The creative tensions
Embracing the paradoxical forces of art work
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 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!