Creativity Class Blog Project

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

This morning I read about Kurt Vonnegut’s death. It’s a bummer when the world loses genius and the contributions of creative genius. This place won’t be the same without him.

I wanted to take a few minutes to offer my contribution to remembering Kurt Vonnegut. When I was in undergrad at Northern Kentucky University I attended a Kurt Vonnegut lecture at NKU. I don’t even know if I’d read any Vonnegut at that point but something drew me to that lecture…it just didn’t get me there on time. So I stood in the back of a packed auditorium and listened to the disembodied voice of a person I couldn’t see. But I didn’t have to see him. In many ways hearing Vonnegut was like reading Vonnegut, his presence is in the words. The time flew and before I knew it the lecture was over and I didn’t want it end. I could have listened to him speak all night long. He was incredible. I don’t think I’d ever been moved like that by a lecture before.

After that night, I bought used Vonnegut paperbacks and read them cover to cover. Vonnegut exposed me to world views that somehow made more sense to me than any of the others I’d know to that point. I was changed.

I love that Kurt Vonnegut stayed vocal, stayed involved and kept interjecting his voice in public discourse. I admit I haven’t read A Man Without a Country (my excuse = I’ve been in graduate school and reading too much as it is, but that’s just an excuse) but I love that he wrote it. I heard him speak after the book came out and I loved what he had to say about it. I love that a WWII POW offers us that kind of insight and perspective. I’m so grateful that the voice of Kurt Vonnegut spanned so many decades.

One of the interviews that Kurt Vonnegut gave after A Man Without a Country was in SecondLife with John Hockenberry. How cool is that? How relevant and involved is that? I didn’t find out about it until after the fact but fortunately there’s a video available at Watching it reminded me of that night twenty years standing in the back of the packed auditorium at NKU. His words are just as powerful.

I’m sorry that we won’t hear any more from Kurt Vonnegut and, at the same time so very grateful for all that he left with us. This place won’t be the same without him. So it goes.

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Emily Dickinson and Creativity

Emily DickinsonToday is the birthday of Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is regarded as the one of the greatest 19th century poets, and certainly one of the most original. Interestingly enough Dickinson did not write poetry with aspirations of being published. In fact, it is suspected that the few poems that were published in her lifetime were done so without her knowledge.

Emily Dickinson offers a profound example of creating art for the sake of art. Early in her writing career she asked a prominent critic for his opinion of her work. His response was less than encouraging. Dickinson continued to write but choose to keep her poems to herself. She wrote over 1,700 poems in her life, with no intention of publishing her work and with no need for external validation. She did not write to pay the bills. She wrote because she knew she was a poet whether the world acknowledged her as such or not.

What role does motivation play in creativity or in the end product? Is art for the sake of art different than art for the sake of paying the rent? Is one “better” than another? Does motivation impact the quality of work?

It wasn’t until the 20th century that Dickinson’s posthumously published work became popular. This also reminds us of the role of time and the role of an audience in recognizing creativity. Emily Dickinson’s work didn’t change over time, but critical acceptance of her work did.

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Grace Hopper and Creativity

Grace HopperToday is the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Grace Hopper. Hopper was an early pioneer in the field of computing back when a computer took up a whole room and was made of switches, relays and vacuum tubes. She was the first programmer on the Mark I computer and later worked on the Mark II and the Mark III. All of these early computers preceded the UNIVAC, for which she also worked in developing a computer language.

Perhaps her most significant contribution to computing was in the development of the COBOL programming language. COBOL was a revolutionary computer language because it was the first language that was more similar to English than to machine language code. This fundamental difference is attributed to Hopper and her philosophy that humans should be able to communicate with computers in something that resembled plain English.

So what’s the connection to creativity?? There are actually a couple of connections I think. First, Grace Hopper was interested in gadgets from the time that she was a kid. She liked taking things apart and trying to put them back together. This demonstrates a curiosity which seems to be one element that most people agree is fundamental to creativity. Grace Hopper worked into her 80’s and it seems that all of her work, for all of those years, was motivated by an enthusiastic curiosity. She loved what she did.

Another interesting note in this story is that Hopper often joked that she was motivated to develop a computer language that wasn’t based solely on numbers because she couldn’t balance her checkbook. Whether this is factual or the self-effacing humor of a mathematical genius isn’t really the point. Here’s a woman with a B.A. in Math and Physics, and both an M.A. and Ph.D. in Math whose greatest achievement is moving computer languages away from math. I think she got the big picture. She saw the potential for programming languages that weren’t written in machine code, she articulated this vision and she saw to bringing it about. I think that is the essence of changing a domain.

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Rainer Maria Rilke and Creativity

Letters to a Young PoetToday is the birthday of Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke’s most famous poems include Sonnets to Orpheus and Duine Elegies. In the United States, he is perhaps best known for his Letters to a Young Poet, a volume of collected correspondence with an aspiring writer. It’s a small book but in it Rilke offers advice that is still very relevant today, not just to those contemplating their writing but people pursuing all kinds of creative endeavors.

One passage of Rilke’s on this topic that is often quote is:

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid doing right now. No one can advise or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

A bit futher down in the same section, he continues:

And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not.

Continuing to emphasize this point, he says:

So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.

Near the end of the letter, he reiterates:

If, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all.

For Rilke, art and creativity are mandates from within. The artist is compelled to create because they can not imagine life without their craft, nothing less will do.

This is just a brief sampling of the wisdom found in Letters to a Young Poet. It’s a short book and a very easy read. It’s ten letters, each with something different to offer on the subject of creativity and being an artist. For those of us with a holiday break coming up, it could be a good investment. Enjoy!

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Dickens, Great Expectations, Creativity & Motivation

Great Expectations (Penguin Classics)This week was the anniversary of the first installment of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. At the time (1860), Dickens edited a weekly magazine titled All the Year Round, and Great Expectations was serialized in his magazine over the course of nine months. What motivated Dickens to write Great Expectations is an interesting study in creativity (or, at least one kind of creativity).

Apparently, Dickens was experiencing some serious financial hardship at the time. He had separated from his wife and was paying her living expenses, as well as contributing to his sons’ living expenses as well. In addition, he had purchased the mansion of his dreams which had set him back a bit financially AND his magazine wasn’t selling well. Dickens needed to find a way to come up with some cash, so he decided to write a new novel. That was the motivation for writing what is considered by many to be one of Dickens’ best novels - the need to pay the bills.

This raises a question that often comes up in Creativity class, how do creative people strike a balance between honoring their craft and paying the bills? We’ve talked about the importance of the role of patrons to creativity because they enabled artists to create without having to worry about paying the bills (though this system wasn’t without its complications). Is creating something specifically for the purpose of making money “selling out?”

Dickens is considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of all time. His work is popular worldwide and none of his books have ever gone out of print. Dickens was popular because he was a great storyteller. His motivation might have been to pay the bills, but the quality of his writing was never compromised. He didn’t pander to the least common denominator, he didn’t write just to make money, he created great literature that’s just as important today as it was when he wrote it. Creating something that sells (well) doesn’t have to equal selling out.

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A copy of “How To Be Creative” just for you…

Hugh Macleod is a marketing guy, his website is at He’s probably best known for his blog which features his business-card cartoons - they are marvelous. A while ago, he also put together a post titled “How To Be Creative” which initially had 26 suggestions for increasing personal creativity - a sort of creativity manifesto, complete with accompanying cartoons.

The folks at were so good as to put Hugh’s work into a very stylish .pdf that can be freely distributed. So, I am happy to make Hugh Macleod’s “How To Be Creative” available to you to download. It’s a great read with a lot of good advice. Enjoy!

(Since the ChangeThis version was published, Hugh had a added to his list. The complete online version can be found here.)

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MacArthur Fellows and Creativity

I’ve always had a fascination with the MacArthur Fellowship, MacArthur Fellows, and their projects. There are just so many cool things about the program - the concept of an ever-changing, anonymous group of nominators, the whole no-strings attrached, no reports, no restrictions on how the money can be spent, and just the idea of being handed half a million dollars to cover you for five years. How cool is that? And it’s completely about rewarding creativity and supporting creative pursuitscreativity, entirely, start to finish about creativity.

The Fellowship FAQ describes the program as a “five-year grant to individuals who show exceptional creativity.” There are three criteria for selection of Fellows:

  1. exceptional creativity,
  2. promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and
  3. potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

All about creativity. But how does the MacArthur Foundation define creativity? Once again from the Fellowship FAQ:

Creativity, like humor, can get lost in definition – not because it cannot be described, but because it can be expressed in limitless variations. In this program, we have found it useful to regard creativity as the expression of human endeavor as individuals actively make or find something new, or connect the seemingly unconnected in significant ways.

(The “connect the seemingly unconnected” part reminds me of Robert Sutton’s idea of “use old things in new places, ways of combinations.”)

The answer goes on to talk about “path-breaking efforts of individuals” and “expanding the boundaries of knowledge and human interaction.” One of the most amazing features of the fellowship is that it really does recognize people from almost every area of human endeavor. The group of 2006 Fellows includes a jazz violinist, a country doctor, a short story writer, a mathematician, a computer scientist, and a deep-sea explorer. And that’s just one year’s worth of Fellows. The list of all Fellows by domain is even more diverse!

There are so many fascinating stories among the MacArthur Fellows that I’d like post about some of the Fellowship winners individually in the future, but that’s for another day. In the meantime, go be creative!

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Georgia O’Keeffe and Creativity

Georgia O'KeeffeToday is the birthday of Georgia O’Keeffe, the American artist perhaps best known for her paintings of the southwest. Her work was groundbreaking for its time and she was one of the first American modernists. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be an artist and persevered in art despite the fact that she painted in a time when women artists were not taken seriously. She was the first woman to be the subject of a solo exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1946 and is considered one of the most successful American women painters. Georgia O’Keeffe left a legacy of significant contributions to the domain of modern art.

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Robert Sutton on “What is Creativity?”

Robert SuttonRobert Sutton is co-director of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization at Stanford. He wrote Weird Ideas That Work which, even though it’s basically a management book, has a lot to say about creativity. Sutton is very engaging and entertaining, in both his writing and speaking.

Last week I stumbled on an mp3 of a talk that he gave as part of the Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Speaker Series at Stanford. It’s awesome and I highly recommend it. The drawback is it’s over an hour long. Today I found video clips from the talk that break it down into 2-6 minute little, bite-sized chunks. One clip is titled “What is Creativity?” It’s 6 and a half minutes long will give you a good sense of Sutton, his presentation style and this talk in particular. If you like the video clip, be sure to check out some of the other clips. Better yet, get the mp3, load it on your player and listen to the whole thing.

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Roland Barthes’ Birthday

Roland BarthesIn addition to “Approaches to Creativity”, I’m also taking a class in Narrative Theory, so I couldn’t pass up posting about Roland Barthes’ birthday. Barthes made significant contributions to a number of fields of study, but particularly to the fields of semiology and literary criticism. Even though he passed away over 25 years ago, his influence is still very present today and continues to be the basis of much research.

Born in France, Barthes was primarily a social and literary critic but he was also a philosopher and social theorist. He was known for his unconventional and unorthodox approach to virtually everything. Early in his career, Barthes applied the concepts of semiology to the analysis of a broad range of signs, myths and rituals of contemporary culture, including newspapers, women’s magazines, films, toys, food, soap powders, cars, wrestling matches, the circus, and striptease acts. He compared cars to gothic cathedrals. He was among the first to take a scholarly approach to mass culture, what has since become known as the field of cultural studes.

One interesting note of trivia… Barthes worked briefly as a consultant to the auto manufacturer Renault after his work caught the eye of someone at the company’s advertising firm.

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