Monday, June 4, 2018

The Crux of Creativity

A couple of years ago I came tantalizingly close to explaining the crux of creativity. I'll reprint the whole posting:
I'm watching the DNC, and every politician is giving The Speech.

Not a speech. It's always the same speech. The same cadences. The same tone. The same pacing. You don't need to speak English to get the full idea. Even with the sound turned off, you know The Speech. I don't know why I'm watching this. I know every single thing before it happens. Why is this worth my time?

Whenever I point my phone's camera, I need to resist the impulse to take The Photo. Just as we're taught through sheer blinding repetition about The Speech, we all know what The Photo is. I don't want to take The Photo! I want something spontaneous and true!

So it drives me batty that people are so happy to give The Speech and take The Photo. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who minds!

It's why I travel. In New York City, everyone is making The Lasagna or The Salad or The Rolls. There are variations, sure, but there's a certain glue. Only minute surprise is possible. But in Cincinnati, the glue's totally different. A different stultifying sameness can feel fresh for a moment. I have a chance of being surprised.

The speech everyone is giving - the original egg to all these chickens - is based on some archetypal speech in our collective memories that never actually happened. It's a subconscious blurry memory composed of bits and snatches and memes. It's like an early childhood memory you can no longer truly remember because you remember only the remembering. We've come to agree that that's The Speech via the same mechanism that helps birds flock.

It's a soul-killer, and it's dauntingly unavoidable, in the end. Even the most creative people feel this tug (we actually feel it worse; it's one of the reasons we drink so much, do drugs, etc..).

But I have one question: for god's sake, do we really need to relish it so much? Do singers need to feel like they're just nailing it every time they execute one of the soulful-ish vocal tricks we've all heard a gazillion times? Do they need to feel like they've gone super extra deep when they take the exact same-lengthed pause everybody takes when they want to seem like they're going super extra deep? You know...The Pause?

Can't we push back at this just a little? Even if we can't invent and innovate our way around it, even if we're trapped - cursed to be 99.99% unsurprising - can't we at least recognize this phenomenon for the cage that it is? Can we stop dreaming of giving The Speech, or taking The Photo, or singing The Soulful Vocal Trick, or making The Pause ourselves, as the crowning glory of our deepest fantasies?

Can surprisingness at least be appreciated, if not strenuously pursued and fully embraced?
I've been trying boil it down further, but I can't express the point any more directly. It would be great if I could, because this is, bizarrely, a huge problem that's no problem at all for the vast majority of humanity - which rarely notices, much less minds. Rather, everybody dreams of being on stage and singing The Note, or of being elected to high office and giving The Speech.

We chase that image, and the specific details hardly matter. You know how Donald Trump loves the trappings of office but has no interest in the actual work of a president, doesn't think about issues, and skates through by winging it? He's far from unique. Human society is almost entirely about people clawing their way to a position where they can be The Guy and do The Thing....and, once there, hastily fill in with canned fodder and expedient sketches. The actual substance is mere afterthought.

While I can't distill this point any further, I can cite a favorite pithy observation for the umpteenth time:
Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing.
Politicians don't give The Speech out of a desire to inspire and lead. It's the antithesis: they become politicians because they want to be the guy giving The Speech. If they were devoted to acting authentically and sincerely, rather than peering at themselves on their mental movie screen, they'd speak in order to say things, rather than vice versa. It's flabbergastingly rare that people give speeches to earnestly say things, even though that's the only way to draw a visceral response. If you're the least bit earnest - if you care about the doing and not just the posing, you might find yourself offering something fresh and spontaneous; something optimized for that unique moment. You may even change the nature of The Speech for all who come after (once it's stale, having been imitated to death and fully merged into society's unconscious).

In another posting, I wrote:
Billions of people yearn for greatness. Millions of people do things they hope will make them great. Thousands of people do great things with nary a thought about where it will leave them.
Millions and billions dream of being That Guy at the Podium Giving That Speech, while mere thousands genuinely have something to say above beyond the image of it all. The thousands aren't trying to personify their dreams. They're here to do stuff.

Apart from those measly few dissenters, however, earthlings chase images, period. That's why our world is rife with canned dialog, canned emotion, canned art. Even our personalities are most often canned. You've surely met people who are exact clones of a certain type; i.e. you've met hundreds just like them. They've cast themselves in a role and committed themselves to the performance. Their authentic selves become smothered by the dramatic scene-playing and posing.

This may surprise you: I believe the personality part is actually fine. Better than fine, even! I myself get it wrong. I fit awkwardly into this world, not being any recognizable type. Unique presentation makes me an outcast and provokes fearful misapprehension. I'd do much better if I chose a role and stuck to it. So while I've missed that train, I see nothing wrong with posing as a matter of style in the day-to-day. But the problem is when posing makes its way into matters of real substance, and of art. Every shower singer yearns to pull off The Note, an expedient sketch dredged from collective memory. But when (supposedly) creative people do likewise on actual stages, that's art-imitating-life-imitating-art, and the result will never be affecting. Do you want to pose as a Singer or do you want to really sing, from your authentic self?

A crusty few of us choose to bake fresh every time. We seem obtuse, and irritatingly slippery; extreme nonconformists in a world where The Speech and The Pause and The Note and The Photo are all that is great and good. Everyone worships the very things we strain to avoid.

Yet sometimes we crusty holdouts become recognized as trail blazers, having found a fresh avenue and struck a chord. A magic trick! We appear to be the lead car, forging into the unknown. From our perspective, though, we're stuck at the tail of it all, flinching at the shallow pretension and struggling to resist the overwhelming preference for canned expedient skating over Truth.

It doesn't help that this issue is perennially framed as imitation vs originality. That's not a helpful way to think of it; in fact, it's dangerously counterproductive. Many a promising artist has been ruined by angling to be "original". Originality is just another pose! It makes for results that are shticky, contrived, and/or affected.

It's hard - seemingly impossible for most people - to simply produce something entirely for the sake of the thing itself, without presenting yourself as The Person Who Simply Produces Something Entirely For The Sake Of The Thing Itself. Without that narcissistic loop-back. Human beings live to abstract raw experience and turn it into self-referential narrative, but self-conscious posing is not how you create substance or beauty.

Here's the secret: don't sing - or speak, or write, or dance, or act, or lead, or snap the photograph - unless you feel spontaneously moved in the moment to express. The most beautiful choice any artist or thinker can make is to hold back until the muses have sorted themselves. Never resort to canned fodder in dry moments in the rote compulsion to fill gaps. Be more careful!

As I wrote in a posting titled "The Beauty of Water, of Whiteness, and of Silence":
If you're about to play or compose music, try holding back until you have a note to offer that can improve upon the perfection of silence (if you haven't yet fallen deeply in love with silence, you have no business making music). If you're about to paint, try holding back until you have a brushstroke to offer that can improve upon the perfection of the white canvass. And if you're creating some sort of drink, try holding back until you can improve upon the perfection of water. With this perspective, you can't fail.

It's only after realizing that everything's perfect, as-is, that one is in a position to make a contribution that contributes.
The problem is when we pose as Expressers and then hastily scramble for output, like a toddler who draws attention after emphatically demanding it, and is embarrassed to have nothing to actually say. Your output is not mere fodder. Output is your wake; it's literally all that matters!

I once wrote the following about my cousin Libby's transcendent yellow rice, which first inflamed my passion for food, thus inspiring Chowhound, everyone attracted to Chowhound, and everyone affected by everyone attracted to Chowhound:
If Libby had tried to change the world, she'd surely have failed. Pond ripples don't amplify into oceanic tides via the desire to be an oceanic tide causer. Such aspirations yield oppressively selfish ripples rather than inspiringly generous ones. If you simply sweat the small stuff, sans self-consciousness or aspiration (just "because!"), angels will sing.

The care, the love, the discipline and thoughtfulness we invest in our most prosaic actions change absolutely everything. That's how the future is perpetually created.


Anonymous coward said...

I'm going to post what I think creativity is now, read your post, and then see if my opinion changes. Creativity in my opinion is what my college adjunct professor taught me in video game design II, the art of game. "Combining two existing ideas to create a third new idea."

Note, the quote is years old and I may be misremembering. Creativity is especially important in art and fantasy. For example, women + snake = succubus. Cat + women = Mermaid. Man + cat = vampire. Man + wolf = Werewolf. Goat + man = Satyr. Women + bird = harpy. This list goes on and on.

This is why A.I. (artificial intelligent) has the potential to be so much more creative than humans. This is because a super intelligent A.I. can perform a brute force algorithm without fatigue with all the combinations. As humans we tend to quickly think of a dozen or so combinations and than stall out.

A practical example of an A.I. being more creative than humans is the A.I. Eve finding a new candidate for malaria and chess robots. Simply put A.I. are already more creative than humans. Creativity is about using a brute force algorithm to find all possible combinations, even combinations that seem mediocre or worthless.

Panera Bread has many terrible items on the menu, but have you tried every single item on the menu? Maybe out of 200 items, one item is decent. Humans halt after trying the first 50 items on the menu and finding they all taste like chalk, machines keep going.

Creativity is about resisting the urge to sift though and find only the gold and stubbornly marching forward wading through 100,000s combinations that are weak. You find some gold, but you keep going until you find every single bit of gold.

Thomas Edison found 100,000 ways to not make a light bulb. Yet, there are probably billions more ways not to make a light bulb. Keep trying and you eventually move past the incandescent light bulb and come up with halogen, CFL, and LED light bulbs.

Finally, in video games creativity is about exploring every single dead end in a maze. There might be nothing at the dead end. Yet, infrequently there is a treasure chest at the dead end or a secret passage. Think of a rat, a maze, and some cheese. The normal rat quickly and efficiently finds the shortest route and eats the cheese. The creative rodent explores every single dead end and then finds the cheese in the middle. I think it is a form of cognitive bias not to explore every single dead end. How would you know there is no cheese unless you looked?

"Eve the robot scientist discovers new drug candidate for malaria"

To sum up, humans are full of cognitive biases. We look around take a small sample of the facts and quickly come up with a mediocre answer. Yet, with a much larger sample size we can come up with a much better answer. This is why super intelligent A.I. wins and robots beat humans at chess. Humans simply lack the cpu, processing power to come up with the same number of combinations within a given time frame.

Display Name said...

Read this late last night Jim. A lot to chew on. Today I saw the news about Kate Spade. Her handbags were so whimsical and creative. Have you ever seen them? /cry

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