“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos,” Mary Shelley observed in contemplating how creativity works in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. “It is strange the way ideas come when they are needed,” the physicist Freeman Dyson wrote nearly two centuries later in his account of the “flash of illumination” by which creative breakthrough occurs. It is a chaotic strangeness familiar to every creative person, be she poet or physicist or composer, and yet we have expended millennia of thought and divination on trying to locate its source and foment its springing.
Again and again, we have arrived at one elemental aspect of it: the necessary period of unconscious incubation by which any creative achievement is hatched. “We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on,” T.S. Eliot wrote of this incubation period. Oliver Sacks enumerated it among the three essential elements of creativity. E.B. White attributed Charlotte’s Web to it.
A beautiful articulation of both the conscious preparation and the unconscious incubation of creativity comes from Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827), as relayed by Johann Aloys Schlösser — a composer about twenty years Beethoven’s junior, who would go on to write the first biography of him. The slim book, published just after Beethoven’s death, was more a work of celebration and commemoration than one of scholarship. Schlösser himself considered it an offering of “love and esteem” for “the master of immortal sound.” But Schlösser had one insurmountable advantage over later biographers — he intersected with Beethoven in time and space, which granted him singular access and insight into the great composer’s character and creative process. The essence of the latter comes alive in one particularly revealing exchange between the two composers, later cited in Life of Beethoven (public library) by the American librarian and journalist Alexander Wheelock Thayer — the first full, scholarly biography of Beethoven, published at the end of the nineteenth century, which set out to fact-check and clear the many romantic myths about the composer that had been circulating in the decades since his death.
Schlösser recounts bringing “a new, somewhat complicated composition” to Beethoven as a young man and asking the master for constructive feedback. After reading it, Beethoven responded with an insightful remark on the art of editing and the life-cycle of creativity:
You give too much, less would have been better; but that lies in the nature of heaven-scaling youth, which never thinks it possible to do enough. It is a fault maturer years will correct, however, and I still prefer a superfluity to a paucity of ideas.
When Schlösser inquired how Beethoven himself managed this intricate dance of calibrating ideas, the elder composer outlined the process of incubation, ideation, and editing by which a great work of art is birthed:
I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down. At the same time my memory is so faithful to me that I am sure not to forget a theme which I have once conceived, even after five years have passed. I make many changes, reject and reattempt until I am satisfied. Then the working-out in breadth, length, height and depth begins in my head, and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It rises, grows upward, and I hear and se the picture as a whole take shape and stand forth before me as though cast in a single piece, so that all that is left is the work of writing it down.
And yet Beethoven — who did most of his composing outdoors, jotting down ideas as they occurred to him there, then writing them into scores upon returning to his quarters — acknowledges the essential mystery at the heart of creative work, which no framework or discipline or routine can manufacture. In a sentiment evocative of Charles Bukowski’s ferocious poem “so you want to be a writer,” he writes:
Whence I take my ideas… I cannot say with any degree of certainty; they come to me uninvited, directly, or indirectly. I could almost grasp them in my hands, out in nature’s open, in the woods, during my promenades, in the silence of the night, at earliest dawn. They are roused by moods which in the poet’s case are transmuted into words, and in mine into tones, that sound, roar and storm until at last they take shape for me as notes.
Complement with Rilke on the combinatorial nature of creativity and Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on inspiration, then revisit Beethoven on the crucial difference between talent and genius, creative vitality and resilience in the face of suffering, and his advice on being an artist in a touching letter to a little girl who sent him fan mail.