On my way to work each morning, I ride my bike from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the Manhattan Bridge, which has a walkway for pedestrians on its south side and one for cyclists on the north. This bridge is all business, a means to an end, a solution to the problem of water not easily crossed.
Sometimes, if I find myself downtown after work, I’ll take the Brooklyn Bridge to get home, and that experience is altogether different.
On the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, between the famous suspension cables and the great stone towers, pedestrians and cyclists mix and clot. This boardwalk’s governing principle is to meander and take in the views, to read the bronze plaques, to be part of a New York throng with cameras ready to capture the moment. The point of walking the Brooklyn Bridge, in other words, is not to cross but simply to be there.
The two bridges parallel the nature of creativity. As Joshua Rothman recently pointed out in the New Yorker, there are (at least) two kinds of creativity: a workaday imagination and a more transformative one, à la the Romantic poets. The first can help us solve problems on a daily basis, and the second can change how we perceive the world around us.
But in both cases, creativity favors an oblique approach. Like Perseus, who you’ll remember was able to slay Medusa only by looking at her indirectly through his shield, your creativity doesn’t like to be looked at directly; it can turn you to stone if you try. So how can you think and act rationally about creativity when it appears to function in an irrational way?
Let’s start with the workaday type of creativity, the one likely to enliven your commute, give you insight into thorny interpersonal relationships, and help you excel at your job. I have two suggestions on how to put indirectness into practice:
As an editor, I strive never to make changes to copy I’ve only just read. I build extra time into my writers’ deadlines specifically so that I can sleep on pieces before I edit them. Some problems simply can’t be solved at first glance; you have to trust the mysterious process that occurs when you have dreamed about them for at least one night.
The other thing you can do is periodically change your context. This recalls the legend of Archimedes, who was asked to determine the purity of the king’s golden crown without destroying it. Archimedes got nowhere in his laboratory; only when he took a moment to relax did he notice the signal displacement of his bathwater. Which is to say, some solutions emerge on their own, and you’re more likely to take notice in places unconnected to the problem.
So, what about that other, more mystical kind of creativity? How do you enact that? Again, two ways:
Throughout school, my teachers proscribed spacing out for fear of losing us during their lessons. It has taken me years to unlearn my own prejudice against daydreaming, and even longer to recognize its value.
Fifty years ago, poet Frank O’Hara spaced out systematically by walking around midtown Manhattan every day on his lunch break and jotting down what became his beloved collection Lunch Poems. Let your mind wander with a dreamy playfulness–don’t require your spacing-out time to be “productive.” Not every session will produce something (Lunch Poems is only 82 pages, after all), but regularly taking time to space out will inform your sensibility and your future contributions to the world.
On my bike trips across the Brooklyn Bridge, I have to slow way down and become alert to everyone’s movements and cues. I see tourists and native New Yorkers, families and children, friends and couples. I also see a surprising number of people walking the bridge on their own. Some have modified their phones with extension handles so they can take better selfies or record videos. Others lean on the railing, staring at Manhattan’s skyline and the East River, both for the moment golden and strange. It’s not clear if the woman looking up at her phone ever sees the sunset with her own eyes, and maybe the guy is thinking only about what to fix for dinner. But both chose to cross the oblique bridge at this hour, carefully arranging themselves for a private eureka.
—Jason Baker is senior editor at Mediander. He is also a poet.