Holding creativity up to the light

“How the fuck do you write so many books?” George RR Martin asks Stephen King in this interview. At a mundane level, there’s an obvious explanation for the difference between these authors: King writes daily and dutifully churns out 30+ pages per week; if GRRM finishes a chapter, he considers it an unusually productive couple of months. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a mystery here. Some might even call it the mystery, as far as writers are concerned.

If King creates more than GRRM, does that make him more creative? (“No!” you yell into a computer screen deaf to your anguish, ruing the moment you chose this post to distract you from the blank Google doc sulking in your taskbar.) The verb certainly seems to go with the adjective, doesn’t it? And yet, intuitively it seems not quite right, like something needs to be added before “creating” can be transformed into “creative”, or else we’d have to start calling people like Nora Roberts creative geniuses.

So perhaps you also need to bake in “originality” or “imagination” or something in order to have a fully-fledged definition of creativity. But then you may wonder why these concepts would come to complicate our clean little definition from before, rather than keeping to their own adjectives. And in fact, there’s a very good reason, which I will illustrate with the following convoluted analogy.

The scavenger hunt

If you want to get from point A, one corner of an empty room, to point B, the opposite corner, it’s a pretty straightforward operation. We can make it a bit harder by hiding B in the next room over, forcing you to use more time and more steps to get there, but you’re almost sure to make it anyway.

Now point A is a room inside a vast mansion with point Bs scattered throughout. I’ve already run this game with many friends in your place before, so I’m all set with security cameras to watch your every movement. Of course I’m not surprised when you get the obvious Bs close to your starting point, just as most of the people before you have. Naturally, those are worth less. In fact, the Bs are all worth more or less as a function of how often they were found.

You want to win, so you figure you’ll just scour the whole place, right? Wrong! I’ve been counting your steps as I watch you from my secret lair, and once you hit a certain pre-specified number, thwip goes the tranquilizer dart into your neck, and my goons drag you back to square one.

“It’s not fair,” you might whine, “You gave Susie 100 steps and I only got 50!” To which I reply shut up, do you know how many veterinarians I had to bribe to get the good stuff? Don’t look a gift horse tranquilizer in the mouth. But maybe I take pity on you, and I reveal some secret trap doors and dumbwaiters behind paintings and bookcases and so on, shortcuts to spots other people had to trudge to on their own two feet.

In the end you come away with a score based on how many different Bs you’d found, and how many Bs you’d found that other people hadn’t. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve done one of those divergent thinking tests that rewards you for coming up with words that other players miss (ie Boggle), or more generally because it’s approximately how we allocate the title of “creative” in the real world.

If you’ll notice, your score doesn’t reflect how you got there. All it reflects is your ability to get from point A to some desired point B, and that’s primarily what “creative” means too. It’s a word designed for consumers, not the backend, a term denoting “a person who can make stuff that I want”. And as an investor, who would you be funding if not “people who can make stuff that other people want”?

The scavengers’ craft

Unfortunately, that leaves those of us that want to talk about process with a senseless morass of conflated concepts. Sure you got to point B, but how? Am I doomed if I don’t have that many steps in me? What if I can’t find any trap doors? And how can I ask any of these questions if I don’t have the words for them? (The “insecure artist” is a popular caricature, but how do you think you would fare if you had no coherent way of communicating about your professional obstacles?)

So in the interest of clearer discussion, I propose the following facets: generativeness, and divergence.

Generativeness, in figurative terms, is how many steps you’re allowed before I tranquilize you. It could be expressed at a high level–how much you talk in conversation, how many words you’ve written, how much stuff you’ve created–or a low level–how many ideas occur to you, how far you run with them, etc. It’s a sort of measure of “raw power”, and it has little to do with content.

Divergence describes how weird your path is–when everyone else looked right or left, you looked up; when everyone else was searching for stairs, you checked out a neglected corner and fell down a mine shaft.

Though they may seem like strange bedfellows to inhabit one word, you’ll find they can indeed accomplish similar ends. A generative person can brute force their way to the less popular prizes by simply walking the well-trod path farther than others do, while a divergent person stumbles upon them by way of lesser-known routes. However, depending on how the game is set up, they can end up finding many of the same prizes, or entirely different sets, which in the real world means that these talents can’t substitute for each other in many types of tasks.

Worse, no standard set of “creativity boosting” advice will affect both traits in the same way. King may use cigarettes and booze to keep his juices flowing, but would any of us really be that excited if Martin delivered a scotch-soaked draft of Winds of Winter? (The answer is: yes, obviously, but not for the right reasons.) It’s no accident that every writer who ever lived had a bunch of idiosyncratic little habits that didn’t work for a substantial chunk of the people who tried them.

Hopefully someday, instead of telling everyone that real writers write for 3 hours each day or drink a pot of black coffee at 4pm or pat their head and rub their stomach before sitting down to work, writing advice will come with a disclaimer about the sort of strengths it plays to, and the sort it doesn’t. The first step on that path, of course, is for people to start figuring out what strengths they do have.

In defense of snobbery

I used to have pretty emphatic opinions about which media was high quality and which wasn’t, and rarely hesitated to make them known. I’ve since renounced not only voicing such opinions, but having them in the first place, and have cultivated acute embarrassment over a past me who would do my friends the kindness of informing them that that movie they liked was terrible. (Though it was meant as “good-natured ribbing”, many social groups read this behavior as “dickish”, and the line between those two is often fine enough to be invisible.)

In tandem I’ve developed an envy of those pure souls whose love for things was never poisoned by a critic’s disapproval or a particularly cutting internet comment, either because it was proof of the earnestness that I as a Cynical Worldly Adult lacked, or because it meant they were too busy caring about things that actually mattered to get caught up in squabbles over what was essentially fashion.

Occasionally I revisit things from the height of my snobbery period, expecting to be disappointed, but instead I’m almost always shocked by how good it still is. The mindset I had when I developed those tastes wasn’t exactly admirable–it often felt competitive and even mildly paranoid–but it did the job of pushing me away from lower effort pop art and toward things that I believe were genuinely richer and more complex. In itself I’m not sure how virtuous that is, but these were the things I had in my life before I had access to medication or satisfying relationships or autonomy, and in addition to being useful for directly modulating my emotional states, they gave me something to connect to when everyone I knew was a replicant.

Snobbery gets a bad rap because it seems to exist for the sole purpose of weaponizing taste, and I’m not sure what proportion of snobs actually are in that game, but there’s some idealized version of snobbery that’s mostly about incentivizing people to like things that are better for them and spend less time on junk. Unfortunately, it’s hard not to cause offense if implemented at the individual level, and I’m generally down on directly insulting your friends. If only there were some sort of institution that everyone in your social sphere went through in their formative years which exposed them to important culture…

 

Learn about me if you want I guess: an interview by Katja Grace

Facts about my life and mental properties. Answers given off-the-cuff and intoxicated, so likely to be disavowed by the me of two weeks in the future.

K: What would be the best thing about being in a cult?

T: I guess you would never have to decide what to wear. Or who to have sex with.

K: Maybe I can help advise you on who to have sex with. Are you hoping to get any particular value from having sex?

T: What value do people usually get from having sex? Like, what are my options?

K: I think your options are broader than the mere value people usually get.

T: Ok, I’m hoping for spiritual revelation.

K: Have you ever tried religion?

T: Does atheist Buddhism count?

K: Did you get any spiritual revelations?

T: No. I was mostly that because my best friend in middle school was an atheist Buddhist. We did weird things together and it was one of the weird things.

K: Why do you want a spiritual revelation?

T: Sounds fun, doesn’t happen every day. People who have them often change their whole lives afterwards. It’s like another thing that’s telling you what to do.

K: Why don’t you want to decide what to do?

T: There are often many options and they often have many pros and cons and it’s very unclear how to weight them, so I end up spending a lot of time on spreadsheets, which is maybe not that functional.

K: Who would you be most happy if someone told you to have sex with?

T: Of all living people, maybe the actor who plays Cesare Borgia in Borgia (not the Showtime show The Borgias). For people I know, I should optimize for least likely to spontaneously have sex with. So I have, ok, gee, I really don’t want this on my blog profile. [censored]

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Take a moment to appreciate this lustrous mane.

K: Why do you spontaneously have sex with people?

T: I guess it only happens if they initiate it. In a way, sex is sort of a low risk activity.

K: Wow, what else do you do?

T: I mean, it’s safer than [censored]. And even if it’s not stellar sex, it’s a decent way to pass the time.

K: What characteristic is most likely to lead to stellar sex?

T: The person being good at sex. Also, [censored]

K: What makes a person good at sex?

T: It’s sort of mysterious. I feel like I’m not very good at paying attention during sex to the things going on. I can tell you things that make people bad at sex though. For instance, biting other people’s genitals. Also, not responding to other people’s indications that they are in pain because you have bitten their genitals.

K: Lots of great sex advice here.

T: Better than Cosmo.

One skill that’s really great to have is not being a nineteen year old boy.

K: Does your mother know you’re gay? [More accurately bi — ed]

T: I think she suspects very strongly. I think she once said out of the blue, “You know, it’s ok if you’re gay.”

K: What is the most annoying thing about other people that is also true of you?

T: I think it’s really annoying when I’m depressed and people are obnoxiously having fun.

K: If all of your superficial characteristics were changed, what short set of instructions would let a person pick you out from the crowd?

T: The person standing awkwardly and not talking to anyone.

K: From a Rationalist crowd?

T: I’d be talking about stimulants or executive function rather than AI risk.

K: Why do you talk about those things instead of AI risk?

T: Because I don’t know enough about AI not to make a fool of myself, and obviously talking endlessly about your special interest is how you signal friendliness.

K: Who is a person you admire for their behavior other than sexiness? Why?

T: Miyazaki made the best anime films ever, and also some of the best films ever period, and also just seems like a great guy. Like, he’s nice to his subordinates. And he has cool glasses.

K: If you had to have a mental health problem you don’t already have, which one would you want?

T: For a really long time I had an obsession with Cotard’s syndrome, but mostly because it was really horrifying. But, despite my fear of psychosis, it seems like mania might be fun.

K: What is a thing that humans do that you think should receive less stigma?

T: Not greeting people.

K: What is a thing that should receive more stigma?

T: Greeting people? Generally being loud.

K: If you had to run a cult, what would it be like?

T: I would most likely get a bunch of sub-leaders and delegate all of my power amongst them.

K: It sounds like you don’t like power.

T: I like the power to delegate.

K: Have you considered being a pet? Pets don’t have to make decisions ever, except things like which way to pace around the table, plus you can sit on people’s keyboards and such.

T: There was arguably a time when I was a pet. To the point of wearing cat ears.

K: Tell me more.

T: I guess my relationship nickname was ‘kitten’ and I had cat ears I wore sometimes. And sometimes I would meow at my partner. And also I would ask if I could haz things.

K: How do you feel about memes?

T: I feel like if I didn’t like memes I wouldn’t spend as much time as I do on Tumblr.

K: If you learned that someone really liked you, why would you guess that was?

T: Probably because I had appropriate special interests.

K: How did you acquire your special interests?

T: I guess I got interested in executive function because I thought [censored] was autistic, and then I read some autistic blogs that talked about executive function and I thought “Wow, this is what is missing from my life!” And I think then I got interested in stimulants because I like taking them.

K: How does Scott Alexander in person differ from what you expected?

T: I think I had heard people describe how he is, so not that much. I suppose he may be more soft-spoken than I would have expected.

K: Do you have a list of characteristics you want a person in a relationship with you to have?

T: More than twenty-two years old is good, intelligent is also good, not a jerk is pretty good… some really high bars here. Also I guess funny is fairly important.

K: Why?

T: The thing that mentally ill people have is humor, and if we didn’t have that, life would not be very good.

K: Do we not also have cheesecake?

T: Yes, but not all of the time.

K: Do you think people should talk more or less about their mental illnesses in public?

T: It depends how they talk about it. I’m tired of people who got depressed once writing long think pieces about how they understand everything about depression now. I think for people with very serious mental illnesses, it would be good if they talked more about them.

K: What is a surprising fact about you, from the perspective of a person who has had a substantive discussion with you about five times?

T: I don’t actually know that I have any surprising characteristics in that case.

K: A contradiction–that’s pretty surprising.

T: Is it more surprising that I once considered doing sex work, or that I once decided that sex work isn’t for me?

K: This is like one of those probability puzzles. The latter requires the former, so is less probable. With regard to the latter, huh, why?

T: Two reasons. I prefer not having sex with people who I wouldn’t choose to have sex with. Also, transactional sort of stuff feels weird. I worked as a nanny for two years, and even getting a check from them felt weird. Oh, I guess the fact that I was a nanny for two years is sort of surprising.

K: What is the most surprising thing you have learned about me?

T: Probably the vulva rock… it’s not even surprising, it’s just… man, it’s not like something you wouldn’t do, it’s just… [censored]

K: If you don’t like kissing people, what do you do if you want to hook up with them or something?

T: I write them a strongly worded letter. I mean, often I do kiss them, and I’m not really opposed to it, I’m just not terribly enthusiastic about it, relative to other things. I mean, often in sexual contexts all you have to do is signal acquiescence and most of your work is done for you.

K: Would you like sex?

T: I wouldn’t like to put any effort into pursuing it.

K: Are you selfish? Defined as too interested in your own welfare compared to that of others, such that others should disapprove.

T: It’s possible that I don’t have enough experience being around other people where there is something at stake to make a judgment.

K: Of the arts and media stuff that the world has produced, which parts do you especially enjoy?

T: Miyazaki obviously. Bergman. And I guess working to 80s music.

K: What kind?

T: I just have a compilation of 80s music that was made by electropop bands from 2008.

K: If you had perfect control over what you looked like, what would you look like, or who would you look like?

T: Moderately tall and elven and androgynous.

K: What fraction of the population do you think would have that answer?

T: A sizable one. Probably everyone who didn’t want a more gender-typical presentation.

K: What color would your hair be?

T: Silvery-blonde.

K: Why don’t you want a gender-typical presentation?

T: Well, I really like menswear, and you can’t really effectively wear menswear with female morphology. And also looking feminine feels conspicuous or something. Also it’s really bad for sports.

K: Would you rather be male?

T: Probably weakly.

K: What else should I ask you?

T: “Are you tired and need to go to bed?”

K: Are you tired and need to go to bed?

T: Why yes.

K: Why do you think that is?

T: Probably because I drank half a bottle of wine and I got about six hours of sleep and probably it’s pretty late also.

K: Do you think AI is really dangerous?

T: I think I am not informed enough to comment. But I’m betting AI will not destroy all value. But it’s good that MIRI exists and they should keep doing whatever it is that they’re doing.

K: Does that include me?

T: Yes!

K: Are you attracted to me?

T: Yes.

K: Would you like to do anything about it?

T: Did Scott talk to you?

~The end. And then everyone lived happily ever after, until they had a hangover at their next convenience.~