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Don’t Go It Alone: How Other People Fire up Your Creativity

Our culture has become enamored with the idea of the lone genius. The reality of successful creative endeavors is actually quite different.
by Joshua H. Phelps | Apr 13 2018

We look at paintings like the The Kiss, listen to songs such as Thrift Shop, or read copies of The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. Often we only see one name on the cover or one signature on the painting, and we think to ourselves, “Yes, this is the creative genius. This single person harnessed the powers of the creative universe to furnish this work in an act of stupendous independent will and intellect.” (or something to that effect, maybe it’s just a feeling)

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Except, well, in the vast majority of cases, that is pretty much bunk. In his book, Powers of Two, Joshua Wolf Shenk details famous instances of this phenomenon. The interrelationships between creative individuals push pieces to heights they likely would not have achieved if the artist had been working alone.

This isn’t to say that artists don’t deserve credit for their works. They are the ones who steal ideas from others, create the drafts and revise them and revise them some more. Then they release the work to the world. It’s just that, as we have seen throughout history, most of the best-known artists operated in pairs or small groups, often including other artists who also became well-known or subtly influential in their own right. One can look at The Surrealists, the Viennese Secession, or an institution such as the Black Mountain College, as examples.

John Suiter’s book, Poets on the Peaks, narrates a case study of how the Beat Generation writers Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac inspired one another and how their time as fire lookouts in the 1950s affected their works (Kerouac’s book Desolation Angels is named after Desolation Peak, where his lookout was based). After all, Powers of Two states that solitude is necessary for creativity, and it’s harder to find more solitude than when perched on top of a mountain. Snyder would go on to win the Pulitzer for his poetry in 1975 and Kerouac would go on to become, well, Kerouac. One year to the day after he ended his lookout stint, On the Road was published.

Such meetings of the minds can have powerful effects. Ideas are bandied about and polished. Artists to steal from are suggested. Rough drafts become smoothed, finished products. Because it’s one thing to have an idea. It’s quite another to imbue it with verve and vigor. For this, your peers become essential. It is easy to lose yourself in the facets of your own work. Things make sense to you because you’ve already turned it inside and out.

Outside observers point out narrative holes, character issues, techniques that don’t quite work, or where your intention is best or worst served. They offer interpretations that you had never expected. Sometimes they agree with one another. Sometimes they don’t. If the piece yields the reaction you want, great. If not, you know where to go back and change things.

The teacher who recommended Poets on the Peaks to me also told me about a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s documentary about the Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil, during which the band members work their way through a song. One member starts with a riff, another suggests a little something extra or changing a bit here or there. And so on until the track is done.

The feedback I’ve received from my peers and teachers during my photography program have been essential to my development. And before I moved to Berlin to study photography, I was a member of a writer’s group for over four years. My cohorts helped me to bring more focus to my work. My sentences shortened. My prose became less purple. Sure, it can be discouraging watching a work be pulled apart, but there are times too when a draft you feel didn’t go quite right in the making is shown to be actually quite strong. These are all the mysteries and delights of the process.

Honest and constructive feedback (constructive being key) are crucial parts of this equation as well. Just because someone says this or that part needs work does not mean that the whole idea is bad. Pretty much all good ideas started out as lumpy nuggets of intuition. By working through your creative problems with others, you will also hone other beneficial skills such as listening, asking questions, and providing your own feedback. These are skills. They require practice much like the creative avenues you pursue, though they will serve you well both within and well beyond your circle of fellow artists. And, they will also aid in processing the feedback you receive, so you can apply the lessons back to the next draft or your next new work.

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