Tuesday, 20 October 2015

This is how a creative person works

I recently discovered the music of contemporary composer Marc Yeats. I find his music intriguing. Similarly intriguing is the way he goes about his work, which he records in engaging detail on his Blog.

The availability of such a rich seam of information about an established composer's work and how he creates it presented me with an opportunity too good to miss, so I set about reading sections of his blog (mainly his composer in residence to the Observatory posts) to see what insights I could gain from the way Marc goes about his work. More specifically, I was interested in how he creates new and interesting works on a regular and consistent basis.

Reading and reflecting upon Marc's blogs gradually revealed that he has a healthy number of habits of thought and action that support and enable his creative process, and they are not only applicable within Marc's musical world: we can all develop and use them, whatever our areas of interest and activity.           

Here, in no particular order, are the habits I found, together with some ideas about how we can all develop them:

Thinking and acting in three dimensions

When Marc is creating he does things, responds intuitively to things and thinks logically about things. He will walk, gather, sketch and talk; he will reflect upon, respond to and form feelings about his situation, environment and work; he will analyse and, eventually, conclude and decide.

Most of us are good at thinking logically about things. This is what we have been educated and trained to do, and it is what most employers encourage us to do: analyse, conclude, decide.

But to enhance our creativity we need to work at developing the other two dimensions: we need to do more and feel more. 

If you are stuck there, thinking harder and harder, take a walk and ask yourself what you can do. Can you start gathering more information? Can you visualise and 'draw out' your thoughts by sketching or using a Mind Map? Can you talk things through with someone? In addition to thinking logically about what is good or bad about something ask yourself what you find intriguing or concerning about something (perhaps use a PINC Filter) Ask yourself why this may be.           

Intertwining ideas

When Marc is composing he intertwines and entangles his ideas and activities. He will mix the visual with the musical; he will mix the figurative with the abstract; he will mix the common place with the unique.

Most of us are good at building on an idea by applying our skills, experiences and perspectives to it. Again, it is what most of us, most of the time, are encouraged to do. 

To enhance our creativity, however, we need to work at combining ideas and approaches that might, at first sight, seem unrelated.

In addition to building upon an idea ask yourself how it could be intertwined with the ideas of others from other sectors, businesses and industries (perhaps use the related worlds technique as part of this process). Capture butterfly ideas that flutter by you each day and ask yourself how they could be intertwined with each other and the idea in front of you. Take two ideas and work at combining them to create one, better idea (perhaps use Successive Element Integration)   

Suspending judgement

When Marc is considering the creative path he will take when making his music he avoids coming to hasty conclusions and decisions. He makes time to explore differing perspectives and approaches, so giving his mind and intuition the time they need to process things and eventually uncover the most appropriate (and sometimes unexpected) options to take.     

The pressures of daily life and work force us to form quick conclusions and make timely decisions. They make us think in shorthand and adopt tried and tested approaches that coincide with our assumptions about the problems we face and how best to deal with them.

This shorthand thinking serves us well most of the time. However, if we need to be creative we must be able to stop our assumptions in their tracks and change tracks to follow a more innovative and effective path.

Maintain your ability to form quick conclusions and make timely decisions based upon sound assumptions but also develop the ability to 'suspend your beliefs'. Before coming to conclusions and making decisions look out the window from different perspectives. Think about a problem in different ways (perhaps use De Bono's Six Thinking Hats). Make time for the creative pause and think first and act a little later.                    

Balancing predictability and unpredictability

Marc's compositions balance predictability with unpredictability. The lines or parts of his music are each skilfully and carefully written but then combined asynchronously; they do not stack together like bricks in mortar; they layer and move like oil on water.    

We all need to do things that make us predictable. We all need to do things that lead to predictable outcomes. Being predictable reassures, promotes trust and builds confidence. 

Being creative, however, demands we embrace a meaningful measure of unpredictability: a willingness to take risks and trust in processes (and people) that are not completely within our control.

Use the trust you have built up through your predictability as capital to support innovative risk taking. Let others play with your ideas and use and develop them in their own ways according to their own needs. Bring a diverse range of people with predictable but different outlooks, expertise and experiences together (as happens at the Unusual Suspects Festival) and encourage them to slip and slide against each other and mingle and merge in unexpected ways. Add a little randomness to your thinking to gain unpredictably useful insights and solutions (perhaps use the Random Stimuli approach).        

Working at Spontaneity

Marc forces himself to be spontaneous. Whilst walking and thinking about a project he will stop to sketch his ideas and inspirations. He limits his sketching to thirty seconds or so. This holds back the influence of his rational, critical thoughts and releases his initial intuitions and feelings (so enabling them to fill his mind, overflow onto the paper and expand into new insights and approaches).

As stated above, we are all good at thinking logically about things. It is what we have been educated and trained to do. More specifically, we are all good at thinking critically: sorting out what is right or wrong or good or bad and making decisions for or against something.

In fact, this type of rational thinking is so ingrained within us it becomes our default way of dealing with the world: we judge before we reflect; we select before we explore; we decide before we discuss.

To enhance our creativity we need to change this default mind-set: we need to force our intuition and feelings to the front of our minds, putting them alongside (and occasionally just ahead of) our rational thoughts.

Develop the habit of looking for not only what is good or bad but also what is interesting: those things that for some unknown reason are intriguing and have caught your attention; perhaps try de Bono's PMI Thinking Technique. Keep a note pad beside your bed and with you at all times; immediately write down ideas and insights that occur to you (and resist the urge to judge them). When you need to be creative just start physically doing something.

Embracing, exploring and using unexpected insights and suggestions

When the musicians Marc works with identify unexpected facets of his music, for example unforeseen combinations of melodic lines and instruments, he is not only keen to acknowledge them but also embrace and explore them (in many cases eventually adding them to his completed compositions).

As alluded to above, we often very quickly form assumptions about what things are like and how things should be. This is especially the case when we have invested a great deal of time and effort into creating something: be this a new idea, a new process or policy, or a new product (or whatever else).          
It is good for us to feel passionately about what we have created and how it should be used and developed. But really effective creativity demands that we put our passions (and the assumptions they generate) aside and welcome and explore unexpected insights, suggestions and contributions.

Remember that no one person can create a truly new, attractive, feasible and finished idea (just as no one person can make music). Cultivate curiosity: allow people to play with your ideas and be curious about their insights, experiences and suggestions. Let go of the ego and status of being the originator of an idea; work with others to make your idea the best of ideas. 

Describing and expressing things differently

Marc, whilst doing some research for a new composition, became intrigued by some graffiti he discovered (describing it as 'layers of comment and memory'). His re-expression of the word 'graffiti' immediately enabled him to think about it in different and interesting ways.

We all get used to describing things with the same old words. This leads us to perceiving and dealing with things in the same old ways. This is particularly the case when we are at work, where many tasks and problems become routine (and jointly accepted and commonly understood ways of describing them help us address them quickly and effectively).

But trickier tasks and problems, and sometimes routine ones that have become mysteriously difficult, demand less commonly used words that force us to understand things in new ways: new ways which can uncover new and creative solutions.    

Start describing difficult tasks and problems (and routine ones that have become frustrating) in new and different ways: use different words and phrases to describe them (perhaps use the Metaphor Technique); ask what words or phrases capture their essencere-express them by using other people's words or phrases, or by not using words at-all.

Keeping your purpose and goals in your mind but not always to the very front of it

Marc's discovery of the graffiti and his fascination with it also illustrate his ability to keep his purpose and goals in mind but, importantly, not to the exclusion of other things of interest and potential artistic value. 

The purpose of the project Marc was working on, which was to create a piece of music inspired by a specific environmental landscape, did not encompass a fascination with and exploration of graffiti culture. If Marc had allowed his current purpose to lead him by the nose he would likely have kept his head up and walked on by the 'irrelevant' graffiti, so missing an opportunity to add to his stockpile of interesting ideas and experiences which could inspire future works. Instead, as his blog makes clear, he was able to stop to explore and record the graffiti and simultaneously remind himself of his current purpose and goals (so keeping his direction clear but his creative horizons wide and uninterrupted).

We can often allow our current purposes and goals to blind us to potentially useful ideas, insights and experiences; they pass by unseen as we allow our goals to pull us insistently along, like parents in a hurry. This is particularly so in the pressurised world of work, where legitimate demands for efficiency and achievement can lead to us valuing the attainment of goals rather than the discovery of ideas. This makes it very likely that we will achieve many things, but not many things that are new and innovative.

To be creative we need to be able to look beyond current purposes and goals towards ideas and insights that will coalesce into future goals capable of uncovering new and innovative things.   

So, keep your purpose and goals in your mind but not always to the very front of it. Remember that a goal effectively achieved is not merely the end point of a journey but the culmination of a journey fully experienced. If you stumble across something that is interesting but currently irrelevant, stop and take the time to explore and record it. If you take a wrong turn in pursuit of your goals, do not immediately resume your previous direction but instead travel back to and explore your going wrong point. Ask yourself what insights and ideas you can gain from it. As well as enriching your journey towards your goals, you will add to your stockpile of potentially useful ideas and inspirations.  

Asking simple questions

At the end of a period of research for a new piece, Marc asked himself a couple of very simple questions about the landscapes that were to inspire his new work. How did each landscape differ from the other? What gave each landscape its uniqueness? Asking these questions enabled Marc to move away from his expertise and the complexities of composing and move nearer to the physical 'just is' qualities of the landscapes that were the focus of his works.    

The more involved in something we become, the more expertise we gain about something, the harder it becomes to ask simple questions. Our ever-increasing knowledge and experience leads to ever-strengthening and question-inhibiting assumptions about what things are, how things work, why things happen, etc. 

This is acceptable, even advantageous, when we are dealing with complex but well established processes and tasks. It enables us to do difficult things quickly. (Think about the life saving decisions and actions that go on within an accident and emergency department!)

Creative thinking, however, often demands that we put our established expertise aside for a while and develop a new expertise: an expertise in simplicity. 

Start asking the questions everyone is thinking but no one is asking because they do not want to look silly. Find out what questions the least experienced person in the room wants to ask. Ask non-experts to help you put aside your expertise by telling you the questions they are dying to ask.              

Using multiple senses

When reading Marc's blogs it quickly becomes clear that he uses multiple senses to process the information he gains and the experiences he has whilst doing his research and preparation for new works. This video from his blog is a particularly good example of this: sight, sound, movement, smell -- all are mentioned.

His ability to take in and process information through multiple senses increases the palette of inspirations available to him as he prepares and writes his music. This enables him to deliver works that broil with rich and diverse interconnections and associations.

Most of us have one or two senses that we tend to use the most: some of us are very visual; some of us are very auditory; some of us are very touch feel physical, etc. Being creative, however, demands that we widen our sensual horizons so (like Marc) we can increase the palette of inspirations available to us.

Make a point of noticing what you see, hear, smell and feel as you go about your daily life. If you go to art galleries begin going to concerts as well (or vice versa). If you usually see a lot and hear a lot start doing a lot as well: take dancing classes, pottery classes, or just go for a walk more often.

Using a diverse mixture of things to trigger inspiration

Photos, sketches, videos, graffiti, poems, boat yards, patterns of currents and eddies, objects found along the way: Marc uses all these things and more to trigger his inspiration. The more diverse the mixture of things Marc experiences, the greater the chances they will trigger inspiration and nudge him towards new ideas. 

We all have our favourite things: things we enjoy and respond to the most; things we surround ourselves with. We have favourite books, favourite music, favourite films, favourite photos, favourite whatever. It is good for us to luxuriate in these things; they make us happy and they help us relax. They may even, because they put us in a good frame of mind, spur the occasional creative idea. To significantly enhance our creativity, however, we need to move beyond our favourite things towards experiencing a more diverse mixture of things: things that will stimulate, challenge and inspire us in new and unexpected ways.

Those things that you do not give a second glance: give them a second glance; take a photo of them. That music you do not listen to: listen to it; download it to your smart phone. That newspaper you would not be seen dead reading: read it; subscribe to it for a month. That TV series you never watch: watch it; buy the box set. Those meetings you never attend: attend them; offer to contribute to the next one. Make it easier for you to introduce freshness to your thinking by allowing a diverse mixture of things to inspire you.            

Reworking and reusing old material

A key part of Marc's creative process is reworking old material to create new works. He will take the music from a previously written piece and challenge himself to develop it in new ways. This gives his work not only a consistent style but also a strong sense of continuous growth and development. 

When trying to be creative we can easily fall into the originality trap, where we assume that innovative ideas must be based upon completely new concepts and approaches. This is not true. In fact, as Marc's example shows us, being creative is as much about putting demands for originality 'back in their box' as it is about thinking 'outside the box'; finding ways to reimagine old ideas and use them in new ways to solve new problems is an often undervalued but essential aspect of effective and productive creative problem solving.        

So, remember the phrase 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue' and focus upon the old and borrowed: adapt old ideas and approaches to current problems; borrow existing solutions from elsewhere and adapt them to your needs. Go back to the original idea; uncover what has been forgotten or is no longer used and find ways to adapt it to your current situation. Time shift your thinking: ask yourself how you would have solved a problem ten years ago and find ways to adapt the approach to your current needs.           

Working at doing things differently

Almost as a counter-balance to reworking and reusing old material Marc works hard at doing things differently from other composers, especially those from previous eras. His aim in doing this is not about being original for originality's sake. It is about offering something fresh for his musicians to play and his audiences to hear.

It is not always necessary or appropriate to do things differently. Many of the demands of life and work are best dealt with in tried, tested and generally accepted ways. This not only helps others quickly understand what we are doing but also helps us quickly achieve things. Creative thinking, however, requires fresh and stimulating thinking and approaches and one of the best ways of achieving this is to work at doing things differently.

When you need to be creative practise the previously described skill of suspending judgement to avoid automatic assumptions about how you will do things. Set yourself some awkward rules to help you not only suspend your judgements but also encourage you to do things differently. Look out the window again, but this time look for what someone else is doing to solve your problem and start doing it yourself. Force yourself to do things differently by setting yourself a one-day challenge to solve a problem or address an issue.                

Developing a driving purpose and mission

On reading Marc's blog one gains a strong feeling of mission and purpose: of a burning desire to create music that is not merely original but also new, innovative and stimulating in meaningful and lasting ways. This desire is a major source of his creative energy, driving his efforts to uncover diverse perspectives that can enable his music to develop in intriguing ways.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably admit that developing a driving purpose and mission is not something we think about very much, if at all. But it is undeniable that those of us who do develop a strong sense of purpose and mission tend to discover more, innovative more, achieve more.

If you need or want to be creative find your strong purpose for being so: be purposeful.
Having a planned and timed process in mind

When researching, writing, rehearsing and performing his compositions Marc has a clear sense of what he is going to do, where he will do it, when he will do it, how he will do it, why he will do it.

He allocates and timetables times to walk, times to sketch and make videos, times to reflect, times to revisit past ideas, times to rest, times to begin composing, times to share his ideas, times for rehearsal, times (and places) for performance. When reading his blog one can sense that Marc has a timeline in mind that he populates with the various tasks and activities he needs to do to complete his work and deliver a new piece of music.

The real challenge is not to be creative: it is to be productively creative. This requires that we marry a strong sense of purpose with the discipline to achieve it. Effective creativity equals purposeful and productive creativity made possible through the planned use of time.

Plan out the what, when, where, how and why of your creative process. Write out a timeline of your activities and keep them in mind as you go about your work. Identify the key milestones of your creative journey and mark them as you reach them.

Sharing at a distance

An interesting aspect of Marc's creative process is his use of social media. As well as writing a blog detailing his tasks and activities he regularly posts on various social media sites, sharing his latest thoughts and experiences and informing about commissions and performances. These posts obviously raise his profile and the interest in his works but also, given their ongoing and often quite specific nature, provide tangible touchstones inscribed with ongoing reflections and insights that Marc can use to not only mark out his progress but also crystallize his thinking. They also attract feedback and comments from readers which can provide additional insights and/or reinforce specific ways of thinking or proceeding.

And the use of social media means that this sharing can all be done at a distance, so allowing Marc's creative process to evolve and mature unhindered: to develop in its own way in its own time.

Each of us can do a lot to develop our creativity. Sharing our creative ideas in a managed way 'at a distance' can help us do even more, crystallizing and adding to our insights and delineating and illuminating interesting and innovative paths we can take.

Work at finding ways to share your ongoing ideas and experiences with others. Carefully manage social media so that you not only share with people but also create and maintain an empowering distance from people: a distance that creates an incubating space between your creative process and those that see and comment upon it. Perhaps go further; build upon Marc's practice by creating a virtual version of Amy Beach's supportive attic club.

Developing and practising the above habits over many years

Marc has developed his musical talents and expertise over many years. First he developed his technical expertise which, given time, enabled him to express himself fluently through music. Once fluent in music's accepted technical languages Marc was able to experiment and gain experiences that, again given time, enabled him to create his own creative habits and processes. Eventually, after many years, these helped him to begin discovering his own unique musical voice.

Creativity and innovation seldom happen without significant expertise and experience which are developed over many years. As we gain this expertise and experience and become fluent in our chosen disciplines we also become curious about what more we can discover and what more is possible. We then use our expertise and experience and the tools we have gained to uncover new insights and craft our own ways of doing things; this is where creativity and innovation happens.

Follow the example of the great composers and other very creative people by studying your subject with curiosity: immerse yourself in it; gain expertise in it. Gain experience of using your expertise. Gradually find your own voice; gradually find your own way of doing things.

Then ask what more is possible.

1 comment:

  1. As the subject of this article I can honestly say that I have never read such an insightful, clearly articulated and logical description of my practice as a composer. I shall refer others to it in the future and know it will prove useful to me for some time to come as at last, someone has described what it is I'm doing in terms I can understand! The fact that Charles' writing may help share some of the behaviours he has identified in my practice as a composer and painter and perhaps inspire others to engage with more creative approaches to their life and activity is an added bonus!


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