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How genius works: Paul Simon and Chuck Close

April 13, 2011

The Atlantic has a fabulous special issue on creativity and “how genius works” that features over a dozen profiles of creative masters featuring interviews, photos and videos. It’s really a treasure trove, and my only beef is that they didn’t seem to bother to dispel the silly trophe that math and science aren’t creative by interviewing a scientist or mathematician.

It’s going to take a long time for me to process all of this, but just the first profile of Chuck Close that includes over 30 minutes of video of a discussion between him and Paul Simon is fabulous. I’ve tried to paraphrase some of the more interesting snippets I took from the first 4 parts of this interview. I want to come back and add a few reflections just on these quotes, since they really seem to resonate with school, but I’ll save that update for tomorrow.

Edit: I’ve added a few of my own thoughts in italics

Chuck Close

“Almost everything [creative] comes out of the work itself—every idea comes out of something you’re already doing.”

This is a key idea I want my students to understand—inspiration comes from what you are doing, day in and day out. Creativity isn’t a flash of insight or a bolt out of the blue, it’s one step beyond what you are doing in the adjacent possible. But if you stick at it, you’ll find yourself accomplishing things you never thought possible, and that look equally extraordinary to others. How do you teach this?

“We are far too involved with problem solving, solving the problem of the moment, as everyone else defines it, you see how everyone else solves it, and you can’t find a way to solve the problem that is personal, so I think problem creation is a far more interesting thing to work on.”

The art of problem creation is something I really want to explore further, and it seems deeply tied to project based learning. Still, a part of me keeps wondering if this is really possible in an intro physics class? Can students create problems on their own that inspire them to learn physics deeply and not just from superficial answer to superficial answer?

“I watched my grandmother knit and crochet, and I saw what this repetitive activity did for her—it gave her peace, like raking gravel in a zen garden. She was making stuff, but doing it in a way that didn’t make her nervous. She was building a big complicated thing out of a lot of little simple units.”

“We’ve talked about sneaking up on something and finding it rather than just conceptualizing it.”

“Paint a series rather than trying to paint a masterpiece. Each painting, on some level, is equally important and contributes to the whole.”

The three quotes above relate to the fantastic advice that Bo and Jill have been mentioning in their reference to the great children’s book, The Dot—”Make a dot and see where it takes you.” I find this book so compelling that I’m considering reading it to my students next year, since few have heard of it.

“I don’t place any value on the time spent or the work, if you start thinking that way, then the work becomes so precious that you can’t be ruthless with it and throw stuff away.”

” I don’t get frustrated with working because it’s what I’d rather do other than anything else.”

“I don’t have to face a blank canvas because I have so much time to think about the next paining I’m going to work on.”

Trends in art today: “Post studio: no one needs a studio, and de-skilled: you don’t want to show you have skills. No one wants to talk about craft, or being part of a long series of traditions. I still want to talk about craft and be a part of this history.”

This seems like an interesting challenge—how do we teach this sort of mindful engagement in the craft of learning? The craft of teaching? The craft of problem solving?

Paul Simon

“I don’t start off with an intention to make the listener feel anything”

“We bump into things in life and we sometimes file them away.”

“The thing that I’m discarding probably has a couple of elements that are good and I can use somewhere else.”

“I find the duration of my annoyance is up to me, and even the whole choice to be annoyed is up to me. Just move on—if you make a mistake, it’s interesting.”

Quote from Phillip Glass: “I don’t get annoyed at all when things don’t work out, I just think it’s not finished.”

Good stuff on learning from failure

On touring: “This is the easiest job in the world; all I have to think about is how to make the show better—I’m in editing mode.”

What a great attitude to take into teaching”

“With me, if it’s a good idea and I don’t have it right, I stay with it. You have to be patient, just keep erasing what you don’t like. At a certain point it becomes alive, and you know the problems are solvable with solutions you may have used before. That’s my songwriting process.”

“Like a sculptor you are removing to reveal what is already there.”

Patient problem solving and addition by subtraction. How do you teach these things?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011 9:19 am

    I was going to make a comment on the Habits of Mind post b/c it was continued thinking about H of M that pushed me to think more about (and have conversations with others about) creativity. Then, lo and behold: what’s your next blog post? creativity! So, I’ll just comment here. You’ve probably seen the book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I think it will have a lot of juicy ideas that will continue to help us flesh out the Habits of Mind. I see science as so linked with these concepts… how cool to think about starting a class by playing Paul Simon, passing out some of these quotes, and having students think about how these quotes relate to science class. That experience alone could start to push boundaries of the rigid lens through which most students think they must view the sciences. And, as a teacher, even just reflecting on these quotes now makes me want to push myself to create classroom spaces that allow for creativity and exploration. I feel like students, by the time they get to high school, are so reinforced for always “coloring inside the lines” that they are actually afraid to use all that other blank space on the page to explore. I especially like the idea that “problem creation” is more intellectually provocative than problem solving. If a scientist does not know how to see the next great question, they will have either a short-lived or a very boring career. Problem solving is obviously pretty key, but again, creativity is essential to problem solving in the “real world.” by the way, Ken Heilman is a world-class behavioral neurologist (truly, one of the landmark figures in the discipline). He has a newish book out on creativity … I need to look at it again because what he’s really after, I believe, are the neural substrates of creativity. But, there could be some worthwhile nuggets in there that fit the theme and exploration of creativity in the classroom. Finally, I would assert that the science of neuroimaging is a beautiful matrix of science, creativity, math, physics, and art/ visualization of data. So, there’s a rambling comment in response to creativity. In honor of my own creative process, I’ll let the ramblings stand without too much editing for now!

    • April 18, 2011 7:27 pm

      Flow is an amazing book that’s been on my reading list forever, and I’m going to finally commit to reading it this summer. I looked for Ken Heilman’s book, but could only find one from 2005. The more I think about it, the more I am insulted by how the Atlantic completely dropped the ball in trying to acknowledge the creativity of any of the sciences; this is a glaring oversight.

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