For years, public radio's Studio 360 has regaled listeners with tales from our most creative types -- Ang Lee, Kevin Bacon, Yo-Yo Ma, and so on -- about how they get their ideas. What can we mere mortals learn from their work habits?
A lot, according to executive producer Julie Burstein's new book Spark: How Creativity Works. In dozens of short essays, Burstein culls from transcripts of host Kurt Andersen's best interviews. The most important lesson on being creative may be sheer persistence. As painter Chuck Close notes, "If you wait for the clouds to part and be struck in the head with a bolt of lightning, you're likely to be waiting the rest of your life.â€ Burstein tells me that it's essential "to do your work everyday, knowing that ideas will grow out of the process of working.â€
Here are some other ways to spark great work:
Embrace creativity's "R&Dâ€ phase. "Creative people hold themselves open to the world around them,â€ Burstein says. "Many of the artists in Spark tell of an unexpected experience that had profound impact on their work.â€ Filmmaker Mira Nair decided to become an actress and later a director after seeing a performance of folk theater on a soccer field in her hometown in India. Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt created the signature sound of the light saber from recordings he made of his television set in his living room. "Spending time observing and listening before getting to work is crucial to creativity in any field, not just in the arts,â€ Burstein says. "Being open to the new and the unexpected, as well as paying new attention to the familiar, is the R&D phase of creativity, and is something we all can do!â€
Don't shy from conflict. "As all of us know who work with teams, conflict can be painful and can sometimes threaten to derail our work,â€ says Burstein. "This is true in art, too.â€ In Spark, playwright Tony Kushner describes the struggles he and the team behind the musical Caroline or Change went through to finish one of the key songs in the show. This actually involved seventeen different versions and a huge group meltdown. But ultimately, Kushner told Studio 360 that the struggle to write it was as great a source of pride as the song itself. "In creative work, perhaps in all work, it's essential to look at the conflicts as an opportunity for growth, a place where change must happen â€" which leads to new work,â€ says Burstein.
Get moving. "Too often, when faced with an intractable problem, we just keep hammering at it,â€ Burstein says. "But many of the artists in Spark emphasize the need to let go of the problem for a while and do something that refreshes their imagination, in order to approach a problem with new insights.â€ You can run, walk, go outdoors, take a shower. All increase the likelihood you'll get unstuck.
Indulge your "amateur spirit.â€ Part of creativity is learning to approach problems with a fresh eye. You can replenish yourself by seeking out challenges in other aspects of life. "I feel tremendously fortunate to have found a profession where I'm expected to learn something new all the time,â€ Burstein says. "But I find if I focus entirely on words, my imagination can run dry, so I feed my creativity by doing something entirely different â€" I make pots. I've studied ceramics for many years, but took a long break while my kids were small. Last year, as I was writing Spark, I took a class again. It's fantastic to have physical work which requires a very different kind of attention from writing. And such a pleasure to be able to sit down at my computer with a cup of tea in a mug that I've made!â€
How do you put yourself in a creative state of mind?
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