Here’s a review of two recent books on creativity that have done rather well for themselves and their authors. The first is ‘The War of Art‘*, by screenwriter and novelist Stephen Pressfield (the title refers, of course, to the 6th century treatise on military strategy attributed to Sun Tzu, the Art of War); the second is the equally wonderfully-titled ‘Ignore Everybody (and 39 other Keys to Creativity)‘* by Hugh MacLeod, a popular cartoonist, blogger and general man-about-the-net.
While this will not be an entirely glowing review, particularly in one case, I want to start by saying that I consider both of these to be essential reading for the creativity space. Despite some misgivings, I think they are extremely valuable and accessible works and I heartily and unreservedly recommend them both.
There are a number of similarities, which is one reason I have chosen to review them together (another is that I happened to buy them together and read them sequentially). Both are edgy, streetwise and a little curmudgeonly, with short punchy chapters and an unapologetic willingness to take potentially controversial positions. Tough love, as it were, from a couple of guys who have done their time in the trenches – which is a nice change from the frequently more academic treatments of the topic.
Both are also written from the perspective of essentially solo artists, and portray the task at hand and the journey we are on as basically an individual endeavor. This might not ring true for everyone; as discussed in my previous post, collaboration is a deep creative well for many artists, and for some it is literally inseparable from the process; neither of these authors really mentions it at all. They may be more attractive to people working in similarly solitary idioms.
Finally, they are both fairly short books; I read each in a sitting-and-a-half, as it were, and will likely dip into them regularly for a bit of inspiration or a kick in the butt from time to time.
There are also some key differences: Ignore Everybody* is more practical, the War of Art* more psychological. MacLeod includes a selection of his own work in cartoon form, where Pressfield only makes reference to his novels and screenplays, in some cases quite self-effacingly. He also uses a lot more sports metaphors; this is the author of ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’, after all (subsequent events have cast a different light on his numerous references to Tiger Woods, but I’ll try not to hold that against him). More
So, as mentioned in the last post I spent some time with a number of old friends last week, and several of those I also count among the more creative people I’ve had the privilege of knowing over the years.
Today I’d like to be a bit more specific about this… and take the opportunity to talk about something I haven’t really touched on yet in these pages: collaborative creativity.
In many ways I am a fairly solitary creator much of the time, but as a performing musician I also find myself in collaborative situations quite frequently. Moreover, I have maintained a number of highly fruitful long-term associations with particularly gifted and creative musicians. One of these is my friend Ed Roman.
I visited Ed last week and we spent two days in the studio laying down some tracks for his new album. Although my involvement in the project ended a bit prematurely (due to a dental emergency), it was productive and inspirational and drew my attention to a few aspects of collaboration that seem worth exploring here…
As some of you may have noticed – possibly even if you live in North America! – there’s a bit of a football – err, soccer tournament underway. Kind of a big one, they say. I’m not a ‘real’ sports fan by any stretch, but like many people I appreciate amazing athletic talent and often tune in when a big international competition is on. And I live in Germany… so, I’ve watched a few games of this World Cup and will doubtless watch a few more.
Soccer/Football has an interesting nickname: they call it “the Beautiful Game”. Having learned to watch it with a bit more understanding over the years, I have begun to understand why: there is a good deal of finesse and subtlety in it when it’s played at this level, and sometimes the plays have a beautiful logic and rhythm to them. And when a player or a team is really ‘in the zone’ as the saying goes, their performance often takes on that extra dimension: creativity.
Of course, this is by no means exclusive to ‘the beautiful game’ – I think most sports, even ones I don’t get a lot out of personally like boxing or Formula 1 racing, offer these sublime moments when the normal flow is transcended and magic happens – when a player or competitor takes on that special energy and does things that seem too perfect to be quite human. When someone does that a lot, they become legendary, and every sport has its legends. Watching them in their element can often provide a window into why other people care for a sport that is not to our taste.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall…
So while watching a game last night I was commenting on a particular team’s creativity (I have no idea whether ‘real’ sports fans talk like this, but I do) and it got me to thinking about the relationship between creativity and competition. I think to many people in the arts, which again is my own area of specialization, competition is a four-letter word of sorts. We talk about non-competitive games or activities in the context of encouraging kids’ creativity, and we are nervous about the idea of making judgments about the value of one person’s art or music over another’s.
Perhaps this is as it should be, but I sometimes wonder if we’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Is competition really the enemy of creativity? Or might there be something very empowering in it – even outside professional sports? More
I played an audition last week. For a gig that would really smooth over some bumps in our financial stability, at a big (actually I am told it’s the biggest theatre stage in the world!) and ultra-professional stage show. In all honesty it is artistically not my highest goal in life, but there are not so many solid jobs left for musicians and it’s an opportunity I’m not in a position to blow off.
However, that’s really not what this is about. What’s it about then? In a word, confidence.
It’s been a while since I did one of these auditions and I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle it. I should clarify that I rarely ever get any kind of stage fright when actually performing; after thousands of times in front of audiences ranging from rather small to very big indeed, I generally don’t let that particular breed of anxiety get the better of me.
Auditions, however (and exams, though they are likely a thing of the past for me now) have always been a different story. They have always brought out the worst in me, all the self-judgment and second-guessing that this blog is all about transcending. In performance, the feeling that everyone is picking apart your work looking for flaws is largely imaginary; in an audition, it’s entirely real – in fact it’s the whole point. And it’s been an Achilles heel for me as long as I can remember.
This time was different: I found myself with an unexpected feeling of confidence, and I’m interested in uncovering where it might have come from. Let’s break it down. More
In her seminal book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success‘*, psychologist Carol Dweck identifies two basic ‘mindsets’ – core beliefs about our intelligence and abilities that determine how we learn, how we see ourselves and what motivates us. They are the Fixed mindset and the Growth mindset. Basically, if you have a Fixed mindset, you believe that your intelligence, talent, creativity, ability, whatever, is innate – you are born with a certain capacity, and that’s that. A Growth mindset is just the opposite – you believe that these traits are plastic, flexible, something to nurture and grow and develop over a lifetime.
This is obviously a very simple idea, and a very broad categorization… and yet I believe it is enormously powerful. Dweck’s research is compelling, and indicates unequivocally that the latter ‘mindset’ is a far more effective and empowering way to view ourselves and our interaction with the world of information we live in. I’d like to take a closer look at this in the specific context of creativity. More