Tonight, I listened to Jonah Lehrer speak about his book Imagine. It is another in an increasingly popular genre of literature that seeks to explain “creativity” to some degree or other. If you don’t already know the story, here is the Wikipedia entry on Eureka.

“This exclamation is most famously attributed to the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes. He reportedly proclaimed “Eureka!” when he stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose—he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. This relation is known as Archimedes’ principle. He then realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision, a previously intractable problem. He is said to have been so eager to share his discovery that he leapt out of his bathtub and ran through the streets of Syracuse naked.”

So, the reasoning in every creativity book or article I’ve read goes something like this: Archimedes couldn’t figure out the problem, so he took a bath. The conclusion is simple. If you relax, you’ll be more creative. Also, you have to not relax sometimes, but you have to relax too. If you can relax and not relax at the same time, then you’ll really be creative.

In fact, people who work to explain creativity, often run into contradictions. Mr. Lehrer, in the course of just over 30 minutes on the radio, explained that 3M employees came up with insights because they took breaks to play ping-pong and that W.H. Auden wrote great poems because he took amphetamines and was able to concentrate for long periods of time. So, while you’re relaxing and not relaxing, be sure to concentrate and take lots of breaks from concentrating.

The contradictions happen because the category is wrong. In Classic, Romantic, and Modern, Jacques Barzun explodes the old scholarship on Romanticism in much the same way. If you pick any characteristic that is supposedly “Romantic”, it is fairly easy to find one of the paragons of Romanticism that doesn’t follow the characteristic. The only way to tackle the problem is to look at the specific output in its entirety instead of approaching the genre with preconceived characteristics.

In other words, take any specific technique that someone uses in his/her creative work, and I will guarantee you that I can find a prominent creative artist who does just the opposite. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about this stuff. I’m just saying that you can’t bottle it and sell it. My good friend Guy Trainin said to me once when we were discussing the subject, “I think I might be able to measure it, but it is so discipline specific that I’m not sure it would be transferable in any way to another subject.” That may be the best way to think about it.

The results that Mr. Lehrer and his ilk get will always be contradictory because people are contradictory. Techniques are good and useful, but they don’t always work. This is why sometimes you have to play ping-pong and sometimes you have to take the amphetamines. Each artistic problem demands our whole self, and are whole self is not reducible to techniques.

I bet if Mr. Lehrer had me on his MRI, he could tell me which part of my brain I was turning off and on to write this. In the meanwhile, I’m writing some lovely 8 part counterpoint. I’m going to try to do it using all the good parts of my brain and not the ones that I’m not supposed to use.