Creativity: What is it?

Does being creative mean being different? Do creative types eschew popular culture, poke fun at it, or embrace it? Perhaps all of the above?

As a kid I always felt like the most uncreative person in the world. In fact I sort of hated art, because to me “art” was the only class where I couldn’t earn an A. In grade school, “art” meant building mosaics with torn up pieces of colored construction paper, or by folding pieces of tissue paper around a pencil eraser and gluing them to a piece of posterboard. I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t sing. But I was good at math, and I had a semi-photographic memory, so I was a very good student. I imagined myself with a career in finance or sales.

My family was not at ease with the liberal arts. Both my mother and father grew up in the dusty, hardscrabble plains of North Texas, where you really did get up in the morning and milk the cow. My father spent his late childhood doing backbreaking labor harvesting wheat every summer. My mom was the second of seven children in a German Catholic family barely two generations off the boat. As young parents they were admittedly more concerned with scraping by and raising children than with the latest novels and films, so naturally I learned from their examples.

But as I grew older, I realized that consuming fiction and producing my own was not an option for me…it was something I had to do. My fascination with music grew. But the only literature I knew was of the bestselling kind, and my music universe was the top 40. I tried writing my own songs, but they were terrible. My short stories were better, but they were missing something, and it was clear to me that I was lacking that necessary and elusive talent known as creativity.

I’ve always been fascinated with the singular instant of inspiration we call the a-ha moment. One second you’re sitting there trying to write a melody, and the next second you have it. From where does that inspiration originate? Can you force it to come? Are some of us blessed with the a-ha circuit, or do some people simply work harder than others?

And what defines a “good” piece of art? Of course it could be any type of art, but in this case I specifically mean music, literature, and film. Can good art be popular? Does a fringe writer or musician who finds a wide audience automatically become a sellout?

In the previous blog I wrote about Les Paul and his invention of the multi-track recording machine. The ability to record multiple instruments at different times revolutionized the way the average person thinks of music. Almost nothing is recorded live anymore, and even bands who do record together still use the studio for overdubs and mixing. No band can sound as good live as their studio albums…unless you are of the opinion that “studio” means “bad.”

For example, The Flaming Lips are not what you would consider a mainstream band. Their popularity has grown in recent years, but certainly no one is going to mistake them for the Backstreet Boys. And yet their use of studio wizardry is formidable. Does using technology as a tool make them less artistic? I would argue that, if anything, it makes them moreso.

On the other end of the spectrum, look at my recurring example, Def Leppard. Their first popular album, Pyromania, merged hard rock with studio magic in a way that was rare–but not unheard off–at the time. Boston and Queen were already doing studio harmonies and multilayered guitars. But their follow-up, Hysteria, was a giant leap forward from a recording point of view. In retrospect, despite whatever pre-conceived notions you may have about “hair metal,” Hysteria was a massive technological achievement. Some songs contain literally hundreds of guitar tracks, hundreds of vocal tracks. The sequencing and precision required to record like this, in 1986, was painstaking in a way that would have driven most of us insane. Today’s computer-based recording is based in large part on the kind of work that Mutt Lange (DL’s producer) pioneered.

But are Def Leppard artistic? Creative? Most serious music fans would argue no. Is it because the band has nothing to say? That’s probably a big part of it, along with some cheesy marketing, but I’m of the opinion that even the most sophisticated music lyrics can’t convey meaning the way fiction and film can. It’s true that merging melody with lyrics can be emotionally powerful, but I think the melody moves us more often than the lyrics do.

I listen to a wide variety of music, from the most pop-oriented 80s music to dark, apocalyptic post-rock that most people have never even heard of. Every song I listen to evokes feeling of some kind. Maybe it’s nostalgia from my childhood. Maybe it inspires me while working on my fiction. Whatever. Is one feeling more valuable than another? Is serious music somehow more valuable to society than a top-down, feel good rock song that says nothing except have fun?

Clearly something separates the Lips from Def Leppard, but what exactly is it? What separates Jonathan Franzen from Stephen King? Tolkien from J.K. Rowling?

For me, restricting your taste to a certain area or genre, no matter how “cool” it may seem, is limiting. For instance, my favorite movie of all time is Requiem for a Dream. Requiem is a brutal but artfully-made film about addiction, and not everyone likes it. But one of my other favorite movies is Titanic, which is a very well-told, moving story and a stupendous achievement in film realism. It also happens to be the most financially successful film of all time. Does that make it bad…because a lot of people enjoyed it? Or consider this: In their eras, Titanic and Hysteria were the most expensive projects ever made in film and music. Does that make them inartistic? Because they were costly to produce?

I’ve come to believe lately that the a-ha moment I’ve been looking for all these years doesn’t exist in the way I had expected. Yes, there are occasional instances where a flash of insight becomes a seed idea, or perhaps pushes a project forward. But after studying the the process by which my favorite stories and music were written, I know now that creativity is a process. It’s hard work. You sit down every day and you pound at your keyboard, pluck at your guitar, whatever…and eventually something good comes out. The harder you work, the more good ideas emerge, and with a bit of insight and luck, perhaps you can put those ideas together in a way that pleases you.

But does it please anyone else? That is a different question, one I can’t really answer. What makes a bad book sell well and a good one languish in obscurity? Why does Donnie Darko find a cult audience and Independence Day become a smash hit?

What art is good to you? Do you distinguish between art and entertainment?