The Storm of Creativity
by Kyna Leski
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015
216 pp., illus., 38 b&w. Trade, $24.95
Reviewed by Rob Harle
This book is a refreshing, and I believe, unique approach to understanding creativity. Leski refers to creativity in its broadest scope – architects, poets, dancers, scientists, engineers, chefs – anyone who brings to fruition an original creation that did not exist prior to their efforts.
Throughout the book Leski uses the well-known and testable process that governs the development and ‘way’ of a storm as a metaphor for literally understanding creativity. She likens the creation process – its original state, development, regression, expansion, and so on to the way storms, develop, reach their peak state and then move or dissipate.
I found this an excellent metaphor to help understand the process of creation, that for example, an architect goes through to solve design problems. Leski’s approach is far better and much more practical than books that delve deeply into neurophysiology, neurotransmitters in the brain, and so on when trying to understand what happens when creative people work. The neurological approach may be useful as far as it goes, and for specialised reasons. However, knowing that a certain neurotransmitter fires up a certain part of the brain doesn’t help us understand, or more importantly, deal with for example, writer’s block. Leski’s storm metaphor and analysis does!
This book is very well written, has a smattering of black & white illustrations together with a Foreword by John Maeda, Acknowledgments, and an Introduction. After the 10 chapters there are Notes, a Bibliography and Index.
Chapter headings cover the creative process in its various, paradoxically, separate though merging characteristics. Ch.1 Creativity A Storm sets the metaphorical stage. Ch. 2 Unlearning explains how to get rid of pre-conceived ideas and unlearn information that prevents us creating new things. Ch. 3 Problem Making shows how to make a problem. Ch.4 Gathering & Tracking concerns the making of notes, collecting specimens, etc. Ch. 5 Propelling, the already gathered necessities. This chapter shows how use of language and understanding the language of the materials (softness of aluminium for example) are critical in taking the nascent creative concept further towards completion. Ch. 6 Perceiving & Conceiving analyses the way our senses communicate the importance in creating something new. Ch. 7 Seeing Ahead discusses the role of insight, intuition, and imagination in the creative process. Ch. 8 Connecting, the vitally important aspect of creativity where a connection is made with something new, a not before imagined ‘together’ quality. Ch. 9 Pausing another important aspect of the creative voyage is to “take a break”, let things settle and have time to percolate. Ch. 10 Continuing looks at how creativity does not just stop at the end of a specific work but seeds are sown, so to speak, for future inventions and creations. The analogy of the abating of the storm is not the end of the storm process. The wind and rain might have ceased but the moisture, and atmospheric pressures involved are already moving elsewhere and will soon become part of another weather event.
Leski’s use of personal vignettes by inventors and artists is quite extensive; in fact, she is a very good storyteller as well as technical writer. The book could be a little humdrum if these gems were not included. She uses these to illustrate the various processes involved in the creation of something new. One of the most interesting is her description of how N. Joseph Woodland “accidentally” discovered (invented) the little black &white sticker on everything we buy - the ubiquitous Barcode! And yes, she discusses the differences between invention and discovery.
Woodland had been preoccupied with the task of coming up with a way to “encode product data,” he actually quit graduate school to devote himself to the problem. One day he dragged his fingers through the sand and there before him were four lines of varying width, the light bulb went on and the rest as they say is history (p. 26 – 27). Other brilliant creatives such as Antonio Gaudi, Charles Darwin, and Arthur Koestler are also discussed with extensive quotes from these personalities.
The book does not directly discuss ‘obsession’ to any extent as a characteristic of creative genius; this to my mind would have been a worthwhile inclusion as quite often it is the “dog at a bone” attitude that finally finds the solution, lesser obsessives give up before achieving their goal. Also Leski fails to mention or address the problem of getting rid of preconceived ideas in the form of one’s personal style. For example, we all know the general style of a Frank Gehry building, now each building is unique; however, Gehry clearly does not exclude all preconceived ideas of style when creating a new building because each building would end up in very different styles. So to me clearing the mind of immediate preconceived ideas is essential, but also clearly an established creator does not forget their personal style. Perhaps there is room for further investigation into this aspect of the creative process.
The Storm of Creativity is a wonderful addition to the literature on creativity and essential reading for all the various practitioners in the various genres of invention and discovery. Leski is a teacher of architecture and as one would expect this little book should be core reading text for all the creative disciplines.