On Creativity - La Ciudad de las Ideas, Mexico speech (2011)
I have been working for about 50 years- trying, but sometimes you have to step out of the river to understand where it is that you’re flowing. Rarely do we take the time to ask the question, I wonder… am I using the best of me… or...
What is creativity? It’s a void. I’m 8 years old again, I’m an only child, it’s raining, I can’t go out and play, and I have nothing to do. My mom and dad are out there somewhere in the world going about their business, my parakeet and dog are sleeping, what am I going to do with myself? All this time, empty space, and all this energy with nowhere to put it.
This is a fundamental moment in our evolution. We must ask ourselves, why do anything? For that too is an option. You can eat, nap, or sit there and feel the boredom, taste it, be lazy, and enjoy or hate the laziness. This is a key point in a person’s life.
Friends are the easiest solution. And other young people had sisters or brothers, I loved cowboys and Indians, but had no Indians to play with. I also loved football, that is, American football. And I had plenty of football cards with players’ faces on it, used to come in bubblegum packages.
Step 1) I bought those cards with the 25 cent allowance my dad gave me for writing a one-page short story every week. I didn’t particularly like it, it was extra work, but it was m-o-n-e-y. And with money I could get football cards.
Step 2) Accelerating the pace and making up enough short stories to make my old man happy, I began putting out 3 stories a week and making 75 cents instead of 25 cents. So, pretty soon I had 300 football cards.
Step 3) Well you just can’t look at these football cards over and over again like comic books, they don’t move. So the next step is inventing something to do with the cards. Thus-- the game. I devised a game, which in weeks became intricate and exciting, involving both force and will. Physically clashing together the cards to simulate a running game, and also introducing variations of the passing game by rolling one dice with six options—so I could have a complete pass, an incomplete pass, fumble, run after pass, and so forth. The game grew statistically more complex and became a log, which then became, within 6 months, an organized league of teams with intricate records of names, strategy running, passing yardage, very much the precursor to the fantasy football industry now in fashion. I was one happy 8-year old and this grew into 4 some years of books and seasons. It was my game, my world, I could always go there and never be bored-- I could play God weaving between my will which manifested 50% in the game and 50% in the luck of the dice—50/50, a realistic balance for this life between luck and will.
So 4 or 5 years go by, it’s summer, and I’ve played myself out on football. I was bored again, in the country and had no one to play with. I was 12 or 13, and then one day with the rain pouring down outside, I had an inspiration that Alan Ginsburg once called “surprise mind.” I was so bored I started to work- not another short story for Dad, no—an epic like “Grapes of Wrath” or even “War and Peace”. Thus I started a sprawling epic novel about the French Revolution with storylines going through families and generations. And like the football book, it got bigger and bigger. And though the book reached several hundred pages, I never finished, I was no Tolsty, but somewhere that summer I found out I really enjoyed the process of writing, which I never had before-- and my Dad, bless his soul, but had tricked me into it years earlier with his work for money negotiation. The honeycomb effect. Things combining in play, in imagination.
Creativity is really a collision with an Other World, and it’s the energy you have in you to fill that new void so what is this creativity?
1) I would start then with Imagination. We all have one, but oftentimes we don’t use it. Children have an advantage here—time to fill the space. I’ve been wrestling with my 16-year old daughter—believe me she can be tough—she’s at one of those elite LA schools and embodies the problems of an entitled generation. Bottom line is, she used to paint from 6 to 14. At 16 there is no time for that, why? Because she likes to socialize with her friends, go to parties, hang, meet boys, and listen to music. (We all know the opposite sex and sometimes the same sex—now this is the downfall.)
I tell her that’s easy and fun. But where has your passion gone? Into your friends, into your phone, into your internet, into your i-chat, but what is it that we’re losing here—it’s a pretty simple answer.
2) It’s being alone. Alone with yourself to think, to hear, to imagine, to taste, to meditate, to feel, to be bored, and to listen to the sound of boredom. Alone we’re born and alone we die. It is with ourselves we must come to terms. Voltaire said it succinctly, “Cultivate your own garden.”
So, right now, I’m a bad guy to my daughter. I pulled an intervention and said, okay we’re cutting down the socializing and you are only going out with your parents’ permission maybe if you work harder, once a night on the weekends, but this Friday night you’re not going to this Halloween party. You’re staying in the house alone.
“What do I do?” She protested. “You’re so boring! I don’t want to be with you!”
These are painful words. But long story short, having gone through the pain of being loathed by your own daughter and after a semester of such enforced behavior—one evening I came back to the house one night and found the young lady, a headset on her ears, singing to herself, drawing a striking mural on her bedroom wall. And I saw a passion back in her, a joy I had seen in those eyes a few years before. It made my night. It still gives me the greatest pleasure to see creativity at work in others, as well as in myself. It’s there, but let’s give it a sacred place. Trust it. Give it “alone time.”
3) I want to add that creativity is also a fearful time ah-- Fear the 600-pound gorilla in the room. We see it, it roars at us, we back down and run, you notice it chases us, but it doesn’t actually kill us. It can’t kill us. Fear cannot actually make you do what it wants. Talk back to fear, breathe through it, and feel it. Getting to know your fear will help you because it clears out a lot of negative energy. It’s also fun to do something scary for the first time, like going into a cave where anything can be there in the dark. Or going into a deep forest when the sun is dropping. Or breaking into a house you’re not sure anyone lives in. It’s thrilling and fun to challenge something in your self and get away with it. You will always carry a memory of fear and it will add deeply to your imagination.
4) There is also Imitation. In writing I modeled myself, at various times, on Joyce, Conrad, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hemmingway, Mailer, and yes, even Ian Flemming who created James Bond. No women I noticed, but I wanted to be like one of their heroes. I played them all, at one time or another. Role models are good for the life of an imagination. Because you imitate one and you get tired of that and then you imitate a second one, then a third one, and a fourth one. And pretty soon, though you may think that you’re only imitating, a new synthesis emerges, and you thicken and resonate with time. You become a part of all that you’ve imitated, but you also become your own original fire.
5) Then there are Lies, yes that’s a part of it too- creativity. Where would we be without the lies our parents told us or the particular hypocrisies of the times we are born into. All societies through history, are full of lies. For me it gave rise to rebellion-- I would call it even anger. From the 1940s to the 1990s in America, we were particularly haunted by the official lies about communism taking over the world, and now it’s terrorism and increased militancy in American life. The lies of Empire can be vastly depressing, with all its attendant media noise, as we fall asleep to the true inner meaning of our time. But that brings me to the conclusion of my search of the elements that make up creativity.
6) I think creativity is ultimately spiritual. It’s in this space, this void we all face, that your face and your voice come alive and become your authentic self. It’s what you do with your time on earth to make a sacred space. That is the role of art. You see it in Asia in the great Hindu and Buddhist temples; you see it in Europe in the cathedrals, or the cave paintings that are 25,000 years old in France, the representations of a life force that bring together a tribe. It is a form of catharsis, a healing of the tribe. Sometimes in the west, it doesn’t seem like we can agree on what our tribe is, too much division. The art is considered a fraud or propaganda, often marginalized and distrusted. But creativity can and must challenge the thinking, the fashion of the time, and its society. True it can be healthily controversial because creativity peels back the official lies we tell ourselves.
In closing, respect the essential faith in yourself—‘the evidence of things unseen’. You are born with nothing and to nothing you will go to, but in this brief flame of a lifetime, you must act again as if you were a child in a room with nothing to do. In that void you shall, with your scared mind and your tender raw heart, reach out and play. Just ‘let it go’. You’ll be surprised. There is nothing better than the surprise of your own mind.