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.

Four Years: Some Thoughts on Studying Abroad and Embracing Contradiction



I was not as articulate in English as I am now. Language used to be a firm barrier in my life during my freshmen year of college. That was the first time when I had to step out of my native language, Indonesian, and begin to think in English. Though I still feel self-conscious with my accent, when I give an in-class presentation or simply speak English with strangers, this language has slowly interwoven into my being. Now I understand many more words than I did before. I can participate in challenging discussions with my peers and professors. What was impossible, has become possible.

Now, the problem is more than just the words of the language; it’s the ability to understand all of the underlying meaning that is expressed.

I take it as an elemental truth that language matters–It’s more than just a tool of survival. The language that we use reflects the story that we want to tell ourselves and our world. At its core, language is always brimming with human dynamics. The more I understand about the language of this country, the more my understanding of its human dynamics expands. When I can speak the language that Americans use, I don’t perceive myself as an outsider. I am with them. Their stories are mine and my stories are theirs.

This is a good sign because I don’t feel alienated and have found “home” in a foreign territory. The problem with this connection is that I also feel their pain. When they have struggles, it troubles me because whenever I hear these stories, I don’t want to be part of them.


Last summer in Indonesia when I told a stranger that I was going to America to finish up my degree, her eyes sparkled with amazement. I had anticipated this reaction. Then she said something so common, “Everyone must be so happy in America. There is no poverty. Oh. I wish I could go with you.” This was the America that she had understood from the stories of her life. Even all my friends are still thinking this way.

My stories of America are different than hers.

I work part time as a banquet server at a local hotel in the MSU area. There, for the first time, I have seen people whose lives are so constrained that, to survive, they have to work three jobs. I feel shame about how fortunate I am, working only one job and still squandering my money on useless things. One of those people that I met was a vivacious middle-aged woman named Y. She has been washing dishes for twelve years and she also works at two other places. “I like this job,” she said with such outspokenness. Strangely, a part of me saw layers of tiredness and some deep inner dread behind her eyes. The next day after we talked, she screamed at an empty bowl, “I hate this job!” During my freshmen year, I’d have just heard her words without being able to construct any meaning, but now I understand her meaning that is different from what she’s saying and the pain she feels. When someone must work more than two jobs to survive, I know that her life is not easy.

One time I overheard two of my Chinese friends talking in Chinese to each other. Then an elderly white man whose hair was unkempt approached them, “Hey, this is America. We don’t use Chinese here!” He laughed like a fool and walked away from them. My friends stood shocked. If I had encountered this man when I was still in my freshmen year of college, I’d have judged him directly that he’s very racist and the rest of white men in America were also racist. Three years later, my answers are a little bit different. I refuse to call him a racist because I don’t know the drive of his intention. Maybe one Sunday breezy afternoon he tried to practice his French with his sweet lover in a café, and someone approached them and said, “Hey, this is America. We don’t use French here!” He felt very insulted and he brought the pain to my friends by insulting their language. Maybe a Chinese man had robbed his engagement ring when he went out on a stroll alone in a park. Or, maybe he once had a horrifying dream that everyone in America suddenly speaks Mandarin and he’s the only one who speaks English and he wakes up feeling extremely anxious about his own future.

Maybe after all, when we are talking about someone who is racist, we are talking about his “unresolved” pain and his immense fear of a particular race. Three years ago, I would not have been able to construct these possibilities. Racism is a complex topic and I still don’t know how to approach it.

As this country enters a new period of unrest, I have noticed a transformation of the language that my friends use. From their language, there is a lot of raw human fear circulating through it. I cannot count how many times my friends have spoken to me of their longings to move to a place with better government.


However, this is something I deeply believe: to only mention pain without mentioning beauty is a chronic failure of living.

I have met some people who have taught me to be kind and forgiving in this country. I have exchanged stories with people whose ideas inspire me to be less cynical and more hopeful with the strained reality that we have. I am forever grateful for having the privilege of exposing my eyes to the beautiful color of the trees in the fall. The liberal arts education that I have received at MSU has allowed my mind to traverse across disciplines, time, and spaces. Philosophy has slowly gained my attention, especially Stoicism, as it has taught me to only focus on the things that I can control and ignore the rest. From the literature that I have read across the years in the MSU library, I get to absorb mind-stretching ideas from some of humanity’s greatest thinkers such as James Baldwin, Alfred Kazin, May Sarton, Thoreau, Toni Morrison, and Patti Smith .

Standing up amidst those stories from the people I had met and the writers I had read makes me realize that America is far more complex than what I had seen a long time ago in TV and magazines. Sometimes the stories that I had heard are hard to swallow. I don’t know which side I should trust more: the good, happy stories brimming with hope or the sad, depressing stories with pessimism. In other words, I’m conflicted between choosing one of those sides and being deaf to the other side or taking the contradiction gladly because they are part of my reality. What I’m sure of is my greater understanding when I communicate with my American peers and live life with them, good or bad.


There’s a line that has stayed with me from Alfred Kazin’s journal. In it, he wrote, “The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness,” he continued, “And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know.” The more I ponder about his sentence over the years, the truer it sounds to me—the contradiction that I have seen is part of my reality—inseparable and inescapable. I think this is the best-learning that I have gotten thus far from living and studying abroad. I learned that pain and beauty can co-exist simultaneously. I learned that I need to teach myself to see things as they are, not with the intention to judge but to understand. Education must transcend a person’s view of life beyond a traditional classroom. Seeing the contradiction, is not only a part of my own reality, but also, most importantly, is my education.

Photographs by Vidi Aziz