Apr 23, 2016


Disentangling learning and the creative process

A photo of a sliver of Tokyo through a rainy window using pseudo tilt shift photography to make everything look tiny

During the past seven years I have struggled immensely to produce independent creative work. Today I realized one reason why: complexity.

Part of learning is realizing that things you thought were simple—why plants grow, what makes good writing, how to play an instrument well—are actually complex. After you see processes like these broken apart enough times, you can learn to do it yourself. You develop the ability to unearth complexity in seemingly simple things; in other words, you start to engage in dissective thinking.

Here are a few activities that I might try to dissect:

  • writing
  • reading
  • composing music
  • creating visual art
  • programming
  • designing interfaces
  • thinking

The last one is scary: you can think critically about thinking. Round and round you go, deeper and deeper, way down.01


Permalink to “Interlude”

A photo of the torso of a woman with a while blouse and a long grey skirt on a white background. The picture is clean, soft, and minimal.

[image source]


Permalink to “Complexity”

To avoid stagnating in the abstract, I’ve cataloged some of my own dissective thinking here for two of the above activities: writing and composing music. There’s no particular order to the bullets here.02


Permalink to “Writing”
  • What type of vocabulary should I use? Should I stretch and create like David Foster Wallace (DFW)?03 Or should I keep my words simple like Paul Graham (PG)?04

  • How long and complex should my sentences be? (DFW and PG make a sharp contrast in this regard as well.)

  • What facts about myself should I reveal? If I reveal whether I went to college or which authors I’ve read, will this attract or alienate readers? And which ones?

  • Who is my audience?

  • How should a piece of writing be structured? Should there be a running story? Interludes? References to previous parts of the story? Should I use endnotes? How long should it be?

  • Should I include pictures? Music? Media might help retain readers, but it could also distract them.

  • What sort of prescriptive rules should I follow? Should I worry about applying Strunk and White?05 Or Matt Might?06 Snippets of rules from various high school English classes drift back: use metaphor and simile; vary sentence length; use active voice; use interesting verbs.

  • What should my tone be? Light? Serious?

  • Should I have friends read my writing? Whose edits should I trust?

  • Has someone had the same thought already? Surely, someone’s already thought and written about exactly this better than I could do, so what’s the point?07

  • Have I even read and analyzed enough writing to do it myself? I should probably read critically more before I try writing myself.

  • And, in the rare event that the above isn’t paralyzing enough to keep me from starting in the first place, I think throughout: what will people think of me from my writing?

Composing music

Permalink to “Composing music”
  • In which genre should I compose? “Classical?” Jazz? Electronic?

  • Which instruments should be in the piece?

  • Should I try to make the composition be performable? Should I be able to perform it, given my skill level and the instruments I can play?

  • Is it melodically interesting? Is it catchy?

  • Where do the phrase structure, rhythms, and harmonies come from? From which musical atoms am I building my piece? If they’re western, I’m shallowly following the culture I grew up in; if they’re from elsewhere, I could be distastefully appropriating a rich musical history.

  • Are the chords interesting enough? Are they a copy of a well-known set of chord changes, e.g. “the four chords,”08 or are they just rhythm changes?09 If they’re not, but they’re close, should they be?

  • Who is my audience?

  • What do I want the listener to think or feel?

  • How should it be structured? Like a fugue?10 A rock song, with a melody and a chorus? An “AABA” jazz song?11 Like an EDM song with a drop? How much repetition should there be? Do I even know musical structure well enough to compose myself? Should I first listen to and analyze more music?

These questions multiply as you actually develop an artifact.


Permalink to “Interlude”

A recursive process

Permalink to “A recursive process”

The trouble I have with thinking dissectively is that I find it satisfying. It feels satisfying in exactly the way that collecting objects feels satisfying. From the vast, floating, endless clouds of knowledge, you begin to neatly pluck pieces of information, giving them names, organizing them in nice bookshelves, shuffling around your collections. Some things you might not be sure of, so you have them depend on other things, hedge your belief on them, or perhaps attach a sticky note to them that says “hypothetical.”

This satisfaction grows the more you dissect. Down you go, deeper and deeper, way down.

Learning is also safe. Are you a perfectionist? I don’t know whether I am. But I know that by learning, I don’t have to create, and without creating, I can’t make something bad or wrong or stupid or inadequate or accidentally a copy of something else.

Learning feels good. It’s hard to argue that it’s wrong. But if your goal is to produce creatively, then it’s not the point.


Permalink to “Brutalism”

The harsh, repeating lines of the outside of a brutalist parking structure.

[image source]

A friend12 and I recently started talking about Brutalism.13 I’d never known it by its name, only as “that horrible thing that happened to architecture around the '50s.” There are a few brutalist buildings around Seattle. I didn’t like them.

Spurred on by amateur Brutalist discussions (could you make a Brutalist website? is the programing language C++ Brutalist?), I decided to actually read a bit about Brutalism.14 A few ideas stuck out to me:

  • raw
  • distinct functional areas
  • honesty

I haven’t seen the word “simplicity” used. But the idea is there. It made me start to think about design, space, sound, color, feeling, and complexity.


Permalink to “Interlude”

Learning vs creating

Permalink to “Learning vs creating”

The years I’ve spent trying to learn about creative outlets haven’t actually helped me produce creatively.

The misconception that learning would help with creativity is understandable. Start an activity and, especially if you’ve ever seen a professional do it, you realize there’s a lot to learn. And as long as you keep producing work, learning about and analyzing your craft will help you. Digging into the process and products of an expert will give you fresh ideas, help you push past conceptual blocks, and inspire you with what is possible.

But learning can also intimidate you. Learning about something unearths a mountain of complexity. You feel that you’re never ready to produce. How could you be? There’s so much past work to consume, digest, process, organize, and understand, how could you ever do all that and then, confidently and competently, extend the art with a deft stroke of your own contribution?

Simplicity via Brutalism

Permalink to “Simplicity via Brutalism”

Watching the above video (Brutalist Music) triggered something, and I started to understand one way forward: explicitly abandon learning, dissection, and knowledge in favor of creating. Strip away the burdens you’ve created for yourself to participate in the creative process. If you’re a photographer, maybe you could abandon color, pick a single object in the world to shoot, fix a perspective and lens, and play only with light. I wanted to compose music, so I started by abandoning rhythm, melody, phrasing, chords, and what I’ve learned of jazz and classical music. I just started creating notes and listening to the sounds, thinking about harmonics, overtones, and the texture of pitch.

From this simplicity, I found myself free to experiment. I no longer expected myself to produce something great, so I was free to produce something, anything.

My advice, more to myself than anyone else, is: if you feel paralyzed by the complexity of what you want to pursue, explicitly discard swaths of what you (think you) know about it until you have a raw, functional, honest, simple idea to try. Then begin.

Thanks to Alex Miller and Ike McCreery for reading drafts of this.


  1. Office Space Hypnosis Scene (YouTube) ↩︎

  2. If the splattering of thoughts here is annoying for you to read, I empathize; it’s annoying to have them running about your brain like that, too. ↩︎

  3. The language of David Foster Wallace (OxfordWords blog) ↩︎

  4. Paul Graham’s essays ↩︎

  5. The Elements of Style ↩︎

  6. Matt Might: 3 shell scripts to improve yourwriting ↩︎

  7. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: The Fear That Everything Has Already Been Done (YouTube) ↩︎

  8. 4 Chords (YouTube) ↩︎

  9. Rhythm changes (Wikipedia) ↩︎

  10. Fugue (Wikipedia) ↩︎

  11. Thirty-two-bar form (YouTube) ↩︎

  12. http://spacefiller.space/ ↩︎

  13. Brutalist architecture (Wikipedia) ↩︎

  14. And by that of course I mean that I read the Wikipedia article and looked at some pictures. ↩︎