Questions About Creativity?

November 17th, 2008

If you could ask any creative person any question about his or her creative process, what would it be?

Last night, I attended the world premiere of an absolutely ravishing choral piece written by a friend of mine, Stephen Cohn, one of a small group of serious American composers whose work actually gets played and who are offered commissions.  I thought it was a triumph, but I later got an e-mail from him about how he was having post-premiere doubts about the quality of the piece, and some general discontented nattering about the gulf between our original vision and the piece of work that ultimately emerges.

And I realized that I go through precisely the same agony every time I finish a book.  This is obviously part of the creative process, even if it’s not a particularly pleasant part.

My wife suggested that I open this blog to a broader consideration of the creative process, by which she was saying (tactfully) not exclusively my creative process.  So I’m going to go to a bunch of creative people I know — composers, songwriters, authors, poets, programmers, and so forth — and ask them to blog for me about their creative process.

But I don’t know what questions you’d like to have answered.  I’m asking you to help me design the guidelines I’d send to these people to ensure that their answers touch upon your areas of interest. So:  What do you want to know about creativity — any aspect of creativity?  Send me as many questions as you’d like.  Maybe in 2-3 weeks we’ll have the first in a series of blogs from various kinds of artists, talking about how they do what they do.

Oh, and you can hear Stephen Cohn’s beautiful music for A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART by going to the NAIL section of this site.

15 Responses to “Questions About Creativity?”

  1. Stephen Cohn Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Tim. It’s gratifying to hear that the work impacted you the way you describe.

    I’m looking forward to the questions and the discussion that follows. At the moment, I’m dealing with questions that no one else can answer, like is that really what I meant to express? – and how is it that I expect perfection from every composition and its performance and always end with questions about both…and then begin again with the same dorky innocence. Perhaps I’ve been programmed with some divine disinformation.

  2. Larissa Says:

    I’m curious about the days leading up to that point where they sit down to “do something”. For me, when I get ready to do a silk painting it’s a vastly different thing than when I sit down to make jewelry or paint. I’m curious what their Pre-Game Show is like so to speak.

  3. Pia Says:

    I think part of the creative process is striving for perfection. And that we keep trying to create until we reach perfection, but never getting there. For if we did, we’d stop creating since we already created the perfect piece.

    My first question would be when do you know that something is completed? That it no longer serves to keep altering, adding, changing and working on a piece? When do you stop? When are you satisfied with your work? When do you realize it is complete?

    I’ve had two pieces that I thought were close to perfect, where I couldn’t see where I could improve. One was a pencil self-portrait when I was around 15 or 16. A really good drawing. Thing is, I never again tried to draw a portrait. Fears of not being able to do it just as well again, of not being able to live up to the standard I set in that good piece.

    The same happened with an oil-painting I did two years ago. I caught the energy and movements of waves and storm clouds really well. Couldn’t see how I could change it to become better. It was the best painting I’ve ever done. And as a result, I’ve not really tried to paint something like that again. I briefly tried and quickly gave up because I didn’t feel I could reach the same perfection and quality in my work.

    So the second question is, how do you manage to produce something again after reaching close to perfection in the former piece? How do you overcome the fear of not being able to reach that level again? How do you overcome that barrier?


  4. Suzanna Says:

    When you are about to start a new project what are some of the ways that you brainstorm for new ideas?

    What book/teacher/person gave you the best advice about how to pursue your work for a living? What was that advice?

    When you are feeling unsure about how to proceed on a project you’ve been working on what do you do to help yourself get through those feelings of uncertainty?

    Who or what has consistently inspired your style of work the most, and why?

    Do you have other creative outlets that are “Not for public consumption” and just for you?

  5. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Oh man! These are great questions!!!!!!!!

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    There are a lot of good questions here, and I’m working on pulling something together that incorporates these thoughts, but

    USMAN — I DELETED YOUR COMMENT!!!!! It was very thoughtful, but it’s gone.

    I am currently getting more than 300 pieces of spam daily. I get into a deleting loop and sooner or later, I delete one I wanted to keep. I’ve tried checking the e-mail option, but for some reason WordPress doesn’t send me the e-mails when new comments come in. (Probably just as well, because I’d be deleting 600 pieces of spam.


  7. usman Says:

    That is so cruel.
    It’s OK. I’ve done this too.
    I am trying to find this in my history, but Mozilla for some reason isnt helping much. If I find it, I’ll repost.

  8. Sylvia Says:

    Spam: Are you using akismet? I’ve found it to be very helpful in terms of dealing with the spam on WordPress sites.

    I’ve actually just written about process (I’m uploading it shortly, not there yet) which I feel silly repeating here but it’s about how you view downtime / non-creative time.

    A more specific question is how to keep motivation going when it’s not going well. When your plot is meandering or the picture is looking grey and tired or whatever – do you just keep going? Do you pause and think about it? Do you work on something else until that project calls you again?

    I wonder if the answer will be the same across different disciplines, too.

  9. Sylvia Says:

    One more question. 🙂

    I was just this moment speaking to someone who said that she wanted to set up password protection on her web browser to stop her wasting so much time online. What are your timesinks and how do you keep them from stealing your day?

    (I use a carrot and stick method but it seems not to be very typical)

  10. Dana King Says:

    Sorry for the delay. I’ve been working on a list and left it at work and unavailable over the weekend.

    My thoughts for the creativity questions:

    How much do you know about the end result before you start work on the actual physical product? (Sit at the keyboard, canvas, sketch pad, etc.)

    Do you outline, work by the seat of your pants, of use the headlights method, where you can only see a short distance ahead at a time? (Applies mostly to writers.)

    What do you do when you’re stuck? (Showers, walks, drug use, etc.)

    How do you know when you’re done? Not just finished adding things to the story, painting, composition, but done revising it, satisfied that’s as good as you can get it?

    Do you remove outside influences that might affect a WIP? (Reading other fiction writers, listening to other composers, etc.)

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting at One Bite at a Time.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I’m at work on a piece — sort of a set of guidelines — that incorporates all of these responses and will put it up in a day or two, at most.

    Pia — I’m going to jump the gun here and say that the syndrome you describe is an extremely sophisticated plan of attack by the demons of you-can’t-do-it, which I call the Nozers, because all they do is say, “No.” In your case, they’re turning your success into an argument against your growth. Several of the people who eventually blog here will probably respond to your question, but I’d like to suggest that what matters in the long run is the process, not the result. If you write something or paint something and it doesn’t work, you can’t let that stop you, and you certainly can’t let a success stop you. Once the work is finished — good or bad, it doesn’t matter — the question is, What did you learn from it? What tools did you gain, what weaknesses did you discover, that you can work on in DAILY PRACTICE of your creativity? I think that the act of working daily demystifies both the successes and the failures and turns them into tiles in a mosaic that depicts your continuing creative evolution.

    Sort of long-winded, but that’s what I think.

  12. Dana King Says:

    My current boss uses an expression that might be helpful to you: Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Nothing can be perfect, because perfect is a moving target. I just edited a chapter of my current work in progress that I thought might have been the best thing I’ve ever written; a few weeks later, I still made a dozen changes. It was as close to perfect as I could get the last time I edited it; not yesterday. Higher standards, increased ability, better biorhythms, who knows? That’s why you can’t get too tied up in perfect.

    As for whether you can do it as good mext time, sure you will. It may be as good or better in different ways as you grow and learn to view things differently, but there’s always something better in you.

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    To continue jumping in, when I promised to get out of the way: I think Dana’s right when he says that “perfect” is a moving target. I also think that what most of us are working toward is not perfection that can be established by any external standards — it’s more like getting as close as possible to the work as you first envisioned it, back before mistakes and limitations and compromises found their way in.

    And I personally have never gotten close to that. Everything I’ve ever written is an approximation, a shadow, of the thing I first saw.

    My reaction to that melancholy fact — developed over more than twenty-five years of working six to seven days a week at my craft — is, so what? This is what I know I can do: I can have pretty good ideas and I can work my ass off to bring them into being. And I get better as I work at it.

    If I look right now at BREATHING WATER, I can’t say it’s the best thing I ever did. I can’t even say it’s not the worst. What I know it is, it’s the best book I could write at this time about that idea. And I turned myself inside out to do it.

    Now it’s time to do the next one. Regardless of how this one is received by the people who review it/blog about it/read it and talk about it. It’s over. It’s finished, except maybe for one scene that I can still fix before the type is set. And all the things I’ll want to change when it’s too late.

    But the next one is what matters now. I honestly think that looking back critically at one’s own work — except to learn from SPECIFIC mistakes — is one of the most self-defeating things an artist can do.

  14. Peter Says:

    Sorry if I’m repeating anything already asked, but I wonder to what extent a crisis, small or large, fuels creative outbursts. If it does, I’d like to hear creative types describe the feeling, and the process that follows.

    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  15. Khaled Says:

    Soliloquy — From reading around on this site, and especially in this blog, I’m now interested in reading one of this novelist’s books, the guy seems genuine about helping other aspiring writers and responding to their inquires; it is only proper from me to read one of his books. Timothy Hallinan, I shall remember this name next time I am at Borders or Barns and Nobles.

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