I recently came across a piece by Thomas Frank, a regular contributor on Salon.com, which skewered the general triteness of so much of the contemporary writing on creativity. I generally agree with his assessment:
What our correspondent also understood, sitting there in his basement bathtub, was that the literature of creativity was a genre of surpassing banality. Every book he read seemed to boast the same shopworn anecdotes and the same canonical heroes. If the authors are presenting themselves as experts on innovation, they will tell us about Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso, Dylan, Warhol, the Beatles. If they are celebrating their own innovations, they will compare them to the oft-rejected masterpieces of Impressionism — that ultimate combination of rebellion and placid pastel bullshit that decorates the walls of hotel lobbies from Pittsburgh to Pyongyang.
I’ll leave you to decide whether or not you want to follow Frank down that rabbit hole, to the somewhat disturbing conclusion that he reaches about what all this creativity blather is all about. But having read this piece recently, I was decidedly skeptical when I saw a post turn up in my Facebook feed with the title Science, Storytelling, and “Gut Churn”: Jad Abumrad on the Secrets of Creative Success. Was it going to be more of the same blather that Frank had mockingly exposed? I didn’t watch it right away, as I feared the worst. However, the title stayed with me, as regular readers of this blog know that lighting a fire in the gut of the actor is what I am all about. Eventually, I had a spare moment and let the video play.
I was pleasantly surprised. The talk is by the creator of Radiolab, a show on NPR. I have heard it before, and know people who are big fans. I am not a huge fan, but I like radio shows in general, and so it got my attention.
I found the talk to be thoughtful and honest, and the vulnerability that the speaker evinces, the amount of not-knowing that he is prepared to cop to, impressed me. His candor about the amount of sheer terror that creative endeavor can entail, and the physiological consequences of that terror, that is, “gut churn”, was bracing. And what makes this quite different from the kind of writing that Frank was deriding was that in this case, it was a creator looking back on his own experience of creating something and reflecting on it. It was not about “the science of creativity”, although he does invoke some science along the way. And to that point, he doesn’t offer prescriptions, but he does offer some useful insights, like: “pointing arrows”, things that show a way forward out of what seems like a hopeless morass, sometimes appear, or, sometimes negative feedback can mean you are doing the right thing. It is presented in a spirit of thoughtfulness and humility that I really appreciated.
Anyway, here it is, in the event that I have piqued your curiosity: