Sententiae viri ex temporibus duobus

The Where of Creation

I’m fascinated by how people describe the act of creation to outside observers. What exactly is happening “in there” when a writer tries to tell us Zorba’s anguish is so great that he must dance, that the weight of modern life can only be expressed in rich tonal hues (e.g. Rothko), or that an if/else construct can be elided if the determining evaluation is made more ignorant 1? Who is it that solves problems when we’re trying to puzzle something out? Who is it with whom we argue to decide whether to add or take away a dollop of paint (or, for that matter, eat a cookie)? It’s a wonder that we’re able to go through these ineffable states to arrive at abstractions that help us create new solutions, but it’s an even greater feat that we’re able to abstract that process and communicate it by gestures, sign, and metaphor to one another. In sum, how do creators go about creating?


Consider a hard problem in a creative endeavor; I’ll consider programming, the field with which I’m most familiar. It’s become very clear that the thing that “solves” a problem is not really under my control. If I think about my “ritual” to enter the “dream state” where problems are resolved, I realize that it’s all a form of cargo culting: I’m doing rituals that I believe make my brain, over which I have only nominal control, offer up a solution such that I can utter: “I know!” or “I had an idea.” While I do my best to not let my mind stray, I’m certainly not “wiring up” connections a la a 1960’s switchboard operator nor am I drag-clicking mental components as if I was seated in front of the Smalltalk or Self or Interface Builder graphical programming environments.

"Interface Builder "Picture of Apple's Interface Builder"

Is there a thing I could do that would more directly produce “Eureka!” moments? No. Is there a communicable process whereby I could tell someone to execute a series of steps in order to come to the same insight? No. I have to try to perform a dance of cargo-culted behaviors (charts, blog posts, poor drawings on whiteboards) in order to convince their own unconscious processes, over which they too find it convenient to believe they hold control while having only little, to offer up to them a “Eureka!” moment.


It is clear that we are not in control of our own insight capabilities. Nevertheless we tend to use ego-centric, originative language to describe our ideation process e.g. “I had an idea” or “Oh it just came to me.” Despite our clear lack of control about ideation, we find it very attractive to let our egoes claim credit for it. Who is the “I” in those exclamations about successful ideation?

This idea came up while listening to Dan Eagleman on NPR’s “To the Best of our Knowledge” discussing his book Incognito. The ego says “Yes I thought of that,” but if one considers all the processes that the ego did not control but which were essential in allowing the solution to surface (i.e. breating, maintaining systolic pressure, applying pattern recognition algorithms across my history, etc.) it’s clear that the ego, the “I” in the utterance is quite simply lying. You didn’t stop breathing to “wire-up” ideas, you didn’t stop receiving signals about being hungry, you didn’t actively run through hundreds of similar situations and cross reference it with dozens of books you recall. In reality, the ego plagiarized a brilliant idea that came from someone whom it refuses to properly attribute. It saw the nerd running down the highway carrying a thesis, tripped him, stole its opus, swapped the title page, and handed it in for accolades (like “New York Times” journalists in the early aughts). Eagleman likened this to a passenger on a cargo ship claiming that successful arrival was his doing.

What, pray tell, happens? When I talk to other people in creative disciplines (programmers, writers) we all agree that we “go” to a place that’s not really a place and something, certainly not the “I” of ego, intercedes and somehow something we didn’t have when we “went” there is now in our pocket – like the Philosopher’s Stone in Harry Potter – by a process we only dimly understand but whose function we’re thankful for. We can only be thankful for the arrival of a gift whose appearance we only speciously were involved with earning.

When I try to describe the creative part of programming – the part when you’re conceiving of the building blocks, not the part where you’re correcting syntax and making sure names match etc. (which is easily explained) – I describe it as “building castles out of Kleenex.” Somehow you feel the lightning bolt of singnal that the answer is present, and then know that those cloudy miasmas of nebulae of ideas can miraculously be condensed like fog into sturdy walls which can bear the load of real world needs: HTTP Requests, statuses of bank accounts, etc. But until it condenses, that goassamer and spider web structure, that idea, can be blown away by a breeze or an interruption.2


But to the outside observer there is only the starting at a screen and the punching of keys, a completely false, metered fa├žade masking the internal turmoil turning about in a turbulent mental maelstrom like Dante’s whirling storm of the passionate in the creator’s mind. To this observer, it probably seems like the creator is doing a discrete series of actions, but I think that creators know that there’s something more subtle afoot, that they entered a Dreamtime and “their hands did the rest.” Heck, sometimes the creator is staring at movie trailers or loading up a Spotify queue as the idea coalesces.

The fingers tap or a brush flies across canvas and an outline manifests. Bad ideas become good ideas (we hope!) and then suddently the castle, formerly made of tissue and tenuousness becomes code, real functioning code; or it becomes art, real striking expressive art. It’s certainly captivating and fascinating. But we are essentially ignorant of how it happens, this most essential activities of human endeavor.

In some ways it recalls quantam mechanics' replacement of the Bohr model of the atom: suddenly instead of looping tracks of orderly gravitational ellipses circumscribed by Keplerian motion like a recursion of mini-solar systems, reality is an abstract cloud of mathematical probabilities whose description in a magical language suddenly collapses into reified matter, reified matter that can do stuff. Put that way it’s some sort of magical alchemy befitting unto Rifts Technowizards or the priests of the His Dark Materials series.


But for me, at the end of the day, programming, the creative endeavor which I most routinely practice, is voodoo, it’s being a witch doctor, it’s doing a rain dance. I hear of a problem, I try to consider nothing else (no “What’s on Facebook? When’s Neko Case coming to town?”), do some rituals (“Open Vim, look at the description in the issue tracking tool, drink my coffee”) and then suddenly an abstract idea about how to fix the issue becomes real and then suddenly my fingers know how to condence that fog into a solution. But where was the egotistical “I” in all of this? Dozing off lazily but all-too-ready to take the credit when I mark the feature as “done.” Since external observers cannot see the truth, and since it seems unavoidable that my ego is not in control, I therefore must be the passive beneficiary of creativity and insight, the source of which I remain effectively ignorant.

The source of this wisdom – of which my ego loves to be the titular owner – is clearly not my conscious mind. It’s an unconscious agent. It is the fruit of “communing with the Muses.” The Classical tradition rightly attributed the benefactors of creative insight to some hybrid of an All-Father (symbol for the physical realm) and Memnosyne (symbol for rememberance): a muse.


The West has stopped talking about this place since the Renaissance, but it’s clear that the place where Classical artists “communed with the Muses” was the same as “being in the flow state.” While I doubt that we’re going to move back to a Vasari-like reflection on the means of creativity in art, I would love to see more philosophers in the time of software reflect on the matter. As the most potent creators of our era, it’s odd there isn’t more reflection on our rituals and their efficacy (or inefficacy) in summoning the Muses.3


  1. Refactoring “Replace conditional with polymorphism”)
  2. I recall Questlove describing not wanting to be disturbed while DJing in “Mo' Meta Blues”; clearly building his DJ mix is a Kleenex castle for him. This is why a creator deep in thought is not to be disturbed!
  3. Something very fascinating is that the “where” we connect to is, seemingly, one. Much like the noumenal world of Kant or Hegel, it seems that the creative space is quite possibly shared and the individual, egotistic possession of it is quite possibly illusory (cf. Buddhism).