Can We Demystify Creativity?



Fanny Elssler in dem Divertissement: “Des Malers Traumbild.”. 1843. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)


Our world is brimming with many mysteries. One of which has continued to enchant us is the quest to unravel the source of creative inspiration. When we talk about creative inspiration, it’s hard not to bring up its famous myth. There are some people who still believe that creative inspiration comes from a “divine” invisible creature from an unknown place who will assist the artist to shape the form of his or her work.

In her engaging 2009 Ted Talk, the novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, believes that everything that we hear about this myth of creative inspiration, to the historical evidence, can be traced back to ancient Greece. She says that Socrates used to have a demon who would speak philosophical ideas to him. Socrates was not the only example of an historical figure who had a mystical encounter with creative inspiration. In his recent book titled The River of Consciousness (Amazon), Oliver Sacks explains that Mendeleev, the great Russian chemist, once remarked that he discovered his periodic table in a dream. Feeling inspired and a sense of urgency, he woke up immediately and wrote it down on an envelope. In Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (Amazon), he writes that when the French mathematician, Henri Poincare floundered about arithmetical questions for days, he decided to spend a few days at the seaside to relax. One day when he was out walking and thinking about something unrelated to math, the solution came to him. These are the stories of creative inspiration that have been perpetuating in our culture. We adore these stories because they suggest that the inception of any creative project is easy. We don’t do the work, creative inspiration will do it for us.

Is it true that inspiration alone will do the work for us? There’s another way to investigate the source of creative inspiration by observing the quantity of the work that an artist has produced. In his book Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World (Amazon), Adam Grant, an industrial psychologist and a professor of business at University of Pennsylvania, shatters the common myth of creativity that comes from a mystical and divine inspiration. Drawing inspiration from Dean Keith Simonton’s intensive research on creativity titledCreative Productivity: A Predictive and Explanatory model of Career Trajectories and Landmarks,” Grant argues that what Simonton finds is, when a creator produces a lot of outputs, his or her chance to create a masterpiece is more attainable. Grant continues to say that when someone is producing a lot of work, he or she is more likely to stumble upon some variations that can enrich their work and will bring their work closer to originality. Grant says, “Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.” Then Grant describes the abundant creative output of Picasso and Maya Angelou. In his life, he says that Picasso has produced more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, and many more tapestries, rugs, and prints. Then one of the greatest poets of our time, Maya Angelou, though she’s widely known for her poem “Still I Rise,” people often overlook her 165 other poems.


Thomas Edison. 1906. © Museum of the City of New York. Via: (Artstor)


In his paper, observing Thomas Edison’s creative career, Dean Keith Simonton talks about Edison’s prodigious work output. “His 1,093 patents notwithstanding, the number of truly superlative creative achievements can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.” He also argues that the diversity of the projects that Edison did had helped him to channel his energy whenever he faced a long series of trials followed by consecutive errors. This method, when he moved from one project to the other, according to Simonton, awakened his mind with some neglected solutions for his unfinished projects. Simonton goes on to say, “Those periods in which the most minor products appear tend to be the same periods in which the most major works appear.” Grant and Simonton seem to agree that quantity is a better stimulant than quality to invite inspiration.


Ginevra King Pirie. Via: (FindaGrave)


There is another source of creative inspiration that we can try to investigate other than the quantity of artist’s work. Inspired by the book titledThe Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose, Maureen Corrigan for the Boston Globe wrote that there are people in the writers’ personal lives that have played an enormous role in supplying inspiration for their work. When Fitzgerald met Ginevra King on January 4, 1915 at a party over Christmas break in St. Paul Minnesota, the two instantly attracted to each other. King was only sixteen and Fitzgerald was nineteen. They started to correspond and their letters to each other were full of passion, flirtation. They stayed in touch only for two years. King eventually married a wealthy young businessman from Chicago and Fitzgerald married Zelda. Though King and Fitzgerald did not stay together, King was an enormous source of Fitzgerald’s fictional characters in his literary career. Corrigan argues that King is Judy Jones in his short story “Winter Dreams.” She is also Isabella Borges in Fitzgerald “This Side of Paradise” and Daisy Buchanan in his memorable work of fiction “The Great Gatsby.”

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Portrait of Agnes von Kurowsky in her American Red Cross nurse uniform, Milan, Italy.  1918. Via: (JFKLibrary)


Corrigan also mentions that one of Hemingway’s fictional characters was also inspired by someone that he had met. It was Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse that helped Hemingway regain his sense of vitality after he was wounded during World War 1. Hemingway was madly in love with her and they had planned to marry, but by the time Kurowsky went to the U.S, she sent a letter to Hemingway that she had engaged to an Italian officer. Hemingway’s early love life was a hapless event in his life, but he turned Von Kurowsky into a fictional character in “A Farewell to Arms” as Catherine Barkley.

All of the examples I have presented above seem to suggest that the myth of creative inspiration that we always carry is just a myth. In fact, if we look deeper into Mendeleev’s life, though his idea of periodic table seems to appear out of the blue, his work ethic to solve this chemical mystery doesn’t enter our conversation whenever we talk about creative inspiration. For almost nine years, he was constantly pondering this subject, consciously and unconsciously. So did Poincare who refused to succumb to this myth and chose to work hard to solve the mathematical problems. Only when he disengaged himself from his work for days at the seaside and let his ideas simmer, while he was thinking of something else, the solution came to him.

Rex Jung, a prominent neuroscientist who studies creativity for more than a decade knows why the solution came to Poincare when he stopped working. In conversation with Krista Tippett, Jung argues that “eureka” moment usually comes after someone has consciously absorbed ideas and then let them simmer for a while in his or her mind to interact with other ideas. Jung says, “You have to have the raw materials in place to put together, but you also have to have the time to put them together.”

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The creative inspirations that catapulted Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Edison, Mendeleev, and Poincare into public consciousness are missing our romantic idea of artistry that must come from magic. Their dogged determination was the path that granted them the creative inspiration. Even from a scientific perspective, Jung arrives to remind us that when we deliberately make a space for our ideas to simmer and interact to other ideas after countless hours of working, inspiration is more likely to come to us.

To believe that good ideas must come from a mystical place is to believe that work ethic is a useless ingredient to achieve mastery. This is a dangerous belief that needs to be clarified. Understanding a craft of writing, for instance, is not something that can be done in a night by magic. It takes years or even decades to be able to present language that can tell stories and evoke emotions to readers. There is no shortcut for the conquest of mastery because “Everything worthwhile takes a long time.

Alfred Kazin on How the Kitchen Shapes His Life and the Loneliness of His Mother



Kazin as a young man, City College picture. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)


Not too long ago, I befriended a vivacious young woman with a strong jaw and eccentric glasses from Zimbabwe. We met because we were coworkers, working as banquet servers at a local hotel. We had a million laughs together and we often found ourselves complaining about the same things everyday–our long demanding shifts and unforgiving costumers. She was one of the hardest workers that I knew. Even when she had already had too many shifts on her schedule, she would gladly pick up shifts from other coworkers.

Just a whim, I asked her one Friday evening as she washed an air pot of coffee, “Why did you take so many shifts lately?”

She said casually, “If I’m not working, I’m lonely.”

Her truthful response shocked me. On the other hand, it was strangely a warm and sublime thing to hear from her because at least she could articulate what she felt. That short sentence, “If I’m not working, I’m lonely” kept echoing in my ears even after she quit the job in the summer of 2017. Her story is reminding me of one of the stories told in Alfred Kazin’s autobiography titled A Walker in the City (Public Library) (Amazon). Through this emotionally arrested book, Kazin unpacks his juicy childhood memories of absorbing the sounds, the smells, the sights, and the sensations of Brownsville, east of NYC–a neighborhood then inhabited by Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. His early life was shaped by poverty, tenement houses of Brownsville, and the daily lives of his hardworking parents who tried to maintain the vitality of the family. His father was a house painter who would come home at six in the afternoon with a copy of newspaper the New York World. Meanwhile, his mother was a dress maker–a woman whose immense talent of making dresses according to the latest fashions was loved by the local women. Kazin’s Brownsville in the 1920s was a place brimming with hopes, despairs, loneliness, ambitions, and humans’ stories.

In one of the chapters of the book titled, “The Kitchen”, Kazin illustrated the significant value of the kitchen in his tenement house. This was the place when he did his homework and first writing at the kitchen table, and even he used the three chairs near the stove to place his bed to sleep. Most importantly, the kitchen was also his mother’s little world.

He writes:

“In Brownsville tenements the kitchen is always the largest room and the center of the household. As a child I felt that we lived in a kitchen to which four other rooms were annexed. My mother, a “home” dressmaker, had her workshop in the kitchen. She told me once that she had begun dressmaking in Poland at thirteen; as far back as I can remember, she was always making dresses for the local women. She had an innate sense of design, a quick eye for all the subtleties in the latest fashions, even when she despised them, and great boldness. For three or four dollars she would study the fashion magazines with a customer, go with the customer to the remnants store on Belmont Avenue to pick out the material, argue the owner down–all remnants store, for some reason, were supposed to be shady, as if the owners dealt in stolen goods–and then for days would patiently fit and baste and sew and fit again. Our apartment was always full of women in their housedresses sitting around the kitchen table waiting for a fitting. My little bedroom next to the kitchen was the fitting room. The sewing machine, an old nut-brown Singer with golden scrolls painted along the black arm and engraved along the two tiers of little drawers massed with needles and thread on each side of the treadle, stood next to the window and the great coal black stove which up to my last year in college was our source of heat. By December the two outer bedrooms were closed off, and used to chill bottles of milk and cream, cold borscht and jellied calves’ feet.”


Mrs. Palontona and 13 year old daughter, working on pillow-lace in dirty kitchen of their tenement home. They were both very illiterate. Mother is making fancy lace and girl sold me the lace she worked on. New York City. © NARA. Via: (Wikimedia)


Kazin’s mother spent her majority of waking hours working at the kitchen. Then on another page, Kazin goes on describing his mother’s relationship with the kitchen:

“The kitchen gave a special character to our lives; my mother’s character. All my memories of that kitchen are dominated by the nearness of my mother sitting all day long at her sewing machine, by the clacking of the treadle against the linoleum floor, by the patient twist of her right shoulder as she automatically pushed at the wheel with one hand or lifted the foot to free the needle where it had got stuck in a thick piece of material. The kitchen was her life. Year by year, as I began to take in her fantastic capacity for labor and her anxious zeal, I realized it was ourselves she kept stitched together. I can never remember a time when she was not working. She worked because the law of her life was work, work and anxiety; she worked because she would have found life meaningless without work. She read almost no English; she could read the Yiddhish paper, but never felt she had time to. We were always talking of a time when I would teach her how to read, but somehow there was never time. When I awoke in the morning she was already at her machine, or in the great morning crowd of housewives at the grocery getting fresh rolls for breakfast. When I returned from school she was at her machine, or conferring over McCall’s with some neighborhood woman who had come in pointing hopefully to an illustration–“Mrs. Kazin! Mrs. Kazin! Make me a dress like it shows here in the picture!” When my father came home from work she had somehow mysteriously interrupted herself to make supper for us, and the dishes cleared and washed, was back at her machine. When I went to bed at night, often she was still there, pounding away at the treadle, hunched over the wheel, her hands steering a piece of gauze under the needle with a finesse that always contrasted sharply with her swollen hands and broken nails.”


Kazin’s mother. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)


This is perhaps one of the most incisive descriptions of loneliness I have ever encountered. Kazin was acutely aware of the poor condition of his family, yet deeper than the poverty, Kazin understood one peculiar thing about his family, especially the way his mother concealed herself through her work. His mother tirelessly worked not because she was driven by the poverty of the family, but because she was lonely if she disengaged herself from her work. Her loneliness was her motivation.

He writes thoughtfully:

“Poor as we were, it was not poverty that drove my mother so hard; it was loneliness–some endless bitter brooding over all those left behind, dead or dying or soon to die; a loneliness locked up in her kitchen that dwelt every day on the hazardousness of life and the nearness of death, but still kept struggling in the lock, trying to get us through by endless labor.”

I do believe that a great writer is a writer who bravely unpacks his “truth”, no matter the pains that he might feel at the end. His truth is his intimate voice. The author of Wild, Cheryl Strayed, once said, “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.” The way Kazin describes the loneliness of his mother registers easily into my consciousness and makes me think of loneliness as a universal emotion that is experienced by a lot of us.

“It was always at dusk that my mother’s loneliness came home most to me. Painfully alert to every shift in the light at her window, she would suddenly confess her fatigue by removing her pince-nez, and then wearily pushing aside the great mound of fabrics on her machine, would stare at the streets as if to warm herself in the last of the sun. “How sad it is!” I once heard her say. “It grips me! It grips me!” Twilight was the bottommost part of the day, the chillest and loneliest time for her. Always so near to her moods, I knew she was fighting some deep inner dread, struggling against the returning tide of darkness along the streets that invariably assailed her heart with the same foreboding–Where? Where now? Where is the day taking us now?

Behind his mother’s inner loneliness, Kazin also knew the most shimmering part of her life. He writes:

“Yet one good look at the street would revive her. I see her now, perched against the windowsill, with her face against the glass, her eyes almost asleep in enjoyment, just as she starts up with the guilty cry–“What foolishness is this in me!”–and goes to the stove to prepare supper for us: a moment, only a moment, watching, the evening crowd of women gathering at the grocery for fresh bread and milk. But between my mother’s pent-up face at the window and the winter sun dying in the fabrics–“Alfred, see how beautiful!”–she has drawn for me one single line of sentience. “