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Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

12 November 2017

From Brain Pickings:

Imitation, besides being the seedbed of empathy and our experience of time, is also, paradoxically enough, the seedbed of creativity — not only a poetic truth but a cognitive fact, as the late, great neurologist and poet of science Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) argues in a spectacular essay titled “The Creative Self,” published in the posthumous treasure The River of Consciousness.

. . . .

He writes:

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

When Alexander Pope was thirteen years old, he asked William Walsh, an older poet whom he admired, for advice. Walsh’s advice was that Pope should be “correct.” Pope took this to mean that he should first gain a mastery of poetic forms and techniques. To this end, in his “Imitations of English Poets,” Pope began by imitating Walsh, then Cowley, the Earl of Rochester, and more major figures like Chaucer and Spenser, as well as writing “Paraphrases,” as he called them, of Latin poets. By seventeen, he had mastered the heroic couplet and began to write his “Pastorals” and other poems, where he developed and honed his own style but contented himself with the most insipid or clichéd themes. It was only once he had established full mastery of his style and form that he started to charge it with the exquisite and sometimes terrifying products of his own imagination. For most artists, perhaps, these stages or processes overlap a good deal, but imitation and mastery of form or skills must come before major creativity.

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More than a century after Mark Twain declared that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Sacks — who had previously written at length about our unconscious borrowings — adds:

All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings and thanks to Anne for the tip.

Creativity

3 Comments to “Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity”

  1. Originality is highly overrated. Listen some time to oral formulaic poetry, like the Iliad, or even the British Child ballads, for the still evocative ways of turning conventional phrases into spine-chilling tendrils of perception.

    Some of the most hackneyed “stuff” can retain its power.

    (Anent which, I am for some reason reminded of recent traditional agent advice to not submit any more stories about zombies…)

  2. Creativity is all based on those guys sitting in caves and savannahs who figured out how useful a sharpened stone could be.

  3. Oliver Sacks lived a hugely compressed life, I personally wouldnt trust him on ‘creativity’ since he squelched so much of his basic nature. His books on anomalies in neuro and chemicologic aberrations are interesting. But they are case studies, made in a mold. Since forever, he is right, doctors etc in all cultures have left treatises on the aberrationsof humans. He did nothing original, just followed the elephant trunk-tail train. So in that respec he is right. About himself.

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