I’ve always been interested in how creativity actually works. Now I am myself fairly creative, in that I write here, I write fiction, I write music, etcetera. I’m not saying that what I write is necessarily good. That’s not important for the sake of this argument. The key thing is that creation is something I’m used to, that I have a hand in.
So what I’m going to do in this short piece is to introspect a bit and look at how my creative process works, and then see if there are any lessons that can be learned from it. The discussion follows on naturally from that at the end of my piece ‘The Tyranny of Realism’, where I discussed the nature of greatness in art. Which once again, is not a quality I claim for myself. I am merely the lab rat from observation of which ideas follow.
My creative process
This is how I work. In fact, until I went into therapy the whole process disconcerted me greatly, as I seemed to be creating art without any very strong hold on what it was that emerged. That is to say, music I wrote just happened; attempts to plan it went horribly wrong, which disconcerted me. Even more bizarrely, designs for IT systems could appear in my mind fully-formed without my having done any actual conscious work to arrive at them.
And then I discovered two things: the Myers-Briggs indicator and the psychology of Jung. The first taught me that the approach to creation that disconcerted me so much was simply intuition at work. The second gave me the framework I need to understand what is going on. So here, as a result of these insights, is what I think happens in my psyche when creative work (which can be writing music or words, writing this piece, designing a piece of software, whatever) is going on.
I am very strongly intuitive. In my Myers-Briggs score, my score for intuition is maximal, so it seems I couldn’t get much more intuitive than I am. What happens in the creative process is this. Ideas pop into my mind, seemingly from nowhere. I have no warning, but I can call on this capability at will, so if I sit down in front of a computer and get into the zone, ideas seem to flow straight from the aether into my fingers. To put it mildly this can be disconcerting. I just spent an hour writing (some fiction, part of a prejudicial satire on Twilight as it happens) and I knew roughly what I expected to happen next plot-wise. Which it did, up to a point, in that it ended up in the right place, but the path it chose to follow to get there was completely different from the one I had mapped out. And what didn’t happen was that I had an idea and thought ‘that would be better’ to myself. No, what happened was that I let go of control and the new approach simply happened.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence. When half way through a novel I needed a house-maid to open a door for my hero, so she appeared, and she had a little bit of dialogue, and that was it. A throw-away character, or so I thought. What I hadn’t expected to happen was that she ended up dominating the second half of the novel, but she did. And I never, consciously, made that decision. It was made by whatever it is that feeds my fingers – call it my intuition. As it happens I’m not alone in this. The very great Polish writer Stanislaw Lem has said that when he sat down to write Solaris, he had no ideas about planet-wide sentient oceans, or phantasms of dead lovers, or any of the other material that makes Solaris the amazing novel that it is. He just sat down to write and it happened to him. Similarly, Igor Stravinsky said that he felt that Le Sacre du Printemps was composed through him rather than by him. As a third example consider Shostakovich’s rebuke to a student who was not getting on well with writing the second movement of a symphony because inspiration was slow in coming: ‘You should not be waiting for inspiration, you should be writing your second movement’.
Now, I said this was disconcerting. Why? Well, first off, there’s the sense of lack of control that I get because I’m not consciously driving the piece forward in a controlled way. In fact, as I said, when I have tried to do that, the results were terrible. My intuition refused to play ball, and I had to build music rationally, almost mathematically (though, in fact, good mathematics is created intuitively too). In fact, the results were so terrible that I ended up binning them. So it seems that the lack of control is endemic to the creative process, which therefore makes me very suspicion when commentators claim that, say, Carl Nielsen had organised his music according to pre-determined rigorous models and the music itself is, as it were, superfluous.
The other source of disconcertment is perhaps only worrying if you are as self-critical as I. That is to say, if I had sat down to write the scene with the house-maid at a different time, on a different day, would she still have taken over the latter part of the novel? Or would she have been as minor as she was expected to be? This apparent lack of determination is very worrying, as it leads to the next question: if what I actually write is so contingent, is there actually any piece of music or story or whatever ‘out there’ that’s being composed / written? The obvious answer is ‘no’, and I’ll return to why that can be disturbing later.
Conclusions about creativity
Creativity is not Platonic
Let’s start with the last point I made, the one about the role of contingency in creation. From the philosophical position I have reached now, that isn’t particularly disturbing, but before I sat down to try to work out what was going on when did creative ‘stuff’, I was something of a Platonist about creativity. That is to say, I had the notion that when an artist sits down to write, say, Macbeth, then there is some ideal form of the play ‘out there’ somewhere, and it is being gradually discovered, refined and committed to paper.
Where did I get this notion from? Well, I’m sure you’ll find that it’s from the common popular model of how artists work. So you get ideas like the sculptor searching for the sculpture within the stone interpreted along these lines. Which is interesting, but wrong, because what that idea is saying is that the sculptor starts without preconceptions and lets intuition and the events of the moment, the feel of the stone, drive their hammer. But the misconception that the finished article is inside there somewhere is commonplace.
So what I’m saying is this: if other artists work like me, and I’ve got some evidence to suggest that perhaps they do, then in fact creativity is totally non-Platonic. There is no ‘piece’ out there, there is just a source of ideas that the artist shapes into the finished article. So it’s meaningless to ask what would have happened if I had written that part of my novel on a different day, or if Lem had started Solaris on a different day, because creativity has two parts: an intuitive source and an intellectual foundry. The whole process is of necessity contingent, as there is no grand plan that intuition is following, or at least none we can see. There is just a process whereby raw ideas are shaped into a growing piece of art.
Let me pick up on a point from above. I said that there was no grand plan that we are aware of. It could be that deep in my intuition there is in fact a plan that I am not consciously privy to. But does that change anything? I think not. The end result is still a creative process that appears to me, at a conscious level, to be entirely contingent. By way of example, I have on occasion sat down to write a new piece of music with, in my head, thematic material that I know I have used before in other pieces, and yet this latest piece is fresh and new, not a reflection of the older pieces. This is entirely plausible in either model. Either I take my themes and then, driven by intuition, assemble them into a musical fabric in a contingent manner, or my intuition gives me the themes and then, based on its platonic ideal, directs me in constructing it. There is no way I can tell these two scenarios apart, saving the arrival of a signed message from my intuition saying ‘I planned it all’. So given the choice of ‘there is no plan, the process is contingent’ or ‘there is a plan, but such that you can’t tell it there, and so the process appears as if it’s contingent’, I prefer to apply Occam’s razor, select the simpler model of contingency, and learn to embrace contingency. The Platonic model may bring comfort to some, but as the end result is the same, the value of that comfort has to be questioned.
(The frequent use of the word ‘constructed’ in the preceding paragraph should act as a warning flag about philosophical approach. Indeed, I personally replace Platonism with Constrictivism in art, in mathematics and in epistemology. The consequences of this are rather interesting, but would take us too far off topic, and so are a subject for another time.)
Creativity is not intellectually driven
The next point is that it’s clear from my discussion of the creative process that the conscious mind plays a subservient role. In fact, as I’ve said a couple of times, if one lets the conscious mind take control, things can go badly wrong. This explains why the music of so many of the mid-twentieth century Darmstadt school composers sounds rather arid: they thought that using the serial technique was what made Schoenberg et al what they were, whereas in reality Schoenberg was a great composer who happened to use the serial technique as a tool. This is rather like thinking that if one memorises Messiaen’s book The Technique of my Musical Language, one will write music like Messiaen; Messiaen omitted one thing from that book: himself. And therefore, we can learn much by analysing the great artists of the past, but should be wary about what we do with the fruits of that analysis.
This means then that we should, as I noted above, be very wary of academic commentators who seek out the content of art in the formal structures it adopts, as this is the same mistake as thinking that the meaning of a sentence is to be found in the grammar of the language in which it is expressed. So, some commentators think they have understood a late piece by Stravinsky, say his Requiem Canticles, once they have been able to map every note back to the twelve-tone series in a reasonable deterministic way. And all they have discovered is the tools he used to reify the products of his intuition.
The point behind these digressions is this. All three composers, as well as writers and painters like Klee and Malevich, brought a (more or less) rigorous set of intellectual tools to the table. But they created great art by making these tools and their intellect the servants of the source of creativity in the intuitive unconscious mind. Their imitators created bad art by taking the intellectual rigour of the tools to be the source of genius and trying to do without the true source in the intuition.
The role of the intellect
So creativity starts when the unconscious mind produces an idea. The role of the intellect is to take that idea and form it into something that can be written down or played, or painted, and in the process give it life. If we have to get, if not Platonic at least Aristotelian, this is where it can happen: raw ideas are a kind of essence; before they turn into realised art they must also acquire accidents.
The raw material, whether musical or textual, emerges as pure essence, pure potential from the unconscious mind, and at that point one can’t do much with it. If it is writing one has to turn it into sentences, if music into notes, harmonies, playable / singable parts, etc. We’ve seen that the intellect should have no role in saying what the essence is (or else disaster strikes), but it still has a role, because we need to carry out that shaping process that gives the essence accidents that reify it.
This means that the conscious mind is dethroned from its proud position as the creator, the mighty genius overseeing the work it produces, and it becomes the servant of the intuition. What it can do is bring to bear a toolkit of techniques that the artist has developed that allows them to realise art from raw essence. So style is a major part of this, as it depends very much on the toolkit of formal ideas that the artist has available to them (think of Klee’s paintings with their continuous lines and the rule that crossing a line forces a change of colour). The intuition tells one how the stone should feel, but it’s only the intellect that can work out how to translate that into movements of the hammer, and that is based on a lifetime of study and learning.
What is an idea?
Let me address this tangentially. I have said that ideas emerge from the unconscious into the conscious mind, where they are studied and shaped to make them ready to progress to the outer world. So that means that the artist must have a very close relationship with their unconscious mind. When I spoke above about getting into ‘the zone’, what I meant, in this language, was that one can open a pathway between the conscious and unconscious minds, and, if one is lucky, when that pathway is open the unconscious mind will give creative energy to the conscious mind.
So what makes the unconscious mind willing to give? It clearly doesn’t all the time, as many artists go through sometimes quite long periods of silence. According to Jung a well-developed psyche has two key features. First, the conscious mind has not alienated the unconscious, so not only is it easy to open that pathway, but once it is open, the unconscious will be willing to give of its goodness. Second, the beneficent aspects of the unconscious mind are well-developed.
The second point is critical. Within my unconscious mind is the Shadow, repository of those things that I keep hidden, even from myself. What comes from it can be amazing insights, but is more likely to be negative ideas, which will not be a good basis for creation. So the artist needs to have a well-developed positive unconscious mind, which means that psychological space is reclaimed from the shadow and turned over to the psychologically ‘good’. This is part of what happens in the process of individuation.
In my case the positive unconscious mind is my anima (men have an anima, women an animus). If she is well-developed then she can begin to take over space that used to be occupied by the Shadow (this is the source of the insights), and she becomes the source of creative energy. It is, perhaps, not surprising that in man-dominated culture ‘the muse’ is generally portrayed as a woman.
So an idea becomes in this model the energy produced by my anima when I open the path to hear her. And it is perhaps not surprising that a well-developed intuition can produce music, or sentences, or mathematics, or even designs for IT systems. Ones anima/us is part of oneself and has the same skills as oneself. In fact may well be the source of those skills.