Last Friday I gave a talk called “The Creative Tensions” at CD Baby’s DIY Musician Conference here in Austin, TX. It was only my second in-person talk since the pandemic. Great audience. I had a lot of fun.
Sometimes when I have an idea that I think could be a book and the right client comes along, I’ll pitch it to them. If they say yes, it gives me a deadline to produce something. (Steal Like an Artist started this way, as did Keep Going.)
The idea behind “The Creative Tensions” came directly from Iain McGilchrist’s writing on “The Coincidence of Opposites” and Heraclitus’s ancient idea of “the harmony of tensions”:
The basic idea of the talk is that creative work has a series of tensions which are created by opposing forces. These tensions are not to be avoided or alleviated, but embraced as energy sources and sites of creative possibility.
Heraclitus talked about the lyre (think of a small harp) and bow and arrow. I used the metaphor of a guitar: If a guitar string is wound too slack, it buzzes and makes no note. If it’s wound too tight, it’ll snap. Either way, no music. There is a proper tension that makes the string sing.
And so it is with tension in creative work: we can’t really avoid it, we can only find the proper tension.
What became clear to me when I started putting the talk together is that my books have already addressed a lot of these tensions, just not in this explicit framework. So what I came up with was more of a remix of old and new materials. (That in itself is a particular tension embedded in speaking: working up new material vs. “playing the hits.”)
In the course of my research, I came across some stuff I had completely forgot about, such as the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s list of the 10 “paradoxical traits” of creative people:
1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest.
2. Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time.
3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
4. Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality.
5. Creative people trend to be both extroverted and introverted.
6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time.
7. Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.
8. Creative people are both rebellious and conservative.
9. Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment.
“Paradox” is a term that has, surprisingly, been used more in business books than creativity books. A brand-new one I came across is Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis’s Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems. In the book they differentiate and define tensions, dilemmas, and paradoxes.
As I understand their framework, they see most of the dilemmas we come across as made up of tensions that are the result of underlying paradoxes. The way to get through these dilemmas is to set aside the forced choice of either/or thinking and embrace “both/and” thinking, by acknowledging the tension and understanding the paradox beneath it.
They had two metaphors that, while they don’t necessarily hang together gracefully, are interesting solutions to some dilemmas. First is the mule: you take two opposites and breed them together to produce a weird hybrid. Second is the tightrope walker, who moves forward by shifting ever so slightly in opposite directions. Sometimes these two overlap: while tightrope walking, you discover a mule, etc. (Again, the metaphors don’t exactly fit together gracefully, but you get the drift.)
This is, again, all really ancient wisdom. It’s there in Heraclitus’s Fragments and in the Tao Te Ching and numerous other texts, particularly ones in eastern philosophy. It’s also what John Keats was talking about with “negative capability” and what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant by “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Back to the talk: While I had fun putting it together and a lot of fun delivering it, it did show me that I’m not sure I have enough new material for a book yet. I sometimes get over-excited when I come across what I think is a great structure or framework. But I do reserve the right to someday do a book structured by pairs of opposites, a la Leonard Shlain’s Art & Physics and The Alphabet Versus The Goddess, which had chapter titles like “Illusion/Reality,” “Sacred/Profane,” “Image/Word,” Birth/Death,” etc.
And speaking of opposites, here are links to a few pieces I’ve written addressing creative tensions that I haven’t quite gotten to tackle in a book yet:
Pirate/Farmer (which, come to think of it, is very similar to explore/exploit)
Okay, now I want to hear from you: What are the creative tensions in your work? How do you deal with them? What books should I read on the subject of paradox?
Also: if you’d like to hire me to give a talk, here’s my speaking page.
See you Friday!
A tension that comes up a lot in my professional work as a graphic designer is between what John Cleese called the open and closed mode (there's a talk on Creativity in Management you can find on YouTube). The open mode is playful, humorous, exploratory, while the closed mode is tighter, more hierarchical. Closed mode is the mindset most people have in business contexts. I think there's a little overlap between this and explore/exploit.
As a designer, I have to adhere to brand guidelines and the constraints of the project brief. But ideally, I'll have enough room to play around and explore. In the past, I've even intentionally broken the rules in the early stages of a project or purposely made something that looked horrible just to get myself to open up. My favorite place to be is right at the edge, pushing hard against the constraints. (Unfortunately, a lot of my recent day job work hasn't given me as much room to explore.)
Writing is similar I think - there's a tension between creation and editing. George Saunders has been very helpful here. His book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is incredible, as is his substack Story Club.
Thanks for this post, Austin. There's a lot of meaty stuff here I want to go back and explore.
This immediately brought to mind Keats’ notion of “negative capability,” which he wrote about in a letter to his brothers:
“several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – “
There’s a tension there, I think, and it’s a very difficult position to maintain. I live on a tree-lined street (big oaks, mostly), and sometimes when I’m walking toward home and there’s a light breeze in the branches, I feel like I’m caught up in some sort of mystery. I once described it to a friend as walking down The Avenue of the Holy Ghost.
But only for a moment. There’s always that kill-joy voice in my head saying, “They’re only trees.” I wish I could stay balanced in the moment for longer--the moment of being in the world and outside of it at the same time--but it’s hard.
As for negative capability and creativity--I think when I'm writing really well or totally immersed in a creative project of any sort, there's also that tension/balance between a kind of dream state and a very practical application of craft. You need both, I think, to make something really interesting.
I hope this makes sense. I have Covid, so it’s possible I’m rambling like a madwoman.