Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Imitates

One of the most enduring albums of the 1990s and also one of the most idiosyncratic—Liz Phair's  Exile in Guyville .  Image via .

One of the most enduring albums of the 1990s and also one of the most idiosyncratic—Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville.  Image via


It’s interesting to note that works of art with the widest appeal are in some way the strangest, the most unique.

On the list of the greatest rock, pop, and R&B offerings, we might find Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Live at the Apollo, Highway 61 Revisited, “Mississippi Goddamn,” Are You Experienced, Clouds, “Baba O’Riley,” Innervisions, First Take, Tapestry, “Radio, Radio,” Horses, Remain in Light, “Running Up That Hill,” Nevermind, Exile in Guyville.  All of these are marked by their distinctiveness. 

A list of the great plays might include Hamlet; a list of great novels might include Mrs. Dalloway and Song of Solomon; a list of great films might include The 400 Blows and The Godfather.  In the case of these and other entries on lists of widely loved works, we would not be surprised to see works that featured distinctive characters, settings, image systems, and so forth.

“The most widely loved works are idiosyncratic”—on the surface, it’s a conundrum.  Yet the explanation might lie in idea that our first task as the audience is to recreate the imagery inside of us, to somehow imitate the art.  The more specific the object we attempt to imitate, the greater success we will have.  Think of how we have the easiest time doing an impression of the odd characters in our lives, even when those we are imitating feel different from us.  The people whose traits stand out the least are the most difficult to imitate.

Likewise with art, the more original the creation, the more distinctly it will strike the imagination of the audience and the more easily it might be imitated within them as they absorb the work.  Another way of thinking about this: there is a reason that the most loved albums are also the most imitated by other artists, and it might have to do with something beyond the desire for replicating the success of the original.  Artists who hear distinctive work have an easier time imitating it.  So it is with the audience.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 4 — The Audience’s Creativity

Thus far, we’ve examined creative process from the perspective of those making art.  But the audience for any work of art engages its own creativity.  What if Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz — “Imitate, assimilate, innovate” — tells us something about how we receive art as an audience?

I think his formulation captures exactly what happens:

  • First, we imitate.  — We listen to a piece of music, or read a book, or watch a film, and we take what we see into ourselves and begin by imitating it.  We recreate what we are hearing (or reading, seeing, etc.) inside of us by way of our imagination.
  • Then we assimilate. — Once we have recreated those images, we begin to embellish them.  We ascribe details and meaning that may have been missing from the work we took in.
  • Finally, we innovate. — After recreating and then embellishing the images, we discover parts of ourselves that stand outside the work, and sometimes, beyond our previous experience.  The act of taking in the art has given us access to a part of ourselves.  What we have accessed is not part of the art, it is a discovery made possible by our own creative imagination.  The art made it possible, but the act of discovery (and perhaps the thing being discovered) is the result of our own creative innovation.

Consider these examples of how I think this works:


We imagine ourselves in stories.  We are drawn to characters with whom we empathize and contexts that we find most appealing, perhaps because they are more readily imitated in our imagination.  We imagine ourselves fighting off the antagonists.  We imagine ourselves running for our lives.  

When we listen to music, we imagine ourselves playing the song.  We might even play air guitar or drums.  The impulse to reenact what we are hearing is a natural form of the imitative component of our creative imagination.

Beneath theses surface forms of imitation, we imitate by way of repeating the artwork to ourselves by way of revisiting the images.  


We take a few details from a story and fill in the world around it with details of our own, thereby embellishing and augmenting the work.  An example of this: my memory of John Bonham’s drum sound on various Led Zeppelin albums is always larger than what I hear when I sit down to listen.  His sound is huge on record; it’s even bigger in my imagination.  The suggestive power of the recordings has led me to recreate and then embellish the largeness of the sound.


I can report that I sometimes have the urge to listen to music without knowing what I want to hear.  Yet the impulse to listen seems to be specifying some song album I must identify before I can start: 

Is it Hejira?  Maybe. 

Fulfillingness’ First Finale?  Very Close. 

The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night? No, but I have to revisit that one soon.   

Aha!  It’s Journey in Satchidananda.

Alice Coltrane's album  Journey in Satchidananda . Image via

Alice Coltrane's album Journey in Satchidananda. Image via


My intuition has told me that this choice will give me access to some part of myself.  In this case, Alice Coltrane and her ensemble launch me into a journey of discovery (or rediscovery).  At the end of that journey lies some part of me that I may or may not have previously encountered.  My need to hear the album points to the particular piece of music’s role in helping me make that journey.  (Note that sometimes we listen to songs or albums over and over, because we want to stay in the place we've found within ourselves by way of listening.)  I enter into unconscious recreation of what I’m hearing, and then mental embellishments of what I’m hearing, and then finally access a part of me that lies beyond the music.

All of this happens in abstract, which is why absorbing art is so wonderfully mysterious.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 1 supplement — A film student's insights

Art students are known to go to museums and copy famous works of art, a centuries-old tradition that resonates with Clark Terry’s advice to students of jazz: “imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  

Last year I encountered an interesting twist on the reproduction-of-masterworks tradition.  Misael Sanchez, a filmmaker, author, and film professor at Sarah Lawrence, teaches an introduction to cinematography class in which students reproduce scenes of their choosing from existing films. 

It’s a brilliant adaptation of the practice of copying great works of art.  Consider how much technical information a beginning film student must absorb about lenses, exposure, lights, camera angles, camera movement, and so forth.  By copying a classic scene of their choosing, students learn see first hand how all of the technical elements integrate to produce the intended effect.

The students all work on each other's projects, rotating roles.  One week you may be the camera operator; the next week a grip, the director of photography, the scene dresser, etc.  Some of the scenes student directors choose to recreate are early film classics.  (I saw a recreation of a scene from Dracula (1931) that was outstanding.)  Others choose more recent films, where a student's excitement about making film might be more immediate.  

The following, for instance is a scene from the 2009 Bollywood smash Dev D. It was selected by my former writing student Shivani Mehta, who grew up in Bombay and was thereby steeped in this genre.

The original scene . . . 


Shivani's recreation of it . . .

The soundtrack is the same (as is the time-lapse footage of traffic at the very end).  This removes a lot of complication and allows the students to focus on questions of composition, lens selection and framing, lighting, and so forth.  As I look at Shivani's version of the scene, I am struck by how exactly she and her collaborators (under Misael's guidance) were able to reproduce the dream-sequence surrealism of the original.

Filmmaker Shivani Mehta

Filmmaker Shivani Mehta


Weeks before making this, Shivani was new to filmmaking.  Soon after she finished it, I had the pleasure of working with her on another film of hers, a music video, and it was clear how quickly and thoroughly she had absorbed the lessons of recreating the scene from Dev D. and all the scenes chosen by her fellow students.  She had started with imitation, but was already assimilating and innovating.  She and her fellow students emerged from Misael's introduction to cinematography with an idea of what their own voice as filmmakers might be.

Looking back on the experience of recreating the scene from Dev D., Shivani writes:

For me, one of the biggest learnings about film making from this experience was that, at the end of the day, a lot depends on intuition and chance. When recreating this scene, the lighting was the hardest to mimic. To get the right hue of pink or three bright circles in just the right spot above her head were the most tedious and time consuming tasks. When I think about how this was initially achieved by the filmmakers of the original, I realize that there is no way they could have planned for those subtleties. As much as technical know-how facilitates the process, filming a scene isn't a science. It is constant improvisation. You make it up as you go.

Thank you for reading.



Kieślowski and a Storyteller’s Awareness of the Audience’s Attention

Krzysztof Kieślowski.  Image via .

Krzysztof Kieślowski.  Image via


This short interview with filmmaking legend Krzysztof Kieślowski has a lot to say, not only to filmmakers but to storytellers in any genre.  It references Blanc, the second movie in his famous Trois Couleurs trilogy.  Though it helps if you’ve seen the full film, one can actually intuit most of the insights through the images shown in this clip. 

Note especially his attention to an audience’s cognition, their ability to process images and ascribe importance to them according to hints they’ve received from the screen.  The analogs to other mediums are endless.

Thank you for reading.

Song Bridges Part 5 — Building A Bridge

(The San Francisco Bay Bridge via )

(The San Francisco Bay Bridge via

The last few posts have been discussing the element of songwriting known as a bridge.  In “Song Bridges” and “Song Bridges Part 2 — Middle Eights,” I explored the function of the bridge, and in “Song Bridges Part 3 — Film” and “Song Bridges Part 4 — Fiction,” I suggested that analogs to this songwriting move can be found in other mediums.  Indeed, I stumbled onto that idea as I wrote my memoir.  I came to a point in one of the later chapters and thought, “It needs a bridge right here!”

 If one were to add a bridge to a song, a story, a memoir, a film, how might one go about it?

 One might begin by asking if the work in question actually needs a bridge.  I once heard Paul Westerberg say, “The best bridge is no bridge at all.”  Indeed.

Sometimes, however, one has finished a song, a story, or a script and can’t shake the feeling that the work is incomplete, though the beginning feels like the beginning and the end feels like the end.  Somehow the work did not reach the depths necessary to evoke the intended emotional response.  In that case, a bridge may be in order.  How might one add one?

  • Let the work’s main idea establish itself before starting a bridge.  (A likely point for a bridge will be after the halfway point.)
  • Let the bridge introduce material that challenges the rest of the work.

    Challenge the work’s established ideas.  (If the song has been about loss, here is where it might reach for hope.  If the film has followed a protagonist's quest for a goal, here is where she might question that goal.)

    Highlight that challenge by shifting to new formal landscape. (In music, change keys, or meter, or ambience, or instrumentation.  In writing or film, make a dramatic change of scene, tense, timeframe, mood, voice, and so forth.)
  • When you are done, ask yourself if it deepens the piece? Or does it simply add material and thus add to your audience’s cognitive workload?

My band mate, Dan Wilson, (whose advice on songwriting is brilliantly captured in a vine series called “words and music in six seconds”) quoted another wise man, producer Rick Rubin, on the subject of bridges.  Rick said words to this effect: "If you want to add a bridge, it has to be the best part of the song."  (Note the resonance of this insight with Paul Westerberg's.)

I like Rick's test.  Though I can’t say the bridge is always the best section in a favorite song or movie or book, I often feel it’s the most necessary.

 Thank you for reading.



Song Bridges Part 3 — Film

The past two posts, “Song Bridges” and “Song Bridges Part 2 — Middle Eights,” have explored a songwriting move called a bridge.

To review:

  • A bridge comes after the halfway point in the song, so that the main ideas can be established.
  • It strikes a musical and lyrical contrast with what has come before it.  It challenges or tests the song’s established ideas.
  • As a result of these shifts, the song’s meaning expands.

It’s interesting to notice how this same type of move is made in other creative forms.  I first noticed this as I was writing my memoir.  As I was editing it, I came to a point well past the halfway point and thought, “It really needs a bridge here.”  So I added a bridge, a short one in terms of its proportion to the rest of the book, but its placement and contrast with what came before and after it qualified it as a bridge.

Since then, I’ve spotted this same move in other works.  Today, I’d like to point out some examples in film.  Tomorrow, I’ll mention some examples from literature.

Film Bridges Example 1 — The Matrix

The awesome Gloria Foster as the Oracle, via

The awesome Gloria Foster as the Oracle, via

The scene where Neo (Keanu Reeves) encounters the Oracle (Gloria Foster) functions as a sort of bridge.

  • It happens after the halfway point, so the main idea — Neo is The One — has been established.
  • This scene throws doubt on that main idea.

Oracle: But... you already know what I'm going to tell you.
Neo: I'm not The One.
Oracle: Sorry, kid. You got the gift, but it looks like you're waiting for something.
Neo: What?
Oracle: Your next life, maybe. Who knows? That's the way these things go.

  • This challenge to the main idea is highlighted by formal contrasts (analogous to the musical changes that accompany the lyrical reconsiderations found song bridges).  Rather than fast-paced scenes of acrobatic street battles (or simulated battles) between youngish characters, we now enter a slow-moving domestic scene, where young children wait to visit with an old wise woman, who sips coffee in her kitchen.

Coming out of this scene, the dimensions and scope of the movie have expanded.  Indeed, without this scene, Neo’s subsequent discoveries about himself would feel empty.

Film Bridges, Example 2, The Godfather

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone via

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone via

Michael Coreleone’s sojourn in Sicily functions as something of a bridge.

  • It occurs just past the halfway mark of the film; the main ideas have had time to establish themselves.
  • The bridge challenges some of those ideas. 

Up to this point, Michael has played the part of a kid brother whose reputation as someone uninvolved in the mob world was the very thing that enabled him to carry out the surprise assassination of a rival mob boss and a policeman.  He carries out the assassination nervously, and his family has taken every precaution to compensate for his inexperience.  Now in Sicily, we see him carry himself as an alpha-dog.

Whereas in the earlier scenes, Michael appears to be trapped by his family’s history, the sequence in Sicily breathes with a sense of his freedom to shape his future, including choosing a new partner, Appolonia instead of Kay.

Up until this point, Michael has distinguished himself by acting rationally.  The descriptions of the mob world he gives to Kay during the wedding sequence, the assassination plot he cooks up based on his appreciation of his perceived weaknesses—these reveal someone who is able to set aside or, if necessary, overcome emotion.  In Sicily, however, he is thunderstruck by the sight of Appolonia.  The passionate Michael, the one capable of falling madly in love, comes to life.

  • These contrasts with the main ideas are highlighted by formal contrasts, a dramatic switch of locale and atmosphere — from urban scenes of the new world, metropolitan New York City, to pastoral scenes of the old world, rural Sicily.

As a result of these contrasts and the death of Appolonia and his baby, when Michael returns to New York, his cold and calculated side reemerges with greater force behind it.  The dimensions of his character, and thus the film, have expanded because of the bridge.

Among other things, these examples suggest that filmmakers rely on intuitions that are deeply musical.

Thank you for reading.  In the next post, I’ll mention a couple of examples of bridges in literature.

Kieślowski's Wandering Man

The following reflection from Krzysztof Kieślowski about his ten-part television series The Decalogue has bounced around my mind since I read it last year.  

There’s this guy who wanders around in all the films.  I don’t know who he is; just a guy who comes and watches.  He watches us, our lives.  He’s not very pleased with us.  He comes, watches and walks on.  He doesn’t appear in number 7 because I didn’t film him right and had to cut him out.  And he doesn’t appear in film 10 because, since there are jokes about trading a kidney, I thought that maybe it’s not worth showing a guy like that.  But I was probably wrong.  No doubt I should have shown him in that one, too.
The wandering man of   Kieslowski's  Decalogue  series, portrayed by actor Artur Barcis, via

The wandering man of Kieslowski's Decalogue series, portrayed by actor Artur Barcis, via

The guy didn’t appear in the screenplays initially.  We had a very clever literary manager, Witek Zalewski, at the time in whom I had and still have immense trust and, when we’d written the Decalogue screenplays, he kept saying to me, ‘I feel there’s something missing here, Krzysztof.  There’s something missing. ‘But what, Witek? What do you feel is missing?’ ‘I can’t say, but there’s something missing.  Something’s not there in the scripts.’ And we talked, talked, talked, and talked and in the end he told me this anecdote about a Polish writer called Wilhelm Mach.  This Mach was at some screening.  And Mach says, ‘I liked the film very much.  I liked it and especially that scene at the cemetery.’ He says, ‘I really liked the guy in the black suit at the funeral.’ The director says, ‘I’m very sorry but there wasn’t any guy in a black suit.’  Mach says, ‘How come?  He stood on the left-hand side of the frame, in the foreground, in a black suit, white shirt and b lack tie.  Then he walked across the right-hand side of the frame and moved off.’ The director says, ‘There wasn’t any guy like that.’ Mach says, ‘There was.  I saw him.  And that’s what I liked most in the film.’  Ten days later he was dead.  So Witek Zalewski told me this anecdote, this incident, and I understood what he felt was missing.  He missed this guy in a black suit whom not everyone sees and who the young director didn’t know had appeared in the film. But some people saw him, this guy who looks on.  He doesn’t have any influence on what’s happening, but he is sort of sign or warning to those whom he watches, if they notice him.  And I understood, then, that that’s what Witek felt was missing in the films so I introduced the character whom some called ‘the angel’ and whom the taxi-drivers when they brought him to the set called ‘the devil’.  But in the screenplays he was always described as ‘young man’.
 Krzysztof Kieślowski
Kieślowski on Kieślowski (translated and edited by Danusia Stok), pp. 158-159

 Among other things, this reflection suggests how readily an audience will absorb even the subtlest hints from an artist. Kieślowski was a master of dropping such hints.  

A related observation:  An audience will allow the presence of open-ended questions, in this case, "Who is that guy who keeps showing up?"  Whether registered consciously or unconsciously by the audience, loose ends can point beyond the frame of a piece to suggest the larger dimensions of the artist's exploration.