We’ve all read a novel or a poem, studied a work of art, or listened to a song and asked ourselves what the creative process of the author or artist or musician must be like. How does a songwriter start a song? How was she inspired to write the song? How did the artist capture that image so that we feel as if we’re a part of the scene he’s captured? How does a novelist invent characters, or do they simply present themselves to her one day and say, “Tell my story”? What happens when creative people are blocked and for a day or so — or more famously like with Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison, for the rest of their careers — and can’t put pen to paper or brush to palette or music to words? Are there ways to overcome such creative blocks?
In his new book, Creative Quest (Ecco), drummer, bandleader, and culinary entrepreneur Questlove follows his own peripatetic creative genius to address these and other questions by focusing on models of creativity such as George Clinton, David Byrne, D’Angelo, and others. His quest to understand the ways of creativity fuel his desire to understand how his own creative consciousness functions and how he can engage various techniques to foster even greater creativity. “Creativity isn’t Candyland — it’s more complicated than that — but there is a game board, with general principles to follow, and I want to sketch it out for readers,” he says. Like a good drummer, he keeps a steady back beat, focusing on creativity as the “personality that makes it possible” to form the new and valuable, and adding rim shots and rolls on the sparks of the creative process, the value of mentors, and the usefulness of collaboration.
Questlove meanders along his quest, walking down one path that leads to another that leads to another, and he ambles along each one, looking around to see what every trail offers. As he tries to define a creative person — “a creative person is one who creates” — he takes a quick turn and expands his definition to include the act of creativity: “creativity is the personality that makes it possible that something new and valuable can be formed.” As he reflects on this a moment, he recalls that David Bowie’s song “Let’s Dance” leads him to think of the Jackson 5’s “Mama I Got a Brand New Thing (Don’t Say No)”; he sees patterns and links everywhere, and then offers another definition of creativity: “creativity is not about letting everything in, but it is refusing to keep thing out.” See connections; never let an idea go, even though you may not develop or refine that idea. Immersed in the powerful overflow of ideas, how do we select those ideas we want to develop? Questlove suggests “micro-meditation” in which you step back a few seconds from what you’re doing to let your mind settle. Meditation fuels creativity by allowing us to be consumed in the moment and, also, to be a million miles away at the same time.
Most writers experience moments of writer’s block. At best, writer’s block is a momentary interruption, a spur to get beyond the jam of words, feelings, emotions causing it. At worst, writer’s block is debilitating, tormenting, and soul-killing. The writer stares hopelessly day after day at blank pages feeling as if whatever creative fire once burned has now gone cold and left only ashes to sweep out in the morning. How to overcome writer’s block? Questlove suggests a simple formula: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” He points to George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic, who revisited his earlier work so that he could get unstuck and make the music on his albums in the '70s. Questlove also suggests that “if you feel like things aren’t going anywhere, hang out with people from different disciplines.” He also encourages artists to make environments reflective of their tastes. “Eliminate distractions, including the distraction of being without any of the distractions you need.”
Questlove warmly champions collaboration, reflecting on his own work with his Roots partner Tariq Trotter. He offers an imaginative exercise for us to engage in that helps us foster collaboration: “Think of two artists you know who you consider to be very different, and imagine what project they would make if they collaborated.” He advises us to be open and curious, and to recognize that each side has a mutual desire to see what each adds to the partnership.
Questlove reminds us that our quest to be creative never ends. The materials we use may change over the years — crayons and fingerpaints when we’re young, paper and pen, or guitars and amps, when we’re older — but the desire to make sense of our world, to understand ourselves and others, to live in a sense of wonder and embrace beauty and hope remains with us as long as we live. Creativity, he concludes, is about “finding your own unique way of fitting into the continually repeating human experience. Nothing you do is new, but you can still be new within that realization.”
Questlove’s gently rambling, affectionate style encourages openness, reflection, discovery, and experimentation. Imaginative and provocative, Creative Quest opens doors and windows to our ongoing journeys into creativity.