A Treatise on Methodical Creativity…

Methodical (adjective)
• done according to a systematic or established form of procedure
• (of a person) orderly or systematic in thought or behavior.

The word methodical gets a bad rap. Somehow over the last half-century that glorious word has been placed in opposition to creativity, has come to connote restriction and limitation, an utter lack of individuality. It has become a pejorative, reserved for the bean-counters and buzzkills, scoffed at by the artistic, and those with such aspirations. Personally I blame Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and their dangerously false narratives of Abstract Expressionism, but that’s another (very long) story…

Over the years we have been sold on a notion of creativity that is entirely intuitive, that leaps out from our minds and hearts and souls. Furthermore, only such leaps are thought to be authentic; all else is somehow shallow and calculated (another concept that has gotten a bad rap). Creativity has become the domain of those free-spirits, and that associated disinhibition has become synonymous with free-thinking, an equivalency that has had disastrous results, at least from my point of view (especially when I reflect on my years in art academia).

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Being free-spirited brings with it a willingness to take leaps, make jumps without surveying the landing; it seems more part of an emotional landscape rather than an intellectual imperative. Free-thinking, on the other hand, is different kind of openness, one that is willing to, almost required to, question assumptions, tinker with ideas no matter how entrenched. Free-spiritedness is an anti-method (no negative implication intended here), while free-thinking is fundamentally methodical and works within a continuum of rigor.

There are many paths to creativity, none of which are inherently superior to another. Creativity as about finding out what works for the individual, exploring processes and approaches that fit each persons needs. Those needs are about far more than aesthetic results; the desire for a creative practice touches on emotional, conceptual, experiential, and social goals. Creativity is enormously complex, not just in practice, but in how it is seen within the wider world. The waxing and waning of the creative impulse is intimately tied to larger socio-political dynamics; it is a reflection of cultural ideals, beliefs that are in constant flux. Society is a story written along a spectrum of conformity and individuality, and the import we place on creativity ebbs and flows along with those narratives.

Just look at the societal visions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Whatever you may think of them, their world views are far more complicated than they may appear at first pass. Mr. Trump espouses a narrative of individualism, that by-the-boostraps story of American exceptionalism, but all of that is underwritten by a necessary conformity, is written on a background of an us/them duality that requires an adherence to the particular construct of what “us” mean. That surface of individuality is built on a foundation on restriction. Ms. Clinton’s worldview, on the other hand, stresses social cohesion (however loosely defined); it draws on the Utilitarian understanding of the common good. Policies focus on attempts at the greatest good, looking at society as a whole. But that picture is founded upon a foundational pluralism, one that believes that the notion of “us” is ephemeral, in perpetual transition and transformation. Here individuality is the foundation of a patchwork society. In effect these two worldviews are mirror inversions of each other and lead to profound differences in perspective, yet both essentially exist within that same ever-changing continuum upon which we write out conceptions of identity and society.

As I see it creativity is much the same; it comes with tendencies and affinities, inclinations and hidden assumptions. While that miraculous, bolt-from-the-blue type of creativity does occur every once in a while, more often than not those moments of inspiration have an underlying reason and reflect a set of established preferences. These preferences can be highly individual or a bi-product of current trends, but taste so often plays an outsized role in creative practice. When we search for new ideas there is an extraordinary tendency to revert to what we already know, to rely on paste experiences of success. There is nothing wrong with this (it makes perfect sense actually), but it inevitably puts a brake upon the search for new paths, reroutes us to safer paths. Intuition is inevitably built upon a foundation of taste, and that foundation is both muse and obstacle; it certainly provides guidance, but circumscribes that creativity within the bounds of established norms. In brief, our taste introduces an experimental bias, skews creativity in ways we may never be aware of. Divine inspiration favors repetition; our ideas about creative freedom are rarely free.

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This may seem counterintuitive, but methodical creativity is not the enemy of intuition; it is merely the application of method, a strategy, a means to finding unexpected solutions. When I design I work through untold variations, but not blindly. I establish a set of parameters, explore the possibilities therein, change the parameters, and then explore again, etc, etc. A quilt design may go through a hundred permutations in terms of both design and color; some of are disposed of, others are placed in reserve, opening up new possibilities and questions. The process may be systematic, but the end result remains unknown.

Methodical creativity has a lot in common with the concept of partitions in number theory. A partition is simply the way a positive number (technically this applies only to integers, whole numbers) can be written as the sum of positive numbers. For example, the number 4 has five partitions: 1+1+1+1, 2+1+1, 2+2, 3+1, 4+0. The larger the starting number, the more partitions there are. Even relatively small numbers generate a vast array of partitions, an overwhelming set of possibilities. The same usually holds true in design; when we first sit down to sketch that blank sheet of paper holds untold potential. Finding that “just right” design feels much like blindly grasping for a particular partition for an outrageously large number. In both cases we need a way to narrow the scope, and therein lies the value of method. Finding all of the partitions for the number 23 that include the numbers 7 and 11 is far easier than generating all of the possible partitions and then pulling out only those with the numbers 7 and 11. In design we might set certain formal/aesthetic rules in place and then allow our intuition to run free, but the thing about method is that when we explicitly set those parameters in place we open up a space where we can actively question and counteract the implicit effects of taste. By making our assumptions explicit, we are liberated to explore both within the bounds of our tendencies and beyond them.

For some of you this may sound extremely un-creative, methodical in the pejorative, but take a moment to look closer; there are still doors wide open to intuitive creativity. At the first there is an intuitive, even arbitrary element in the process of setting parameters. Why only explore partitions with the numbers 7 and 11? Why play with design variations that use no parallel or perpendicular lines? There may be some underlying reasons for starting out on a particular set of explorations, but those decisions may just as easily come from an inexplicable instinct, a spark of insight as to what may work. Methodical creativity, then, is a means to fanning that initial spark into a flame.

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But there is a more essential role for intuition in this process: creativity is expressed through the question of what indeed does “just right” mean. As with partitions, there is no singularly correct answer; what feels just right is more often than not a matter of, well, feeling. Creativity, for me, is as much as anything else an indefinable sensation that occurs when I stare “just right” in the proverbial eye. Though I start out not knowing what a specific quilt ought to look like, when I strike upon that one design I simply know; that originating spark erupts as a bonfire before my very eyes. As such methodical creativity does not simply produce solutions (it is not a simple matter of input/output, of sterile formulae); it a manner of exploring and working, a route toward differing ways of seeing the panoply of possibilities inherent within the infinite.

The writers I know spend more time editing than writing (indeed the two are intimately linked), the artists spend more time thinking about what to make than actually making, just as the scientists, historians, academics in every discipline spend more time in the methodically working through the details and implications than anything else. All of these people are extraordinarily creative thinkers and makers, yet their greatest work springs forth through carefully developed methods, weddings of standard practices and individual inspiration and application. Methodical creativity is about putting in the work, spending the time searching for and perfecting insight rather than awaiting for inspiration from above. Ultimately, methodical creativity is, oddly enough, a leap of faith, an extraordinary belief that each of us has access to meaningful insights if only we put in the effort to find them. Rather than being mechanical, even robotic, it is deeply human, a trusting in ourselves to see those unique possibilities, to make meaning, to be creative.

More later,
-t

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2 Responses to A Treatise on Methodical Creativity…

  1. 1
    Caroline says:

    Wow. I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately, and this post hits the spot. Lots to take in! I can’t agree more that creativity is about “putting in the work” rather than waiting for (divine) inspiration. Creativity is like luck… it happens when preparation meets opportunity (or inspiration)!

  2. 2
    Nikki says:

    As one of the scientists to whom you allude, I have to agree with the significance of “method” to the creative process. Nothing can be “discovered” or “developed” or “invented” if what is already known is not first found and understood. “Intuitive leaps” may be effective and thrilling, but they inevitably come after a lot of stairs have been climbed. There’s nothing else for it: creativity requires a lot of “grunt work”.

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