Monday, October 20, 2003

Magic Sparks: The Birth Moment of Creativity

Bart Howard, composer of Fly Me To The Moon
:: The act of creation -- writing a poem for example -- is very much like giving birth: once issued, it grows, taking its own life beyond the control of the parent. Like a bird released into the sky, its owner can only watch, admire, worry ... and hope that the world treats it kindly. I've been thinking about what it's like for the creator at that moment of creation ....

Fly Me To The Moon, American songwriter Bart Howard's most memorable tune, was written in 1954. I don't know where he was or what he was doing when the inspiration hit -- humming in the shower? on a date with his beloved on a moonlit cruise? half buzzed in front of a dusty upright piano in a seedy rundown apartment as he feverishly puffed through a second pack of cigarettes and hadn't showered in three days? Or perhaps it was a standard commission and he calmly dashed off the few lines of the lyrics and quickly added the melody in a flash of "that's it, that's good", nodding and smiling as he set it aside to polish after lunch before sending it to his publisher in the afternoon post -- another productive morning for a commercially successful songster.

Fly me to the moon

And let me play among the stars

Let me see what spring is like

On Jupiter and Mars

In other words hold my hand

In other words darling kiss me

In those few moments of work for the human brain and heart -- Bart Howard, all alone in this case -- created a marvelous, memorable song which, surely, most people in the english-speaking world recognize instantly, like Lennon and MacCartney's plaintive Yesterday. How does someone touch the soul of so many with a few words, or a few sequences of musical tones, that were never quite put together that way before? What's the unique magic behind such creations which elude the millions (and billions) of other combinations of words or music?

Mona Lisa, by da Vinci c1503 and a playful hommage by Meyerowitz in 1971 When he painted it c1503, Leonardo da Vinci's modestly scaled portrait (a mere 21 x 30.5 inches, oil on wood) of a 24 year-old local noble woman, the expectation was that only a handful of people would ever have the opportunity to view it. But something took life in those brushstrokes the Italian laboured over exactly 500 years ago and countless reproductions since have brought the young lady's wistful smile to the attention of, literally, billions of people. An army of admirers has studied it, analysed it, poked it, prodded it, scanned it, scrapped it, touched it -- trying to figure out what makes the image so compelling. Even lampooning it has turned into a cottage industry; Rick Meyerowitz's Mona Gorilla from 1971 has in itself become a well-recognized image whose source of delight for the viewer stems directly from the playfulness of the original. Isn't it fascinating? We see the original in a new, and not a disparaged, light.

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

... two lines among hundreds penned by Shakespeare, one of many evocative inspirations which all of us can recite (even though relatively few of us has ever seen the play live), which fell from the Bard's richly fevered imagination. In the movie Shakespeare in Love we caught a glimpse of what the young playwright might really have been up to when he drew from the ether his most memorable lines ... but of course we shall never know for sure. Man, as a species, can boast many collaborative creative accomplishments -- like cosmological myths (the stuff of sacred texts) or the construction of an engineering marvel like San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge -- yet it is these solo acts of magic -- one man, one spark, one birth -- which I am most interested in. What do you suppose Handel was doing the day he wrote down "For unto us a child is born" or JS Bach dashed off the "Goldberg Variations"? While all of us have felt that visionary spark -- a special "aha!" -- in our own lives, and our own creations, how many of us have stumbled upon something bigger? Did John Donne recognize the impact of what he just wrote down when "No man is an island, entire of itself" slipped past a shakey quill clutched by his inky stained fingers?

AA Milne's beloved Winnie The Pooh as drawn by Ernest H Shepard :: Creativity is not unique to the arts of course. e=mc2 is as familiar to us as any line of poetry and it is an incredible stroke of insight -- but how many of us have any idea what it really means? It doesn't touch us; it doesn't make one's heart smile (although to a physicist his intellect may break out in a knowing grin). Creativity needs a context, something to give the words, or music, or images a background from which it may tap the power to capture the profound attention of millions, and occasionally (and remarkably) billions of people, and across the diverse cultures and dozens of generations. Now that it has been born, can we imagine a world in which King Lear or George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue has been forgotten? Childhood, or at least the child-like in all of us, bubbles giggling to the surface in AA Milne's character Winnie the Pooh (and in the delightful drrawings of co-conspirator and illustrator Ernest H Shepard) on page after page. Milne could have had Pooh utter the words "Oh nuts!" or "Gosh oh golly" or "How amazing" ... but somewhere, somehow, Milne sucked out of the collective consciousness that endearing groan of the bumbling, all-knowing, honey-obsessed bear -- "Oh, bother!". Have those two words ever been more charming? The context, as well as the words themselves, are part of the creative energy.

Recently, I have been working on a new rendition of Lao-tsu's Tao Te Ching, a thin book of chinese philosophy from about 500 BC. I am struck by how men so very long ago had such modern insight into what the world really is and how we may safely and serenely navigate through the whims and adversities of daily life using Lao-tsu as our guide. We are not so modern after all, if a voice -- 2500 years old and counting -- speaks to us so plainly. But that is the magic of the creative spark which far transcends its originator.

Michaelango's Sistine Chapel 1512 fresco, The Creation of Man When I was a teenager this notion fascinated me even then -- how could the Italian poet Dante, or middle-European lesbian Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, or Dutch painter Pieter Breughel, set down words and music and images which could set my heart on fire, feeling the "aha!" revelation in my toes that they had felt, though we are shifted across generations of time and a radically different cultural world? How awesomely glorious that a description of a descent into the circles of hell, or the soothing whisperings of women's voices in A Feather on the Breath of God, or the enchantment of peasants dancing in a rustic town square can make a heart leap today ... what was it like in that single moment that the artist "got it"?

It also occurred to me, and I have been testing this theory as I hurtle much too quickly toward 50, that a chief difference between "high art" and "pop art" is not merely that one may endure longer than the other but that whatever essence is in the original creation taps into something deeper in our souls and this grows inside us every time we revisit it. "Fly Me To The Moon", and "Yesterday", are both great songs but, for me, they are the same experience every time I digest them. They don't change me; they don't grow with me, or help me grow. But when I hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony ("Ode to Joy"), I am moved differently each time. I bring a new part of myself that has lived since the last hearing; and the work is richer. But of course the sounds, the notes, are the same, aren't they?

Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans as seen at New York's Museum of Modern Art, from 1962 :: I'm trying not to belabour the point, or belittle creations that lack "more spark", because those works are valuable too. But let's face it: Andy Warhol's "Campbell Soup Cans" or posterized portraits of Marilyn Munroe do not grab the gut in the same way as da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" or Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescos. What's different? The "high art" transfers something living to distinguish itself from its sometimes no less memorable "pop art" cousin. We are changed by the best, and continue to change. High art, perhaps, is a creative virus, egging us on, inspiring us to live richer, deeper lives.

Which brings me back to where I began: the act of creation, the moment of creating something really marvelous, might be a time of mundane everydayness. Did Michelangelo paint in the nude flat on his back high atop some scaffolding? Did Tennessee Williams pen "Glass Menagerie" in his underwear? Did Shakespeare have a fight with his lover the day he conjured the balcony scene? Was Bach embroiled in a petty bureacratic battle with his autocratic bosses while jotting down the Goldbergs? Was Bart Howard swooning over the memory of a tender kiss when he wrote the second half of his most famous song:

Fill my life with song

And let me sing forevermore

You are all I hope for

All I worship and adore

In other words please be true

In other words I love you

As a creative writer, I hope I may someday cobble together a phrase or two as successful as these, capable of stirring the souls of readers I'll never meet but who will come away from my words a little richer, a seed planted in the heart, and, when recalled, knowing the world is less black-and-white, and reality a little less harsh, discovering that we live our true lives inside, not outside, our skins.

(And it will be my secret what I was wearing, or thinking, or tasting, as these paragraphs slid from my fingers into electrons for you.)

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