Home Musicians and Scientists On creativity: How do you know if you’re having original thoughts?

On creativity: How do you know if you’re having original thoughts?

by Eva Amsen

The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that you never know if they are genuine. —Abraham Lincoln

I’ve never actually written any original music myself, because I don’t think I can. I think that every melody in my head, and every string of lyrics, is just something I’ve heard somewhere else.

With writing text I don’t fear that as much, but I still get nervous when my only source for some fact is one paragraph in one book. For example, in researching scientists and musicians, I’ve come across a particularly hilarious anecdote involving Edward Elgar and his home lab. I’d seen the same fragment quoted in every piece I read about it, and I ordered the original book it came from – a biography by W.H. Reed – to see if there was more. There is nothing else. There is just the one paragraph in this one book. That’s why everyone just quotes him; because there is no other way to tell this story, and because it’s the only account of the event. But it makes me uncomfortable. I go out of my way to check sources whenever I can. I could barely even include the apt fake Abraham Lincoln quote at the top of this post, because I don’t know the source (just that it wasn’t Lincoln, and it wasn’t me). So the only way I could write about Elgar’s funny lab story is the same way that everyone else did: We only know about it from this one account, here it is, insert quote. Staying factual, in this case, limits creativity.

Incidentally, creativity is one of the topics that keeps popping up in discussions I’m having about science and music. Are people who do science and music particularly creative? How would you measure that? What is creativity, even? What can I say about it without sounding like a pompous twat? Do I believe that you have to be creative to be a good scientists or musician? Do other people believe that? Are people going to be upset with me if I say that someone says that there is a connection? Can I distance myself? The topic of creativity is especially tricky, because you’re also constantly reminding readers to look at the text itself as a creative work. It’s definitely a topic I have so far avoided writing about.

I’ve also avoided reading about creativity, because what if I accidentally read something that describes exactly the thoughts I’m having, in the way I wanted to express it…or did I only just decide to express myself that way after I read it? See how tricky it is?

This is one of the reasons I’ve avoided reading Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Imagine‘. I met Jonah when we were both on the same science blogging panel at a session at Sci Foo a few years ago, but didn’t really get to talk much with him. He also didn’t say much in the panel, so I don’t actually know him, but I’m interested in his books. ‘Imagine’ is on my to-read list, but I keep letting other books pass it. It’s just too scary to read someone else’s thoughts on creativity before you get to write your own.

Another thing I’m always really careful with is the word “irony”. It’s misused so often, I prefer to stay away from it. I could easily have used it to describe Jonah Lehrer’s elaborate use of self-plagiarism in his columns. That’s not creative, so that’s ironic. But now we just learned that he was creative after all. In fact he was sometimes a bit too creative where it wasn’t appropriate: he fabricated a Bob Dylan quote in order to make a point. Oh dear.

I really do want to read the book now, because I no longer fear that it will inspire me to write in the same way about the same ideas. Unfortunately, just now ‘Imagine‘ gets near the top of my to-read list, it’s being pulled from sales due to the fabricated quote. Is that irony? No, Alanis, that’s just correlation. And was that original? No, that was a meme. You knew Alanis was getting a mention as soon as I said the word “irony” in the previous paragraph. See, I have no original thoughts. That’s why I’m not a songwriter. Which is fine; we can’t all be Bob Dylan. Not even Jonah Lehrer got away with being Bob Dylan.

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