How Creativity Works
By Julie Burstein
Harper. 249 pp. $24.99
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Reviewed by David Falcone
When I was a child, in a forest not far from where I lived I would find in the early evenings just the two right stones and strike them together to create "the spark."
That spark was filled with the mysterious and magical. I can remember wondering about the origin of this little light that seemed to be hiding in the earth, willing to reveal itself only when someone special knew how to release it. Reading Julie Burnstein's Spark took me back to that time.
Spark is a collection of 35 narratives compiled from interviews conducted for Studio 360, a program Burstein cocreated for Public Radio International with Kurt Andersen in 2000. It features artists of many kinds discussing their art and the process of creating it. When reading these tales (gleaned from the broadcasts), it is clear that the inspirations, struggles, joys, and disappointments that describe the threads of their work are not too far removed from what any of us would call "our own story."
Burstein captures this familiarity in her book and, in part, this is what makes Spark such a satisfying read. Throughout, there is the subtle suggestion that the everyday holds open the possibility of sharing in the creative experience, and that each of these artists has a little something to help us along.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma tells us about "each day reacquainting himself with his beautiful Montagnana cello, made in Venice in 1733, which he's nicknamed Petunia."
Sculptor Richard Serra describes how he and his friend, composer Philip Glass, would break the "four-o'clock problem," the infamous creativity block: " . . . we'd get on a ferry or we'd get on the subway. Because we found that if we took ourselves . . . into a space where you didn't have to walk and were transported, that actually ideas were exchanged more rapidly."
And photographer Joel Meyerowitz details his difficulties in photographing ground zero: "Basically, I found myself letting go of any of the trappings of ego one might have in making the pictures, and just letting the place tell me how to do it."
Playwright Lynn Nottage had a similar experience as she compiled hundreds of pages of interview transcripts with women who were raped and sexually abused during the civil war that broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1998. "It wasn't until I pushed myself away from that research and thought, 'Well, what does this story want to tell?' " that she figured out how to structure her play, Ruined, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Spark is a perfect title for this book. A spark results from an origin, a place of contact, a rub - or as Burstein puts it, a place where "art and life collide."
We read of how painter Chuck Close assimilated a learning disability into his grid-based portraits. And how Donald Hall found poetry in the death of his wife, Jane Kenyon: "I needed to . . . try and preserve her in some of her particulars, things I can remember with a special delight and tenderness. To preserve them for others." Video artist Bill Viola connected "the most peaceful experience I ever had," almost drowning as a 6-year-old, to his water sculpture Ocean Without a Shore.
Burstein's chapters reveal that the creative spark hides in the most familiar of places. Photographer David Plowden tells how his photographs of early trains and boats grew out of his childhood experiences of watching New York's East River activities from his apartment window and of his mother's defense of his obsessive interest in chasing trains: "I don't know what he is doing, but he does. Leave him alone, he's gathering grist for the mill."
While each of the stories contains insights into the creative process, many are also worth reading simply because they touch us or provide interesting ideas to ponder. Denise Scott Brown, world-class architect, claims that "When a mother has a job, it's the whole family has a job, and the kids see working as a part of the life of a normal human being - male or female."
Perhaps the most touching story is Joshua Redman's reflections on his last recording session with his father, Dewey Redman, and the subsequent "one take" recording of "GJ," a gift Dewey left for Joshua's infant son a few months before dying unexpectedly. "It was the last time we played together . . . neither of us realized the significance at the time . . . I had the great Dewey Redman on my album, and that I had a chance to play with my father again."
Spark is a beautiful book, enjoyable and filled with life. It will, however, demand a special kind of reading. The first time, straight through; the stories require it. And then again and again, each story one at a time as meditations where you will find yourself contemplating the origin of the little lights, the sparks, which show themselves only when someone special looks within.