Turtles and Creativity

Who knew that turtles played a key role in the downtown New York experimental music scene?

A recent New York Times article calls it “a substantial, and neglected, history of turtles in experimental music.” Reporter William Robin did interviews with influential composers in musical Minimalism, including the members of an influential group from the 1960s, Meredith Monk and La Monte Young, and their Theater of Eternal Music. The composers were exploring the idea of slowness, and they both had turtles as pets. One of their compositions was called “The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys.”

Mr. Young said “we were creating sound that had to do with permanence” and “Turtles are these incredibly continuous and ongoing creatures.”

On a side note, the cover image of my 2006 book Explaining Creativity (first edition, but buy the 2012 second edition!) is a painting of a turtle, done by a Native American artist, representing his cultural group’s creation story, which involved a turtle.

We would sing for our turtles. We told ourselves that they liked it. They didn’t deny it. –La Monte Young

explainingcreativity

Dancing in the Street

Here’s the creative process behind the hit song by Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street.” It’s a story of collaboration and of the zigzagging creative process, as reported to Marc Myers in the WSJ.

  1. In early 1964, songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter was in a Motown studio, playing around on a piano and trying to come up with a song. She started with her left hand, playing a bass rhythm. Then, she developed a melody and some chords. But what she had in mind, she couldn’t play with just two hands. So she went to another songwriter, Paul Riser.
  2. Paul and Ivy talked it out, and then Paul wrote out the music. Paul then created a chord sheet for the house rhythm section, the Funk Brothers. Paul and Ivy knew that the Funk Brothers could make just about any sketch of a song turn into something awesome. The goal was to get the rhythm track on tape, to then work on some lyricS.
  3. Ivy took the tape to producer Mickey Stevenson’s house, because Mickey had a rehearsal room in his attic. Ivy wrote melancholy lyrics; that’s the way he heard the song.
  4. Marvin Gaye just happened to be at the same house. Marvin and Mickey needed a song for singer Kim Weston. Ivy’s ballad lyrics seemed perfect for Kim, but then Marvin had a different idea for the song.
  5. Marvin thought the melancholy lyrics weren’t right for the music. Marvin thought the music was upbeat, just like “dancing in the street.” Then, he realized that could be the name of the song!
  6. Ivy returned to the song and wrote completely different lyrics, for this new idea. Marvin then added various new lyrics.
  7. They still thought the song was going to be Kim’s song. Marvin was recording a vocal demo, to play for Kim, but he couldn’t sing it quite right. Martha Reeves just happened to be in the studio at that time, so they asked her to give it a shot. To everyone’s surprise, Martha totally nailed the song.
  8. The producer Mickey Stevenson said, “I was in big trouble. The song was supposed to be for Kim, and Martha had just aced it.”
  9. The next step was to add in the horn arrangement, and to overdub some percussion effects, like tambourine, and background vocals.

The song turned out to be very different from what we knew as “the Motown sound.” It was funkier, with its prominent bass line and drum beat. It was one of the most influential songs of the 1960s.

Many people think that songwriting is a solo act, where the writer spills her heart out and expresses deeply felt emotions. But just like every other form of creativity, the solitary creator is a myth. Songs, almost always, are created like everything else: Through a collaborative, wandering, unpredictable process.

The Creative Architect Study

In 1949, the psychologist Donald MacKinnon started a research center at UC Berkeley called “The Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR).” During World War II, Dr. MacKinnon had developed personality and ability tests for the U.S. military. The purpose of the IPAR was to extend this research into civilian life. One of its priorities was to scientifically determine the traits of the creative personality.

Their most important research study was an analysis of creative architects. Forty of the top architects in the U.S. flew to Berkeley and lived together in an old fraternity house for a weekend. Psychologists gave them a battery of tests, and observed them while they had dinner, lunch, and cocktails. The most famous architects agreed to participate, including Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen. It’s a legendary story among creativity researchers. And now, there’s a new book that tells the story: The Creative Architect (by Pierluigi Serraino, and reviewed in the Wall Street Journal here).

Unfortunately, the study didn’t result in any strong or surprising findings–other than observing that the architects didn’t fit the stereotype of a creative person. The study found no evidence that creative people fit the widespread image of “an eccentric not only in thinking but in appearance, dress, and behavior; a Bohemian, an egghead, a longhair…a true neurotic, withdrawn from society, inept in his relations with others” (MacKinnon, 1962/1978, p. 178). The architects seemed to be pretty normal and successful professionals.

What’s more, they had remarkably ordinary childhoods: When they recalled their childhoods, they described the classic upper-middle-class, educated, American lifestyle: fathers were effective in their demanding careers, mothers were autonomous and often had their own careers, religion was important but not central or doctrinaire, families emphasized the development of a personal code of ethics, parents were not overly judgmental but encouraged the child’s ideas and expressions, and the family moved frequently (paraphrasing from MacKinnon’s book).

I recommend reading the WSJ review, and getting the book!

McKinnon, D. W. (1962/1978). In search of human effectiveness. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation.

Magic Carpet Ride: How Music Gets Created

Here’s a story of the unpredictable, improvisational process of creativity. It’s the story of how the 1968 hit song “Magic Carpet Ride” was created by the band Steppenwolf.

Maybe the process works this way: A songwriter writes a song, usually alone, and then gathers the band together to perform the song. If that’s what happens, then musical creativity is a solitary act. But that’s not how most songs are created. They emerge from collaboration, with unpredictable twists and turns.

Here’s the creative process behind “Magic Carpet Ride,” according to two of the musicians who played on the recording:

  1. A guitarist named Mars Bonfire (not his birth name!), who was not in the band, visited the studio and was playing a new song he’d written.
  2. At some point, the bass player, Rushton Moreve, starting playing a bouncy riff that he always played on sound checks on the band’s first tour, but which had never been part of any song.
  3. Mars liked the bass line, and started playing some chords with it. Not related to his original song; they were just playing around and having fun.
  4. The recording engineers in the sound booth loved it. They said “Hey, keep doing that. That’s really good.”
  5. Then, the whole band joined in. But all they had was that one-measure bass riff. What else could they add?
  6. Mars improvised some chords and suggested they could be an instrumental interlude. (Later, singer John Kay would write lyrics for this interlude that made it into the final song: “Close your eyes girl/look inside girl/let the sound take you away”)
  7. The lead guitarist, Michael Monarch, loved thick distorted guitar sounds. John asked Michael to do some loud feedback through his amp, and then John improvised matching lines in the high register. They improvised the same few bars twice.
  8. The recording engineers had actually hit the “record” button, even though John and Michael were just playing around. For the final recording, the engineers edited together pieces of the two different takes, to make it sound better.
  9. Everyone loved the track they’d recorded, but they still needed lyrics. John took home a cassette and played it in his home stereo, trying to think of lyrics that worked. He’d just bought a new stereo and it was high-end, the best available. John started singing lyrics about how awesome his stereo sounded: “right between my sound machine/On a cloud of sound” and then the rest of the lyrics were improvised after that.

Anyway…by now you’ve probably stopped reading. But at least, you can see the long and unpredictable creative process. This is how music is created, the music that we hear and love. It doesn’t come from the mind of an inspired, or tortured, songwriter–it emerges from a collaborative process.

  • This story is taken from Marc Myers in the Wall Street Journal, Friday July 15, 2016, page D6.
  • You might also want to read John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine about today’s pop music hits.

To Be a Better Writer: Write More Books

In today’s New York Times, author Stephen King challenges a common belief:

The more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be.

He agrees that there are a few super-prolific writers who aren’t great writers; mystery novelist John Creasey, who’s written 564 novels under 21 different pseudonyms; and Barbara Cartland, with over 700 novels.

But King argues that these are exceptions: the general pattern is that, the more you write, the better a writer you are. Examples include Joyce Carol Oates (over 60 novels) and Agatha Christie (91 novels) and Isaac Asimov (more than 500 books).

King himself has published almost 60 novels. So maybe we should be suspicious of his argument?

The New York Times calls Stephen King’s article an “Opinion” but his claim is scientifically proven, according to the latest creativity research. Researchers like Professor Dean Keith Simonton have studied huge databases of creators, looking at both their creative quality and also their productivity. No matter how you judge creativity, the most creative writers are also the most prolific.

Not only that: if you examine a random one-year period, higher productivity in that year is typically correlated with the likelihood that you’ll do your greatest work in that same year.

The same pattern holds in every creative field, whether music, science, dance, inventions, patents. More productivity is correlated with bigger impact and greater likelihood of generating a major, influential single work.*

This is surprising to most of us. We think that you’ll generate your magnum opus only after years of intense focus. You work on one masterpiece, ignoring all distractions–including those other second-rate book ideas. Why wouldn’t a writer just pick the one awesome idea, and focus all energies on that?

Because that’s not the way creativity works. Creativity doesn’t come from one brilliant idea, emerging one morning after a strange dream. The belief in the big flash of insight is largely a myth. Creative products emerge, over time, from hard work. During the hard work, lots of small, tiny ideas come every day. They get woven into the unfolding work–and this takes skill, experience, and focus.

Another reason creativity doesn’t come from an all-consuming focus on one project: It’s because creators themselves don’t know, ahead of time, which ideas will pan out. Often, an idea that they love turns out to be a dead end. If you can’t know ahead of time which idea will change the world, then you could waste years going down the wrong path.

The take-home message: Work on lots of projects, in parallel. Don’t ever be convinced that a particular idea is the one that will make you famous. And if you’re not generating a lot of work, you’re not as creative as you could be.

*I review this research in my book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Innovation (second edition) Oxford University Press.

The Costumed Character “Buford Beaver”

For my summer job while in high school, in 1977 I passed a stage audition at the Busch Gardens theme park, in Williamsburg Virginia, to perform as the costumed character “Buford Beaver.” Just today, I found a long-lost photo that shows me, in costume, with my mother and grandmother, check it out!

Keith Sawyer performing as Buford Beaver 1977I stumbled onto this job by accident. I originally auditioned to be a pianist in one of the theme park’s many stage shows. I didn’t get the gig, but somehow they thought I might make a good costumed character, so they invited me back for that audition. I was on stage with about 40 people who were hoping for the job, and the directors put us through a series of non-verbal improvisational exercises. We did group improv, and then we each did a solo improv. For mine, I was asked to improvise being a piece of bread, going into a toaster, popping up out of the toaster, and then being spread with butter and jelly. I had no experience with acting or improvising, and I’d never been on stage before, but I was too far along to say no. So I went all out!

When unexpected zigs and zags come your way, embrace them and own it!

Is Creativity Research Elitist?

I’m beginning to think that creativity research is elitist.

Exhibit A: The most prominent historical studies of creativity focus on high-status individuals: top art schools, Nobel-prize winning scientists; corporate CEOs. Howard Gardner’s book on creativity studied Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi.

Exhibit B: Simon Kyaga’s highly publicized studies (2011, 2012) about creativity and mental illness defined creative people from an elitist perspective: anyone from one of these occupations: university teachers, visual artists, photographers, designers, display artists, performing artists, composers and musicians, and authors.

We’ve failed to study some of the most creative people, and I think it’s because they don’t have high social status. Four times, I’m going to name a creative profession that’s associated with the elite and that’s also studied by creativity researchers. Then, I’ll compare it to an even more creative profession that creativity researchers have never studied. I think we haven’t studied them because they’re not elite professions.

  • Stage actors: compared with children’s party clowns. I’d be the first to agree that actors are highly skilled. But they’re basically reading from a script, and following director’s instructions. Compare that to a person who hires herself out every weekend as a clown, for children’s birthday parties. That person has to create their own facial makeup and costume; their own name and persona. They have to decide on a set of interactive and fun activities that correspond to the ages of the children at that particular event; they have to interact and respond, in the moment, to unexpected developments and children’s personalities. Lots of creativity researchers have studied Broadway stage actors. But has anyone studied party clowns? No.
  • Ballet dancers: compared with football cheerleaders. As with actors, elite ballet dancers are highly skilled. But they’re basically following choreography that was created hundreds of years ago. Compare that to a team of cheerleaders performing at a high school or college football game. The team’s routines are often designed collaboratively by the cheerleaders themselves. They have to decide when, in each game, is the best time to execute a specific routine. Lots of creativity researchers have included ballet dancers in their studies. But has anyone ever studied cheerleaders? No.
  • Musicians: compared to vintage motorcycle mechanics. I myself am a highly trained classical pianist, so I’m talking about myself here: performing sheet music does not require creativity. Contrast this to vintage motorcycle repair: I own a 1982 BMW motorcycle, and I recently took it into a legendary mechanic here in North Carolina. Watching him take apart and analyze my motorcycle, I saw a very high level of creativity. Every one of these old motorcycles is slightly different, and every one has its own set of unique problems. (I highly recommend the book Shop Class as Soul Craft, it’s a brilliant discussion of this work.) Lots of creativity researchers have studied violinists and pianists. But has anyone studied the creativity of engine mechanics? No.
  • Writers of novels and short stories: Compared to ministers who write Sunday sermons. In contrast to the first three occupations, being a fiction writer requires creativity. But imagine the church minister who has to compose an original sermon (and most likely prayers as well) every Sunday. Each sermon involves great creativity. Lots of creativity researchers have studied novelists. But has anyone ever studied the creativity of ministers? No.

This pattern disturbs me, because I’ve seen it lead to bad science and faulty findings. Look back to Exhibit B: the Kyaga studies that defined creativity by occupation and their list of “creative occupations”: They’re all upper-class, high status professions. Kyaga found that these “creative” occupations were correlated with a higher rate of mental illness. But as every undergraduate learns in statistics, “correlation is not causation.” Maybe Kyaga just discovered that educated, upper-class people are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Andreasen argued that writers are more likely to be mentally ill than non-writers. Here’s a thought experiment: How many of you believe that church ministers are more likely to have a mental illness than an accountant?

I don’t know where we should go from here. I just wanted to start the discussion. Have you noticed this pattern in creativity research? Is it because elitism is embedded in our cultural conceptions of what counts as creative? Do you think it’s a problem?