Saturday, October 15, 2011

Inspiration and the Creative Spark: at the 2011 Conference of the Institute for Cultural Research, London, Part 2

Sunday’s program began with an experiential exercise in creative perception by the teacher, facilitator, engineer, businessman, artist and musician David Kayrouz (

Perception, Kayrouz said, is both cognitive and affective. Essentially, it is about How do you know. He quoted St. John of the Cross: “To know everything: Does anyone know the end of that? Know nothing.” Kayrouz continued, “Knowing is a way of not knowing because when we ‘know,’ we stop learning.” Similarly, he prefers the verb “knowing” to “knowledge.”

From the stage, Kayrouz held out two pictures, one to his left and one to his right. One was called “old rat,” the other, “old man,” both were quite similar. Then he projected a powerpoint image on the screen and asked the audience what it was. Those on his left said it was an “old rat,” while those on his right said it was an “old man.” Our perceptions of the picture had been shaped by our prior experience.

“We perceive color affectively but read cognitively,” he continued. He showed a slide of a list of color names, in which the letters of each color name were in a different color than the word name of the color, and asked an attendee to say the colors in which the names were written rather than reading the names. The reader had a hard time with that.

Kayrouz then showed a slide of an indeterminate abstract sort, which reminded me of a Rorschach ink blot, and and asked us to write what we saw. Then he rotated it 1/4 and asked us to look and write again, then he rotated it again. Next he asked us to form small groups and discuss what we’d seen. The members of my group found ourselves seeing more in the slide when we looked together and had the benefit of each other’s perceptions, and this turned out to be the experience of other groups as well. This emphasized, Kayrouz said, that creativity is often a group phenomenon, and that the image of the lone creator coming up with great ideas is more myth than reality.

Returning to his theme of contrasting cognitive and affective perceptual processes, Kayrouz said, “Cognitive perception has rules and judgment, affective perception has no rules and suspended judgment. Cognitive perception works with proven results, affective perception involves experiment and play.” Kayrouz showed a slide of a Venn diagram with cognitive and affective circles, and an area of overlap. “Imagination is where the cognitive and affective overlap.”

Kayrouz had one of the shortest session times, just 15 minutes in the program and somewhat longer actually, but he packed a lot of experience and meaning into a short time!

Our next presenter was Simon Elmes, Creative Director of BBC Radio’s Documentaries Unit, associated with such superb projects as “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” in collaboration with the British Museum. His presentation considered creativity at the BBC within two contexts:

• That of a public broadcast organization which identifies creativity as its professional lifeblood, and

•That of a public broadcast organization which is constantly challenged to maintain and improve programming quality in spite of reductions in resources, including personnel

“In some ways, inspiration to order” is his job.

Elmes contrasted ongoing creativity with mission statements and vision statements, which “tend to ring a bit hollow.” Creativity is the lived experience.

“The creative spark doesn’t come from a focus group,” he said. The inspiration for “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” for example, emerged from “a confluence of ideas at the British Museum” during a meeting of British Museum and BBC staff. “Afterward, several people said it was their idea.” In fact it was a creative collaboration between a number of highly professional people.

After giving the audience an exercise in coming up with ideas (“wind tunneling”), Elmes said, about his job and group at BBC: “New ways of seeing things is what we’re trying to do all the time. This applies not only to programming but also to the H.R. (Human Resources) department. B.B.C. as an organization has to be imaginative when we’re making photocopies as well as making programs.”

Elmes repeatedly returned to the theme of the need to live creatively on a day to day basis. “Words like creativity and community can take on a shibboleth value.”

Exercises can be part of the process of creativity. “There are hundreds of names for creative techniques, which unhook the creative part of the brain from the routine perceptive part of the brain.”

Contrasting creativity with genius, Elmes reflected on the great novelist Flaubert, who wrote slowly and complained of being “dazed, bogged, in a swamp of despair” as he struggled with his novel. “Today’s BBC can’t move at that pace,” Elmes commented. “We are working against an incredibly fast-moving and creative environment. All sorts of organizations have to be creative from top to bottom.” When substantial cuts were announced at B.B.C., it was with the slogan: “Deliver Quality First.”

The history of the B.B.C.’s commitment to creativity included a 2-3 year period of deeply studying creativity, which included sending a number of leaders within the organization to creativity training organizations such as the Stanford Research Institute, Creative Problem Solving Institute, IDEO, and WhatIf. This led to a group of trained and eager creative leaders within the B.B.C., but “A few evangelists who have seen the (creative) light are no substitute for senior management buy-in.” Fortunately, support for creativity throughout the organization came from B.B.C. Director General Mark Thompson.

This led to the emergence of “a creative network” of people who work “on a voluntary basis, under the radar and across silos--such as the News, Radio, TV, and Online parts of the B.B.C. “This involves people working creatively with parts of the B.B.C. they don’t know about.”

Elmes discussed some of the pitfalls of what can be mistaken to be creative processes. “When you work with a focus group what you often end up with is what you are already familiar with.” “Brainstorming s often not very well applied,” especially when participants are allowed to interject negative judgments on others‘ ideas (or their own). “Discipline in creative idea generation is absolutely basic. In brainstorming you mustn’t stop ideas, even if they are rubbish,” because a rubbish idea might lead to a better one. “If someone is being negative, you say, with a smile, ‘No negativity.’” Thus, improperly trained coaches could undermine the methods they are using. Creativity involves “the freeing up of the mind in a disciplined way.”

Asked about basing new B.B.C. programs on successful programs on other channels, Elmes said, “We innovate, we don’t clone.”

Writer Kamila Shamsie spoke next about “Finding the Novel Inside the Image.” “What does it mean for a writer to work within a discipline without formulae? How do you piece together a structure as intricate as a novel if your guiding notion is, ‘don’t do it the way you did it before?’

Like Susan Aldrich yesterday, Shamsie emphasized the importance of unplanned happenings in the creative process. In addition to the need for “some sort of structure and thought,” there have to be “some moments of serendipity...I haven’t met a writer who hasn’t been fantastically surprised because something (unexpected) happens” to the novel as it is emerging. “There’s a kind of wildness that happens when you are writing that’s essential, that’s unconscious, you don’t know what you’re interested in.”

Discussing the process of starting to write her most recent novel, “Burnt Shadows”, about the Nagasaki bomb, she said, “It was just one of those things that takes residence in your mind. There are some images, you know, they’re not going to go away. I tried very hard not to write this book.” Committing to a novel is no small matter since “The novel has to be something I’m willing to be obsessed with for two or three years.”

Although she intended to create a short opening to her book which featured the bombing of Nagasaki (most of the book takes place later on), Shamsie had to accomplish it through a nonlinear route. “I couldn’t have done a short opening on day 1.” Instead, she had to do the 80-90 page version, then reduce it to about 25 pages.

Shamsie read extracts, from others work and her own, to demonstrate the relationship between experience, linguistic imagery, creativity, and inspiration. I didn’t make notes from those readings, but came across this in her 2005 novel, “Broken Verses,” the last one of her novels left on the book table when I bought it. The voice belongs to Aasmaani, the 31 y.o. Pakistani woman who is at the center of this story. We find her musing about the many roles of her mother, an activist on behalf of politically charged women’s issues whose disappearance when Aasmaani was 17 has defined her life:

“I entered my flat and locked the door behind me. Here, in my mind, were so many different images of my mother. My mother at twenty-three in a white kurta, lapis lazuli at her wrist. My mother at twenty-six, unable to resist an ex-lover in a grey shawl. My mother at twenty-seven, carrying me into prison. My mother at thirty-four, rallying women together. My mother at thirty-five, running after the Poet to Columbia, leaving the women and me behind. My mother at thirty-eight, her body covered in bruises from a policeman’s lathi, preparing to go out and lead another demonstration. My mother at forty, still dancing to old Donna Summers records. My mother at forty-one, allowing her grief over the Poet to consume her. My mother at forty-two, worse than she had been the year before. My mother at forty-three, gone.
“What connected all the women in these images–the activist, the lover, the mother, the mourner, the dancer, the deserter? What allowed a single ‘version’ to arise from such variedness? There was a word for it: character. That imaginary tyrant. We pretend we all have one, and that it is something to be relied upon, something knowable and true, even when it oppresses and constrains us. When someone behaves ‘out of character’ we frown a little, a voice inside us whispering something that makes us uneasy, but then our brows clear. We’ve found a way to reinterpret the action as being in character. Or we say we were wrong about the person’s character to begin with, and now, magically, our memory is able to furnish us with clues which would have revealed as much had we but picked up on them earlier...we don’t dare consider that the internal voice which makes us uneasy is a voice that whispers: there is no such thing as fixed character, there is only our need to join the dots into a single picture...
“...The joke of it, of course, is that we ourselves become slaves to the stories of our own character. Our invented narratives of self determine our actions and the self-fulfilling prophesy that guides our lives...And all around us, people are reinforcing our notions by telling us, directly and in their treatment of us, who we are, what we believe in. At what point does character-playing become habit, something for which we are grateful because it allows us to go through the world with the ease that comes from being predictable to ourselves, even if that predictability takes the form of neurosis, hysteria, depression? And at what point does that habit turn darkly into addiction...”

Shamsie’s writing suggests that our beliefs about what we’re like both liberate and limit our creativity, and that allowing inspiration to occur and creativity to work its way along implies that we discover ourselves and others in new ways.

Creativity trainer and improvisational actor Greg Fraley gave the final presentation, of the “Mash-Up” method. “Most great ideas tend to be made of mash-ups,” by which he means, roughly, throwing ideas and experiences together and shaking them up to see what comes out. He praised Sunni Brown’s TED talk on doodling ( and then led us in experiential “Mash-Up,” in which we doodled, danced to music, and free-associated about some situation that we were thinking about.

Some participants found it easier going than others. One participant, thinking about how to lose weight, came up with the idea of carrying the food he’d need with him for the day. Fraley pointed out that about half the people find forced associations, which is what his mash-up exercise was, easy, and half find it difficult.

The final event on Sunday was the Panel, on which several presenters took questions in writing from the audience, read by Saira Shah.

One presenter--I didn’t note whom--in response to a question about metaphor, said that “metaphor is a way of communicating experience without being so descriptive as to require the listener or reader to re-live it.”

In response to a question about how to make a better environment, Kamila said, “Stop asking a question like that, and just sit down and do it...You find that space, you make that space.” She quoted someone (again I didn’t not whom) on the importance of will compared to talent and originality, in achieving results.

Simon said, “It’s not so much having an idea as spotting an idea as it goes by. You need to take your will and say, I will spot that idea.”

David said, “Experiments with two groups of equal talent, one of which believes they are know the outcome.”

Simon added, “Ideas cost nothing. People say we can’t afford creativity, but ideas cost nothing.”

Responding to a question about whether there was something in society that stifles creativity, Kamila commented, “There’s something about the incredible response to the death of Steve Jobs, (who was) both very creative and a billionaire.”

Greg added, “Educational systems reward having the one right answer and not the ten possible answers.”

David said, “Even trees are creative.” Saira replied, “Perhaps not consciously creative.”

In a response to a question (which I had submitted) about the effects of creativity in the financial system as they contributed to the global economic crisis, Greg observed that, “One definition of creativity is novelty that’s useful. Some of the new financial instruments that made a lot of money for a few people are creative but not innovative.”

Kamila commented, “There was a lot of imagination on the part of governments.”
David said, “What we want is creativity that’s good for everyone. We need a moral and ethical process integrated with it.”

Kamila observed: “The human imagination is not moral. The atom bomb is an act of creativity in a certain sense.” She referred to the play‘“Copenhagen,” by Michael Frayn, in which physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg are in conversation, Bohr asks Heisenberg why he did not do the maths to create the bomb, and Heisenberg says, “Because I didn’t really want to create the bomb.” “An idea can have a life of its own,” she observed, and want to be realized, regardless of its morality.

Greg said that “Creativity comes from very near the soul. When it is negative it comes from a corrupted soul.” Kamila replied, “Beyond a certain point I don’t know that you can stop yourself. You walk down that path far enough, it’s going to happen. Your brain fools itself.”

David recalled a dream of Kamila’s that she had described in her talk, in which she wept at the epicenter of the Nagasaki bomb, where her character died, emphasizing the role of empathy in creativity.

In reply to a follow-up question about whether creativity was always a good thing, Simon said, “Yes, if you’re not creative you’re on a stalled elevator.”

The diversity of backgrounds, interests, personalities and professions of the presenters, as well as the diversity among the audience, made for a great conference; it was good “brain food,” and I expect I’ll be digesting it for some time to come.


Aubrey Davis said...

Thanks for this Jay. Some of this may prove useful...Aubrey

Aubrey Davis said...

Thanks for this Jay. thought provoking and very useful

Jay Einhorn, Ph.D. said...

Thanks so much for sharing this info, Jay. I've had my car parked at the intersection of creativity and psychology for most of my professional life. This conference sounds like it was a rich one. Re: Aldworth's proposal that we're making sausages in our schools rather than enriching the next generation with skillful means to tap creativity, thought you'd be interested in this link (if you're not already familiar with Sir Ken Robinson's work):

Thanks again,
Mary Ellen

Mary Ellen Bratu, Psy.D., P.C.