On Creativity and Perception

We’d been living in our new home for two full months before I noticed the birdhouse.

I saw it, finally, when I was practicing the piano — I was trying to solve a problem, some bit of Mozart or Schumann or Chopin that was at the edges of my abilities, and I turned from the bench to the window and there it was.

Sometimes the window is what we look out of when we’re actually trying to see something in our mind’s eye.

Sometimes we see a birdhouse, instead.

Here are some of the books that L and I are currently reading and/or re-reading:

  • Godel, Escher, Bach (Douglas Hofstadter)
  • Better Chess (William Hartston)
  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)

It took us two full weeks before we realized that all of these books seemed to be sending us the same message:

It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it has done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns.

One must develop the technique to calculate such [chess] sequences through to the end, even if it is ten or twenty moves deep. Only when you’ve calculated the calculable, and no clearly advantageous continuation emerges, is it time to move into the fuzzy thought of looking for the most promising path through the forest of incalculable possibilities.

Many of my readers have intuitively understood that this book is not only about learning to draw, and it is certainly not about Art with a capital A. The true subject is perception.

The often-used phrase “pay attention” is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.

Paying attention — perceiving — looking for patterns — finding possibilities.

I was playing Hanon Exercise #31 (the wrist rotation one, where the hands start a third apart) when I stopped to write down it’s all perception in my notebook and then got up to tell L that I had discovered another “secret to life.”

“Everything we want to do depends on perceiving what is actually there,” I said, “and then figuring out how to understand it and build on it.”

It’s the same for piano as it is for writing and composition and chess and drawing and acting and math. You have to work as hard as you can to see what is actually in front of you. You can’t make assumptions or take shortcuts — I mean, you could, but that’s how you get the type of creative work that is just a little bit imprecise. A game of chess that loses its fun because you’re moving pieces instead of playing. A line drawing that captures more of the idea that everyone knows what a chair looks like than the reality of the chair in front of you, the one with a specific height and depth and light source. A section of music that you’re always a little nervous about because you know you didn’t really solve the problem; you’re just hoping that tonight will be one of the nights when you play all of the right notes instead of a few of the wrong ones.

And — let’s be honest — deciding to keep reading beyond GEB Chapter 7, The Propositional Calculus because you get the gist, you know how Boolean logic works… and then deciding to go back and really, truly learn it.

“So how can we strengthen our perception muscle?” I asked. “I mean, maybe it’s in the second half of the Kahneman or something and I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”

Then I said “No, wait. It’s in Cal Newport’s Deep Work. The secret to sustaining periods of deep work is to take deep breaks. Not, like, scattered-thought breaks where you check Twitter or email or whatever. They can be social breaks, you can have a conversation with someone you love, but he says the best kind of deep break is the kind that is performed without the influence of other minds.”

I paused.

“So, essentially, walking without your earbuds in. Or meditation.”

The trouble is that I like to use my walks to study music, and I like to use my yoga practice to listen to NPR’s Up First and other podcasts, so my actual alone-with-my-own-thoughts deep break time is somewhat limited.

That might have been why I woke up at 3:30 a.m. last night and did not get back to sleep until it was time to get out of bed.

Which, in turn, might be why I’m making this blog post just a little bit imprecise by doing the easy work of adding section breaks instead of the more difficult work of writing effective transitions.

What I need is obvious — and for once, it’s tied right in with what I want.

To give myself the kind of life where I can do my best work, as a writer and a teacher and a pianist and a partner and even, if we go far enough down the list, as a chess player.

Which means I have to build the kind of perception muscles that can both understand how the game is played and be able to create the game anew, every time.

This all goes double for my freelance work, of course, and it may be one of the reasons why I’ve been able to thrive as a freelance writer; I’ve developed the ability to understand how a piece should be structured and to create a piece that goes beyond the structure to communicate something compelling and informative and new.

But to work this hard, on freelancing and Mozart and everything else, means I have to build in better breaks and deeper rest — to take care of myself, so that I can put my attention towards what truly deserves it.

There’s one more thing.

One more “secret to life,” as I like to call it.

Nobody cares if I can play Hanon Exercise #31 in every key, or if I learn how to draw a chair, or if I finally beat L at chess. The world will keep spinning whether I understand the Propositional Calculus or not, or whether I keep working at the secret writing project I’ve started tackling at 6:55 in the morning. I am an ordinary person who is trying to make art, and there’s something heroic about that (as L would put it) but also something admirably inconsequential.

Because the actual consequence — the reason behind all of this creativity — is that creating makes you more perceptive.

It’s the other way to strengthen your perception muscle, besides walking and meditation and yoga and whatever turns out to be in the second half of the Kahneman.

And all of that perceptivity, in turn, makes you more receptive — to a new idea, to a new person, to what you actually want and need. To change. To growth. To everything.

Practicing the piano, if I may put too fine a point on it, helps you turn around and see the birdhouse.

Even though it was there the entire time. ❤️

Previous Article
Next Article