Crafting Gentleness

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

advice for creative types

This letter to columnist Cary Tennis was posted on 2/6/07 on I do think there is more personal choice involved in embracing what lies beyond the quotidian than the author imparts; creativity is within everyone's reach (the notion of "genius," as a gift bestowed on a lucky few, is a western romantic myth) because everyone imagines. Plus, "paradigm" is a rather static and deterministic way of characterizing habit. Nonetheless, I think those who foreground creativity in their lives can probably empathize with the author's experience to some degree.



Dear Cary,

Thoughts on creativity and punishment --

Thomas Kuhn bequeathed to us the concept of paradigm shift in 1962. Kuhn's ideas quickly became boilerplate, but there's an element of his thought that bears on this issue of creativity.

Paradigms are like a set of spectacles that allow information to be sensed (and thus sensible) and thus interpretable. Here's the key point: People standing in the midst of a given paradigm are unable to perceive information that paradigm doesn't explain. The majority of people obey the demands of the paradigm and don't have any problems with that.

Creative people, in whatever field and context they work, have the gift of being able to glimpse, discern and interpret information outside of [a] paradigm. This gift will always cause pain because that sense of "vision" allows them to see what others cannot. The gift will always cause pain because it tends to create isolation. Creative people live in worlds that are not sensible to most of those around them. The stable, dominant paradigm obeys the laws of self-preservation and will always seek to repress unknown and destabilizing information.

The practical effect is that creative people are frequent recipients of stout beat-downs from bosses, bureaucracies and buffoons. ("When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." --Swift)

I am an award-winning teacher with a file full of student thank-you notes that attest to how profoundly my work has affected their lives. Our new program director, with the full cooperation of our grandmotherly humanities department head, fired me from my assistantship on my first day of classes. I had waited 15 years -- largely because of previous traumas inflicted by school -- to pursue my master's. I had to clean out my desk and stand on the side of the road with my boxes of books and wait for my wife to pick me up in the August heat. The subsequent legal wrangling revealed a Rovian capacity for deception and punishment on the part of right-thnking liberal-arts administrators whose shelves are filled with books by Foucault, Kohlberg and Belenky. Eventually, some other people with the same books on their shelves, but who understood and valued the depth of what I was doing, hired me back and it all worked out.

Creative people, take heart. Restrain your self-pity. You don't have a choice. How else would you live? If you could conform, you already would have. Keep your eyes glistening and your intelligence white-hot (as Rumi advises). Nurture yourself with relations with like minded people, beware the impulse for self-medication, cultivate elders who have cut trail in front of you, mentor those coming behind you, and growth what the Mohawks call "seven thicknesses of skin" because you are going to need it. This is the way it has always been.

Betrayed and Wiser for it


  • Thanks for that, Amy! :)

    -People standing in the midst of a given paradigm are unable to perceive information that paradigm doesn't explain-

    I'm with you on the creativity and paradigm bits. I suppose that the people standing in a situation where their thinking and doing is circumscribed by a particular orthodoxy find it hard (but not impossible) to envisage an 'otherwise'.

    I find it amazing how powerful mere invitations like 'we can think differently' or 'there is an otherwise' or 'it doesn't have to be this way' can be. Unfortunately, unless attitudes are softened in other ways as well such invitations frequently fall on barren soil, or sprout briefly and then wither.

    I think one of the key things, for me, is to try to use such invitations (to think/live/hope differently) to guide me into groupings of people, groupings of ideas, or imaginings of possibilities that are more appropriate to the kinds of otherwise I seek to experience. Again, as Sooz reminded me recently, don't plant trees where they're going to get cut down. That doesn't mean that I run away from that place, but it does mean that it is helpful for me to not expect a flourishing of growth right now in a place of little light. If this has become a cutting-down place (it was not always so), then this is a place where cutting-down is likely to happen (but it may be otherwise).

    *Saying* that things can be thought or done differently can really only be a provisional plateau on which to recalibrate, I think. A resting place for reflection. Actually crafting more helpful attitudes/lives I feel takes so much more than words (cue song by Extreme), which can mean so little in practice while promising so much or pushing so hard. Time spent. Listening offered. Space released. Who knows. It all depends, I suppose.

    By Blogger Anthony, at Wednesday, 21 February, 2007  

  • I suppose that if I seek to work from within the home of the cutter-downers I am more likely to dance the dance of the cutter-downers, and not notice how my limbs are shaping, or my feet are dragging, or my arms are swinging, or the sharpness and hurtiness I'm holding. Maybe it's important for me to leave for a while, and maybe return some day to the home of the cutter-downers or to travel on to a different home of different cutter-downers, having worked out what cutter-downers do, having worked out what it is that I do that cutter-downers do, and having worked out that I don't want to be a cutter-downer no more. And having worked out that not everyone is a cutter-downer, and that in some places there are very few cutter-downers at all.

    Maybe then I can invite myself and others to a different dance, show how limbs can be jinked and lifted differently, show how the glide and flight can flow and slide here, now, while pointing to where it's always-already happening elsewhere, in places where people are mainly other things than cutter-downers, so people can see that not being a cutter-downer is also always-already possible here.

    "Dancing the shitty dance with the shitty dancers allows you to become really good at shitty dancing" (adapted from the wisdom of Stuart Hill - apologies for the language, Stu!)

    By Blogger Anthony, at Wednesday, 21 February, 2007  

  • Oh, how many times have I had a beat-down from a boss who's paradigm includes budget constraints and what the board wants rather than the creative possiblities. I have felt that pain of isolation in creativity...and yet it's the creativity I think that gives us the strength to overcome the isolation and keep working at that creative stuff.

    I'm a creative working in a very, very, conservative right-brained industry, and I'm lucky to work with a great group of like-minded individuals...I sent them all this letter to remind them of their value. ;)

    By Blogger Llij, at Wednesday, 21 February, 2007  

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