Tag: Creativity

Philip Roth — One Skill That Every Writer Needs

In his book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey explores Philip Roth.

Roth is full of insight. His comments on writing, taken from Reporting: Writings from The New Yorker, stuck with me.

“Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare,” Roth said in 1987. “Coal mining is hard work. This is a nightmare. … There’s a tremendous uncertainty that’s built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn’t in a battle with his work. In most professions there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness. There is a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs it the ability to sit still in the deeply uneventful business.

“All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room.”

As for his routine, Roth says:

My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning–this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens–and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.

Susan Sontag — How I Write

Mason Currey’s recently published Daily Rituals: How Artists Work mentioned the routines, quirks, and rituals of plenty of creative minds—novelists, painters, poets, philosophers, filmmakers, and scientists—but he missed one of my favorites, Susan Sontag.

She brought us insight such as Three Steps to Refuting Any Argument, Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom, and Common Sense is Always Wrong.

That was all the motivation I needed to go exploring. It didn’t take long before I found this treasure of an interview with The Paris Review, where she details how she writes.

How do you actually write?
I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.

Is there anything that helps you get started writing?
Reading—which is rarely related to what I’m writing, or hoping to write. I read a lot of art history, architectural history, musicology, academic books on many subjects. And poetry. Getting started is partly stalling, stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless. Feeling guilty about not writing.

Do you write every day?
No. I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

I know it sounds strange but I love learning about how people go about creating things. So you can imagine my delight when I came across Mason Currey’s new book Daily Rituals, which describes how 161 inspiring minds maneuver the “many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do.”

Some wake up early. Some sleep in late. Some drink too much. Some won’t touch the stuff. Just as no two people are the same, no two routines are the same.

The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self- discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well- worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. This was one of William James’s favorite subjects. He thought you wanted to put part of your life on autopilot; by forming good habits, he said, we can “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.” Ironically, James himself was a chronic procrastinator and could never stick to a regular schedule.

The book is full of detail, anecdote, and advice.

Consider …

W.H. Auden on passion: “A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the say, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

“(Francis Bacon’s) idea of dieting,” Mason writes, “was to take large quantities of garlic pills and shun egg yolks, desserts, and coffee—while continuing to guzzle a half-dozen bottles of wine and eat two or more large restaurant meals a day.”

Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

“(Patricia Highsmith) had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms,”

We’ll be taking a closer look at some of these inspiring minds in the days ahead.

From the Jacket:

Franz Kafka, frustrated with his living quarters and day job, wrote in a letter to Felice Bauer in 1912, “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”

Kafka is one of 161 inspired—and inspiring—minds, among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, who describe how they subtly maneuver the many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do, whether by waking early or staying up late; whether by self-medicating with doughnuts or bathing, drinking vast quantities of coffee, or taking long daily walks. Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up in the kitchen, the top of the refrigerator as his desk, dreamily fondling his “male configurations”. . . Jean-Paul Sartre chewed on Corydrane tablets (a mix of amphetamine and aspirin), ingesting ten times the recommended dose each day . . . Descartes liked to linger in bed, his mind wandering in sleep through woods, gardens, and enchanted palaces where he experienced “every pleasure imaginable.”

Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself that each morning he write three thousand words (250 words every fifteen minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for thirty-three years during the writing of more than two dozen books . . . Karl Marx . . . Woody Allen . . . Agatha Christie . . . George Balanchine, who did most of his work while ironing . . . Leo Tolstoy . . . Charles Dickens . . . Pablo Picasso . . . George Gershwin, who, said his brother Ira, worked for twelve hours a day from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers . . .

Here also are the daily rituals of Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol, John Updike, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Franklin, William Faulkner, Jane Austen, Anne Rice, and Igor Stravinsky (he was never able to compose unless he was sure no one could hear him and, when blocked, stood on his head to “clear the brain”).

Daily Rituals just might inspire you.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves

In his book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, Dan Ariely attempts to answer the question: “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples or is it a more widespread problem?”

He concludes that we’re mostly honest as long as the conditions are right:

We are going to take things from each other if we have a chance … many people need controls around them for them to do the right thing. … [T]he locksmith told Peter that locks are on doors only to keep honest people honest. “One percent of people will always be honest and never steal,” the locksmith said. “Another one percent will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television. And the rest will be honest as long as the conditions are right—but if they are tempted enough, they’ll be dishonest too. Locks won’t protect you from the thieves, who can get in your house if they really want to. They will only protect you from the mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock.”

We’re ok cheating, as long as its just a little and unnoticeable.

as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalization, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the fudge factor theory.

Something that stood out for me was the chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty. According to Ariely, the link between creativity and dishonesty is not as straightforward as we might think — The more creative we are the better we are at rationalising dishonest behavior.

We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.

… We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.

We don’t make rational decisions. Our choices are (mostly) not based on explicit preferences and thought through. Rather, we follow our intuition with “mental gymnastics” to justify our actions. Conveniently this allows us to get what we want and maintain our ego. We tell ourselves that we are acting rationally. The real difference Ariely found between more and less creative people is the creativity of the justifications. “The most creative we are,” he writes, “the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.”

This really comes down to our storytelling nature:

We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.

The idea that worries Ariely the most is the trend toward cashless payments. “From all the research I have done over the years,” he writes, “the idea that worries me the most is that the more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips.”

One factor that Ariely didn’t contemplate that I think it is important is how our environment — whether we’re in an environment of abundance or scarcity — affects our moral compass. Intuitively, I think it’s a lot easier to rationalise moral transgressions in an environment of scarcity than one of abundance.

“Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.”

— Dan Ariely

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves is worth reading in its entirety.

The Art of Observation: The Two Types of Observations

Just because you see does not mean you observe.  The difference between seeing and observing is fundamental to many aspects of life. Observation is more than simply seeing something, but rather a mental process involving both visual and thought.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes teaches Watson the difference between seeing and observing:

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

“Frequently.”

“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

Often observation involves a conscious or unconscious linking to something that we already know, which brings us to an interesting point on how our experiences impact what we deem significant or not. Our experiences filter what we see.

When we are a novice at something, all observations are unexpected and worthy of our attention but as we learn more about a field we become more discerning about that which we consider important and noteworthy. The same holds true in life.

***

Observation is more than visual inputs (as found in The Art of Scientific Investigation):

It is important to realize that observation is much more than merely seeing something; it also involves a mental process. In all observations there are two elements : (a) the sense-perceptual element (usually visual) and (b) the mental, which, as we have seen, may be partly conscious and partly unconscious. Where the sense-perceptual element is relatively unimportant, it is often difficult to distinguish between an observation and an ordinary intuition. For example, this sort of thing is usually referred to as an observation: “I have noticed that I get hay fever whenever I go near horses.” The hay fever and the horses are perfectly obvious, it is the connection between the two that may require astuteness to notice at first, and this is a mental process not distinguishable from an intuition. Sometimes it is possible to draw a line between the noticing and the intuition, e.g. Aristotle commented that on observing that the bright side of the moon is always toward the sun, it may suddenly occur to the observer that the explanation is that the moon shines by the light of the sun.

On the two types of observation (as found in The Art of Scientific Investigation):

Claude Bernard distinguished two types of observation: (a) spontaneous or passive observations which are unexpected; and (b) induced or active observations which are deliberately sought, usually on account of an hypothesis. […] Effective spontaneous observation involves firstly noticing some object or event. The thing noticed will only become significant if the mind of the observer either consciously or unconsciously relates it to some relevant knowledge or past experience, or if in pondering on it subsequently he arrives at some hypothesis. In the last section attention was called to the fact that the mind is particularly sensitive to changes or differences. This is of use in scientific observation, but what is more important and more difficult is to observe (in this instance mainly a mental process) resemblances or correlations between things that on the surface appeared quite unrelated.

The role of the observer is to discriminate. Often the difference between the novice and the expert is their ability to quickly determine what’s relevant and what’s irrelevant (as found in The Art of Scientific Investigation):

One cannot observe everything closely, therefore one must discriminate and try to select the significant. When practicing a branch of science, the ‘trained’ observer deliberately looks for specific things which his training has taught him are significant, but in research he often has to rely on his own discrimination, guided only by his general scientific knowledge, judgment and perhaps an hypothesis which he entertains.

To develop the powers of observation you need to watch with an active mind (as found in The Art of Scientific Investigation):

Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. It is no exaggeration to say that well developed habits of observation are more important in research than large accumulations of academic learning.

Learning to observe (as found in The Art of Scientific Investigation):

Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established. Effective scientific observation also requires a good background, for only by being familiar with the usual can we notice something as being unusual or unexplained.

 

The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas

You’d be hard-pressed to find a person or organization who says they’re opposed to creativity. It’s seen as an unequivocally good thing. Everyone wants to have creative ideas.

But we don’t always behave in a way that indicates we value creativity. We resist new ideas. For instance, schools are meant to foster creativity. Yet research indicates that teachers dislike students who exhibit curiosity and creative thinking.

Why are our attitudes to creativity so contradictory?

Three researchers at Cornell University took a stab at the answer:

We offer a new perspective to explain this puzzle. Just as people have deeply-rooted biases against people of a certain age, race or gender that are not necessarily overt (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995), so too can people hold deeply-rooted negative views of creativity that are not openly acknowledged. Revealing the existence and nature of a bias against creativity can help explain why people might reject creative ideas and stifle scientific advancement, even in the face of strong intentions to the contrary.

Creative ideas are novel and useful. Yet idea-evaluators (decision-makers) have a hard time “viewing novelty and practicality as attributes that go hand in hand,” and, in fact, often view them as inversely related.

When endorsing a novel idea, people can experience failure, perceptions of risk, social rejection when expressing the idea to others, and uncertainty about when their idea will reach completion.

And we generally like to avoid uncertainty:

Although the positive associations with creativity are typically the focus of attention both among scholars and practitioners, the negative associations may also be activated when people evaluate a creative idea. For example, research on associative thinking suggests that strong uncertainty feelings may make the negative attributes of creativity, particularly those related to uncertainty, more salient

The authors conclude:

Our results show that regardless of how open minded people are, when they feel motivated to reduce uncertainty either because they have an immediate goal of reducing uncertainty, or feel uncertain generally, this may bring negative associations with creativity to mind which result in lower evaluations of a creative idea.

Source: The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire: But Reject Creative Ideas