Teenage creativity… unheard of!

The full article was in our paper this morning, but here’s a snippet:

The 17-year-old senior is the drum major of the school’s Lightning Regiment Marching Band. For a Governor’s School project, he took the complicated music based on Dante’s Divine Comedy and rearranged it for a marching band.

He took a 30-minute piece of music, composed for a symphonic band, and came up with an 8-minute score for the band’s competitive field show.

“That is completely unheard of in a regular school setting,” said Ryan Addair, band director at Chancellor. He added that bands typically pay $1,000 to $3,000 for original music.

I certainly don’t mind an article that showcases anyone’s art. But this sort of article bothers me because it makes teenage musical creativity seem too special, when it’s not. At all. One need only to search around on YouTube for a few minutes to find plenty of young composers sharing their original work. I think such creativity is unfortunately not as common as it could be, but I think that’s because adults, both parents and teachers, are terrible at encouraging and supporting such creativity in young people. The kind of creativity that is supported is usually restricted to the confines of a specific assignment. Such as: “This month, class, you must work in groups of 4 to create 10-minute documentary videos! Yay, I’m encouraging creativity!” (As wonderful as Nerds in the Midst is, it’s not exactly exemplary of my creative ambition.)

Perhaps most people don’t really understand the nature of creativity; perhaps it’s thought of as some sort of mysterious elusive trait that you either have or you don’t, you’re either born with or you’re not. That’s why creativity is often only encouraged in students who have already shown their creativity. Now, there is some justification for that, since the students that show their creativity on their own time are obviously more interested, but I can’t help but wonder how many more would be just as creative if (as corny as it sounds) adults actually believed in them, and encouraged and fostered their creative potential instead of filling their evenings with paper and pencil homework. Perhaps many adults don’t even really believe in themselves?

The truth is: everyone is creative. Everyone creates new daydreams and plans and sentences on a daily basis. Some forms of art, like music arranging or painting or piano playing, involve skills that require more concentrated practice, and that can be difficult and time-consuming (especially when you have to write some useless essay), so most people avoid it. But if you put in the practice hours (real practice, not just going-through-the-motions practice), you can do just about anything you desire.

So, as nice as it is that a teenager can be recognized for a musical arrangement, it’s a truly sad reflection on the utter stupidity of our local parents and teachers (or maybe just newspaper article writers) if such projects are truly considered “unheard of.”

The artist’s creed

I’ve been thinking about the artist’s creed. At least my version of it. This is all just my advice to artists from personal experience. Not that I have that much personal experience or have achieved anything very famous, but still…

For now, there are only three. I might think of some more later on as I go through life and become smarterer and smarterererish…

1. Don’t get excited

OK, you are allowed to get excited. It’s part of human nature. Just be careful that you’re not setting yourself up for later disappointment. Be honest with yourself about why exactly you’re excited. If it’s only your daydreams that are exciting you, recognize that, and make sure they do not become expectations.

The beginning of the creative process is, at least for me, the most exciting part of the creative process. (The second most exciting part is actually finishing something that you feel good about, but that has nothing to do with this rule.) When you get that first seed of an idea, that first inkling of something awesome, it can quickly become an obsession. You daydream about it all night and day. Oh, what wonderful possibilities!

But what is it that’s really exciting? It’s the possibilities. It’s the unknown. The unknown can be very exciting. It’s why movie trailers are exciting: they give just small pieces of info, leading us to wonder what the entire movie will be like. It’s why we wrap presents at Christmas: what could be in there? I can’t wait to find out!

But with the creative process, we work backwards. We daydream the movie trailer moments first, and that gets us all excited. The problem with this is obvious: we have to create the film. We have to fill in the details and make it something absolute instead of just of bunch of vague possibilities.

While the initial excitement can be a great motivator for getting to work, DO NOT mistake that excitement as a judgment of the completed work. You don’t have the completed work yet. You can’t judge it. You can’t even judge its potential. Something that does not yet really exist does not have potential.

I once met someone who was excited about an independent film he was working on, claiming it was bound to make millions … later on, he mentioned he was looking for someone to write the screenplay. Wait a sec. You don’t even have a screenplay?

In a similar manner, don’t get excited about potential success. If someone promises to make you rich, or to buy your work, or to make your screenplay into a film, or whatever, don’t get excited until it’s actually done, until it’s actually set in stone. When there’s a lot of money involved, many things can go wrong, many important people can change their minds. Save yourself from disappointment. Don’t let your expectations be denied by not having high expectations to begin with.

2. Never be satisfied

This rule requires much less description. It’s the age old philosophy of Kaizen. If you find yourself quite pleased with your work, it does not mean you’re a great artist, it means you’re stupid. OK, you can be a little satisfied. I’m not trying to argue you should always be in a state of self-loathing disappointment. But you should always be able to find something to improve upon. No work of art is perfect. Obviously, you must stop working on a project at some point if you ever want to do something else. As they say: “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

3. Don’t be a critic

OK, you can be a critic. In fact, you need to be a critic of some sort to make any sort of creative decisions at all.

What I mean by this rule is: don’t be a critic instead of being creative. As Anton Ego says in Ratatouille: “The bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

Good critiques, even if subjective, serve the creative process. They help artists make choices. Lame critiques (that is, unasked-for critiques from non-creative people) are worthless. Still, they can make non-creative people feel productive and involved. So they’re not going to disappear anytime soon.

As an artist, do not give lame critiques your time. And don’t create them.

If someone asks for your honest opinion, as a creative person might, be honest, informative, and kind. It is better to say “This part of the story doesn’t work for me because I don’t understand this character’s motivations…” rather than “What the heck?! He can’t just do that! That’s stupid! You should die for writing this crap!”

If someone asks for your dishonest opinion, patronize him; that’s what he wants. “Oh, awesome! That’s very neat! Nice work!” If they need people to lie to them to make them feel good, that’s their problem. And maybe they just want to show you their work and don’t really give a crap what you really think. So be polite and don’t tell them. Unless, of course, you are honestly impressed. If the truth doesn’t hurt, it won’t hurt!

If no one asks for your opinion, why are you wasting your time telling them?

The End

Those are the three rules. As I said, I might think of some more later. For now, I’m going to give these rules their own page and link on the side, which I’ll keep updated as I think of more (or if want to edit these later).

Creative processes

Here’s another post from Elizabeth King, whose blog I critiqued in an earlier post.  This post is really just a graphic, but it’s still interesting…

Overall, I appreciate (that is, I like) the author’s overall goal of encouraging people to be more creative.  This graphic though seems to suggest that an artist’s creative process involves a lot of consideration for the “rules” of art, and then decisions as to whether or not to follow them: “risk taking,” “innovation,” etc.  This also suggests that an artist is very concious of where his or her artwork fits in the big scheme things.

And I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that, if that’s what the artist wants to think about.  (Though I do think an artist can think he knows more about the role of his and other artists’ work in the big scheme of things than he is actually capable of knowing.  Things like influence are like stock market prices; they’re chaotic systems.  They are not linearly-defined cause-and-effect patterns, even though they can be simplified to look like that, and we humans tend to simplify things into cause-and-effect patterns quite naturally.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb, anyone?)

I don’t think any art is created in a vacuum.  An artist is going to be influenced by all the artwork he’s seen before, especially work that really resonates with him.

But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an artist’s creative process not involving consideration for “rules” (which often aren’t really “rules” in the first place, so I don’t know why people keep calling them that), or consideration for how “innovative” they think they’re being.  After all, one can only judge “innovation” based on what one’s seen before, thus it is a subjective property, a matter of opinion, not objective academic analysis (though such analysis might be interesting for the sake of getting new ideas).  Innovation for the sake of innovation is, of course, worthless.  It’s kind of annoying how many music composers out there could, for example, spend their time trying to create something “new” despite sensing any beauty, hoping the beauty will be found by future generations.  The point of creation is then a hope for later fame, later recognition for being the first, even though they claim to be entirely unselfish in their creative act.  But I guess that’s all beside the point…

I don’t really understand the concepts of “safety” and “bravery” in relation to artistic creation, so it will be interesting to see those concepts expanded upon.  Perhaps it has to do with an artist asking “will this creation of mine work for others?”  If the answer is: “Gee wiz, I just don’t know!  But I believe in it!” then the artist is brave.  If the answer is: “Yes!  I have followed all the rules!” then the artist is being safe.  Or perhaps it has to do whether or not the artist even cares what other people think.  If the artist thinks: “I’m going to do what I wish to do and I shall not compromise for the sake of the masses!” then he is brave.  If the artist thinks: “Well, gee wiz, I sure don’t want to confuse anyone and I hope everyone likes me!” then he is being safe.

Again, though, I don’t think this necessarily has to be a conscious decision, or even a decision at all.  If an artist is just trying please himself, then “safety vs. bravery” just doesn’t apply.  It’s not like you can be “brave” to yourself; you’re never going to do anything outside of what you would do.  To me, “brave” seems to mean you have something to fear, but do something despite that fear.  If you’re not afraid of anything, then you cannot be brave.  And maybe I’d go so far as to say that a fearful artist is a stupid artist, and therefore no good artist can be brave.  After all, if you’re truly fearing something, then your creative priorities are probably wrong.

So, overall, I don’t think this diagram describes a lot of people’s “creative process” and I don’t think that’s bad.  I think it’s a lot more automatic for most people.  It basically goes: What would I like to see exist? –> Create it.  That simple.  No thinking about innovation, rules and rule-breaking, being brave or safe, studying long artistic histories, etc.  Just creating for the joy of it.

Perhaps I will at some point launch my own site dedicated to encouraging creativity… but first I will have to study whether or not such a project will be innovative enough…

Popularity is meaningless

I came across the following video from a blog post by Derek Sivers:


Firstly, I’m not really sure that’s at all a “new” way to think about creativity.  Secondly, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that she makes.  Not just her, actually, but I think the audience is making it too.  In fact, I think most people in general make it because it’s a natural way of thinking.  That assumption is: a good product will be met with praise, fame, and acclaim, while a bad product will fail.  In other words, if you write a book, or a piece of music, or whatever, you yourself don’t know how “good” it is until it either succeeds (by becoming popular) or fails.  If it succeeds, congrats!  You done good!  If it fails, you failed.

But I disagree with that assumption.  I believe how “good” something is (well, in the world of art at least) is entirely subjective.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book may have been very popular, but to me that doesn’t imply that it’s any good.  I might think it’s terrible!  What does the success of her book mean?  Nothing!  And it really shouldn’t mean anything to anyone else either (except perhaps it means a good amount of money for her and the publisher).  And I believe there is a ton of brilliant work out there that’s not popular.  And I might love it if only I could find it.  I tend to find popular things the most because that’s what makes them easier to find.

In that way, popularity is an emergent property.  What makes something popular or not is a complex collection of millions of decisions by millions of people.  Should I read this?  Should I publish this?  Should I talk about this?  Should I invest in this?

I’ve heard that the first Harry Potter book was rejected by quite a few publishers before being accepted by one.  So now people say “wow, those publishers who rejected it sure must be sorry!”  Well, no.  Harry Potter’s eventual insane success was never a guarantee based entirely on the story.  If another publisher had published it, it might not have become a success.  If it was published a year later, it might not have become a success.  (For that matter, if one set of J. K. Rowling’s great great great great grandparents had not met, Harry Potter wouldn’t even exist.)

Movie producers are always making assumptions about why this or that movie succeeded or failed.  Shut up, you idiots!  You don’t know!  “Ah, this Disney animation film failed because people want computer animation now.”  “This film succeeded because Tom Hanks was in it.”  “This film failed because of the competing films that came out at the same time.”  “This film succeeded because it had a strong central hero character and a villain that represented the evils of our times very well.”  And blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever they can say to themselves to make their investments not seem so risky and more predictable.

And people apply this assumption to artists who have become insanely famous.  The Beatles are so famous because they were good.  Shakespeare was good.  Mozart was good.  But these aren’t objective facts just because they’ve happened to stand the test of time (at least, for now).  Their continued fame is still an emergent property based on millions of decisions by millions of people.  (Let’s stop forcing high-schoolers to read Shakespeare and see what happens to that market!)

“If it is popular, it is because it is really good!”  I completely reject the assumption.  When I experience or create a piece of art, I make up my own mind.

Not that I don’t care what other people think.  If I write a piece of music and someone on YouTube comments that they like it, I find it flattering and encouraging.  But it doesn’t change my initial thoughts about my own work.

In conclusion, what is “good” and what is popular are two completely different things.  You shouldn’t let what is popular influence your creative decisions too much, because you actually have no control over what becomes popular.  So stop thinking you do!

And read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, it’s a good book.

I’m ignoring you

I recently discovered the website called gapingvoid created my Hugh MacLeod.

(I discovered the site when this YouTuber commented on one of my videos. I in turn checked out his YouTube channel, then his tumblr, in which he mentions the site.)

More specifically, I discovered this page on Hugh MacLeod’s website, filled with advice on being creative. And it’s very good advice, says I. For example, here’s a random quote. MacLeod says:

Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity.

Nor can you bully a subordinate into becoming a genius.Since the modern, scientifically-conceived corporation was invented in the early half of the Twentieth Century, creativity has been sacrificed in favor of forwarding the interests of the “Team Player”.

Fair enough. There was more money in doing it that way; that’s why they did it.

There’s only one problem. Team Players are not very good at creating value on their own. They are not autonomous; they need a team in order to exist.

So now corporations are awash with non-autonomous thinkers.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”

And so on.

Creating an economically viable entity where lack of original thought is handsomely rewarded creates a rich, fertile environment for parasites to breed. And that’s exactly what’s been happening.

The whole thing is really quotable. And it’s just a fragment of what’s in MacLeod’s new book Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.

I suppose much of it can seem like cliche self-help and marketing blither; certainly MacLeod’s thoughts are not unique or revolutionary. But at the same time I find them quite encouraging and inspiring. Even if you immediately agree with MacLeod’s writings, they might be easy to forget, because so many people in the world act as if they don’t agree.

I bought the book, which is an easy read; one could read through it in a hour or less. It’s so short, I’m not sure it’s worth paying list price for (list price is almost always overpriced, isn’t it?), but I thought it was worth having in tangible book form. I think it’s one of those books one can take and flip open to any page and reread when feeling bored or uninspired.

Good stuff.