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

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

Why Creative People Are More Likely to Be Dishonest

7 December 2015

From The Harvard Business Review:

We prize creativity. Being able to produce a novel and useful idea, solution, or product is what fuels innovation and differentiates you from competitors. This helps explain why, in a recent global survey, more than 1,500 corporate and public sector leaders reported that creativity is the most important quality a leader must have.

However, being creative also has an undeniable dark side—one that can be very costly for companies if left unchecked. Research has shown that while creative people are adept at coming up with new ideas, they can also be more likely to engage in morally questionable behaviors. In a set of studies, Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely at Duke University found that creative thinkers are better at rationalizing dishonesty than uncreative thinkers. “Thinking outside the box” can lead to acting unethically.

In our research, we’ve found that identifying as a creative person can also lead someone to be dishonest. This is because, at least in the U.S., creativity is often celebrated as a special attribute. The idea that creativity is rare leads to a sense of entitlement; if you are creative, you see yourself as more deserving than others. Leaders reinforce this when they don’t hold creative people to the same rules as those who are less creative, or when they give them special treatment.

. . . .

Basically, it’s not just that creative people can think outside the box; it’s that people who see themselves as creative and see creativity as rare believe that they deserve a bigger box than others. And what is more troubling is that they might be willing to steal and lie as a result.

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

What is indie publishing?

12 August 2012

From Cally Phillips of the Edinburgh e-book Festival 2012:

It’s not easy to define. But it’s a big and important issue. Waters are muddy rather than clear. Why? Because there’s a lot of people with a lot of different angles and a lot of different ways of making money involved in this ‘industry.’  The writer often forgets that by engaging in the communicative act of publishing  (the stage beyond the usually communicative act of writing) they are positioning themselves in a marketplace, they become ‘stakeholders’ in a multibillion dollar industry. They are minnows in a very big shark infested water. And everyone has a view. Everyone, it seems, has an angle.  So all I can offer you is a personal opinion and point towards other people’s  work which I think both explores and addresses the myriad of ‘issues.’

Our stated festival ‘perspective’ is that writers who retain all rights in their work and/or act as publishers of that work are true ‘indie’ writers. We don’t want to get bogged down in arguments between competing ‘indie’ claims so we’ve stated our position up front.

Does ‘indie’ also mean ‘individual’ as well as ‘independent’?

If  I’m going for personal opinion (and rash generalisation) I’ve met two main Types of writers in my life. Type1 are those who focus on the creativity. For whom content (well narrative) really is king. These writers generally struggle or have an aversion to acknowledge that publishing is an industry. They just want to write. And have people read what they write. They are simple souls. I am in essence one of them.  Our story tends to be that we get eaten by sharks – usually before you’ve read our work.

There are GOOD and BAD writers in this category.

The second kind of writer are Type 2: the writer as social being/‘entrepreneur’. The ones who relish the challenge of getting into the mix of the publishing world. They love to network. They love to perform. And often (not always) they are really keen on earning lots of money from their work. They don’t have a conflict between creativity and business savvy.  While  Type 1 writers are often appalled by the thought they they have to transform into Type 2  writers to survive – they are probably also a bit jealous of the genuine Type 2 writer. They might secretly aspire to be a person who has no conflict, no constant struggle between a dark side and their precious creativity. The person who has ‘woken up and smelled the coffee’ in the ‘real’ world.

There are GOOD and BAD writers in this category.

What is ‘good’? is a question which we should debate contextually.  Vanity is not good. We all know that don’t we? But what’s in a word? For me, at the root of it I believe ‘good’ or vanity depends on the quality of the book.  And here I mean not only the physical quality but the quality of content too.  Obviously there is subjectivity in ‘what is a good novel?’ but the argument is too often abused in an attempt to dismiss perfectly good work as ‘vanity.’  Always by those with an ‘agenda’ of their own be that political or economic.  In the ‘real’ world it’s not that hard to work out if a novel is good or bad – well or poorly written.  Beyond taste there are certain basic literary criteria which can and do apply the same as they do to all creative art forms.  But a ‘good’ work is not the same as a work that ‘I like.’

My personal opinion on ‘vanity’ publishing is that the vanity exists if the work is not of a reasonable quality.  A good writer does not engage in ‘vanity’ publish. (Though they may get sucked up by a Vanity Publisher!) For me, ‘Vanity’ publishing is work that has no critical value – irrespective of its commercial value – and is not synonymous with self or indie publishing.

In conclusion, the most significant thing I think about the epublishing ‘revolution’ in which we are all engaged to some degree is that  it may afford the possibility for writers to   begin to have a new and more direct relationship with their readers. “Which will allow  Readers to choose their own ‘good.’  Irrespective of what may be objectively ‘good’ perhaps but equally, they may start to learn how to judge writing critically rather than commercially.  That, I hope, is the future of indie ebook publishing.

The whole post is well worth reading. I had a hard time deciding how to excerpt the most interesting bits of it. I’m interested in two specific ideas from the post. First, are the “Type 1” and “Type 2” categories part of a useful model for thinking about writers? When I say “useful”, I’m specifically referring to the famous quote from statistician George Box, “All models are wrong, some models are useful.” I’m sure that the Type 1/Type 2 generalization is wrong in the sense that it is a vast oversimplification, but does it get at an essential difference among writers that is important to understand in the context of indie publishing?

I don’t have a very strong opinion about the answer to that question, but I do have one about the second idea in this post that I want to discuss. I believe that it is a serious mistake to try to equate “vanity publishing” to “work that has no critical value”. Quality is much more subjective than the post’s author would like to believe. Aficionados of literary fiction often dismiss genre fiction out of hand as being of low quality by definition because much of genre fiction follows a specific formula. I find that notion to be ridiculous on its face. And what is more vain than for a big publisher to print a work by a famous author that they know will be read by few of its buyers?

Vanity publishing is term that just needs to fade away. It is pejorative and misleading. It imputes a moral failing to a writer for no good cause. In the modern context digital publishing, it fails to differentiate between scam artists and valid, viable, and honest businesses. In short, it reflects a model that blinds us to reality rather than illuminates.

Guest post by William Ockham