The Creativity Myth
Kevin Ashton

Inspiration is a Myth.

I am uncomfortable with the word “inspiration.” It makes what I do as a composer seem like it’s magic. What I really do is a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of experimentation: a lot of listening, reading, watching, walking, singing, talking, clapping, drawing, typing, clicking, and of course, thinking. These are all — with the possible exception of thinking — relatively active things. Inspiration is always described as something that happens to a an author, rather than anything the author did.

Creativity doesn’t happen to me. I create.

It is easy to think of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel or carving David from a giant block of marble as lots of hard work. Writing a poem or string quartet, while more abstract, is the same cognitive work.

Certainly, I get ideas from external sources. But except for the rarest of circumstances, those ideas don’t just lie in wait to pounce on me. I have to seek them out. Even when when I unintentionally encounter a new idea, I have to be in an intellectually engaged and open enough to allow that idea to become meaningful to my creative process. If I wait for inspiration to strike me before I start writing a note, I would quite literally never meet a deadline of any kind, neither proposed by a commissioner or myself.

The most insidious result of the creativity-is-magic narrative is that it separates composers from other people. I think people are comforted by the idea that they are incapable of making something because it gives them an excuse to not try. It’s much easier to just say “you’re talented and special” than to do something. I don’t have a higher midichlorian count than anybody else. However, there’s a reason more people watch The Biggest Loser than actually go to a gym. It’s just more comforting to think that those special televisionpeople have something special that we mortals don’t.

I see this even among musicians. When I tell performers that I teach composition lessons, I’m often asked “what do you do in a composition lesson?” My somewhat cheeky response is usually that it’s the same as a violin lesson. The student comes in and demonstrates what she has worked on in the last week. Then, we discuss how it could be improved and what to work on in the coming weeks and months. (The biggest difference is that a composition lesson is much harder to “fake” when the student isn’t prepared.)

Misconceptions about creativity and inspiration aren’t just irksome. I think they’re a very important part of why the arts are struggling. People see them as a special thing for special people. I’m not special. I don’t have a direct-line to a special inspirational ether. It’s not even the original nugget of an idea that is what makes a piece interesting or shows a composer’s virtuosity; rather, it’s the way the idea is used that demonstrates artistic excellence. That is the part of the process that is a process. It’s not the first four notes of Beethoven’s symphony that make the work so special. It’s all the hard work that came after.

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