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The secret of creativity

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We love to contemplate the fruits of creativity, whether it’s the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or the latest iPhone with its advanced microelectronics and labyrinthine software. Even lesser art forms like the pop music of Taylor Swift and the teenage plotlines of the Marvel Universe are powerful creations.

If you look at the geniuses of history, whether operating mostly in isolation or as part of a team, one stark fact emerges. Whether we’re talking about Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, or Steve Jobs, creating new things is a multi-layered process. It involves a lot of investigating of what had come before, punctuated by occasional moments of inspiration, some of which never pan out. In a phrase — trial and error.

Yet there is one truth that rises above all the others. It is tedious, commonplace, and the opposite of inspired, but this is where a lot of the magic lies. In a word, it is revision. Going over the same old ground seeking to improve what is already there. Seeking to improve what your predecessors have done. Seeking to improve what you yourself did yesterday, last week, last month, or last year. It is a continual process of revising and refining.

So many of the masterworks of history were created by men and women in their middle years and beyond. Even for prodigies, it takes years to master their complex crafts. This is also why so many would-be creators miss the mark. They don’t have the patience for the polishing and revising needed to create the final work. Again, age can bring patience, the knowledge that good work takes time.

Cellist Pablo Casals and pianist Vladimir Horowitz performed at the top of their game well into their nineties. As did Pablo Picasso, who remained the ultimate disrupter of the art world until his final breath.  The night before he died of a heart ailment at age 76, Einstein was scribbling equations at his bedside.

While the challenges of creative work remain essentially the same for everyone, they are exacerbated by poverty, lack of education, and prejudices like racism. Throughout history, women in many cultures have been held back by an assortment of prejudices.

Composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Nadia Boulanger was a force in classical music until she died at age 92. Yet her composing career was hampered by the secondary role women were supposed to play in creative fields. In her early years, her ambitions were encouraged by her partner, the pianist and composer Raoul Pugno. After he died, she lost her confidence as a composer. “She couldn’t battle to get her works performed on her own when she lost Pugno, who absolutely provided material and also an enormous amount of emotional support, and who really thought she was amazing,” musicologist Jeanice Brooks told the New York Times. Nadia also lost her other pillar of support, her sister Lili, a brilliant composer who died of a lung infection at age 22, after she won the Prix de Rome.

Indeed, everyone benefits from encouragement. Despite early struggles with poverty and prejudice, Marie Curie, the Polish-born French physicist, became famous for her work on radioactivity and twice won the Nobel Prize. Along with her husband, she was a co-winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics and the sole winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Tragically, Marie Curie died of anemia brought on by her work with radium. Her daughter radiochemist Irène Joliot-Curie was a battlefield radiologist, activist, and politician. Along with her husband, she discovered artificially created radioactive atoms, paving the way for advances in the fight against cancer.

The Beatles were extraordinarily prolific in their twenties and thirties, but they were working professionals in their teens, playing thousands of gigs for low pay in the gritty port cities of Liverpool and Hamburg. Staying up late in cheap hotels to write because in that era working musicians were not supposed to be songwriters.

After they stopped touring, they kept writing and recording and even after the group broke up, they all continued their musical careers. They were middle aged before their time. Today, at age 80, surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are still working musicians. Time has mellowed the youthful craving for substances. Paul has been a vegetarian for decades and does a mean headstand. Ringo gave up his heavy drinking decades ago.

Look on YouTube and you will find endless series of clips of The Beatles in the studio, working on songs that sometime later would be released as polished masterpieces, brought to life by the four creators, as well as studio sidemen including classical musicians, all under the creative eye of producer George Martin.

You can see how informal the creative process really is. The chords change, the tempo changes, lyrics come and go. Although the song always starts with one member of the group, they all contribute. One thing is obvious from these clips. Although there was lots of time for tea, cigarettes, and offhand banter, there was also a tremendous power of focus. Revision at a high level. And that takes time. Patience required.

The Old Masters as they are sometimes called started a new work well before they put paint to canvas. They made exploratory sketches in pencil or charcoal, refining the composition, the perspective, and the depth of field into an abstract geometry that would eventually hide behind the finished work.

In the famous mural The Last Supper, da Vinci shows the outer surface layer of people around a dinner table, with Jesus the focus. Yet every tilted head and resting arm follows a hidden geometry that creates a sense of movement – like the frozen moment of a fast-moving play caught by a high-resolution, stop-action camera. And for each of his paintings, the artist followed a long process of adding and subtracting, sometimes using the smallest brush strokes. He carried the Mona Lisa with him for years when he travelled, and indeed it was never finished.

Sidenote: The Last Supper was painted on a wall using an experimental technique. It started to fade just six months after completion. There’s that trial-and-error thing again. 

Over Bach’s long career, he was often under contract to produce a new work for one church or another, sometimes once a week. This didn’t mean that the compositions all poured out flawlessly. It did mean he was extraordinarily prolific, with some of his works at a much higher level than others. Indeed, while productivity is a hallmark of genius, so is inconsistency. We are all human.

While Shakespeare left school early, he had an astounding auditory memory and apparently remembered everything he ever heard including the obscure vocabulary of the tradespeople in the town in which he grew up. His father, after all, was a glover. Besides the precise use of detail, he spun this practical vocabulary into imaginative metaphors whose power has lasted for centuries. 

Author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion of the 10,000-hour rule, which states that long sessions of practice are required to master the skills needed to perform at a high level. Yet this generalization is mostly misleading. According to David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, this generalization is true for only a few occupations such as golf and chess. For most creative work, it’s not so much the hours of training as the years needed to produce a sophisticated mature work.

Over his long career, Leonardo was usually under the patronage of one corrupt duke or another. He designed canals and fortifications and engines of war and produced detailed maps, not to mention the first modern autopsies and techniques for diagrams like cutaways and close-ups. His sketchbooks were like free-form cartoon books that linked patterns in flowing water with clouds in the sky, and the flight of birds, all surrounded by tiny mirror writing. For one thing, paper was hard to get in those days.

Leonardo produced a surprisingly small number of finished paintings and sculptures. But what a list! They often took him years to complete and benefited from his scientific work. During the autopsies he conducted in the basements of hospitals, he worked out how the muscles below the face engineered our facial expressions, lending a scientific accuracy to the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

The same in science. It took Einstein 10 years to finalize the Theory of Special Relativity, begun when he was 16; and another 10 to work out the more complex General Theory. Claude Shannon spent 10 years polishing A Mathematical Theory of Communication, later known as Information Theory, one of the foundational works of the computer age, now borrowed by physicists as part of quantum information theory.

A wonderful example of this process of revision can be seen in Beethoven’s manuscripts. While he was extremely prolific as a composer, he completed only nine symphonies, all considered masterworks, especially the odd numbered ones. Everyone knows the towering themes of the ninth Symphony, which have been a mainstay of modern advertising for decades.

Yet Beethoven’s manuscripts were a mess of continual revision as he scratched out and over-wrote with his blotchy quill pen. It took his trusted copyists to come up with the final drafts needed so the work could be published and played.

If you go into a modern industrial laboratory, especially during informal moments like coffee breaks, you will see how the creative process begins with simple sketches that over time may become detailed experiments. From there only a small number make it to the assembly line and the finished products we take for granted at the Apple Store or at the Tesla dealership.

Behind the scenes occur the many screw-ups that the creators strive to hide from the light of day. They are vested in keeping up appearances. And yet these so-called failures are all part of the process of revision needed to invent the wonders of technology we take for granted today.

The process of creation involves many false starts and dead ends. But they are the seeds of a future that comes to life only through endless tweaking and adjusting, selecting and discarding. The creative process is a slow, messy business indeed.

Then, once momentum kicks in, watch out!

If you enjoyed this article, check out the following articles: When the rain comes: Vipassana meditation via Zoom | SILVER and Time Travel Part II: Take a sad song, and make it better | SILVER.

David Holt is the editor of Silver Magazine.

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