we don't need another book about creativity

Or do we?

Studio shelfie...the rest are in the living room.

I’ve compiled quite the collection of books about art and creativity over the past couple of decades. And I’ll just get right to the point of this post: 15 years post MFA, I’m increasingly left wondering, after all these years and all these books…why?

And yet, I keep reading them. I recently finished two very different books about creativity, beginning with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention,’ a gift from my husband. When I shared some misgivings about Csikszentmihalyi’s definitions of creativity (this, for example: "Children can show tremendous talent, but they cannot be creative because creativity involves changing a way of doing things, or a way of thinking, and that in turn requires having mastered the old ways of doing or thinking") he added Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson’s ‘Creative Quest’ to my collection, describing it as a book about "creative people working through the anxieties that creatives have."

So why do I read all these books about creativity? To work through related anxieties, certainly. And maybe to restore a little hope when I’m on the verge of nihilism. "When all goes well," Csikszentmihalyi writes early on in 'Creativity,' "the drudgery is redeemed by success." This is a common sentiment in books about art and creativity (because this path is hard, y’all!), echoed in Questlove's 'Creative Quest'—"you need to be aware of the nutritional benefits of failure and the empty calories of certain kinds of success"—and in Felicia Day’s memoir, a book I wrote about nearly 5 years ago, here. At one point in her book, after funding dried up for Geek & Sundry, Day immediately wrote out everything she learned from working on that show. "The more mistakes," she writes, "the better the story afterwards, especially if there's a happy ending." It’s the classic motivational quote about how failure is a routine and necessary experience on the road to success.

But what if there is no happy ending? What if the "drudgery" is never redeemed by "success?" Or, at the very least, what to do about the often long and painful arc, not at all linear or logical, between drudgery and "success," however one eventually comes to define it? While Csikszentmihalyi writes in 'Creativity' about the importance of attention, or audience, and feedback ("just as the sound of a tree crashing in the forest is unheard if nobody is there to hear it, so creative ideas vanish unless there is a receptive audience to record and implement them"), he eventually encourages creative types to let go of the idea of the finished product and audience and instead pursue "the love of the creative process for its own sake." This, I guess, is critical to finding "flow." Maybe it's like finding love when you least expect it. Anyway, he explains, "if one does these things a certain way, then they become intrinsically rewarding, worth doing for their own sake." I too wonder, "what is the secret of transforming activities so that they are rewarding in and of themselves?" (And also, more practically speaking, where will I store all this finished—but unshown and unsold—work??)

I find myself torn between the pursuit of this "autotelic" experience—"the feeling of freedom from the threats and stresses of everyday life one experiences when completely immersed in the domain"—and the desire/need for feedback. After art or grad school, with so few exhibition opportunities for so many artists, many now seek this sort of feedback on social media. I personally haven’t shown my work in real life for nearly 15 years and it’s not for lack of making stuff (or trying). As Jenny Odell writes in her recent New York Times op-ed about Twitter and time, I too have looked to social media for "a sense of recognition among peers, connection to people with shared interests and whose work I admire, and the ability to encounter new, unexpected ideas." And, sure, followers and likes are seductive (again, from Csikszentmihalyi: "a pat on the back does wonders for creative productivity"). But even our digital attention span seems increasingly short and devoid of any sort of constructive feedback. Furthermore, as Questlove suggests in 'Creative Quest,' "technology has given people too many easy ways to deliver feedback without similarly equipping artists to resist it." In short, social media is not a great substitute for the kind of audience or feedback you might have grown accustomed to in art/grad school and/or if you’re lucky enough to show your work in a physical setting.

'Creative Quest' is at times, by contrast, written with the assumption that as an artist you are going to put what you create out in the world in some way, ideally in exchange for some sort of compensation. "This book is, in that sense, different from other books about creativity. I am assuming that what you do will end up somewhere, in front of the eyes or ears of others." It’s about the process, but it’s also very much about the product (and you’ll learn a lot about music!). Questlove’s book is also a bit more prescriptive in that he has actual suggestions for creative production, like revisiting older work and collaborating with others (so weird to me that so many books about creativity specifically try not to be prescriptive in any way...and I get it but, y'know, give me something I can use!).

As a self-described creative generalist (I pursued art in college precisely because I didn't want to choose just one thing to do, figuring I could explore all my interests through my art), I also appreciate Questlove’s more contemporary take on creativity, and how we go about making things. Csikszentmihalyi encourages a more focused approach: "Before you have discovered an overriding interest in a particular domain, it makes sense to be open to as much of the world as possible. After you have developed an abiding interest, however, it may make more sense to save as much energy as you can to invest in that one domain." I don’t disagree with this, especially if you’re limited on time, as most artists with day jobs are. But I also really love Questlove’s take on this, encouraging creative folks to strive to be what he calls "'pancake people'—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button." On a sidenote, this also ties in again nicely with Day’s memoir mentioned above, in which she goes on to describe a creative support group that meets over pancakes, something I’ve wanted to establish here in Oakland ever since reading her book (this pandemic effort across the Bay came pretty close to the idea).

As an artist with a full-time day job and two kids (I don't have much time to make work, I haven't shown my work in years, I question if I qualify for grants and residencies should I even find the time to apply, all of which leads me to still put air quotes around the word artist when I describe myself), I really appreciate what Questlove advocates for here: "I want to reverse this whole movement of separating artists from each other, of saying that one man or woman is more or less of an artist than another one. For that matter, I want to broaden the definition to include anyone who is making something out of nothing by virtue of their own ideas…there is a difference, it may not be as great as some people believe." Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges these practical tensions inherent in pursuing creativity as well: "Training, expectations, resources, and recognition are to no avail...if the young person has no hope of using his or her skills in a productive career. In our culture, a huge number of talented and motivated artists, musicians, dancers, athletes, and singers give up pursuing those domains because it is so difficult to make a living in them." And yet, we keep reading these books about creativity as if they're magically going to give us what we really need, which is time (and money).

The bottom line is opportunities for artists are highly competitive. It's a basic supply and demand problem. I don’t have data handy to back this up, but it seems like the number of people pursuing creative paths has exploded while the opportunities have remained stagnant (and have quite possibly, post-pandemic, dwindled still). Even smaller, alternative venues attract hundreds of applicants for one project space opportunity that comes around once a year. Furthermore, galleries and alternative spaces alike plan their calendars sometimes years in advance and connections are critical (Csikszentmihalyi again: "without access to the domain, potential is fruitless"). When I’m feeling optimistic I counter my desire for a piece of the art world pie with the cheery idea that the pie simply needs to be bigger! Unfortunately, however, "to achieve creativity in an existing domain," Csikszentmihalyi writes, "there must be surplus attention available." Later he adds, "Because of the scarcity of attention, we must be selective." Perhaps, in lieu of more books about how to be more creative, we need to help creatives and non-creatives alike learn how to pay attention, thereby creating the surplus needed and greater opportunities for artists. More demand for the supply. A bigger pie!

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