“Sometimes creativity is a compulsion, not an ambition.”
Actor Edward Norton (in Entertainment Weekly ew.com), commenting on the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2006) – about a manic-depressive singer.
The language we use to ourselves and others about having and pursuing creative talents can have a big impact on our attitudes and motivation.
For all too many years, I have been self-critical about focusing on creative interests instead of, for example, socializing.
Choices like that generally aren’t simply right or wrong, but it may be helpful to consider the consequences.
[Image: “How my brain works” from Pinterest board by Rebecca McMillan: Brain/Mind/Thinking.]
Positive Obsessions fuel creative expression
Creativity coach Eric Maisel, PhD thinks obsession is a more or less necessary element of creative achievement – at least the healthy variety of obsession.
He says, “Negative obsessions are a true negative for everyone, but most creators — and all would-be creators — simply aren’t obsessed enough. For an artist, the absence of positive obsessions leads to long periods of blockage, repetitive work that bores the artist himself, and existential ailments of all sorts.”
From his article: In Praise of Positive Obsessions.
Perseverance and a rebellious spirit
A variation on obsession is “stubborness” or perseverance.
When she was a newly single mother and struggling to support her baby daughter in Edinburgh, J.K. Rowling chose to commit herself to her dream of becoming a novelist by writing “Harry Potter.”
Rowling admits feeling “very low” and having a need “to achieve something.
“Without the challenge, I would have gone stark raving mad.”
From article J.K. Rowling: A wizard of odds (Psychology Today).
See more comments by Rowling in my High Ability site post: Celebrating our unique qualities.
Photo from post: J.K. Rowling: an ordinary and extraordinary childhood.
Another Psychology Today article – Why Prodigies Fail – says that most childhood prodigies never fulfill their promise.
“Perseverance is a key part of it,” says Robert Root-Bernstein of Michigan State University.
“Many of them say that their expectations were warped by their early experiences.” The article notes, “When success comes too easily, prodigies are ill prepared for what happens when the adoration goes away, their competitors start to catch up and the going gets rough.”
(He is co-author with Michele Root-Bernstein of Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People.
There can be a lesson here for any of us, not just prodigies.
Indiana University psychologist Jonathan Plucker notes, “I don’t see anyone teaching these kids about task commitment, about perseverance in the face of social pressures, about how to handle criticism.
“We say, ‘Boy, you’re really talented.’ We don’t say, ‘Yeah, but you’re still going to have to put in those 60-hour work weeks before you can make major contributions to your field.’”
(Jonathan A. Plucker is a co-author of Essentials of Creativity Assessment.)
Developing creativity with time, risk, love and hard work
Creative achievement – especially the sort that gets mentioned in books and the media – has often been considered something special, that only a “genius” can do. I have often felt held back in writing, such as this book, by self-limiting ideas related to how I identify myself and my writing talents.
Professor of psychology R. Keith Sawyer, among others, disputes that idea. He was asked, “What advice can you give us nongeniuses to help us be more creative?”
His answer: “Take risks, and expect to make lots of mistakes, because creativity is a numbers game. Work hard, and take frequent breaks, but stay with it over time. Do what you love, because creative breakthroughs take years of hard work. Develop a network of colleagues, and schedule time for freewheeling, unstructured discussions.”
He added, “Most of all, forget those romantic myths that creativity is all about being artsy and gifted and not about hard work. They discourage us because we’re waiting for that one full-blown moment of inspiration. And while we’re waiting, we may never start working on what we might someday create.”
From article The Hidden Secrets of the Creative Mind, Time mag. Jan. 8, 2006.
Prof. Sawyer is author of book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation.
In a New York Times op-ed, David Brooks pointed out that Mozart’s early compositions “were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work.” He added, “Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.
“What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had — the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills.”
The above text is from the “Obsession – Perseverance” section of my book “Developing Multiple Talents: The personal side of creative expression” – visit the About the Book page for more info.
My video: Creative Obsession
Psychologist Eric Maisel notes obsession may not be a disorder, but a positive part of creative achievement.
Audio clip of Maisel is from video: “Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions.”
Mastering Creative Anxiety by Eric Maisel, PhD.
Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions by Eric Maisel, PhD and Ann Maisel
“Elegantly combines the most inspiring elements of mindfulness, engagement, focus, and flow. Eric Maisel shows you how to be more productive by turning obsessions into positive passions.” – Susan K. Perry, Writing in Flow
This photo is Adam Savage (of “Mythbusters”) from the video – about his passion for making a replica Dodo skeleton.
He relates how he collected thousands of images and documents, and crafted a beautiful museum-quality mounted skeleton of the defunct bird.
Another example of creative obsession was director Stanley Kubrick, who once had a photographer take pictures of every single building on a road in London, so he could lay them side-by-side in his living room.
See more in post Creative obsessions: Adam Savage and Stanley Kubrick.
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Filmmaking is another art form that invites, even demands, obsession. That may be especially true of creating stop-motion animation features such as “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
Here is a behind-the-scenes look at making the movie, directed by Wes Anderson.
“You know, these movies are my life.”
Writer-director Wes Anderson has made a number of unique and delightful movies including “Moonrise Kingdom”; “The Royal Tenenbaums”; “The Darjeeling Limited”; “Rushmore” and others.
Anderson’s quote above is from an article about “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Actor Jason Schwartzman comments:
“Wes, his whole way of working, and this is what I’ve noticed from when I first met him, he gets so much joy out of the work. That is like his favorite thing to do, is to work.”
[From article Wes Anderson is off in a new world with ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ by Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times March 6, 2014.]
Photo and video from post: Fantastic Mr. Fox, Behind the scenes.
But Anderson’s – and other artists’ – obsessive attention to detail extends to live action projects, such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Ralph Fiennes – who plays the main character M. Gustave in the movie – commented about Anderson:
“He’s probably the most prepared director. He has these storyboards, very beautifully drawn, detailed and slightly animated. So, in a way, he’s kind of made the film, as it were, on the drawing board.” He also compares him to a music conductor who “knows precisely, musically, the nuances he wants.” [contactmusic.com]
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Pablo Casals and pursuing perfectionism – quotes in article include:
* Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D.: “Would I have chosen a life without perfectionism had I known what I would gain by struggling through it, the growth that would take place alongside the real emotional pain? Absolutely not.”
* Renita Kalhorn: “Is it possible that the eternal pursuit of perfection could actually spell eternal dissatisfaction?”
* “Avatar” director James Cameron retorted about being called a perfectionist: “No, I’m a greatist. I only want to do it until it’s great.”
Creative Obsession – “The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.” John Updike, about J. D. Salinger.
Perfectionism articles [on my High Ability site]
Two of many article titles:
Striving for excellence: “Perfectionism has taken a bum rap.”
Ashley Judd: “If I engage in perfectionism, I am abusing myself.”
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