20 Sep 2010

Creativity and Experience

Posted by jofr

Did you notice that most authors write more or less about themselves, even the giants of Russian literature, the Russian novelists Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky? Anton Chekhov was a physician and wrote many short stories about doctors and patients, Tolstoy was a soldier and wrote about “War and Piece”, Dostoevsky was an outsider and wrote about outsiders, for example people with epilepsy (“The Idiot”) or prisoners sentenced to death. He experienced both itself.

The classic German authors like Goethe are not much better, Goethe’s Faust contains his own quest for knowledge and beauty in form of beautiful young women. Shakespeare wrote about himself, too, not only in Hamlet. Modern authors are not different, take for instance the American authors Herman Melville or Michael Crichton. Their bestsellers mirror their experiences on their extended travels around the world (Michael Crichton documented his journeys around the world in a book named Travels).

Why is this so? Why do authors write about themselves over and over again? Is their imagination so limited? Yes, it is indeed hard to invent completely new worlds. It is hard to imagine something which you have never seen or experienced before. Anyone can create new words or stories which make no sense. It is much harder to find some who is able to invent new stories which are conceivable and consistent, new and logical.

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
– George Bernard Shaw (Irish literary Critic, Playwright and Essayist 1856-1950)

But there is another reason, people are also selfish and egoistic, and, like everyone else, authors spend a lot of time thinking about themselves. The own life is the thing which we know best. Personal experience is the best source of inspiration. People who have experienced strange or wonderful things can create a similar subjective experience in others simply by describing what they have seen accurately. Authors must describe the inner life of their actors, their motives, motions and emotions. And the best way to know how something feels like is to experience it yourself.

Before we create worlds, we experience worlds. Before we can connect the dots, we must collect some. Leonardo da Vinci said “All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions” and “Wisdom is the daughter of experience”. Experience and creativity belong together. Subjective experience is private, creativity is public. As Franz Kafka said, even if we stand in front of each other, we can not imagine what the other experiences:

Wenn Du vor mir stehst und mich ansiehst, was weißt Du von den Schmerzen, die in mir sind und was weiß ich von den Deinen. Und wenn ich mich vor Dir niederwerfen würde und weinen und erzählen, was wüsstest Du von mir mehr als von der Hölle, wenn Dir jemand erzählt, sie ist heiß und fürchterlich.

When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful?
– Franz Kafka (Czech writer and German language author 1883 – 1924)

Creativity is a process where we turn private experiences into public objects. A creative process often involves merging different threads, ideas, systems or even complete worlds. Before we can merge them, we must split, isolate and understand them. We take worlds apart, throw away the uninteresting parts and reuse the rest by emphasizing certain features from this world and certain features from others. We must acquire worlds first to recombine them later. We must be adapted to the specific domain of the creative process, in the best case we are adapted to more than one domain. You must be immersed in a field, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said in his book Creativity. When we create possible, conceivable worlds, we use and combine the impressions we have previously experienced. It is often hard to find a new combination which makes sense. The creative process itself is often a process of trial and error, of collecting and dropping ideas, of designing and abandoning objects.

The German singer and songwriter Herbert Grönemeyer combined in this video a
classical ballet dancer with modern music. It shows Polina Semionova, Prima ballerina at the “Berliner Staatsballett” in Berlin. Creativity does not mean that some kind of Muse comes along like a ballet dancer to give you the spark of inspiration. It means that you connect different dots and combine different worlds.

  • a poet, author or a scientist reads a whole library to make one new book
  • a composer or DJ listens to countless pieces of music to make one new composition
  • an artist watches many paintings and landscapes before he paints a masterpiece

Thus when we are creative, we turn the objects of our subjective experience – the former objects of perception – in an active process into objective reality. Creativity turns subjective experience into objective reality. In a way, creativity is the counterpart and opposite of personal perception. Perception turns objective reality into subjective experience, while creativity turns subjective experience into objective reality. Description and combination of subjective experience leads to the creation and construction of stories, works of art, and virtual worlds.

“Der Künstler steht da zwischen dem Endlichen und Unendlichen; wo beide aneinanderstoßen, fängt er den Blick des Gewitters auf, hält ihn fest und gibt ihm ewige Dauer.”
Jacob Grimm, (1785-1863), deutscher Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaftler

The translation of this quote is roughly “the artist stands where the finite meets the infinite, where both collide, he catches the view of the storm, holds it and gives it eternal duration.” In this quote, the German linguist Jacob Grimm says that the creative process involves a transition or transformation between one world and another (in one world the phenomenon may be occasional and non-permanent, in the other it may be lasting and permanent). The artists is the connection between both worlds, he is at the place where the finite meets the infinite, and the incidental the eternal.

Experience & Perception Creation & Action
Worlds Real World -Recognition–> Subjective Experience Subjective Experience -Insight–> Subjective Experience Subjective Experience -Creation–> Virtual World Virtual World -Act–> Real World
Transformation transform real event into idea transform real event into new memory, or one idea into another transform abstract ideas into words transform memory/abstract words into real events
Result Impression, Subjective Experience Personal Memory, Subjective Experience Books, Plays TV, theater stage
Actions Perception, Observation, Consumation Understanding, Comprehension Creation, Construction, Composition Action, Reproduction

One can distinguish between between mere perception of well-known ideas, i.e. “re”-cognition and remembrance, and perception of new ideas while we understand and comprehend new things. During the former cognitive process, external events are just turned into their neural correlates, an activation of some internal memories.

This is the opposite of acting, during acting and rehearsal, where internal memories are turned into external events. For creative processes, one can also distinguish between production and mere reproduction or restoration. Creation is the antithesis of restoration: a creative process needs novelty, new combinations, whereas a restorative process needs conservation, preservation of old combinations.

“For all their seeming kinship, a restorer is the antithesis of a painter: he is a conserver, not a creator. Like a mimic, he assumes another person’s style, at the expense of his own identity. He must resist any urge to improve, to experiment, to show off; otherwise, he becomes a forger. Yet, unlike a great actor, he receives no glory for his feats of mimicry. If he has succeeded, he has burnished another artist’s reputation, and vanished without the world ever knowing who he is, or what he has accomplished. The art historian Max J. Friedländer called the business of the restorer “the most thankless one imaginable.”
from a story of “The New Yorker”

Anton Chekhov also valued creation more than mere action, although he also observed that both are indistinguishable for the audience, while the actor is much more popular because he arises strong emotions. In his short story “A Dreary Story” he writes about actors:

“To my mind, if a play is good there is no need to trouble the actors in order that it may make the right impression; it is enough to read it. If the play is poor, no acting will make it good. […] No art nor science was capable of producing so strong and so certain an effect on the soul of man as the stage, and it was with good reason that an actor of medium quality enjoys greater popularity than the greatest savant or artist.”
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), “A Dreary Story”

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2 Responses to “Creativity and Experience”

  1. […] have been, again and again, because these places matter the most to you, and you know them best. Creativity and experience go often hand in hand. Tags: art , creativity , culture , […]

  2. […] border between the private and the public is often associated with a creative process. Experience and creativity are two sides of a coin: perception turns objective reality into path-dependent subjective […]


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