O Brother

WHEN I THINK OF CALLING SOMEONE "CREATIVE", I think of someone who has artistic leanings: visual artists, musicians, quilters, storytellers, poets, etc. I know there are creative people in the business world as well. I’ve met many of them. I work with some. Obviously, creatives can be found in other fields: science, education, church, sports and more.

Here are some other things I know about “being creative”:

From The Daily Artifact project by Corey Lee Fuller

From The Daily Artifact project by Corey Lee Fuller

  1. There’s some of it in all of us. Believe what you will about the Creation narrative, but the fact is that we are created in the image of God, and the first thing we learn about God is that he/she is creative.
  2. If getting our education system further oriented toward math and science at the expense and even demise of meaningful programs and classes in music, art, drama, creative writing and the humanities, we are doing irreparable damage. Because,
  3. A product of “creativity” is beauty, and we need to be in awe and wonder sometimes.
  4. Creative people are often compelled to depths that are often dark and darker.
  5. Despite that fact, I long to do creative work; not to be labeled “creative” necessarily, but because I will not be satisfied otherwise.

One of the many on-going rhetorical questions in my own mind is, “Would I be willing to be at risk of some state of mental anguish or dis-ease in order to be optimally creative?”

Remember the Faust story; the whole “Selling your soul to the devil” storyline? One of my favorite versions of that theme is in the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou. In this movie, three prison escapees are on the run in a stolen car. They see a guy standing at a crossroads—literally and metaphorically. They pick him up and ask him his story. He explains that his name is Tommy Johnson, and that at midnight, he met the devil at that crossroads and bargained with him: his soul for the ability to play blues guitar.

If you know your Blues lore, you might think that that story belongs to Robert Johnson, who wrote the song “Crossroad Blues”, which was later wonderfully covered by Eric Clapton and Cream. 

The first line of the song goes:

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above “Have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please”

But in the movie, the soul-seller/guitar player is named “Tommy Johnson”. I assumed that the writers didn’t want to directly attribute the story to Robert so used the name Tommy instead. It turns out though that in all likelihood the story is true for Tommy Johnson, but maybe not Robert.

If you’re interested in that whole saga, I highly recommend you listen to this episode of RadioLab (it’s pretty long so you might want to save it for later).
CLICK HERE for the story about Robert and Tommy Johnson on Radiolab: 

In the O Brother movie, two of the three convicts have just been saved and are still wet from baptism when they come across Tommy, the hitch-hiking guitar player. They discuss their respective Crossroads experiences with the third convict, played by George Clooney, claiming that he, having chosen neither God nor the devil, “remains unafiliated.”

But as Bob Dylan (who attributes Robert Johnson for inspiration) wrote:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Click on this movie poster image to see a clip from the movie.

So back to the conversation I have in my mind: “Would I be willing to be at risk of some state of mental anguish in order to be optimally creative?”

The question comes up in my discussion with myself because there are times when I wonder if maybe I AM a bit crazy. (I heard that.) I often find my perspective and thinking to be so different from the mainstream that I don’t feel normal.

It turns out that maybe the leap from creativity to craziness is a short one:

“Psychological theories propose that the schizophrenic spectrum is accompanied by a decrease in practical reasoning, as schizophrenia patients outperform controls in logical deduction that is in conflict with practical reasoning. Furthermore, it has been suggested that those less restrained by practical cognitive styles may have an advantage in artistic occupations,” study researcher Robert A. Power, MD, of deCODE Genetics and King’s College London, and colleagues wrote. “These results provide support for the notion that creativity and psychiatric disorders, particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, share psychological attributes.”

CLICK HERE to read more about this research.

We just saw the new biopic Love & Mercy. It is the story of the song writing genius, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys

The IMBD Database describes the movie this way:

“In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.”

CLICK the image to see the movie trailer

Now put on a really good pair of headphones, close your eyes and listen carefully to The Beach Boys sing “God Only Knows”. Listen again and hear the french horns, the jingle bells and that amazing bass line. Listen one more time and hear how Brian uses amazing chord progressions, unique rhythms, and those tight Beach Boys harmonies to create a masterpiece.

You can’t get stuff like that out of a normal brain any more than you can get The Starry Night out of Van Gogh’s.

If I could interview Brian Wilson, I would ask him, “Would you have traded your ability to write “Good Vibrations”, “Sloop John B”, and “I Get Around” for a more sane existence?