TITLE: OOPSLA Day 3: Robert Hass on Creativity AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 18, 2005 4:04 PM DESC: A poet-scholar teaches us about creativity. Much of what he says is similar to things we've heard, but some is not, and in any case a poet can tell a good story in his own way. ----- BODY: Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the US With Dick Gabriel and Ralph Johnson leading OOPSLA this year, none of us were that the themes of the conference were creativity and discovery. This theme presented itself immediately in the conference's opening keynote speaker, former poet laureate Robert Hass. He gave a marvelous talk on creativity. Hass began his presentation by reading a poem (whose name I missed) from Dick's new chapbook, Drive On. Bob was one of Dick's early teachers, and he clearly reveled in the lyricism, the rhythm of the poem. Teachers often form close bonds with their students, however long or short the teaching relationship. I know the feeling from both sides of the phenomenon. He then described his initial panic at thought of introducing the topic of creativity to a thousand people who develop software -- who create, but in a domain so far from his expertise. But a scholar can find ways to understand and transmit ideas of value wherever they live, and Hass is not only a poet but a first-rate scholar. Charles Dickens burst on scene with publication of The Pickwick Papers. With this novel, Dickens essentially invented the genre of the magazine-serialized novel. When asked how he created a new genre of literature, he said simply, "I thought of Pickwick." I was immediately reminded of something John Gribble said in his talk at Extravagaria on Sunday: Inspiration comes to those already involved in the work. Creativity seems to happen almost with cause. Hass consulted with friends who have created interesting results. One solved a math problem thought unsolvable by reading the literature and "seeing" the answer. Another claimed to have resolved the two toughest puzzles in his professional career by going to sleep and waking up with the answer. So Hass offered his first suggestion for how to be creative: Go to sleep. Human beings were the first animals to trade instinct for learning. The first major product of our learning was our tools. We made tools that reflected what we learned about solving immediate problems we faced in life. These tools embodied the patterns we observed in our universe. We then moved on to broader forms of patterns: story, song, and dance. These were,according to Hass, the original forms of information storage and retrieval, the first memory technologies. Eventually, though, we created a new tool, the printing press, that made these fundamentally less essential -- less important!? And now the folks in this room contribute to the ultimate tool, the computer, that in many ways obsoletes human memory technology. As a result, advances in human memory tech have slowed, nearly ceased. The bulk of Hass's presentation explored the interplay between the conservative in us (to desire to preserve in memory) and the creative in us (the desire to create anew). This juxtaposition of 'conservative' and 'creative' begets a temptation for cheap political shots, to which even Hass himself surrendered at least twice. But the juxtaposition is essential, and Hass's presentation repeatedly showed the value and human imperative for both. Evolutionary creativity depends on the presence having a constant part and a variable part, for example, the mix of same and different in an animal's body, in the environment. The simultaneous presence of constant and variable is the basis of man's physical life. It is also the basis of our psychic life. We all want security and freedom, in an unending cycle Indeed, I believe that most of us want both all the time, at the same time. Conservative and creative, constant and variable -- we want and need both. Humans have a fundamental desire for individuation, even while still feeling a oneness with our mothers, our mentors, the sources of our lives. Inspiration, in a way, is how a person comes to be herself -- is in part a process of separation. "Once upon a time" is linguistic symbol, the first step of the our separation from the immediate action of reading into a created world. At the same time, we want to be safe and close to, free and faraway. Union and individuation. Remembering and changing. Most of us think that most everyone else is more creative than we are. This is a form of the fear John Gribble spoke about on Sunday, one of the blocks we must learn to eliminate from our minds -- or at least fool ourselves into ignoring. (I am reminded of John Nash choosing to ignore the people his mind fabricates around him in A Beautiful Mind.) Hass then told a story about the siren song from The Odyssey. It turns out that most of the stories in Homer's epics are based in "bear stories" much older than Homer. Anyway, Odysseus's encounter with the sirens is part of a story of innovation and return, freedom on the journey followed by a return to restore safety at home. Odysseus exhibits the creativity of an epic hero: he ties himself to the mast so that he can hear the sirens' song without having to take ship so close to the rocks. According to Hass, in some versions of the siren story, the sirens couldn't sing -- the song was only a sailors' legend. But they desire to hear the beautiful song, if it exists. Odysseus took a path that allowed him both safety and freedom, without giving up his desire. In preparing for this talk,hass asked himself, "Why should I talk to you about creativity? Why think about it all?" He identified at least four very good reasons, the desire to answer these questions: So he went off to study what we know about creativity. A scholar does research. Creativity research in the US began when academic psychologists began trying to measure mental characteristics. Much of this work was done at the request of the military. As time went by, the number of characteristics, perhaps in correlation of research grants awarded by the government. Creativity is, perhaps, correlated with salesmanship. :-) Eventually, we had found several important characteristics, including that there is little or no correlation between IQ and creativity. Creativity is not a province of the intellectually gifted. Hass cited the research of Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (remember him?), both of whom worked to identify key features of the moment of a creative change, say, when Dickens thought to publish a novel in serial form. The key seems to be immersion in a domain, a fascination with domain and its problem and possibilities. The creative person learns the language of the domain and sees something new. Creative people are not problems solvers but problem finders. I am not surprised to find language at the center of creativity! I am also not surprised to know that creative people find problems. I think we can save something even stronger, that creative people often create their own problems to solve. This is one of the characteristics that biases me away from creativity: I am a solver more than a finder. But thinking explicitly about this may enable me to seek ways to find and create problems. That is, as Hass pointed out earlier, one of the reasons for thinking about creativity: ways to make ourselves more creative. But we can use the same ideas to help our children learn the creative habit, and to help create institutions that foster the creative act. He mentioned OOPSLA as a social construct in the domain of software that excels at fostering creative. It's why we all keep coming back. How can we repeat the process? Hass spoke more about important features of domains. For instance, it seems matter how clear the rules of the domain are at the point that a person enters it. Darwin is a great example. He embarked on his studies at a time when the rules of his domain had just become fuzzy again. Geology had recently expanded European science's understanding of the timeline of the earth; Linnaeus had recently invented his taxonomy of organisms. So, some of the knowledge Darwin needed was in place, but other parts of the domain were wide open. The technology of memory is a technology of safety. What are the technologies of freedom? Hass read us a funny poem on story telling. The story teller was relating a myth of his people. When his listener questioned an inconsistency in his story, the story teller says, "You know, when I was a child, I used to wonder that..." Later, the listener asked the same question again, and again, and each time the story teller says, "You know, when I was a child, I used to wonder that..." When he was a child, he questioned the stories, but as he grew older -- and presumably wiser -- he came to accept the stories as they were, to retell them without question. We continue to tell our stories for their comfort. They make us feel safe. They is a danger in safety, as it can blind us to the value of change, can make us fear change. This was one of the moments in which Hass surrendered to a cheap political point, but I began to think about the dangers inherent in the other side of the equation, freedom. What sort of blindness does freedom lead us to? Software people and poets have something in common, in the realm of creativity: We both fall in love with patterns, with the interplay between the constant and the variable, with infinite permutation. In computing, we have the variable and the value, the function and the parameter, the framework and the plug-in. We extend and refactor, exposing the constant and the variable in our problem domains. Hass repeated an old joke, "Spit straight up and learn something." We laugh, a mockery of people stuck in same old patterns. This hit me right where I live. Yesterday at the closing panel of the Educators' Symposium, Joe Bergin said something that I wrote about a while back: CS educators are an extremely conservative lot. I have something to say about that panel, soon... First safety, then freedom -- and with it the power to innovate. Of course, extreme danger, pressure, insecurity can also be the necessity that leads to the creative act. As is often the case, opposites turn out to be true. As Thomas Mann said,
A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a great truth.
Hass reminds us that there is agony in creativity -- a pain at stuckness, found in engagement with the world. Pain is unlike pleasure, which is homeostatic ("a beer and ballgame"). Agony is dynamic, ceasing to cling to safe position. There is always an element of anxiety, consciousness heightened at the moment of insight, gestalt in face of incomplete pattern. The audience asked a couple of questions: I'll close my report with how Hass closed the main part of his talk. He reached "the whole point of his talk" -- a sonnet by Michelangelo -- and he didn't have it in his notes!! So Hass told us the story in paraphrase:
The pain is unbearable, paint dripping in my face, I climb down to look at it, and it's horrible, I hate it, I am no painter...
It was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. ~~~~~ UPDATE (10/20/05): Thanks again to Google, I have tracked down the sonnet that Hass wanted to read. I especially love the ending:
Defend my labor's cause,
good Giovanni, from all strictures:
I live in hell and paint its pictures.

-- Michelangelo Buonarroti
I have felt this way about a program before. Many times. -----