The death of Robin Williams makes me think about the nature of creativity and of opportunities lost to meet uniquely creative people. Steven Barnes commented about someone last weekend over dinner. He suggested that someone had some ethical flaws when younger, but that he had since strived to surround himself with good people, and in that process he became a better person himself. I would postulate that by surrounding yourself by creative people, you become more creative yourself. This is hardly an earthshattering observation. It is the concept behind writer’s workshops, artist retreats, and self-help seminars.
If you accept the premise that creativity is something you can acquire from association with others, or even accept the idea that this association with creative people provides inspiration to bring forth the creativity that lies dormant within yourself, then the question becomes, “What is the best way to gain creativity?” I postulate there are three ways in which you can be inspired by or to increase your personal creativity by association.
The first level is gained by reading the works of those who inspire you. Read what they have written, watch the films they have made, study the paintings they have painted. Analyze these works to within an inch of their lives. Try to not only understand the nature of the work, but the physical and mental processes used to produce it. Try to figure out the thought process that went into the creation of the work. If the artist has been interviewed in print or film, watch or read the interviews and take notes. This is where they might give insight into their creative process. Learn from people you admire and respect in whatever field it may be.
Charlie Rose is an expert at interviews. He manages to put the person he is talking to at ease. The guests if they are passionate about what they are doing even what would at first appear to be a boring subject is interesting. Charlie Rose brings this out in his guests. Examine the work of people who are passionate about what they do. Watch whatever you can find that helps you understand and feel that passion. Try to incorporate that passion and model their creative process in your own work. Model the passion and process, but don’t try to be them. You need to be creating your own work, rather than making poor replicas of someone else’s genius. Don’t model the person, many great artists have had problems. Robin Williams, who inspired this post, suffered from depression. Model what is great about their work, but be yourself.
The second level is gained by seeing the artist, scientist, or other person that inspires you in person. For many famous people this is a close as an average person can get. If you have a chance to see a great performer in person, go and see them before they are gone. The past couple of years is marked by the loss of Johnny Cash, Maya Angelou, and Robin Williams to name but a few. See them while you can. Drive hundreds of miles to see them. There is something intangible you gain from seeing people like this in person that you can’t get from just reading their work, watching their interviews, or reading a book. Seeing someone in person can be a life changing experience at best, or at least have a profound impact on you at a personal level.
If you are attending a university or college and there are guest lecturers coming to campus. If they are at the top of their field, go see them. Go see Richard Leaky, or Jane Goodall, or Noam Chomsky, even if they are not someone who are speakers in a field that normally interest you. See them anyway. If they are among the best in their field and are passionate about their work, go and see them in person. Take with you a portion of their passion and use it to drive your own creativity. Take from them new perspectives and approaches on how to view the world. They are sharing this in their lectures. Take advantage of the opportunity. If the choice is between going and seeing someone who is at the top of their field or going to a party with your friends, go to the lecture. You know the party will likely be sad, and in any case it will be remembered only until the next one, while the encounter with someone great will last a lifetime.
Look for inspiration in unlikely places. In college I once attended a guest lecture made by a faculty member. He was not very personable and was generally disliked by his students and though poorly of by his colleagues. Everyone came to his lecture, more out of curiosity about the man himself rather than his topic. He talked about phosphate mineralogy. Typically the crystals of the minerals that interested him were found in dull gray rocks and could only be seen with a microscope. The lecture was brilliant and fascinating. This was the man’s passion, and that came through in the lecture.
The third level is when you get a chance to meet your inspiration and talk to them in person and to spend some time with them. If you can wangle an opportunity to spend some time with them, do it. People will spend thousands of dollars to spend a weekend with people like Tony Robbins just for a chance to experience him in person. Again something intangible is gained by the experience. You have a chance to interact with them. You have a chance to ask them questions. You get to see how they handle themselves in their day to day lives.
Bob Dylan talks about how fans have a hero worship for him and how the attention he receives can be overwhelming. If you get a chance to spend time with someone at the top of their field, someone you find inspirational, don’t be a fan. Talk to them as a person, let them be a person instead of a mythological figure of power. Learn from them and take from the experience whatever they are willing to provide.