The health-preserving—and for some, life-saving—benefits of art-making are well established in scientific journals and psychological literature. For this reason, researchers from various fields of study have for over 100 years sustained their explorations into the nature of creativity itself, garnering greater wisdom and insight into the magic elixer of creativity in ways that have fortified the health and wellbeing benefits of making and creating for the betterment of humankind.
Sometimes, though, these attempts to better understand creativity’s life-enhancing components are met with opposition, often from the artists themselves. In Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, University of Chicago Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in rich detail the declines he’d received from writers, painters, sculptors, dancers and business thought leaders in response to his invitation to be interviewed for his research:
Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be the object of other people’s “studies.” In any event, he’s gone for the summer. ~ spokesperson for Saul Bellow
Sorry—too little time left! ~ Richard Avedon
He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have the time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a violin concerto which will be premiered in the Fall. He hopes very much you will understand. Mr. Ligeti would like to add that he finds your project extremely interesting and would be very curious to read the results. ~ spokesperson for George Ligeti
I am skeptical as to the investigation of creativity and I do not feel inclined to submit myself to interviews on that subject. I guess I suspect some methodological errors at the basis of all discussions about creativity. ~ Czeslaw Milosz
I’m sorry but I never agree to be interviewed on the process of work. Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty applies. ~ Norman Mailer
I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter of February 14—for I have admired you and your work for many years, and I have learned much from it. But, my dear Professor Csikszentmihalyi, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions. I am told I am creative—I don’t know what that means… I just keep on plodding… I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours—productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well. ~ Peter Drucker
Hearing no can be hard. I’ve heard my fair share and two in particular come to mind, the first in the early 1990’s, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation. I’d been captivated at that time to learn that a disproportionate number of accomplished artists had suffered the loss of a parent in early life and so I explored in my research the premise that creativity might be a form of grieving. I focused my study on Sophie’s Choice, a historical novel by William Styron, who’s mother died when he was 13 years old. I wondered whether it might be possible to speak directly with the novelist, rather than relying solely on information available in the literature and press regarding his life and work. I’d send Mr. Styron a letter and not long after received a handwritten notecard that read as follows:
Dear Ms. Bratu,
Thanks for the kind words. I think you have an interesting idea in creativity and early loss and I wish you well in pursuing it in your dissertation. As for myself, I’m afraid I’ve said about all I can say on the subject, so I can’t participate in your project but I do wish you the best of luck in exploring an intriguing subject.
Sincerely, William Styron
The second memorable no occurred in 2015, when the earliest inklings of The Well Within Workshop were beginning to come together, a place where mark-making for its own sake could be championed. I’d long been drawn to the work of a number of prominent mark-makers but none more than Lynda Barry, cartoonist, writer, and professor at The University of Wisconsin, Madison. Then and still, Barry promotes the making of marks and images as a way of amplifying a fuller, richer experience of life (as opposed to mark-making in the service of a finished work of art). I’d hoped to meet with this graphic trailblazer, to discuss how she’d landed on her maverick approach to creative work, to explore the roadblocks she’d encountered from both within herself and the outside world, to learn more about her own personal creative practice, and so forth. I emailed Prof. Barry and received this reply:
Thank you for this good email. I get so many requests like this one and it makes me feel terrible to have to decline but if I didn’t I’d have no time at all for my own work. I’m heartened by the interest in the subject though and I’m glad it’s something that you’re thinking about seriously.
Sincerely, Lynda Barry
If Prof. Mihaly was deterred by the regrets he’d received, it wasn’t for long. He went on to publish Creativity along with other seminal studies for another two decades, interviewing hundreds of creatives, propelled as he was by the desire to learn about and elucidate the very nature of creativity, and then to use this knowledge to enrich creative life for the rest of us.
There’s quite literally no end to what can be said about the foundational nature of creativity or, for that matter, about the power in saying yes to what brings you alive and no to what doesn’t. Having said this, I regret that I can’t say more—I think I hear my watercolors calling.