Classic Crommunist: Being Creative without a Creator

So apparently I am, for the first time in nearly two years, afflicted with a case of writer’s block. I am obviously not too thrilled about it. Here is an older post of mine, in which I get explicit about my life as a musician. I suppose it’s appropriate to talk about where inspiration comes from, in a time when I can’t seem to find mine.

A friend sent me a link to a 20-minute talk on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the novel Eat, Pray, Love. I’m not a big fan of the book (I got through about 25 eye-rolling pages before giving up and reaching for the remote), but I am a big fan of (my friend) Claire, so I gave it a chance. I was right with her up until 8:30 when she started in on “creative mystery” and an external, supernatural source for creativity, and then the rest was invocations of magic and self-indulgent privileged pap, the likes to which Jim Carrey would be a fervent subscriber.

I do not know if Claire’s intent was to murder my neurons; I doubt that she was trying to lobotomize me through the intarwebz. She did ask me to write about some of my thoughts on the creative process from the perspective of an atheist. I suppose I have some claims to qualifications in this regard, given that I do spend the non-science half of my life playing and creating music. I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this subject, but first I want to address some of the themes that came up in Ms. Gilbert’s talk, which is available below:

Is suffering necessary for creativity?

A commenter on my strangely-popular “I am not my ideas” post from a few months ago brought this up. Some of the greatest artists of all time (think Van Gogh, Beethoven, Vonnegut, the list goes on) have suffered, and from their suffering came their genius. The image of the tormented artist is so common as to have become almost completely cliché. Douglas Adams satirized this phenomenon in his Hitchhiker’s Guide series, in which time travel inadvertently robs the galaxy of one of its greatest works of art by making the artist happy. Of course, we have to remember that Douglas Adams was a creative genius, and was not particularly unhappy. Nor, by all accounts, were Bach, Shakespeare, da Vinci, John Lennon, this list goes on as well. While suffering can yield insight that can bring creativity forth (and in my experience it is much easier to write albums when you’re sad than when everything’s awesome – just ask Matthew Sweet), it is not necessary to suffer in order to bring forth great works.

Is the supernatural the source of creativity?

Ms. Gilbert spends some time talking about daemons or geniuses, supernatural embodiments of inspiration that are the conduits between the artist and the divine. As with all supernatural agents of causality, there’s no evidence for the existence of faeries (which, to her credit, Gilbert admits). Being a musician, I can testify that inspiration does seem to come from nowhere. I’m sure that other artists and musicians have a much more palpable experience of inspiration than I do (things kind of just pop into my head, rather than being overcome by a ghost that demands me to have a pencil in my hand). However, given the diversity of ways in which inspiration strikes people, and the fact that it hits some people more often than others, and that to all appearances it strikes at random, it’s safe to say that inspiration is not likely caused by a supernatural force for which there is no evidence.

Subjective experience vs. objective reality

Our brains make a fundamental error when it comes to subjective and psychosomatic experiences. Because we interpret the outside world through our senses, we confuse sensory experiences with reality. So when, after meditating for an hour, we feel connected to an external loving presence, that does not constitute evidence that that presence exists in reality. Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of value in subjective experience. Feeling connected to the world, or to nature, or to your fellow human beings can bring you a sense of happiness and motivate you to be a better person. However, to make the leap from feeling something and then assuming that it exists requires non-subjective proof. To wit, just because artists feel an external force driving them to create doesn’t mean that there are muses or daemons or disembodied geniuses that explain it.

Gilbert would like us to return to the days of magical thinking, in which we attribute inspiration to outside ethereal forces. Reality is all well and good, she seems to say, but we’d feel a lot better if we pretended there were invisible spirits whispering in our ears. If we screw up, well it’s the fault of the spirits. When we succeed, attribution to the spirits will prevent us from getting swollen egos. Who cares if it’s all a lie if it makes us feel good? You can probably tell I’m not a big fan of self-deception, even when it’s practical. It might comfort us to lie to ourselves, but the truth is important. It enables us to deal with each other in a way that reflects the world around us, and prevents us from endangering each other through misinterpretations of reality.

So where do I think inspiration comes from?

There’s a common criticism of skeptics and scientific skepticism that we want to strip the majesty and beauty out of life. Apparently, to some people, understanding how something works makes it less beautiful. Of course, having no idea how something works makes you sound like a complete moron, but that may not be the worst thing in the world. That being said, I still reject the idea that familiarity breeds contempt. I’ve known that stars were inconceivably large nuclear reactions happening in space billions of kilometers away since I was a little kid – none of that makes a starlit night any less beautiful. I’ve known that music is caused by vibrations in air resonating tiny bones within the inner ear causing neuron activity since I was in elementary school – none of that makes me enjoy Beethoven’s 6th symphony any less. I’ve known that there are evolutionary roots for familial love since I was in university – none of that makes me love my parents any less. Understanding the processes behind the world around us can lead to deeper and more beautiful understanding of reality.

We know that the brain is incredibly complex. It adapts to novel stimuli, regulates an incredible number of processes simultaneously, all below the level of what it’s most famous for – conscious thought. It is entirely possible that the way some brains are wired permits a type of lateral thinking that pulls together disperse thought processes that come together to form music. The phenomenon known as synesthesia – wherein sensory input of one type is interpreted as another type (seeing sounds, hearing smells) – certainly supports this conjecture. Some brains might just be better-suited to creativity than others, and ‘inspiration’ may ‘strike’ these brains more often. The arrival of such a strike would be experienced in a variety of different ways. This would also explain why creativity is often (but not necessarily) associated with poor mental health – an atypical brain chemistry and structure will have broad-reaching effects.

Without intending to, Elizabeth Gilbert has paralleled my idea of separating one’s ideas from his/her sense of self worth. I have written songs I’m proud of; I’ve written some stinkers that even I don’t like myself (sadly, far more of the latter than the former). I don’t beat myself up for writing crappy songs, or having crappy performances, in the same way I don’t get a swollen head when something I’ve written makes people cheer. It feels good, but I know that it’s not about me, it’s about the song. I don’t think the song was floating around in the ether, waiting for me to pull it in – that view, if anything, is more arrogant than being glad that my brain popped it into my head. I’m not my ideas in the same way that I’m not my songs – I’m just happy to be able to use my brain to say things in a way that people will listen.

So while I think Ms. Gilbert has the right conclusions in thinking that musicians shouldn’t live and die by their success, and that a rejection of the song or book or painting is not the passage of judgment on who the artist is as a person, she spuriously tries to invoke magic and daemons to make this happen. There are better, non-magical, non-woo-woo ways of accomplishing that goal.

TL;DR – Artistic inspiration can be explained through natural processes, and does not require appeals to woo-woo to exist. The non-magical nature of inspiration doesn’t make it any less wonderful or special.

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  1. says

    It’s noticable that creativity and inspiration always strike us about things we like and know and have skill off.
    I have never felt a creative urge to write a piece of music. I doubt that you spend much time designing cloths.
    So, yes, our brain comes up with ideas about things we know using the things we know.
    If we tke the story about the famous “Eureka” moment serious, it didn’t happen when Archimedes was having breakfast and his mind was on ham and eggs. It happened when his mind was on the spot.

  2. quantheory says

    This does remind me of the oft-cited link between schizophrenia and intelligence (sometimes also OCD, though I understand that to be less well established). One thing that is quite notable is how good people with certain mental disorders/conditions can be at pattern recognition. I recently had a bad reaction to a change in psychiatric medication, and while it didn’t develop into full-blown stimulant psychosis, I did start having too many feelings of “recognition”. People I’d never met seemed somehow familiar, experiences I’d never had before induced deja vu, and there were all these coincidences I noticed all of a sudden (though, as a well-conditioned skeptic, I was hesitant to attribute any significance to these). It’s tempting to hypothesize that a single condition could cause an increase in both “good” (creative) and “bad” (delusional) forms of pattern recognition.

  3. Enkidum says

    There’s a massive psychological literature on creativity, and yeah, it’s never ex nihilo. Basically, trust the unconscious processes – they will combine and recombine stuff in very cool ways and suddenly throw up something apparently novel into your stream of consciousness for you to marvel at. (So just chill out about your writer’s block – you’ve still got an unconscious churning away and it’ll get something out eventually.) There’s quite a few really cool studies showing the particular antecedents of apparently spontaneous acts of creativity, both in the laboratory and case studies of particular acts of creation (the best ones I’ve read being an analysis of where Coleridge got many of his ideas for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and an analysis of how James Clerk Maxwell got some of his ideas for the fundamental electromagnetic equations.)

    Also, my research is mostly on synaesthesia, and just a couple of quick comments. First, it has now been established that it is way more common (like 7 times more common) among students at a fine arts university than students at a regular old university. So it does appear that the claims of links to creativity may have some validity (though there’s been very little direct testing).

    Second, one thing I think most syn researchers would agree on is that it’s not all that unusual. I mean, the descriptions of the phenomenology are weird, but many synaesthetic associations seem to be slightly ramped-up versions of stuff almost everyone does. E.g. there seem to be quite strong tendencies to associate particular shapes and sounds with particular colours, irrespective of whether someone self-identifies as synaesthetic or not. I think many of us would say that synaesthesia is a spectrum condition, like autism, where it’s not a matter of either having it or not, but a matter of how much of it you have (and there may be various spectra here, such as tendencies to form consistent associations, tendencies to be consciously aware of these associations, and so on).

    Anyways, this is another novel. Have I written all this here before? I’m having crazy deja vu.

  4. Fafhrd says

    I’m a visual artist, though whether or not I’m a “creative” depends on who you ask. I see my creativity as mostly the novel assembly of preexisting ideas and forms, not massive flashes of ex nihilo inspiration.

    That having been said, my favorite meditation on the nature of the muse is the X-Files episode “Milagro,” wherein an author is compelled to write stories about real people dying, and as he does so, they actually die at the hands of a ghost. Scully is the subject of the story he’s currently writing, and he shows an inordinate amount of insight into her thoughts. His story essentially serves as a narration as Scully begins to fall in love with him, but it’s completely ambiguous as to whether she’s genuinely falling and he’s just documenting it, or if his writing is psychically driving her thoughts.

    As the end of the story approaches, he knows he’s going to write her death, but he doesn’t want to. The killer ghost appears in front of him, and the writer demands to know why he’s being compelled to write these things. The ghost is shocked – he wants to know why the writer is pulling him back from the grave to commit murders!

    The drama resolves with the author writing her death but then burning the manuscript, which kills him instead. No resolution is given to the chicken-and-egg questions, which I think is perfect. I’m not sure exactly what statement about science or metaphors or whatever I’m making, but I thought I would share.

  5. says

    Thanks for re-posting this. Your writer’s block is us Crommunist newbie’s boon…er… sorta….anyway, moving on….

    I’ve never associated my all too infrequent creative moments with any sort of external force. Yes, the ideas seem to pop out of nowhere sometimes, but my brain is always throwing things at me that are surprising. Why did I suddenly think of my first girlfriend while I was cleaning the shower, why did I forget to buy milk but remembered the bread even though the milk was mentioned this morning but the bread was mentioned the night before, why did the chorus to Karma Chameleon in my head cycle for 3 hours when I was trying to fall back asleep? And so on. It seems to me that the creative jump is just another one of those strange moments where our subconscious jumps up and waves it’s arms saying “I’m here, I’m here!”

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