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27 October 2009

Creativity and crisis: some thoughts on self-management

Andrew Schultz Image: Andrew Schultz  
© Nicole Saintilan

The following article by Andrew Schultz is an edited version of an introductory paper presented at the postgraduate Symposium 'Crisis - tension, transition, transformation' at the University of New South Wales, School of English, Media and Performing Arts in October 2009. A major new work by Schultz, Beach Burial for choir and orchestra, will be premiered by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Orchestra on 1 November and broadcast on 11 November on ABC Classic FM.

In providing an introduction to this conference I have chosen the topic 'Creativity and crisis: some thoughts on self-management'. The list of topics and their disciplines represented in the papers we will hear over the next few days is quite wide and I doubt that there is a single line that draws them all together. Neither should there be - until the day comes when we all don white coats and form empirical teams to count the commas in Keats or the C sharps in Chopin, we are simply following in the tradition of independence of enquiry that is one of the tenets of the humanities. It is desirable that we have unique areas of study if we are serious about pursuing excellence but that shouldn't stop us looking for the common ground.

In talking about 'crisis' I realise that there is a real danger of slipping into platitudes of the Nietzschean variety: 'whatever doesn't destroy me may make me stronger'. But that's no consolation if a crisis actually does destroy you. And the truth is that crises, external and internal, do regularly destroy people even when they are not physically killed by the experience. It is desirable to have some ideas of what to do when faced with one.

Likewise, when I talk about 'creativity and crisis' I am not thinking in narrow terms about creative artists only - artists tend to be creative, although not all are; but creativity, as is now more widely acknowledged, is an attribute that many successful people bring to their work regardless of what the field actually is. For me, creativity is not just about making art but also about qualities such as imagination or the quality of thinking about something in a different way, resourcefulness, or the ability to make something of not much, vision, or ... we talk a lot about technique and mastering ideas and skills within disciplines but very little about one thing we have in common across disciplines: how to get the best out of ourselves.the refusal to let go of an idea or obsession, and self-reflection, or the experience of having a rich inner life. Artists are a good resource for studying creativity because they deal with its perils and potential on a daily basis; they face one of the rawest of inner crises every time that they start something new - namely, the horror and the infinite potential of the blank page.

My experience is that, in universities, as in education generally, we talk a lot about technique and mastering ideas and skills within disciplines but very little about one thing we have in common across disciplines: how to get the best out of ourselves. How to persist. How to be imaginative. How to survive against the odds. And then, how to thrive. So, I feel justified in talking briefly about some things I have experienced or read on this topic and I hope that it may be useful to this group at this time.

My focus is on what might be called 'risk management of the self'. I hasten to add that I have a loathing of 'management speak' and have used the term 'risk management' with reluctance. Perhaps I've been damaged by attending too many professional development workshops and seminars of the sort that universities seem to regularly inflict on their staff, especially those in senior positions. Indeed I have heard some terrible phrases and bits of verbal nonsense in some of these seminars. None perhaps worse than the one where the guru (sorry, facilitator) wrote the word ASSUME on a whiteboard. He then drew a red vertical line before and after the U and said we must never assume because to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME.

Still, in spite of that, I find the language and literature of management quite interesting and every now and then will admit that something slips across from being in the domain of mumbo jumbo to being in the domain of a good thing. And that's what I would say about risk management as a concept. We need to do more of it, not just in the material world but also in terms of our individual mental and physical well-being. For that reason, discussing the creative process is something I am now more likely to do in the classroom than the conventional teaching of skills and knowledge as I feel most of the latter is obtainable from reading, analysis and studying and is already the focus of most of what is taught. What goes on in the head is much more difficult to pin down, but without some control and self-awareness, technique and ability are easily undermined.

Crises come in all shapes and sizes and would seem to exist on a continuum where we might say that Armageddon ranks a 10 on the scale but stubbing your toe on the way to the kitchen barely gets a 1. The GEC or Global Economic Crisis looked like an 8 or 9 at first but may only be a 4 or 5 in which case it may better called a WFC, a Widespread Financial Crisis.

Most crises exist somewhere in the middle but there is no absolute scale, only a personal scale. That is, two people faced with the same set of events will react quite differently and we need to ask why is that the case. Why was Mahler able to turn personal tragedy into the stuff of amazing symphonies? Why was Shostakovich able to turn the massive destruction of Stalingrad in World War II into equally amazing music? By contrast, why was Sibelius, a national treasure, so paralysed by success that he was unable to compose for so much of the second half of his life?

Why do some survive terrible tragedy and others crumple at relatively minor problems? Simon Leys, in his The Wreck of the Batavia & Prosper (Melbourne: Black Inc. Publishing, 2005), I think asks this same question in the book's two stories. The first is an account of the Batavia shipwreck off the West Australian coast in 1629 - an event that gave rise to appalling atrocities amongst the survivors of the wreck, all of whom eventually perished, largely at each others' hands. Faced with what must have seemed the impossible task of making their way to the Dutch East Indies they despaired and destroyed each other. (Although groups of people have endured far worse hardship and survived more difficult journeys; think of William Bligh, for example in sailing over 6000km in an open boat after the Bounty mutiny in 1789.) In the second part of the book, Leys contrasts the Batavia story with an incident from his own youth as a sailor in Brittany on a fishing vessel, the Prosper. When faced with a serious storm, all members of the crew pulled together under the clear authority of an experienced captain and made their way to safety without any tragedy or even much trauma. It's a story of risk managed if you like. The juxtaposition of the two stories has the moral force of a pair of fables.

Survival is a fascinating field of research for me, and one that provides some answers to Apart from luck and preparation, the key to survival is adaptability and an open mind.what can seem to be an ineffable problem. The mystery of survival is not entirely a mystery at all but relates strongly not just to luck but also to personal qualities; most notably a capacity to adapt quickly to a new set of circumstances - to deal with a new reality, however unwelcome it may be. Laurence Gonzales has studied this and written a very readable and popular study of the topic in Deep Survival (London: Norton, 2003). He profiles why some individuals survive and others give up, seemingly without a struggle. For example, he discusses a skier who died of exposure, apparently lost, but in reality only a few hundred meters from a busy ski run. Or the member of a yacht's crew who cries out after only a few minutes in a rescue dinghy during a storm, 'We're all going to die'. Indeed, he did die but some of the others in the crew survived. Gonzales makes the point in this and a number of other of similar cases that the eventual survivors' chances improved considerably when the panic-stricken crew member was drowned.

Apart from luck and preparation, the key to survival is adaptability and an open mind. For example he cites the experience commonly reported amongst survivors from hiking expeditions gone wrong who, although in an apparently terrible and inescapable position, 'forget' to experience despair but instead notice the beauty of their surrounds. They seem to be able to live in the present, to sublimate fear and develop a capacity to deal realistically with what is in front of them. They have a capacity to experience something positive even in a dreadful and frightening situation.

By contrast, the desire to return as quickly as possible to the safe and known world can be a liability in a crisis, as it may lead to taking undue risks. Here he cites the example of numerous pilots who have died conducting routine landings of aircraft on military ships. They are safe so long as they're in the air but attempting to land too soon in bad conditions can be deadly. The desire to return home is so strong and overwhelming that, even in spite of strict training, unnecessary risks can be taken on because of an inner turmoil seeking repose. Acting against instinct is sometimes a great survival strategy. Think of the recent deaths of pilots and crew on military ships in the Pacific, or the 2007 Garuda Airlines crash where the pilot apparently resisted the opportunity 'go around again'. Gonzales cites a statistic that is telling here: many more mountaineers die coming down a mountain than going up it. Part of dealing with crisis seems to be allowing it to happen - that is, accepting that things are not always perfect and making do.

Making do can be a real achievement. That point was bought home painfully to me some years ago when I was Chair of the Board of Directors of a medium-sized arts organisation. I was quite young at the time - in my twenties - and had not yet had much experience of the many ways things can go wrong in an organisation. In short, some questionable decisions by a funding body had led to a massive funding cut and resultant churn in senior staff. I was new to the role and I suspect that there were some people who hoped I would fail to pull things together. But a group of staff and Directors did pull things together and some of the organisation's current relative health came from some tough steps taken then - especially tough is the issue of getting a group of people to accept a new reality and to move on constructively.

I mention it now because at one point an experienced auditor from a large firm of accountants said something memorable to me - the organisation of which I was Chair was in a bad state in money terms, hence the audit. I had said that I was determined to find a way to put things on a secure footing. His observation was that that might never be possible but that an interminable process of struggle may be the best that can be aspired to. A challenging idea for a young and idealistic perfectionist, I will admit, but he was right. I no longer lose sleep when things go wrong - I know we can at least survive if we're clever enough. I also learnt the hard way that one cannot do everything and that conserving oneself is part of being successful. I resigned from the Board once things were in a sufficiently healthy state for me to know it was not going to go under.

Whereas Gonzales is concerned with surviving extreme hazards in the physical world, his book shows how often it is the inner resources that determine success in such a situation. Physical health and stamina, preparation and experience contribute but are nothing without mental resources to match. That is fine so long as the crisis or event is actually survivable - of course, some events are neither survivable nor predictable. But it is also remarkable how many things that derail people actually are predictable.

For example, I predict that ¾ of those who complete a PhD here will face some sort of intense personal crisis before or after they submit the thesis. I say that because it has happened to friends, family and many students. Knowing that this crisis will happen will not stop it from occurring, although it does help to be prepared and to know that this sort of crisis is 'normal'. The crisis is in fact very often necessary and comes from the extreme obsession with an idea or topic as well as anticipation of possible negative outcome. It comes as one reaches the final stages of the work and faces the inevitable scrutiny that ends the process. I see it as a creative process but it is important not to let it derail you - it can do so. Likewise, I know that starting a large-scale new piece and completing a first draft will leave me completely drained, and I think quite a few other composers experience the same thing. But I've no doubt it's a necessary pain if I'm to do something ambitious and worthwhile.

A few years ago I had knee reconstruction and the physiotherapist mentioned to me after the operation that at some point in the next few months I would experience a dreadful pain when ...the desire to return as quickly as possible to the safe and known world can be a liability in a crisis...the scar tissue from the hamstring graft separates from the hamstring. One day in the garden I almost stood on a large lizard - instead, I took a little leap and bang the scar tissue separated and yes it was extremely painful. Knowing what it was immediately calmed me down though and I could even take consolation that things were progressing normally.

Nassim Taleb's recent book, The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007) is quite relevant to this, not least for those of us in the academic and artistic worlds. His argument is that many things are predictable but that some things are unpredictable and random and that we need to know the difference, or end up in a mess. Unpredictable and random events defy normal risk management approaches precisely by their nature. Taleb gives numerous examples of the concept; for example, the black swan that gives its name to the book is something that was unexpected when the first black swans were found in West Australia - up till then a swan was only ever white. Likewise, he cites a hypothetical example of the turkey being fattened for Christmas. Up until the day it is slaughtered, the turkey, he suggests, thinks life is pretty good - plenty to eat and not much to do. It would take a sage turkey (pardon the pun) to predict that it is too good to be true. His ideas seem to have sprung partly from the experience of growing up in the Levant in the 1950s and 1960s - a place and time of prosperity and racial tolerance that was swept away by a completely unpredicted event: a civil war. He goes further and argues that randomness affects artistic and academic success - he points out that two writers of similar value can have completely different levels of success. One can be hugely popular and wealthy whilst another, of at least comparable ability, can be completely ignored. No doubt he's right, but it is fascinating to have someone do the maths to show it to be so.

I feel that there are parallels between the discussion of unpredictability in Taleb's book and the way the creative process functions. Taleb gives the example of the invention of the wheel as an event that could not have been predicted but which had vast consequences. He refers to many inventions and discoveries which were not the planned outcome, but an unexpected by-product. A hypothetical, strategic plan, written the year before the invention of the wheel, would have been useless unless it predicted the invention of the wheel - yet to predict it would actually constitute making the invention itself. This paradox exists in creative work where planning and spontaneity do, at times, battle. In music, one might think of both serialism and minimalism as examples of strategic plans and, sometimes, alas, just as dull. It seems to me that a fully creative consciousness needs to simultaneously exist in a prudent state of planning and in a risky state of heightened awareness and spontaneity.

Finally, let me provide one other example of a crisis that is unpredictable but tantalises with the possibility that it may be predictable. Many years ago, as a student in Philadelphia, I read an article in the New Yorker, and I'm afraid I've forgotten who wrote it, possibly Susan Sontag, but nonetheless one image has stuck with me. The image is of a writer or artist sitting in their study at work when a bird flies into a closed window. The bird's wing is broken and the bird thrashes around on the ground outside the study. The train of thought is lost and replaced with a consciousness of the bird's distress. What does one do? - ignore the bird; take it to the vet; kill it? It's an ethical dilemma but it serves as a great metaphor especially for the creative process. I have found that, every now and then, all of the planning and good intentions that one may pour into the creation of a new work are disrupted by something unexpected but amazing coming out the creative process. An unbidden idea, like a bird flies into the window of consciousness. What does one do - ignore it and stick to the plan; deal with it and go back to the beginning? It is an imponderable issue for an artist or a scholar but, whilst it is unpredictable and a crisis, I now feel it is, in a sense, a gift. If it happens, and it rarely does, it's best to savour it and use it and not dispose of it. Crises, I feel, can be very creative things.

Further links

Andrew Schultz - AMC profile (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/schultz-andrew)
Andrew Schultz - homepage (www.andrewschultz.net/)
War and Peace concert by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs 1 November - details in the AMC Calendar
ABC Classic FM - broadcast details 11 November
University of New South Wales, School of English, Media and Performing Arts (http://empa.arts.unsw.edu.au/)

Andrew Schultz is Professor of Music and Head, School of English, Media and Performing Arts at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.


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