Every time that I take part in February Album Writing Month I find myself thinking about the creative act and how it occurs. This month has been no exception. As I result, I ended up having a very interesting discussion on the #LDInsight chat on Twitter this week. The question that was posed was this:
"What part does creativity play for you as an L&D/OD professional, and where do you seek your creative inspiration? "
The business world loves the idea of creativity, at least in theory. If their employees produce useful ideas about new products or new ways of working, they might give the business a commercial advantage. Better yet, they might make lots of money. But in my experience, businesses are less keen on the chaotic, messy process of creation itself. It's not guaranteed to produce results; the results you get might not be what you wanted; the creative sparks may fail to catch light. And it may not produce any noticeable results over periods of time that tend to make managers uncomfortable.
As a result, the need for workers to be creative—hopfully in a fast, non-messy, easily replicable and above all cheap way—drives a billion-dollar industry devoted to selling books and videos extolling the virtues of the latest methods of encouraging the creative act. But, as this scathing essay by Salon columnist Thomas Frank points out,
"the literature of creativity (is) a genre of surpassing banality."
The truth of the matter, Frank argues, is that genuinely creative people have never been less valued by society. The fruits of an artist's labours have seldom been worth less. The music industry is dead on its feet, as Spotify and other streaming services steal its income out from under its noses; publishing is going the same way, with the vast majority of published authors having to take part- or full-time jobs just to finance the limited time they are able to spend creating their stories. The art world has drifted off into a different dimension of reality altogether; can you name one fine artist who has emerged in the last five years? In this millennium, even?
The act of creation is the act of bringing something into being. The personal quality of being "creative" has accumulated additional context that is synonymous with originality; people who are skilled at synthesis (cognitively speaking, the ability to combine separate and distinct but existing ideas into something new) are considered to be just as creative as those who can pull something completely new out of nothing. I've yet to decide whether the argument that all creation is synthesis—that there is no such thing as true originality—holds water, and I've been thinking about this sort of thing for a long, long time.
In Friday's discussion I felt occasionally that there was confusion between being creative and being good at design. I'm pretty sure that the two are not the same thing. You can have a great idea for something new that is clunky or unwieldy in its first iteration. It doesn't matter if it's a song or a car engine or a chair; the process of design comes in to play when you then take what has been created and test and refine it. That process of refining things may take place by applying formal rules to the initial creation. The point is that the original creative act doesn't have to follow those rules.
To return to why creativity is spoken about reverentially by business leaders but hated as a practice within their companies, we have to look at the timescales over which creativity operates. Put simply: it happens when it happens. Your Muse is not on the clock. You can not put an appointment in your diary for next Tuesday to have that earth-shattering idea that is going to change the world and make you (or, more realistically, your CEO) rich.
That's not to say that you can't learn to be more creative. It's just that the way to do it is seldom explained in a context that makes it appealing. Frank's essay falls apart in the second-to-last paragraph when he attempts to define creativity as achieving professional consensus, which sounds like the sort of thing anyone could do. He equates (and confuses) the creative act with Czikszentmihalyi's concept of Flow, which is about deploying one's skills in a context that is sufficiently challenging to take up most of our brains' limited resources (which results in us not being able to worry about anything else or keep track of time). True creativity begins instead, I believe, with ideation which, according to Daniel Kahneman in his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, requires us to switch off, let our brains drift, and daydream—exactly the opposite approach to Czikszentmihalyi. More to the point, letting its employees spend time in that sort of state is anathema to a business that's focused on productivity and enhancing its bottom line. Forget the benefits; the short-term requirements prevent it happening. Let your workers just sit around thinking? How outrageous!
Frank's final conclusion, grimly cynical though it may be, rings true: books and YouTube videos about creativity sell because people rate their own potential as being equal to those shining stars of originality that all the motivational speakers talk about. They sell because of an appeal to vanity, driven by that most fundamental of human responses to art of any kind:
"I could do that."
Frank talks about an entire generation of employees who have grown up considering themselves to be the "creative class". One gets the impression that he doesn't agree with them. The thing is that—to a certain extent, because not everyone is going to be the next Picasso or Thelonius Monk—it is possible to learn how to become more creative. The problem is that it requires a considerable amount of work. That work is required because you have to develop the habit of being creative. And the work requires loads of persistence too, because the results you'll get in the early stages of your creative career will suck. For long periods of time, you may not get any results at all (and to return to my earlier point, how many businesses are prepared to tolerate that?) But if you stick at it, and do the work regularly, you will begin to get better. Not every creative act is going to produce something brilliant; the point is that the more often you engage in creative work, the better the odds that something amazing will happen. You have to change the odds. To paraphrase the writer Jack London:
"Don't sit around waiting for inspiration. Go after it with a club."
Get out there, doing stuff. And stick at it. You will start to surprise yourself.
You don't need to do buy a book or watch a video.
Just do the work.
Now, go create something.
Tomorrow evening at 10 pm GMT / 11 pm CET I will be the special guest on Juha and T.C.'s FAWM podcast FAWMtalk, which will be streaming live on Juha's YouTube channel. We'll be playing songs by other FAWM participants and talking about making and listening to music, what our creative processes are, and no doubt there will be discussions of progressive rock, metal, and other musical genres that we're familiar—or not so familiar— with. Why not join us online? It'll be fun!
After starting late for February Album Writing Month, I've been hard at it over the last few days and have now caught up with my production target. I'll be at it again this afternoon, trying to get a couple of songs ahead. How am I doing this year in terms of quality? Well, I've surprised myself a couple of times so far, producing things that don't even sound like me. And even more surprisingly, the songs that I've played back with a big grin of disbelief on my face have both been in unusual time signatures, one in 7/8 and one in 5/4. Yet more surprising still, the 5/4 track features me singing. I didn't even know I could do that in 5/4. I'll be polishing both tracks up after FAWM finishes, and I plan to release them as part of an album of full-on prog rock tracks later in the year, I think. Maybe that will finally get me into the hallowed pages of Prog magazine? I can only dream...
FAWM is a community; the part that I really enjoy is listening to other FAWMers' tracks and discovering what they've been doing. There are some truly incredible musicians taking part. It's a shame that the music industry is on its last legs; there are at least a dozen songwriters posting stuff who would have been snapped up by record labels thirty years ago.
So today's blog entry is short and sweet. I'm off upstairs to go and push my commenting count past the hundred mark and then write some more music. It's all about the priorities!
The Blog's been offline for a couple of days, because I flew out to Catalonia last Friday to spend a few days working at a sales conference in Sitges, just West of Barcelona. Rather than shivering in the cold (the temperature at home dropped to -7°C while I was away) I dodged the snow and ended up admiring the local palm trees...
It was a very busy few days, and I didn't really get much time to see the sights. It wasn't really beach weather, either; the temperature stayed in single figures and there was a spectacular thunderstorm on Friday night. The hotel had drained its outdoor swimming pools as we were very definitely there out of season, which I found particularly irritating, because this year I had actually remembered to pack a pair of swimming trunks.
I flew back into Gatwick on Sunday night; Gatwick is now officially my least favourite airport. The immigration staff were surly and sarky to arriving passengers and it all felt rather too much like something out of Little Britain. I was glad to get back in the car and leave the place firmly in my rear-view mirror.
The drive back home was a grind, too. There were long queues on the M23 thanks to an earlier accident and there was a 50 mph limit through a long stretch of roadworks on the M4 around Reading. And when I pulled into Membury services to get something to eat and drink, I rapidly realised that I hadn't entirely escaped the snow:
I was glad to get home. It took most of yesterday for the house to warm up, but it's nice and warm in here now. The outside temperature has recovered, too: it's been an almost balmy 8°C here this afternoon. After a weekend of wine and tapas I'm back on the diet and making sure that the four pounds I put on over the weekend comes straight back off again. But oh, I'm going to miss that food...
As a result of being away, my annual songwriting adventure over at fawm.org was delayed, but I successfully got things under way last night with a blues shuffle called, somewhat predictably, Making Up For Lost Ground.
Being me, I didn't take the easy option. The song has two rhythm guitar tracks played on my G&L S-500, a slide guitar track using my old Fender Telecaster, two vocal tracks, Superior Drummer 3 drums, electric bass (played on the Ibanez RG9-BK) and a synth break using Native Instruments' Massive that seems to have achieved its objective of making people sit up and pay attention. I had huge fun making it; February really has become the high point of my year.
I'll be back at it again this evening. I think it's time I introduced the Parker Fly to my fellow FAWMers...