Where do fresh ideas come from?

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Where do new ideas come from? Is it inevitable, I wonder, that in trying to talk with students about using ways of knowing creatively I’m inclined to turn to individual stories of “getting ideas”?  Today I’d simply like to share two or three resources for raising discussion of creativity in class.

The first is a very short video (2:34)  that uses an interview with film maker David Lynch in which he speaks about “catching” ideas: David Lynch on Where Great Ideas Come From from The Atlantic on Vimeo.

The second is an excerpt from an interview with playwright Edward Albee, who died this month, leaving an impressive legacy:

[Interviewer]: When you’re thinking about a play or when it’s developing in your mind, even before you write it down, do you have any awareness of how it’s come to you? Does it come to you as a sound or as an image or experience or all of the above? Can you trace one of your plays back?

Albee: I’m not a didactic playwright, consciously anyway. I don’t sit around and suddenly decide, gee, now I’ve got to write a play about this or that. No, I don’t do that. I will discover one day when I’m wandering about, theoretically minding my own business, that a play is forming in my head. How do I know that? Well, there’s some characters talking, or a visual image occurs to me, which makes me realize that something is happening in my head….It’s usually fleeting or I’ll be at a recital listening to a pianist or a string quartet and all of a sudden I will start hearing people talking or getting the sense of some other reality taking place.

The characters I write, all of our characters, we playwrights, all of our characters come – we either use ourselves or people we know or we invent. Better to invent, because if you base a character on somebody you know or a real person, you’re limited by how that real person would respond. And so if you invent the character, you can do any damn thing you want. You can have them behave the way you want them to. So for the most part, I invent or think I do anyway. And I let them talk.

Both of these artists are commenting on getting ideas — not on what they do ultimately with them.  For instance, Edward Albee, while denying in this interview that he is didactic, has elsewhere commented on the social responsibility of the playwright:   “All plays, if they’re any good, are constructed as correctives…That’s the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people. We’re not merely decorative, pleasant and safe.”  The creative shaping of a play, with the author’s sense of purpose, does not stop with the initial generation of a good idea.

Knowledge questions

Short and engaging, these two quick clips of artists are probably enough to fuel questions for students on what ways of knowing are involved in creativity.  What ways of knowing give David Lynch the “fish” to catch? What ways of knowing give Edward Albee the knowledge of how people talk and act, as characters take on life in his mind?  And then, what are the roles particularly of intuition and imagination, those most frankly alluring of our ways of knowing?  To what extent does artistic intuition, if it is to fuse pre-conscious connections that are insightful, depend on prior knowledge gained through other ways of knowing such as the observation enabled by sense perception — or memory — or emotion?  To what extent does imagination (such a glorious way of knowing!) take its raw material from knowledge gained otherwise?

For discussion of creativity, I’m inclined to encourage students in anecdotes of their own about getting ideas.  If they are ready to talk about their own experiences of painting, writing, composing or playing music, then you have more class examples to draw on for further questions — on whether we can generalize about creativity.  We can certainly generalize about methodologies of different areas of knowledge, but to what extent does the generation of fresh ideas elude generalization and prescription?

I wouldn’t like to leave creativity, though, as the province of artists; we’ll want to consider what the role of creativity is across other areas of knowledge as well.  The TED video“How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries” (7:32) gives a couple of fine examples of scientists getting ideas — creative ideas not just about how things are but also about how to find out.  The methodology of the natural sciences provides a means for filtering out those creative ideas that don’t turn out to accord with the facts.  And the testing methods themselves can be utterly ingenious!  The ones in this TED video amaze me.  I wonder…could methodologies developed to test creative hypotheses for their accuracy — developed, in effect, to discard them if they fail — be considered to be likewise the product of creative thinking, itself then tested?  Isn’t the method of science itself a result of creative genius?

And other stories?

Today, as I share three short resources for prompting discussion of creativity in class (supplementing ones already in the OUP TOK Course Book), I’m very aware that these ones are simply individual stories taken from so many that are possible.  If you have a favourite story that you’d be willing to share, would you consider adding a comment to this post?

Ever since Edward Albee died last week, I’ve been thinking myself about writers who have truly contributed to what and how we think. As I start reading a new Booker-winning novel this rainy afternoon, I’m feeling so grateful for what they have created.  I confess that I find the creation of knowledge utterly fascinating, even though it can be more slippery to discuss than the conscious methodologies that guide and test knowledge.

AND A PS

Quotation from revered filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, linking creativity with reading and memory: “Unless you have a rich reserve within, you can’t create anything. Memory is the source of your creation. Whether it’s from reading or from your own real-life experience, you can’t create unless you have something inside yourself.”

References

“David Lynch on Where Great Ideas Come From”, from The Atlantic on vimeo. https://vimeo.com/182093266

“Emory University Creativity Conversations: Edward Albee and Rosemary Magee”, Emory University, March 18, 2009. http://creativity.emory.edu/documents/creativity-convo-transcripts/2009/Albee_Magee_transcript.pdf

Bruce Weber, “Edward Albee, Trenchant Playwright Who Laid Bare Modern Life, Dies at 88”, New York Times, September 16, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/17/arts/edward-albee-playwright-of-a-desperate-generation-dies-at-88.html

Adam Savage, “How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries”, TED, November 2011.  https://www.ted.com/talks/how_simple_ideas_lead_to_scientific_discoveries

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