind of an illusion. The definition of "self" is a bit of make-believe that we use to make it easier to identify with "the collection of processes going on in the brain that's attached to this mouth". There's really no such thing as an "identity", but we use it to distinguish "Me" from "Not-Me".

    So if it helps to think of songs/poems/chapters as: "Something that's out there that you can speak to", that's awesome. Just as long as you don't go crazy and start treating this ephemeral "entities" as some kind of diety or spirit that you need to completely changeover your lifestyle to appease. "No shrimp for me, thanks. I need to pray to "Heartattack and Vine" tonight, so I'm abstaining from shellfish". (Although why "Heartattack and Vine would make you give up shellfish, I have no idea) 🙁

  3. While I agree that this episode wasn’t very “sciency” I do not agree that it was focused on inspiration and creativity, it was about sabotaging yourself, which is something irrational per se and interferes not only with creativity but with life in general, I would’ve like to hear more about the science behind that kind of fear as I personally struggle -constantly- with it and I must admit, trying to be rational doesn’t usually work so I found it interesting that people have to trick themselves into believing their stories are being given by angels or that they will give 5K to the KKK if they smoke again, these aren’t rational solutions….but sabotaging yourself isn’t rational either….or is it? Maybe you see yourself too clearly and know that you, out of all people shouldn’t succeed at anything…It was an episode that left me wanting for more, specially I’d like to hear about research being done on this area or what a neurologist has to say about how science helps people overcome this kind of fear without having to trick oneself into thinking about angels…

  4. By rationality I assume you’re just referring to the absence of superstition in the initial creative process; I assume most people proceed logically from there.
    For me, writing, piano-playing, or whatever is a very conscious act (so maybe I’m not actually very good, I’m biased). I habitually look for connections between things and when one strikes my fancy, I run with it.
    On the other hand, creation can be very emotionally charged, I can easily see how it could be seen as supernatural in nature.

  5. I do think there are ways to determine what increase creativity scientifically its what psychology is for.

  6. Okay, I just finished the episode so I’ll add my $.02 while it’s fresh in my muse’s ephemeral brain and being transmitted to me.
    I understand the sentiment that Gilbert is getting at, but I don’t like her wishy-washy back and forth.
    In fact, Jad points this out after the interview; that she says she ‘believes’ in her muse story and then immediately plays the clip of her saying ‘It’s a great story’. After this Jad and Robert talk about how ‘a serious neuro-scientist will tell you it’s all in your unconscious. It’s all you, all the time.’ What I’d like to know is, where is the neuro-scientist?! They’ve interviewed plenty of them over the years and yet they didn’t get someone in to talk about what our brains do when we think creatively? That was the real bummer for me. And judging by the comments on their website, we are not alone in this complaint. I don’t mind listening to people describing their perception and process of ‘being creative’. But I listen to Radiolab so that after the interesting anecdote, I get to learn what is going on inside of us. That’s always been the appeal to me, and I suspect, most of us who have been listeners for any length of time.

  7. The funny thing is that they HAD a neuroscientist on there, but they were too busy asking him about his threat to kill himself if he didn’t finish a book rather than asking about what’s actually going on in our brains.

  8. I know! I was thinking the same thing as I typed: “You’ve got Oliver Sacks’ phone number, you’ve already interviewed him for this show. Call him back! ”
    And then Jad GOB was like “What? The guy in the $3,600 suit is going to call a neuroscientist? COME ON!

  9. Check out these two bits of The Naked Scientists podcast. Some University of Sydney neuroscientists are using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to temporarily turn off a part of the brain (left anterior frontal lobe) that seems to keep us thinking “in the box.” The experiments were based on previous research on people with traumatic brain injury to this region, who then manifested previously unrevealed creative talents. In the University of Sydney experiment, subjects were asked to solve matchstick problems which require an “outside the box” solution. More people were able to find creative solutions when the tDCS was activated and their left anterior frontal lobes were “off.”
    Maybe a lot of the weird superstitious stuff we do as artists is an attempt to turn off our left anterior temporal lobes without the help of tDCS? Or maybe we all need to invest in these tDCS Thinking Caps.

  10. My methods really change from piece to piece. Currently, most of my writing is for visual media (film, tv, webseries, etc) so first off, I’ll try to get inspired by what’s happening on screen and figure out what scenes need. Then I decide on what’s going to be the kernel of the piece: melody, chord progression, rhythmic element, etc. I essentially make lists of all the things I need and sometimes that’s enough to inspire me.

    But if I find that I’m still hitting a brick wall, I go for a walk. Alan Silvestri calls it the “Sock Drawer Method of Composing” (or something like that): find the most mindless, repetitive task you can think of, something to keep your hands busy and your mind free to wander. For him, it’s rearranging his sock drawer, for me, it’s going for a walk. That way, I can think about the piece away from the keyboard and away from any distractions and pressures to force the music out.

    But no, no superstitious things. Back before my skeptical “enlightenment” I used to meditate when I had writer’s block, but that’s pretty much the same thing as going for a walk, really.

  11. When writing is going well, you’re not thinking rationally or irrationally. And the feeling that you’ve been ‘given’ something is inescapable — that’s really how it feels. So approaching it skeptically is like any other feeling, like when you feel a ‘presence’ in an old house, or a coincidence is so remarkable it hardly seems possible, or you could swear you saw your dead grandmother on your bed right before you fell asleep etc etc. The feeling is still there, and is really cool, but you recognize it for what it is: a feeling.

    Art is the playground where we get to let those feelings loose and enjoy them! But oh dear how I wish they hadn’t said ‘angels’ and ‘muse’ so many times….

  12. Yeah, there was a lot of hearsay and not much science in that episode. I find RadioLab (and other science communication) to be at its best when it tells the personal stories, but then relates them back to what researchers have found that might explain the personal experience. This episode would have been a great opportunity to explore, scientifically, why we feel that we are of two minds sometimes. That would have been interesting.

    About the creativity muse stuff, I’ve heard people talk about feeling like their art was coming through them not from them. I haven’t had that experience and have assumed that they are feeling the state of flow. Is their sense of self put on a back-burner during these times? Does it have to do with parts of their brains shutting down, like meditators and praying nuns? Someone must be doing that research. Including that would have been more RadioLab-like.

    I hope RadioLab starts tackling *science* again soon!

Leave a Reply

Check Also
Back to top button