The Dark Side of Creativity

27 November 2015

From The Harvard Business Review:

Few psychological traits are as desirable as creativity — the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful. Yet it is also true that creativity has been associated with a wide range of counterproductive, rarely discussed qualities. Being aware of these tendencies is important for anyone trying to better understand their own creativity, or that of other people.

First, research has established a link between creativity and negative moods. You don’t have to be depressed to be creative — and it’s important to note that crippling depression is more destructive than generative — but it is true that there is some empirical backing for the stereotype that artists tend to be depressive or suffer from mood swings. As Nietzsche once noted: “One must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” On average, people who are very emotionally stable may be too happy to feel the need to create. After all, if the status quo is fine, why change it?

Second, the very thinking patterns that define the creative process and help lead to original thinking can have a maladaptive side. For example, creativity requires the inability to suppress irrelevant thoughts and inappropriate ideas. And creative thinkers also tend to have poorer impulse-control.

More recently, creativity has also been associated with dishonesty, presumably because it enables individuals to creatively distort reality. That is not to say that creative people are necessarily unethical. Rather, their lower tolerance for boredom and conventionality, and their more vivid imaginations, equip them with more sophisticated mental tools to both self-deceive and deceive others.

. . . .

Research has also found that creative individuals are often more narcissistic, and that narcissism can actually boost creative achievements. This makes intuitive sense. Narcissistic people are focused on themselves, and naturally spend more time focused on developing their own ideas and less time worrying about pleasing other people. However, it’s important to note that narcissists tend to think that they are more creative than they actually are, and most people are unable to evaluate creativity accurately — so it could also be that observers are just more easily deceived by individuals who seem more confident and enthusiastic about their own ideas. In line, research shows that even when narcissistic individuals are not more creative, they are better able to sell their ideas to others, creating, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. (This is consistent with the finding that narcissism often correlates with leadership, including when leaders are visionary or entrepreneurial.)

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

Can a sleepless night awaken creativity?

15 December 2018

From The Guardian:

A bad night is not always a bad thing,” wrote the late science fiction author Brian Aldiss. A long-time insomniac, he appears to have been searching for the silver lining of a condition that, in chronic form, can suck the lifeblood from you.

One does not have to try hard to build the case against insomnia – the way its vampire clutch leaves just a hollow shell of you to ghost walk through your days; the way it trips you up and compromises your cognitive integrity. But Aldiss was after compensation. The “great attraction of insomnia”, he observed, is that “the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instinct and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind.”

Before I began writing a book about my own insomnia, I wouldn’t have paid Aldiss any heed, much less the id that seemed to hold sway over my darkened bedroom. Whatever wisps of a dream managed to seep into my conscious brain offered nothing in the way of solace. Instead I felt enervated and defeated. My bad nights came with no honeyed sweeteners.

Insomnia’s symptoms will be familiar to anyone who has been forced into an intimate acquaintance with the witching hours. Awake all night, I feel saturated with dread, with a gut-churning queasiness stemming from an all-pervading sense of doom. As the minutes and hours tick by, I squirm and thrash and toss, trying not to look at the clock, until, giving up on sleep altogether, I get up.

So it goes, night after endless night. Like Wordsworth, who complained of not being able to win sleep “by any stealth”, I have long been exasperated by sleep’s refusal to visit me, no matter how avidly I court it. My mind will not quieten, will not release my body and allow it to sink into sleep, obeying the gravitational pull of the unconscious.

. . . .

Mathias Énard’s extraordinary novel Compass, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker international prize, is a conscious homage to Proust. The book is set during a single sleepless night, when Énard’s largely auto-fictional narrator, an Austrian academic and orientalist, pines for the unrequited love of his life – a one-time protege who overtook him. As he tosses and turns, frustrated by his enduring pent-up lust, he wallows in recollections of their many encounters at conferences, their late night tête-à-têtes in restaurants, their mutual passion for the literature and music of the Middle East.

Énard conjures very well the exquisite torture of having nowhere to hide from your failings in insomnia, of having to sit with those agitated, uncertain, spiritually naked thoughts for as long as it takes for them to leach away. At one point he bemoans jolting awake from fevered dreams without ever having slept, before trying to convince himself that “a man trying to fall asleep turns over and finds a new point of departure, a new beginning”.

. . . .

The question for any artist or writer is whether the insomniac mind, forced to confront its deepest fears, groping here and there at the veiled world, might offer insights as well as torments. Famously, there are writers who have trained themselves into night-time productivity and considered their wakefulness a gift. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, likened insomnia to a “sunburst” – its blast of light standing as a symbol for inner illumination. Sleep, he said, was “the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals … [a] nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius”. Like other famous literary insomniacs, Elizabeth Bishop, Franz Kafka, Robert Frost, he wanted to be an all-seeing witness, a solitary watchman perpetually vigilant over the sleeping masses.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Creativity Creep

3 September 2014

From The New Yorker:

Every culture elects some central virtues, and creativity is one of ours. In fact, right now, we’re living through a creativity boom. Few qualities are more sought after, few skills more envied. Everyone wants to be more creative—how else, we think, can we become fully realized people?

Creativity is now a literary genre unto itself: every year, more and more creativity books promise to teach creativity to the uncreative.

. . . .

How did we come to care so much about creativity? The language surrounding it, of unleashing, unlocking, awakening, developing, flowing, and so on, makes it sound like an organic and primordial part of ourselves which we must set free—something with which it’s natural to be preoccupied. But it wasn’t always so; people didn’t always care so much about, or even think in terms of, creativity. In the ancient world, good ideas were thought to come from the gods, or, at any rate, from outside of the self. During the Enlightenment, rationality was the guiding principle, and philosophers sought out procedures for thinking, such as the scientific method, that might result in new knowledge. People back then talked about “imagination,” but their idea of it was less exalted than ours. They saw imagination as a kind of mental scratch pad: a system for calling facts and images to the mind’s eye and for comparing and making connections between them. They didn’t think of the imagination as “creative.” In fact, they saw it as a poor substitute for reality; Hobbes called it “decayed sense.”

It was Romanticism, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which took the imagination and elevated it, giving us the “creative imagination.”

. . . .

People like Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that we don’t just store things in our imaginations; we transform them. Coleridge made a useful distinction, largely lost today, between two kinds of imagining. All of us, he thought, have a workaday imagination, which we use to recall memories, make plans, and solve problems; he called this practical imagination “fancy.” But we also have a nobler kind of imagination, which operates, as Engell puts it, like “a human reflex of God’s creative energy.” The first kind of imagination understands the world; the second kind cares about it and brings it to life. In the “Prelude,” Wordsworth describes this kind of imagination as “an auxiliary light” that changes everything it illuminates:

An auxiliary light
Came from my mind which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendor, the melodious birds,
The gentle breezes, fountains that ran on,
Murmuring so sweetly in themselves, obeyed
A like dominion; and the midnight storm
Grew darker in the presence of my eye.

This watchful, inner kind of creativity is not about making things but about experiencing life in a creative way; it’s a way of asserting your own presence amidst the much larger world of nature, and of finding significance in that wider world. By contrast, our current sense of creativity is almost entirely bound up with the making of stuff. If you have a creative imagination but don’t make anything, we regard that as a problem—we say that you’re “blocked.”

. . . .

How did creativity transform from a way of being to a way of doing? The answer, essentially, is that it became a scientific subject, rather than a philosophical one. In 1950, a psychologist named J. P. Guilford kickstarted that transition with an influential speech to the American Psychological Association. Guilford’s specialty was psychometrics: during the Second World War, he helped the Air Force design tests to identify which recruits had the kinds of intelligence necessary to fly airplanes. Unsurprisingly, when it came to identifying creative people, Guilford found that you couldn’t measure the auxiliary light of the soul. You had to measure something more concrete, like the production of ideas.

A classic measure of idea production, introduced by Guilford in 1967, revolves around the notion of “alternative uses”: subjects are asked how many novel uses they can imagine for a paper clip, say, or a newspaper or a brick.

. . . .

All of this measuring and sorting has changed the way we think about creativity. For the Romantics, creativity’s center of gravity was in the mind. But for us, it’s in whatever the mind decides to share—that is, in the product. It’s not enough for a person to be “imaginative” or “creative” in her own consciousness. We want to know that the product she produces is, in some sense, “actually” creative; that the creative process has come to a workable conclusion. To today’s creativity researchers, the “self-styled creative person,” with his inner, unverifiable, possibly unproductive creativity, is a kind of bogeyman; a great deal of time is spent trampling on the scarf of the lone, Romantic genius. Instead, attention is paid to the systems of influence, partnership, power, funding, and reception that surround creativity—the social structures, in other words, that enable managers to reap the fruits of creative labor. Often, this is imagined to be some sort of victory over Romanticism and its fusty, pretentious, élitist ideas about creativity.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Creativity and Madness: On Writing Through the Drugs

1 March 2014

From The Millions:

I had rarely felt so alive, so close to the spitting pulse of energy and awakened life. I moved from the Berkshires to New York City for graduate school, to pursue an MFA in writing. My first year was an exhilarating blur of freedom and power. Each morning when I stepped out of my apartment, I felt like I owned the world. I felt beautiful and talented and young. I knew famous people, I was creatively inspired, I was meeting regularly with editors and publishers who were interested in my writing. My only responsibilities were to read, study with some of my literary heroes, write, and teach part-time. But by the end of my third year in the city, an anxiety disorder that had plagued me since the beginning of my life, and would flare up and calm down on a strange circadian rhythm of misery, had gotten so bad it reduced me to a quivering non-functioning bundle of raw nerves. I barely squeaked by in my last semester of my program, writing, reading, and teaching between emergency room visits, therapy appointments, panic attacks, and crippling phobias.

. . . .

During this time, I was writing prolifically, and I feared that taking medication to ease my anxiety and panic might destroy my urge or ability to create. I had heard of many artists who had gone mad or suffered from horrible depression, and took the popular prescription of the day, never to write or create again. Their troubling symptoms had been muted, but so had everything else, their thoughts, perceptions, libidos, and ability to access deep feelings. They reported feeling emotionally void, deadened, seeing life as if through a veil. I also heard of artists who went mad and died, victims of suicide, drug overdose, or fatal manic episodes, and that scared me even more. David Foster Wallace, a writer I admired and sympathized with for his closeness to the raw fire of his own internal demons, committed suicide during my second year of graduate school, when my emotional world was crumbling, and it shook me to my core.

Creatives of all modalities have for centuries have suffered from mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and they have resisted treatments that could improve their conditions for fear it would alter or cloud their minds, drug them into submission, or quash their creative impulse. Edvard Munch famously proclaimed, “I want to keep my sufferings. They are part of me and my art.” Van Gogh said, “Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence, whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound, does not spring from disease of thought, from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”

. . . .

What if the touch of the madness had been medicated out of van Gogh, Hemingway,FitzgeraldFaulknerSextonPlath, and Wallace? They very likely would have lived longer, fuller, and more enjoyable lives, but would they have created their works of genius? It’s a strange calculation we make, now that we can tinker with the chemicals that seem to make us who we are, which aspects of our personality are worth enduring for the gifts they can bestow? What if those aspects end up costing us our lives? What if saving our lives with medication robs us of the very thing that gives our lives meaning and makes us who we deeply are — sensitive, scared, hyper-aware, but also exultant, perceptive, and insightful into the human condition?

. . . .

It has now been about five years since I left New York. I’m teaching writing full-time at one school and adjuncting one evening a week at another. For the most part, I have a handle on my anxiety and panic. I’ve worked hard in therapy on strategies for handling a near constant dizziness and hyper-awareness that are classic symptoms of anxiety, and the SSRIs and Benzodiazepines I take are a seatbelt around my panic. Since I’ve been on meds, my trips to the emergency room have steadily dwindled down to none. My relationships have improved because I no longer need to rely on my friends, family, and romantic partners for my safety and emotional stability. But between teaching more than full time, reading voluminous student work, and the lazy happiness the medicines have granted me, I’ve barely written a word. At first, I didn’t need to. I rode my bike, I took a job, I fell in love, I enjoyed eating and spending time with friends again. There was none of the urgency or desire to wrestle with my words in the midst of such a full life. I used to write to live, to push myself out of a dark hole and connect with a reader in the world outside my suffocating den. Now, though I don’t feel quite as alive when I’m not writing, it’s no longer imperative. It’s even at times unappealing — why would I seclude myself from a world I’ve missed out on for so long to sit alone and sift through the crumpled napkins and browned apple cores of my thoughts and experiences as I’d done for years when trying to unlock the mystery of my suffering?

Link to the rest at The Millions

For balance, Passive Guy knows several successful writers who take medication to control or minimize the effects of mental illness who are able to write much better and more prolifically as a result of their treatments.

Writing, Money, and the Necessary Self-Delusion of Creativity

2 September 2013

From Brain Pickings:

The question of why writers write holds especial mesmerism, both as a piece of psychological voyeurism and as a beacon of self-conscious hope that if we got a glimpse of the innermost drivers of greats, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to replicate the workings of genius in our own work. So why do great writers write? George Orwell itemized four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise.

In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do — which also gave us invaluable wisdom from Susan Orlean,Mary Karr and Isabel Allende, and which was among the 10 best books on writing from my recent collaboration with the New York Public Library — Michael Lewis, one of today’s finest nonfiction masters, shares his singular lore.

Lewis begins at the bumpy beginning, echoing Ray Bradbury’s insistence on perseverance in the face of rejection: Even though his thesis adviser at Princeton praised the intellectual angle of his senior thesis but admonished him to never attempt making a living with that kind of writing, Lewis was drawn to the writing life. He wrote a piece on the homeless and pitched it to various magazines. It was rejected, with one magazine editor noting that “pieces on the life of the underclass in America” were unsuitable for publication. (One has to wonder whether the defiant remnants of this early brush with gobsmacking censorship spurred Lewis’s provocative look at the housing and credit bubble more than twenty years later.) Still, he “kept plugging away” and, in 1983, applied for an internship as a science writer at the Economist. He recalls:

I didn’t get the job — the other two applicants were doing their PhDs in physics and biology, and I’d flunked the one science class I took in college — but the editor who interviewed me said, “You’re a fraud, but you’re a very good fraud. Go write anything you want for the magazine, except science.” They published the first words I ever got into print. They paid ninety bucks per piece. It cost money to write for the Economist. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make a living at writing, but I felt encouraged. Luckily, I was delusional. I didn’t know that I didn’t have much of an audience, so I kept doing it.

. . . .

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.

My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.

. . . .

The reasons I write change over time. In the beginning, it was that sense of losing time. Now it’s changed, because I have a sense of an audience. I have the sense that I can biff the world a bit. I don’t know that I have control of the direction of the pinball, but I can exert a force.

That power is a mixed blessing. It’s good to have something to get you into the chair. I’m not sure it’s great for the writing to think of yourself as important while you’re doing it. I don’t quite think that way. But I can’t deny that I’m aware of the effects my writing will have.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

A recording studio in the garden: How creativity comes in shedloads

11 May 2013

From The Independent:

People like a shed – especially if they are creative. For writers it is often a peaceful bolt-hole.

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion from his garden shed in Hertfordshire, which was built on a turntable, which turned to face the sun; Roald Dahl wrote most of his children’s books in his Buckinghamshire “writing hut”; Virginia Woolf wrote in her shed in Sussex; Dylan Thomas wrote in a shed above his home, the Boathouse in Laugharne, Wales; Philip Pullman used to write his novels in an old wood shed in his garden in Oxford; Arthur Miller built a shed in Roxbury, Connecticut to write Death of a Salesman.

A garden shed can also serve as a more noisy recording studio – indeed Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters created early demo tracks for Dark Side of the Moon in his garden shed in Islington, while Benjamin Britten composed music including the opera Death in Venice in a shed-like building outside his house in Horham, Suffolk.

Link to the rest at The Independent

When I’m 64

2 September 2018

From Medium:

It used to be that the years would pile up, one on top of the other. “Where does the time go!” we cried, palms to cheeks. Now, it’s the decades piling. Decades are laying dusty atop one another like so many old files, stuffed and disorganized and in need of sorting.

Ten years ago, I fell apart. The story isn’t that tidy, of course — I didn’t wake one morning completely unraveled — but it’s close. The vagaries of a female body, in a world that eats girls, caught up to me and I fell down. Literally. And when I got up, it was hard to stay up. There was a lot of hot water, in other words.

A curious thing happened at the time of the falling apart, though. I started writing. In a ceaseless rush, the words spilled out of me. After a lifetime of yearning to uncork the creative, it happened unbidden, in my darkest hour. All those words on the page have somehow carried me into a new, surprising, and rewarding stage of my life. Creativity saved me.

I lately find myself intrigued (obsessed?) with the stories of creative women hitting their stride later in life. Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first of her Little House books at 65. Sojourner Truth worked for women’s suffrage and civil rights well into her seventies. Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was 78, when arthritis made embroidery too difficult. Rachel Ruysch, the brilliant Dutch still-life painter, proudly signed her age on her paintings and worked into her eighties. Toni Morrison still burns bright at 87, a leading literary voice and a force for feminism and racial equality. Beatrice Wood — the “Mama of Dada” — made art until the end of her astounding 105 years, publishing at the young age of 92 an autobiography titled, I Shock Myself.

Aging is an effective teacher, if we listen. It counsels patience and acceptance, it gives us perspective and experience. The decades can whittle away our concern for the opinions of others. They prune the unnecessary and allow us to blossom as we are, as we want to be. I care so much less now for protocol, for norms, for the rules of society. The cycles, the seasons, the wins, and the losses — it’s bouncing back and getting up that trains us for the marathon. The storms are easier to weather when we’ve seen so many.

. . . .

In Anna Louie Sussman’s article, “Why Old Women Have Replaced Young Men as the Art World’s Darlings,” the South African artist Sue Williamson observes, “Women in later life often push aside their anxieties about satisfying the market, and competing with their male colleagues for attention, and just make work which pleases themselves, first and foremost.”

Link to the rest at Medium

Are ebooks dying or thriving? The answer is yes

14 May 2018

From Quartz:

It is a heartwarming story: In spite of the endless onslaught of digital content, American readers have collectively put down their screens and decided to embrace once more that beloved tactile rectangular prism that reminds us, with its weight at the bottom of our bags, of its immeasurable heft. Since 2015, major news outlets, including this one, have reported the triumphant return of print: that “real” books are back, and ebooks have lost their gleam.

Of course, it’s not entirely true. Yes, ebooks are doing just fine: Americans consume hundreds of millions of them a year. But many of their authors are writing and publishing books, and finding massive audiences, without being actively tracked by the publishing industry. In fact, the company through which they publish and distribute their books, a tech behemoth disguised as a benevolent, content-agnostic retailer, is the only entity with any real idea of what’s going on in publishing as a whole.

Amazon’s power over self-publishing, a shadow industry running outside the traditional publishing houses and imprints, is insidiously invisible. As a result, the publishing industry has a data problem, and it doesn’t look like Amazon will be loosening its grip any time soon.

. . . .

They don’t often get nominated for huge book prizes, noticed by the New York Times book review, or endorsed by the president. But over the past seven years, self-published books—predominantly sold as ebooks–have offered a rare avenue through which writers can make a living just from writing, as opposed to speaking, teaching, and/or consulting. By cutting out publishers, writers sidestep print and distribution costs, increase their revenue, and are beholden to readers and algorithms, not critics, editors, marketers, or sales people. A decent writer with a flair for self-promotion, or a decent entrepreneur with writing chops, can earn serious cash.

. . . .

Self-publishing has since exploded, particularly in romance, fantasy, and science fiction. Though an average is impossible to estimate, top-selling authors can sell hundreds of thousands of self-published books on Amazon, which, with revenue of $2 per book, can generate millions of dollars. For the past few years, mega-selling romance writer H.M. Ward has been making a seven-figure salary across self-publishing platforms, more than half of which came through Amazon. At one point,she cracked double-digit millions in sales. According to one estimate, last year 2,500 self-published authors made at least $50,000 in book sales across self-publishing platforms, before the platforms’ cuts.

. . . .

The information asymmetry between Amazon and the rest of the book industry—publishers, brick-and-mortar stores, industry analysts, aspiring writers—means that only the Seattle company has deeply detailed information, down to the page, on what people want to read. So an industry that’s never been particularly data-savvy increasingly works in the dark: Authors lose negotiating power, and publishers lose the ability to compete on pricing or even, on a basic level, to understand what’s selling.

. . . .

But ebook sales are anybody’s guess. Amazon doesn’t report its ebook sales to any of the major industry data sources, and it doesn’t give authors more than their own personal slice of data. A spokesperson from Amazon writes by email that “hundreds of thousands of authors self-publish their books today with Kindle Direct Publishing,” but declined to provide a number, or any sales data.

. . . .

Without good data, there’s no complete picture of the industry. News stories say digital fatigue is sounding the death knell of ebooks, as readers across the country devour $700 million dollars of untracked digital files. Publishers are less able to see what’s selling in certain commercial genres, and less able to take risks on debut authors. Bookstore attendance becomes lopsided, and a large swath of American readers get algorithm-driven book creation. As authors move to self-publishing, the creativity pool becomes bifurcated.

“I think it hurts everyone,” says publishing consultant Jane Friedman. “Because everyone gets to put forward the narrative they would personally like to believe in.” Publishers believe ebooks were a failed experiment, bookstore owners can cheer the triumph of their raison d’être, print lovers get to gloat that screens will never kill the old-school ways. Self-published authors can keep making money, and trying to light lamps to cut through the data darkness.

Link to the rest at Quartz

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