Creativity is People!

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

If you’re not familiar with the inspiration for the title of this blog post, please enjoy Charlton Heston’s reaction when he learned that people are an essential part of the diet of the future:

Clearly, I’m not here to advocate cannibalism. But I am here with a reminder that people are an essential ingredient in our life and our creative work. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a people person, so while this is one of those things that seems like a fundamental truth, is easy to forget in day-to-day practice.

Part of my inspiration for this post is Josef Woodard’s book Conversations with Charlie Haden, a collection of interviews Woodard conducted with the jazz musician-composer-bandleader over a period of about fifteen years. (I confess to personal bias – there aren’t many artists I admire more than Charlie Haden.). A large portion of the book details Haden’s frequent collaborations with other musicians. What really caught my attention is that he was generous with praise and didn’t have a negative word to say about any of them. His enthusiasm is evident as he describes working with a diverse group that ranged from Pat Metheny to Ornette Coleman to Rickie Lee Jones. He could easily have gone the superstar route. Instead, he fondly remembered the people he shared the journey with.

It’s easy to plan our lives and our work as if we live in a vacuum, without including the people we’ll encounter along the way. Creativity, ultimately, is a people business, no matter how our creativity is expressed. (I had similar discussions with a few individuals involved in dog rescue groups I volunteered with in years past. In showing compassion for animals by saving them from abandonment or euthanasia, some people forgot that the real job was appealing to the people who would provide homes for those rescued animals.)

Just consider  few of the different ways creatives interact with other people:

  • Customers/Clients
  • Distributors: Web site operators, event operators, art galleries, bookstores
  • Educators/Mentors
  • Collaborators: musicians, models, photographers, readers, actors, directors, business partners, technical advisors
  • Students
  • Employees/Contractors: assistants, agents, accountants, etc.
  • Characters in fiction: character development requires understand of human behavior and interaction

In a less formal way, our daily interactions with people can lead to ideas or inspiration – just an overheard conversation can inspire a novel or screenplay or other work.

Another book I’m currently reading is William Zinsser‘s On Writing Well. He shares an anecdote about a piece he wrote on the New York Public Library. Initially expecting to write about “a marble building and millions of musty volumes,” Zinsser instead found himself writing about “scholars and searchers and crackpots…a story about people.” Our buildings and our institutions are really about the people inside.

Creativity is as much about the viewer or audience as it is the creator. Intent and interpretation aren’t always the same and how our work is interpreted really is in the eye of the beholder. That doesn’t mean you should pander to an audience, but you should respect it.

Black and white photo of sidewalk chalk mural observed by group of people
Don’t pander to the audience, but don’t forget it either.

There is a myth that’s common throughout history, but seems especially prevalent in U.S. society – the myth of the “self made man” or the titan of industry. The myth is that one person (and in the history books, it’s almost always a man) achieves greatness independently isn’t just wrong, it’s potentially dangerous. (Even when the “self made” person is a woman, it’s a myth.) The Steve Jobs and Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos of the world may have had grand visions, but visions by themselves don’t amount to much. For that matter, the grand visions are often not as visionary as the press releases imply, but simply a repackaging or reorienting of the work of others. And to implement those visions required sometimes considerable numbers of other people, from the industrial designer to the Amazon warehouse worker to the true inventor(s) of hyperloop transit.

The danger of the “self made” myth is that it diminishes the work of a lot of people. It also promotes a culture of competition and hubris that can become toxic – if a prosperous individual is solely responsible for their success, that requires that people who endure sickness and poverty are entirely responsible for their situations, also. We end up with a cruel casting out that isn’t sustainable.

Creativity, like success, however you define it, is not a zero-sum game. We all have a creative genius inside us, but we’ll always be dependent on others to fulfill that potential. That means that sometimes other will be dependent on us. There are plenty of achievement and accolades to go around. In the long run, we’ll all be better off.

Silhouettes of people behind a white screen
The world won’t stay in the shadows, so plan accordingly

What does this mean for the beginning artist who doesn’t have an audience and probably doesn’t have a lot of the connections, such as staff, partners, etc.? One strategy is to follow advice that’s common for writers – write to please only one person. This approach works with any creative endeavor. Do the work with one person in mind to get you started.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t consider myself a people person, so considering people first in creativity doesn’t always come naturally to me. It reassured me to learn it was something Charlie Haden had to learn, also. This quote from the book is oriented around music, but applies to listening in any situation:

…I’ve been learning about sitting down with another person and forgetting about myself. I don’t exist anymore. I am there, with humility, to listen and listen with my whole being to what they’re saying and to their beings. If you could approach music with that kind of giving of oneself, with complete selflessness and humility, then you’re not playing anymore, you’re listening. And when you’re listening, you don’t think. It’s really important to think of playing in terms of listening before you start to play, because it sets up that reverence. It’s almost like a religious ritual, of walking into a holy place.

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