Sep 4th 2014

Channeling Creativity: Dylan, Plath, and Uncle Tom

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

In 1962, Bob Dylan told an interviewer: "The songs are there. They exist all by themselves, just waiting for someone to write them down. I just put them down on paper." Three decades later, he told another interviewer that his best songs had been written very quickly: "Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it."

2014-09-04-Bob_Dylan_in_November_1963_wikimedia.jpg
Bob Dylan, ca. 1962-63. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dylan wasn't alone in composing rapidly. Ted Hughes recalled that early in their marriage Sylvia Plath had written her poems slowly and laboriously, a thesaurus open on her lap, but that there had been a change early in 1961, when she began to write "at top speed, as one might write an urgent letter." In October, 1962, with Hughes banished for his infidelity, Plath wrote her greatest poems, "from dawn to when the babes wake, a poem a day." Hughes marveled that although in the late poems Plath controlled "one of the widest and most discriminating vocabularies in the modern poetry of our language...these are poems written for the most part at great speed, as she might take dictation." Although Plath was a minor figure in the literary world at the time, she had no doubt about her achievement. In a letter to her mother that October, she declared: "I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name."

2014-09-04-PlathSylvia1959NPGUK.jpg
Sylvia Plath. Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

The creative speed of the conceptual Dylan and Plath stands at an opposite pole from that of many great experimental innovators. Elizabeth Bishop began writing "The Moose" in response to an incident that occurred when she visited her Aunt Grace in 1946. Ten years later, in 1956, Bishop wrote to her aunt that she had written a poem that was dedicated to her, and promised to send her a copy when it was published. Sixteen years later, in 1972, Bishop published the poem in The New Yorker, and sent the magazine to her aunt. After still more revisions, Bishop published the final version of "The Moose" in her next book of poems, in 1976. In a poem for Bishop, her friend Robert Lowell paid tribute to her patient search for the right language:

        

Do

you still hang your words in air, ten years

unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps

or empties for the unimaginable phrase –

unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?

2014-09-04-ElizabethBishopNationalPortraitGallerySmithsonian.jpg
Elizabeth Bishop. Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

In 2004, Dylan told Ed Bradley that "Those early songs were almost magically written." An earlier conceptual writer was more explicit on the source of her creativity. Harriet Beecher Stowe had never written a novel until one day, at communion service, she had a powerful vision of a slave being whipped to death. She immediately wrote out the vision, and Uncle Tom's death became the first scene of her book to be written. Stowe later explained that she had not written Uncle Tom's Cabin: "I only put down what I saw. It all came before me in visions, one after another, and I put them down in words." A biographer noted that Stowe was as mystified by the inspiration of her first novel as by the mediocrity of her next two dozen: "'God wrote it,' she said of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and she believed it."

2014-09-04-Harriet_Beecher_Stowe_c1852_wikimediacommons.jpg
Harriet Beecher Stowe, ca. 1852. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Not all conceptual writers work as fast as Dylan and Plath, nor do all experimental writers work as slowly as Bishop. But the differing speeds of composition are not accidental. Conceptual artists record ideas - their own or perhaps those of the Deity. These can be known with certainty, and often arrive fully formed. In contrast, experimental artists want to record their perceptions of external reality, and this process is often fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity. Hence the deliberate caution of Cézanne - "I seek in painting" - versus the confident certainty of Picasso - "I don't seek, I find."

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 3rd 2023
EXTRACT: "The built environment we inhabit is just the residue of a much greater imaginative world that never saw the light of day, evoking what might have been or still could be..."
Jan 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "In 2018, former US president Bill Clinton coauthored a novel with James Patterson, the world’s bestselling author. The President is Missing is a typical “Patterson”: a page-turner of a thriller, easy to read, with short chapters and large font. Patterson is accustomed to collaborative writing ..... He is as much a producer as he is a writer, using a string of junior collaborators to run his factory of novels. Patterson outlines the plot, the coauthors write the story, Patterson offers feedback. While he doesn’t seem to do much writing himself, it is a system that has made Patterson a rich man."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "With hindsight, 2022 will be seen as the year when artificial intelligence gained street credibility. The release of ChatGPT by the San Francisco-based research laboratory OpenAI garnered great attention and raised even greater questions.  In just its first week, ChatGPT attracted more than a million users and was used to write computer programs, compose music, play games, and take the bar exam. Students discovered that it could write serviceable essays worthy of a B grade – as did teachers, albeit more slowly and to their considerable dismay."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "The thought of her, as always, gave me a jolt of hope, and a burst of energy. And a stab of sorrow."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: ".....if academic discourse and campus debate are shut down every time a person feels offended, how can universities possibly examine controversial topics? Without intellectual freedom – one of the great achievements of American civilization – they can’t."
Jan 5th 2023
EXTRACTS: "London's Tate Britain and Paris' Petit Palais have collaborated to produce a wonderful retrospective exhibition of the art of Walter Sickert (1860-1942).  The show is both beautiful and fascinating. ----- Virginia Woolf loved Sickert's art, and it is not difficult to see why, because his painting, like her writing, was always about intimate views of incidents, or casual portraits in which individual sitters momentarily revealed their personalities.  ------ Sickert's art never gained the status of that of Whistler or Degas, perhaps because it was too derivative of those masters.  But he was an important link between those great experimental painters and the art of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, ...."
Dec 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "One of the great paradoxes of human endeavour is why so much time and effort is spent on creating things and indulging in behaviour with no obvious survival value – behaviour otherwise known as art. Attempting to shed light on this issue is problematic because first we must define precisely what art is. We can start by looking at how art, or the arts, were practised by early humans during the Upper Palaeolithic period, 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, and immediately thereafter."
Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "As a portrait artist, I am an amateur at this compared to the technology gurus and psychologists who study facial recognition seriously. Their aplications range from law enforcement to immigration control to ethnic groupings to the search through a crowd to find someone we know. ---- In my amateur artistic way, I prefer to count on intuition to find facial clues to a subject’s personality before sitting down at the drawing board. I never use the latest software to grapple with this dizzying variety.
Dec 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "In the exhibition catalog Lisane Basquiat writes: 'What is important for everyone to understand… is that he was a son, and a brother, and a grandson, and a nephew, and a cousin, and a friend. He was all of that in addition to being a groundbreaking artist.' "
Nov 24th 2022
"The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity.....nothing stays the same forever." --- "The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands."
Oct 5th 2022
EXTRACTS: "In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as 'a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it.' This is a fundamental misunderstanding." ----- " As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential.  But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities." ----- "Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events." ----- " ....participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change." --- "....you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you."
Sep 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "It might seem like an obscure footnote among the history-making events of 2022, but the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s death coincides with the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth." ----- "As a committed Stoic, Smith had little patience for greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place." ----- "When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Elizabeth II than of those driven by personal greed. It might sound archaic, but, as Britons’ response to her death suggests, these values still appeal to a great many people today."
Sep 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. Although it’s been known for decades that Charles would succeed his mother, there were rumours that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "An over-emphasis on looking for the chemical equation of depression may have distracted us from its social causes and solutions. We suggest that looking for depression in the brain may be similar to opening up the back of our computer when a piece of software crashes: we are making a category error and mistaking problems of the mind for problems in the brain. It would be wise to observe caution with drugs whose effectiveness is not certain, whose mode of action is unknown, and which have many side-effects, especially for use in the long term."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."