Tag Archives: creativity

Creative concentration was easier pre-technology

A postscript to the Schumann review:

It’s been interesting to read some comments about this book from reviewers out there both professional and amateur, and the one that really sticks with me is the contention that Schumann’s exceptional productivity in certain phases of his life in indicative of some sort of mania. That would put John Worthen’s contention that the composer essentially was a stable personality in question.

I was inclined to agree that he probably was some sort of bipolar — he sketched the whole First Symphony in four days — but now that I think about it, I wonder whether that’s right. If someone today were cranking the music out that fast, and certainly there are some candidates, you’d have to think they were driven by something extraordinary that made them exceed the bounds of normal creative activity.

But now I think that in this case today’s audiences are too influenced by our contemporary lives to understand how people lived in the first half of the 19th century. Alex Ross, in writing about Leonard Bernstein’s taking of a leaf from the life of Gustav Mahler in thinking that he could write music and be a conductor at the same time, made the excellent point that Mahler didn’t do talk shows and that sort of thing. He had far less pressure from technology bringing the world right to him, which allowed him to shut himself up in his composing house and write. Bernstein wasn’t so lucky.

And by the same token, Schumann was living in the first decades of his life in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and his life ended in 1856, 20 years before the invention of the telephone. He had no technological distractions of the kind that make our lives seem so crowded, and it takes a feat of imagination to put yourself back in a time like that, when all that was required of you through the day as city dweller and not a farmer was to get to the work at hand.

So you could work, with no television in the background, no radio, no video games being played by the kids, no cars demanding constant attention, no lawnmowers to drag over the grass, no cellphones ringtoning endlessly throughout the day. You could really concentrate, and Schumann’s disciplined work habits, some learned at the feet of his successful bookselling father, made it that much easier to get the work done.

It’s an open question whether the literary and musical work of today’s writers is fatally compromised by the technological onslaught. I know when I need to finish something — and I’ve just completed the draft of a short work for organ — I don’t answer the phone or look at my e-mail. I make sure my workspace is silent and I try hard to concentrate on the task at hand.

And just as our post-penicillin mindset makes it difficult to understand a time when syphilis was endemic and leading experts could declare that it was possible to be cured, so is it very difficult to understand a time when there wasn’t anything going on except the day, and the time to be filled by creative work, or a stroll through the lindens, or an afternoon at the pub.

We have lost touch, I think, with how conducive that time was to artistic creation, and probably this, more than mania, helps explain Schumann’s remarkable creativity.

When the weather makes you work

A friend writes this week that certain kinds of weather seem more conducive to creativity than others, and with Tropical Storm Fay having moved through here with plenty of wind and rain in the past days, there was plenty of weather to choose from if you wanted.

But I know what she was getting at, and for myself, the most work-inciting weather in South Florida is any day in the winter when I can open up the windows and feel the fresh, cool air coming in. I usually have to wait until after Thanksgiving for that to happen, since right now it’s the time when all of us down here live in our air-conditioned boxes.

Give me January and February in South Florida, or a good late September or early October day up north, when there’s a snap in the atmosphere as the season changes from summer to autumn. It’s at those times that I feel especially pressed to work, which can mean composing music or writing prose, but can also mean reading something challenging and deep.

Nothing forces the mind into the serious groove like weeks of cool air, and these days I tend to judge what I’ve already done when the cooler days blow in — call it reckoning weather, and I think I might do that this year.

Goethe, it’s been pointed out, was heavily influenced by the weather, and always wrote down what the weather was in his journals. He also believed that it was important to understand that humans were part of nature, not beings apart, as the Australia-based Scots academic John Armstrong wrote in Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of Imagination from the Great German Poet, a fine book that was published in the United States early last year:

…Goethe thought there were great advantages to be won from demonstrating the connection between human life and that of the rest of nature. Being part of nature was not some kind of demotion — not a way of drawing us down from a privileged status one grade below the angels and perversely glorying in an ‘animal’ identity.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons he was so interested in the weather. Since creation is an ongoing thing in nature, and we are part of nature, then perhaps there are times when nature makes it more conducive for us to create.

And then, there’s a special kind of sadness that goes with the changing season, a memento mori, and as I get older I do feel more aware of the transitory nature of life itself. That not only makes me want to finish the things I have in mind, it also makes me want to savor the things I have already accomplished, small though they may be, and be grateful for them.