When U2 first wrote the song “Vertigo”, the song had different lyrics, a different name, and a different arrangement. The song, then called “Native Son”, was inspired by one Native American's experience brushing up against the law. The band loved, absolutely loved, the raging guitar hook, but struggled with the way the song came out--because of the sensitivity of the lyrics. Bono felt uncomfortable singing it in front of audiences--and so the band spent days and days revising and reworking the song, jettisoning the lyrics, keeping the guitar hook and the basic melody, rewriting the lyrics entirely, reorganizing and remixing the song. They worked and worked at it, and without this work refining the song, “Vertigo” likely wouldn’t have topped so many charts around the world.
But to say that creativity is only about work is misleading--and a little pedantic--because play is also important.
So how do we reconcile this deliberate, often-grueling work with the playful exploration that we associate with creative-minded people? What about the fun of creativity? How do we reconcile the finger-crunching advice from writers (put in your time; treat it like a job) with the creative image of the Einsteinian goofball or Peter Shaffer’s mischievous Mozart?
The answer, for me, is involved in the best description of the creative process I have encountered, which comes from something called Creative Systems Theory. (In what follows, I have edited the content to make it--as I see it--more useful and clear. Apologies to purists.)
Creative Systems Theory identifies five basic stages in creative work. The formal names of the stages are: pre-axis, early-axis, middle-axis, late-axis, and integration. But this is abstract. More familiarly, these are: incubation, inspiration, perspiration, refining, and, well, integration.
What do these look like more closely?
Incubation (pre-axis) is that time when an idea is gestating. It is taking shape. When something is about to hatch, and it’s not yet clear what it is. When there’s something below the surface. Like having a word on the tip of your tongue. This is the time of patience, synthesis, slow-thinking.
Inspiration (early-axis) is the time of play. It’s the time of experimentation. Of batting around an idea, exploring it, inverting it, reconceiving it, outlining it. Some people are good at different stages, and this is the stage that describes the improvisers, the experimenters, the people who treat “whiteboard” as a verb: to whiteboard an idea.
Perspiration (middle-axis) is the time of work. It is the perseverance. If the pre-axis/inspiration stage is the outlining, then this is the writing, the plowing through the pages, the plugging through the calculations, the cycling through the iterations. This requires diligence, sweat. This is the work of creativity.
Refining (late-axis) is the time of finishing and polishing. It is the work of the editor, the proof-reader: reviewing the details, checking for bugs, making final tweaks. It is the work of the meticulous and the careful.
And integration (integration!) is the connection of the work to its context. It is the understanding of the work as a part of a larger landscape, as a part of our lives. This describes people who can “grok” a work, apply it, engage it, see it as it can be used, see a piece as a part of a whole.
If we think about our own work, we can often easily see which stages describe ourselves (and which, decidedly, do not). Are you a perspirer? Are you good at putting in the hours? Or are you an experimenter, an inventor? Or a detail-person, who evaluates and touches things up well? This is a helpful tool if we want to see projects through to completion. We can better understand whom we should partner with or what we might work on.
And so what about U2? The story of “Vertigo” is compelling because it shows how the process isn’t always linear. The Edge (U2’s guitarist) wrote the guitar hook, and reading about the way The Edge talks about it (“a reason alone for making a new record”) suggests it’s not hard to imagine how much play (inspiration/early-axis) went into the song. Then, U2 built the song straight through the perspiration stage. But, at the finishing and polishing stage (late-axis) they recognized some flaws, so they bounced back to the early- and middle-axis stages, replaying and revising and reworking the song until they had created a new finished product.
The products of good work often seem so simple, so effortless, but it’s attentive participation in each step that makes it so--but this doesn’t mean only work. It means understanding what contributes to all five stages: patience, play, work, attention, and follow-through.
"Vertigo" by U2
"Native Son" by U2
Note on the top image: last week I participated in a conference about creativity and the arts in Texas, and Paul, one of the conference attendees, afterwards sent me a visual word distribution list for this blog (courtesy of the website “Wordle”). Neatly, “Work” was the most represented. It's a nice affirmation that creativity is as much work as it is play. Perhaps I need to write more about the play side?
Lastly, here is the website for the part of Creative Systems Theory that I describe. It is hosted by Charles Johnston, himself, and you should be ready for an old-school website: pictures from what look like the 80s, bad formatting, and a combination of psycho-lingo and new-age-y sounding terminology. Take the time to pick through, though, and there’s some meaningful stuff there.
(Heading Image: word distribution of this blog: thanks to Paul Love-Kretchmer and Wordle)