My Dad was many fine things, and he was also a fine lawyer. Like me, he worked in a multi-disciplinary environment and had every respect for other professions. However, he did used to tell me that actuaries were people who found accountancy a bit too exciting. (1)(2)
Be that as it may, I’ve always felt accountants get a bad rap, especially when it comes to creativity. Being a ‘creative accountant’ is seen as a bad thing. Hell, even lawyers get praised for being creative!
What exactly is my point, you’re beginning to wonder? Just this. ‘Creativity’ has been kidnapped by artistic, musical, and writing types like me. But creativity, in the sense of being able to examine the Rubik’s Cube that is our everyday life and its multicoloured problems and come up with a new solution to them, is a necessary life skill for everyone. Or life hack, as I believe they say.
There’s another thing that has, I feel, held back accountants and others not traditionally thought of as creative types, and that’s the left brain/right brain thing.
The Left Brain/Right Brain Thing
The research of several scientists, but most famously psychologist Roger Sperry, on the functions of the left and right sides of the brain in thinking has long seeped into popular culture as a shorthand version: right side creative and intuitive, left side analytical and number-crunching. Sperry, who got a Nobel Prize for his research, did what many such types do and made a project out of people who had suffered a very specific series of unfortunate events: in this cases, sufferers of extreme forms of epilepsy who had had the connection between both halves of their brain surgically severed.
The reality is a bit more complex than the shorthand version, of course. Neither half has a complete monopoly over particular processes, and in fact four areas, the left and right hemispheres, and the left and right halves of the limbic system are in play (if you want more detailed info on this, this piece in the Scientific American was at the right level for me) and it takes co-operation between these four areas to carry an idea from any sort of eureka moment through to analysis, refinement, and execution.
That said, because of the slightly counter-intuitive way the human brain is wired, left-handers like me may just be tickling the ‘inspiration’ bits of the old grey matter more easily on a day to day basis, as the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body (I remember my mother, right-handed, telling me of one art class she took where the opening exercise was to scrawl away with your left hand whether you were a southpaw or not, to get the creative juices going).
However, although creative caggy-handers like me love to claim kinship with the huge – and it would seem disproportionate – number of famous artists and musicians that have also been part of that 10% minority (Mozart, Hendrix, Dylan, Lady Gaga, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo to name but few), actually, there’s a whole host of lefties whose achievements are either scientific or technology-based (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs) or as world stage politicians or leaders (Alexander the Great, Winston Churchill, Joan of Arc, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George H W Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford).
The recent research also indicates that you’re not ‘naturally’ left or right brained. It’s not like Albert Einstein (another lefty) had huge bulging right temporal lobes to accommodate the extra grey matter that came with being a creative thinker. So even if you think you haven’t a creative bone in your body, you do! You just need to start accepting that you do, and using it!
So, in the hope that this is of help to my accountant friends and others, here’s a brief summary of what, in my creative life, and even my creative lawyering life, I’ve found helpful.
Time of Day
Latterly in my full-time job I took to telling members of my team that, if they had a problem they wanted me to solve, they should see me before eleven in the morning, as I’d generally had my best thoughts by then. I think the kindest of them thought I was putting them on (I don’t care to think what the unkind ones thought): but, for me, first thing in the morning is when a lot of ideas for music, lyrics, poetry and, yes, solutions to legal problems, come to me. But I’d stress it’s not just about light bulb moments: for me, it’s the time of day when all parts of my brain are at their best.
For example, the other day I had to analyse a piece of legislation I was unfamiliar with and interpret its wording in the light of a specific set of circumstances. Quite deliberately I set it aside for first thing the next morning, because I knew I’d be able to learn new stuff then, and apply that learning logically.
Not everyone’s the same, of course. In my experience there are as many night owls as larks. Which one are you?
Only kidding, accountant pals. Shouldn’t do drugs. Drugs are bad.
Joking aside, my drug of choice is alcohol, principally these days red wine in very moderate amounts, but I have never, ever, no matter the amount or type of booze involved, found it enhanced my ability to be inspired. It has on occasion in the distant past enhanced my ability to think I was inspired, but the results when I sobered up were without exception crap.
Of course, it may just be my choice of drug is wrong. It’s hard to think of a classic Sixties album that wasn’t conceived in a haze of cannabis or a multicoloured blaze of LSD. Going further back, a lot of the fin de siecle late Victorian and early Edwardian artists benefitted greatly from the fact the authorities in most European countries hadn’t caught up with the health risks associated with laudanum, absinthe, cocaine, and all that jazz. Lord Byron, even further back in the day, also liked a drop of something rather stronger than claret.
Any mind-altering substances have their risks, of course: and ultimately, they’re really just a more instant way of reaching a state where the doors of perception can be kept ajar (see below).
Surround yourself with creative minds
Look back at history, and there’s countless examples of creative minds bouncing off each other, and being inspired in the process. Visual art is full of them, from the various Flemish and Dutch ‘schools’ through Andre Breton’s merry band of Surrealists in the 20s, to Warhol’s Factory and beyond. Music, too, such as the singer-songwriter community in LA’s Laurel Canyon in the 70s.
Writers also benefit from this. For my own part, I’ve no doubt whatsoever that membership of a writer’s group that wrote genre fiction, and then Writer’s Bloc, inspired far more fiction and even something like poetry than if I’d starved alone in a Glenrothes garret.
How does that factor into the everyday work context? Don’t find Kevin and Karen inspiring co-workers? Sometimes a problem shared does bring out the best in people, even if their default is pass-ag comments about the contents of the communal fridge (or the current virtual equivalent of that on Teams).
Alternatively, if you’re in a professional or trade association, it may be that the exchange of ideas that lead to inspiration can happen that way. These conferences that your Team Leader goes to? They’re right when they say a big percentage of what they get out of it is not in the formal seminars. It’s chatting to other people from other areas about common problems. When they say they come away inspired, they’re not just doing that management thing.
Find a quiet place and meditate
Yeah, I know. I know. I know, right? How on earth are you meant to get time to do that in a working day when your boss is on your back, and you have targets to meet? I can well imagine that in some workplaces the best response a request for ‘meditation time’ could hope for would be hoots of derision.
So don’t do it at work. Do it at home, and do it for yourself, when the kids are asleep and your partner’s taken the dog out for a walk.
And when I say meditation, I don’t necessarily mean the sitting cross-legged and chanting, or even just the modern form, which I believe they call mindfulness. The key thing, in my opinion for what it’s worth, is to have your mind absorbed. Lots of things that don’t immediately spring to mind when you say ‘meditation’ are good for absorbing your mind – a brisk game of squash, for example, where you really have to focus on that little black ball and the creative geometries of shot-making. When you’ve done something like that, notice how the everyday receded – because it had to.
It isn’t easy to divert your mind from its constant monkey chatter, its nagging anxieties and deadline reminders. If it was easy, we probably wouldn’t rely on intoxicants to do it for us. But finding a way to do it will reduce your stress levels – and allow time for inspiration to seep in.
If this were a different kind of blog, this would be where, after teasing you for 1500 words, I’d give you the Big Reveal whereby, for only $15.99, you too could learn the secret of inspiration, life, the universe and everything.
Well, tough. There isn’t an easy answer. But I’ll tell you one thing that, alongside playing music with others, works for me, and it’s reading. Read whatever you like, because that’s what will do it for you.
Speaking of which, I’ve recently been reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception (yep, the one that gave Jim Morrison and his pals their band name). It’s extraordinary. The author of Brave New World spent the last ten years of his life (he died in 1963) experimenting with the effects of mescalin, and this was his write up.
Mescalin, Huxley said, acted not so much as a way of blocking out the everyday but removing the filter that saves the senses from being bombarded with sensation: self-deprecatingly, he claims not to have had the grand visions and illusions of others, but instead finds himself fascinated with the inner being of unremarkable objects: a bamboo chair, the fold of his trousers, a flower. He marvels at the ability under the influence of the drug to see things as they really are: their Is-ness, as he puts it.
Extrapolating from that experience, he later sees in a book Van Gogh’s painting of his chair with a pipe on it, and understands for the first time how artists saw such things in greater depth than us ordinary mortals, and were able to render them as such – at least to an extent. Likewise, he points out that one hell of a lot of square footage of Renaissance painting is actually all about the folds of cloth in, for example, the Madonna’s robe.
I’m not really doing justice to Huxley’s writing: go read it yourself. It’s really short, and I get now how it’s been a touchstone for artistic types ever since. In fact, it inspired me, not only to photography, but even poetry (yeah I know that can be a mixed blessing: you can always skip it and go to the extra actuary joke underneath). Sitting in a cafe in Dunfermline, under the influence of nothing stronger than caffeine, I was thinking about Huxley and Van Gogh when I looked ahead of me and saw the photo that’s at the head of this blog.
Anyway. I hope something in all of this inspires you, or at least makes you think differently from the usual. I’m shortly going to be sorely in need of inspiration myself, because I’ve decided to join in with FAWM, February Album Writing Month, which basically means I have to write 14 songs in 28 days. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but so far, I’ve got an album cover and a title, ‘Still Life.’ I guess you don’t have to be a genius to work out the title will have more than one meaning. Wish me luck!
And the poem? I nearly forgot:
the otherness of everyday
should be denied:
the simple pleasures
(and more complicated)
are no less real
than a Buddhist chant.
A cup of tea, a teapot
stand, captured and yet free
to express themselves
as clearly as a prayer:
a glass of wine,
a lover’s caress
may be taken as an act of faith
or indeed a sacrament.
(1) I gave Dad’s line about actuaries to an accountant once, and they countered with one of their own: how do you tell the extrovert at the actuaries’ party? They’re the ones looking at your shoes….
(2) This blog is dedicated to my Dad, who we lost 8 years ago yesterday. There’s not a day goes past when I miss him for far more than his actuary jokes.
Real good essay. The poem, too. And thank you for discussing the Huxley book. I’ve never thought to read it, but now I might.
Thanks, Neil. I really recommend the Doors of Perception – even if you’re not going to follow up his experiments, he packs a lot of wisdom into a short book. He’s a beautiful writer, too.