The Superstition of Creativity
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.