“Creativity is a gift, from life to us,” according to Tom Sturges in his book Every Idea is a Good Idea: How Songwriters and Other Working Artists Get It Done.
It exists in various forms and flavors, but all of us have it. And when we tap into our creativity, he writes, it is then that “we are most human.”
Sturges worked as a senior executive in the music industry for 25 years. He’s worked with everyone from Carole King to Lamont Dozier to Dr. Dre.
In Every Idea is a Good Idea, he gives readers a glimpse into these individuals’ creative processes along with the processes of others. He also shares his own tips for tapping into and maximizing our creativity. Here are three tips from Sturges’s book.
1. Steal from the greats.
In Mougins, France, in a secret room — a room within rooms — there was a vault with a combination lock, which housed several original pieces from some of the greatest artists, including Gaugin, Degas and Rembrandt. Next to these works were their duplications.
This heavily guarded room was a hidden part of Picasso’s principal studio, where he collected great works and tried to recreate them. As Sturges writes, Picasso tried to replicate the very strokes that inspired him, to gain a deeper understanding of how each artist was able to paint their powerful works. It’s not surprising then that Picasso is famously quoted as saying, “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.”
Author Austin Kleon talks about this in his book Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. In it, he includes T.S. Eliot’s quote, which also speaks to expert stealing: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from which it was torn.”
(Learn more about Kleon’s book here.)
2. Reinvent yourself and your process.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, songwriter Paul Simon explained that he believes we’re born with a well of talent, but when we become successful, that well dries up. As such, we need to recreate ourselves. According to Sturges, one way Simon replenishes his well is “by borrowing the sounds and rhythms of other cultures and their music and incorporating those elements into his own music, particularly his songwriting.”
Sturges suggests we consider reinvention not just in terms of ourselves but also our creative process. He includes examples of others who reinvented themselves. For instance, the painter Auguste Renoir started out painting china. By the time he was in his 20s, he’d finally saved enough money to afford his own paint and canvas. From there he became the Impressionist master we know today.
Gustave Eiffel was a bridge builder. After creating the idea for the Eiffel Tower, he reinvented himself as a landmark creator. After that he helped design the skeleton for the Statue of Liberty.
When we focus on reinventing how we create and what we create, we challenge ourselves to play with new perspectives, techniques and tools. This sparks our curiosity, boosts our energy and welcomes all sorts of insights.
3. Find the rhythm in your work.
This is another lesson Sturges gleans from Paul Simon’s process. He includes excellent examples of how we can find the rhythm in all kinds of creative work. He writes:
Photographers may let the beat of the city inhabit the photograph they take of its skyline. Architects might allow the pulse of a hillside and the spill of the canyon below it to determine how the house will be built and what direction it will face. Novelists could let the steady drumbeat of the rain on their roof influence the pattern of speech in the characters they have created. Composers might let the waves pounding the seashore become the inelegant and irregular backbeat of a concerto or symphony.
When I interviewed Sturges for last month’s piece on kids and creativity, I asked him what inspires him personally. This is what he said:
A few years ago a friend of mine called to say he had contracted ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. I asked him what that meant in practical terms and he explained that he had about two years of living left, before he began the descent into canes and walkers and permanently lying in a bed waiting for the end to come. I promised him that I would live my life in honor of him, and would, from that day forward, treat my life as though I only had two years to get everything done. His shortened life and his suffering is what inspires me to work harder and faster and with greater results than I ever did before. By the way, his name was Eric Lowen and he wrote — with Dan Navarro — the hit song “We Belong” for Pat Benatar.
Creativity is part of our humanity. When we create we’re really doing what we are meant to do, what is encoded in our DNA.
There is a great quote from Erma Bombeck, which I recently taped to my office wall. It reminds me to use my creativity to its fullest, to drain the well of all its drops:
“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”
What inspires you to create? How can you find the rhythm in your work?