Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Creativity in an Age of Distraction

I spent most of my adult life struggling to be creative. In particular, I've spent it struggling to compose music. There's remarkably little to show for it, apart from piles of half-finished manuscripts. I'm rather like the character Amédée in Ionesco's play of the same name, who as a struggling playwright, spends a large part of the play writing the odd word in a notebook, walking around the room, pondering, then crossing it out, and repeats this process endlessly.

Around Amédée there is a curious array of distractions. His wife Madeleine is a telephone switchboard operator. Yet neither she nor he has left the apartment for many years. Madeleine has all her telephone equipment at home. When she works, the phone is continuously ringing: "No, Sir, no. The President can't take a call for another half an hour, I've just told you..." Amédée is perturbed by the sprouting of poisonous mushrooms in the flat, but the most troubling distraction is the dead body in the adjacent room which appears to be getting bigger and bigger, threatening to overwhelm their flat. The body exhibits "Geometric progression, the incurable disease of the dead". We are led to assume that it was the lover of Madeleine, and that maybe Amédée had killed him. Eventually the couple have to take the body out of the appartment, where the body opens up like a sail and Amédée is swept up into the sky: "A bad day for literature," remarks an attendant policeman.

What interests me is Amédée's creative struggle and its relation to his environment. This is an alienating, automated and fundamentally loveless environment. For Ionesco he would have been deliberately pointing at the post-war world of 1956. I can only imagine that if he saw our internet-dominated world of 2014 he would probably have a chuckle to himself and merely remark that the dead body has got bigger still! Aren't we all telephone switchboard operators now?

The climax of the play is a beautiful and strange transformation, and it is this which any creative artist seeks in their practice. It is the moment where the labour of many weeks suddenly begins to take shape. But what are the conditions which produce this? I want to suggest that the principal condition is love. It is the absolute commitment over an extended period to a particular idea, cause, person, object. It is the condition of the thing that becomes an obsession, continually turning in one's head. But obsession on its own can be destructive. What the successful artist manages to do is to channel the passion in a practice that constructs something steadily. It is the routine of Beethoven, Janacek, Debussy, Elgar or Tippett which is most important. It is from routine that things emerge.

The problem - at least this has been my problem with composition - is that routine is difficult in an age of distraction. Computers do an enormous variety of things at the flick of a switch. One minute I can be writing a blog post, the next reading the news, watching a film, or pursuing some personal interest in intellectual, spiritual, sexual, health or any other curiosity which strikes me at any moment. Where physical constraints of having to locate myself to the appropriate place or device or book once helped to curtail the tyranny of distraction, now the uber-switch of the computer acts as a kind of teleport operated in the instant (there's a wonderful episode of the Simpsons where Homer is delighted to discover that Bart's "teleport device" means that he can teleport the toilet, eliminating the necessity to get off the couch to relieve himself!)

My personal challenge has been to find a way of establishing routine and maintaining a passionate involvement with a particular cause or idea over an extended period of time in the context of this technology. I think it probably has to be done with technology in some way - although I've spoken to friends about this, and they disagree - but I'm too scatty and disorganised to maintain sheets of manuscript paper, pens, etc - at least the computer saves me the hassle of physical organisation.

This blog was the first phase of this establishing of routine - particularly the improvisations (which is where it started). But now I want to go further (interesting that I haven't improvised for a while now). I am writing two or three lines of music every day. And then I am distorting them and making pictures out of them. Then I read the pictures like a score and hone-in on the details of what I want to say. All I can say is that I think this is working. I think I fall in love with the pictures. There's something sensual about them, and this maintains the necessary passion to drive the labour of continuing to produce them and eventually to make a piece.

What am I saying with all this? Well, it's a struggle. But I don't think I'm alone in struggling. Technology gives us many wonderful things, but it does get in the way of an important aspect of our humanity in our creative imagination. If I was to be more technical, I would say technology robs us of redundancy and repetition, and creativity nourishes itself on redundancy and repetition: like the continual obsession with someone we love, our thoughts continually turn to them. My struggle has been to try an put this back. This one isn't finished yet, but you get the idea...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

One way to force yourself to commit to creative work that I've found is the use of commitment contracts that allow you to threaten yourself with a heavy penalty for not sticking to your work. I've used economist Ian Ayres' commitment contracts system to force myself to write and publish music as well as read widely (books, articles) no matter the distraction. My friend is refereeing me; if I don't stick to my goals I have to pay 100 dollars to the NRA which I would never do :) In fact, this is why I've read your blog. Have a look: