Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Innovates

El Matador State Beach, California.  Image via .

El Matador State Beach, California.  Image via


I’ve suggested that audiences take what they are given and do their own creative work, which follows the process outlined in Clark Terry’s formulation for learning jazz improvisation: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  In the case of an audience member, someone absorbing a work of art, her innovation lies in her attaining a new understanding of something that lies outside the artwork.

The process might be quite similar to what happens when sitting on a beach and listening to the waves.  It inevitably produces some insight beyond what is happening in front of us.  The rhythm of the waves starts a process that might lead the person on the shore to realize what’s going on with a particular aspect of her life.  That insight is her innovation, the product of her creative imagination.

Likewise, when she listens to music or reads a book, she reaches insights about herself or life that are not part of what she heard or read.  The music or writing she encounters launches her on a process of discovery that soon becomes her own.  Her access to that discovery may rely on the particular workings of the music or writing, but the discoveries are hers.  Indeed, her discoveries may be quite different from someone else’s. 

The nature of the discoveries may remain too abstract to put into words, but her attainment of them feels palpable.  She listens to the Jupiter Symphony or “Midnight Train to Georgia” and discovers something by way of taking in the various images and then imitating and assimilating them with herself and her experience. 

Thus, when we peruse favorite albums looking to find what it is we want to hear, we are not only asking ourselves a question about what music we want to keep us company, we are asking ourselves about which place within ourselves we might want to access through the innovative creative work we do as listeners.

Perhaps audience members know less of their own creative powers than artists do, for artists study audience responses to their work.  They inevitably find that just as the rhythm of the waves inspires all kinds of thoughts about life beyond the shoreline, some of the most successful art simply gives the audience a point of departure for a journey of its own devising.

Thank you for reading.


Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Assimilates

We’ve been exploring the creative process of the audience.  I’ve offered Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz —“Imitate, assimilate, innovate” — as a framework for understanding the creative work we do as listeners, readers, viewers, and so forth.

Yesterday, I offered the idea that our attraction to idiosyncratic works of art testifies to the fact that those absorbing the art engage in some act of imitation (because the more idiosyncratic a work is, the more easily it can be imitated).  Today, I offer snapshots of audience assimilation.

I met one friend of mine, Kelly, while she was carrying five copies of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity.  She explained that she was buying up all the copies she could find before the movie version was released.  “I want to get copies for all my friends before they print up new copies with John Cusack’s face on the cover.  I hate when publishers do that.”  She wanted her friends to have the freedom to imagine the story’s protagonist, Rob Fleming, on their own. I am not sure if the book was actually ever issued with a new cover featuring John Cusack’s face, but Kelly’s concern still holds.  Readers feel a certain right to work with what they are given, and they are protective of that right. 

My ever-insightful friend, Kelly.

My ever-insightful friend, Kelly.


It seems to me she identified an important aspect of audience creativity, our assimilation of the work.  Our assimilation of the work requires a bit of freedom to embellish and augment what we have absorbed.  In the case of High Fidelity, my friend had noticed how a movie version of a book can encroach upon one’s own mental version of the story, thus implicitly valuing the work of her own imagination.

We can find many parallels.  When MTV emerged, music listeners started seeing videos images of the songs in their heads, and to some of them this also felt like an unwelcome encroachment.  The sense was that the video got it wrong.  The song didn’t look that way inside one’s head.

Most common of all might be when fans of a book encounter the movie version and feel that the film, even if it has accurately reproduced the plotlines, disagrees with too much of what they had imagined.

In all of these cases we are encountering the fact that an audience not only imitates the work but also expands upon it.  Indeed, they feel protective of what their interpretive powers have produced.

Thank you for reading.

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 3 supplement — Teaching Song Writers

Yesterday, I described how in my work with Music That Makes Community, I have taught song leaders to lead singers who are not reading the music from paper.  The pedagogy draws on several principles we’ve encountered in this exploration of creative process.

Another workshop I have led for Music That Makes Community addresses how to write a song.  The workshop participants span a wide spectrum of experience and training, and the pedagogy exploits this by focusing on experiential learning, which not only helps beginners take advantage of their musical intuitions but also reminds trained musicians of how listeners absorb the ideas of composers.

The pedagogy relies on several principles we have encountered already:

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate (from Clark Terry)

The importance of clearing one’s mind by focusing on something external (from Sanford Meisner)

The process of staging these processes one step at a time (from Bill T. Jones)

The workshop lasts 45 minutes and has what looks like a simple agenda.  Prepare participants to write their own music by inviting them to experience how . . . 

1. Melodies have a shape that takes the listener on a journey.

2. Memorable melodies include surprises such as  . . .

Melodic Leaps

We start by singing a familiar melody, “Amazing Grace” (the participants are almost all writing for a church context), and painting the melody with an imagined paintbrush. 

We talk about the basic shape of the melody we just painted.  It takes a journey and then returns home.  (This is not a prescription, only a bit of noticing.)  We then sing the words with the order of the melodic phrases inverted, so that “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . . ” is sung over the melody of “I once was lost but now am found . . .” and vice versa.  And we talk about what we noticed about that switch.

I then invite a participant to step forward, find one of the short texts I’ve posted along the walls, and sing the words using a melody of her own.  “See if you can sing one that takes a journey and returns home.” 

Note the various principles are at work here: Imitation (basing her melody on a simple shape idea of going away from the starting point and then coming back to it); focusing on something external (the texts posted on the walls relieve her of having to come up with words of her own); staging things one thing at a time (we have not yet discussed melodic leaps, dissonance, or syncopation.)

After she has improvised a melody, the group sings it back to her, and we discuss how the melody journeyed away and then returned home.  Two or three more participants are invited forward to try the same thing.

Then we move on to melodic leaps.  I have the group sing the opening lines of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as they paint the shape of the melody with their imagined paintbrushes.  We then try singing the same words with some of the leaps removed and talk about what difference the leaps and their absence makes.  We repeat this as we sing the opening lines of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”

A workshop participant improvises a melody using a text such as those seen behind her.

A workshop participant improvises a melody using a text such as those seen behind her.

The other participants sing her melody back to her.  Images via

The other participants sing her melody back to her.  Images via

Then I invite a participant to come forward, take a sample text, and sing it using a melody that takes a leap.  She sings, the group sings it back to her, and we talk about what difference the leap made.  More participants follow.

We follow this same pattern of learning as we sing and then improvise our own melodies with dissonance and then syncopation.  (Come to one of our workshops to see all of this in action.)

The participants are then asked to spend 40 minutes writing a quick song of their own (usually one-line in length) that they can teach to the group.  We invite them to use any of the sample texts on the wall or use a text of their own choosing.

Judging by the quality of the songs that are brought back to the group by even first-time songwriters, this method works.  We hear songs that have a sense of melodic shape (whether or not it returns home or not), melodic leaps, dissonance, and syncopation.  Most of the songs include several of these elements.  The participants are surprised to find how capable they are of doing something that many of them had never even thought of attempting.  They are also surprised by what their fellow participants come up with.

All of it attests to the insights of Terry, Meisner, Jones, and other master creators who have paid attention to the process of learning.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 3 supplement — Teaching Song Leaders

Jazz vocalist and Music That Makes Community presenter Chanda Rule leading paperless singing through voice and gesture.  Image via .

Jazz vocalist and Music That Makes Community presenter Chanda Rule leading paperless singing through voice and gesture.  Image via


Yesterday, we saw a demonstration from one of the giants in the field of modern dance, Bill T. Jones, in which he revealed his process for taking a dance phrase and allowing his feeling to find its way into the performance. 

Phase 1 — Perform the dance phrase

Phase 2 — Perform the phrase as if teaching a class, as clearly as possible with detailed verbal description.

Phase 3 — While keeping the movement as accurate as possible, perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling.

Phase 4 — Perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling, but now what you say and feel affects your movement, and your movement affects what you are thinking and saying.

He gets to his destination in graduated steps.  Each step adds a task, but the leap from step to step never feels too great.  His process is mindful of the cognitive demands necessary at each step.  (If you look at the video, note the distance his imagination has traveled from the beginning to the end of this process.)

In my work with Music That Makes Community I help train people how to lead songs paperlessly.  The singers are not reading the songs off a page but rather following visual and vocal cues given by the song leader.  The work relies on gesture, moving your hands to indicate when to listen, when to repeat what has been sung, the shape of the melody, when to end, and so forth.  What I noticed was that asking people to stand up and learn how to perform the gestures while also leading song was a heavy burden.  Most of the students are not confident singers, so we were asking them to take on too much. 

I then had the idea of breaking this into steps and invented a game that looks a lot like charades.  I’d stand up and model some gestures for listen, sing, continue, stop.  Then I tell everyone that we’re going to see how much we can accomplish using only gesture.  Then I hand a slip of paper to the first workshop participant, which reads . . .

Exercise #1

Dear Song Leader,

Get everyone to drone on a pitch
Get them to continue
Get them to end

After the participant has led the group through this task using gesture (and it always seems to work), I then ask that person to read the instructions aloud so the group can hear what the goal was and review what we all learned.  

We proceed.

Exercise #2

Dear Song Leader, 

Get everyone to sing “la la la” together
Get them to continue
Get them to end

As we progress, we learn other skills, for instance how to teach longer pieces of text by breaking it into chunks and then piecing it back together into one whole. 

Exercise #6

Dear Song Leader,

Teach everyone to say

"I look at you and I would rather look at you
than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally
and anyway it’s in the Frick" 

Then we learn how to divide the group to perform different parts.

Exercise #7

Dear Song Leader,

Get one half of the room to drone on a pitch
Get the other half to moo like cows
Get them to continue
Get them to end

Note the playful content of some of these exercises.  That is deliberate.  We want to remove the self-consciousness of the participants, and giving them silly tasks relieves them of thinking they need to put in a command performance.

Once they have learned these basic gestures, we then ask them to start leading songs that they know.  By this point, the cognitive work of having learned the basic gestures has been accomplished.  They’ve also had a chance to overcome their reticence to lead by way of leading the gesture exercises.  So as they begin to lead real songs, their workload has been vastly lowered. 

And even this early in the process, one can start to see each song leader’s style begin to emerge.  The participants have learned something about getting out of their own way, and their gestures start to channel their innate musical sense and awaken their bodies to it, which is exactly what song leading is all about.

Consider that creating art is a form of learning and therefore that the creative process can benefit from a process which is staged, such as what we saw Bill T. Jones demonstrate yesterday.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 3 — Bill T. Jones's process

Modern-dance legend Bill T Jones via

Modern-dance legend Bill T Jones via


In parts 1 and 2 of our exploration of creative process, we've examined a famous bit of advice from jazz trumpet great, Clark Terry

 “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

The idea might be that to find our own voice, we might start with our attention fixed upon some external point of reference.  As we imitate and learn, our attention draws inward, integrating what is outside of us with what is inside until, at the end of the process, we have shed the imitation and learned to channel ourselves through our art.  

As Sanford Meisner's Repetition Exercise revealed, accessing our creativity requires a process that allows us to get out of our own way.

With this idea in mind, watch this video of one of the greatest voices of modern dance, Bill T. Jones.

In this video, he demonstrates a multi-phase process.

  •  Phase 1 — Perform the dance phrase
  • Phase 2 — Perform the phrase as if teaching a class, as clearly as possible with detailed verbal description.
  • Phase 3 — While keeping the movement as accurate as possible, perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling.
  • Phase 4 — Perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling, but now what you say and feel affects your movement, and your movement affects what you are thinking and saying.

Jones's approach to unearthing what he has to express—starting from procedure and then seeing what emerges from it— feels resonant with Terry's and Meisner's.  They are describing one of the great creative paradoxes: to look inward, we have to first look outward.  And in order to accomplish this task, they have created a procedure that frees their attention from the question "What should I do now?"


Jazz great Clark Terry via

Thank you for reading

Creative Process Part 2 supplement — Bounce Hit

Tennis legend Serena Williams.  Image via .

Tennis legend Serena Williams.  Image via


In Part 2 of this series on creative process, we’ve touched on methods for getting out of the way of one’s impulses and abilities.

Here is an interesting analog from tennis, a notoriously mental game.  In his classic book of instruction, The Inner Game of Tennis, renowned tennis instructor Tim Gallwey outlines a practice called Bounce Hit:

The mind has difficulty focusing on a single object for an extended period of time.  Let’s face it: as interesting as a tennis ball may be for some, it is not going to easily capture the restless mind, so habituated to distractions of every kind . . . 

So the question arises as to how to maintain focus for extended periods of time.  The best way is to allow yourself to get interested in the ball.  How do you do this?  By not thinking you already know all about it, no matter how many thousands of balls you have seen in your life.  Not assuming you already know how is a powerful principle of focus. 

One thing you don’t know about the ball is exactly when it is going to bounce and when it is going to hit either your racket or your opponents.  Perhaps the most simple and effective means of focus I found was a very simple exercise I called ‘Bounce Hit.’

The instructions I gave were very simple.  ‘Say the word bounce out loud the instant you see the ball hit the court and the word hit the instant the ball makes contact with the racket—either racket.’  . . .  As the student said ‘bounce . . . hit . . . bounce . . . hit . . . bounce . . . hit . . . bounce,’ not only would it keep his eyes focused on four very key positions of the ball during each exchange, but the hearing of the rhythm and cadence of the bouncing and hitting of the ball seemed to hold the attention for longer periods of time.

The results were the same as with any effective focus.  The exercise would give the player better feedback from the ball and, at the same time, help clear his mind of distractions.  It’s hard to be saying ‘bounce-hit’ and at the same time overinstructing yourself, trying too hard or worrying about the score.

W. Timothy Gallwey — The Inner Game of Tennis,  pp. 85-86

Note the resonance with artistic techniques such as Sanford Meisner’s Repetition Exercise that employ a procedure to direct the mind elsewhere, so that our impulses can arise naturally, not artificially.

Lest we view these techniques as relevant only to beginners, watch the video below, in which I swear we can hear Novak Djokovic employing the “bounce-hit” technique in a point against Roger Federer in the 2014 Wimbledon finals.  (Djokovic won the point and the match.)

 Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 2 supplement — The Reader's Journal Exercise

Vladimir Nabokov.  Image via

Vladimir Nabokov.  Image via


We’ve been exploring creative process through the lens of jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s formulation, “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

The last two posts have focused on acting teacher Sanford Meisner’s famous Repetition Excercise.  We saw Meisner and then acting coach Jack Waltzer state that the value of this exercise, rooted in imitation, is that it gets us out of our own head.  We focus elsewhere and thus clear the way for our impulses to emerge naturally (instead of artificially as the result of overthinking).

Hold that thought and consider the following quote from Vladimir Nabokov.

“A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine.”

Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers” 

By reading with the spine, Nabokov is describing something very much like the natural impulses that the Meisner exercise aims to produce, attention unfettered by overthinking (and in Nabokov’s case, over-feeling, too). 

When I teach writing, I ask my students to keep a journal of favorite passages of writing by others.  Here is an excerpt from my instructions to them:

As you read begin to notice when the writing does something, stirs your imagination, strikes you as especially vivid, elicits even the slightest shift in your attention.  Take note of those passages (e.g. “p. 32, middle ¶”), and when you are finished reading, go back and record them in your Reader’s Journal, always noting the author, work, and page numbers.  Write out the passages by hand (or, if you must, type them, print them out, and paste them).  The act of transcribing the work from the page to your journal will further inscribe the text into your consciousness.  (Photocopying, not so much and is thus not allowed.) 

Then record any observations about why each passage might have moved you.  Your journal will begin to fill up with passages and notes, for example . . .

"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.  The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them." 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, opening paragraph

“Greek temples” a surprising but convincing note of epic grandeur

Sound sets so much of the mood: the flat A’s — “accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness” and then the sharpness of the T’s — “frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.”

Pay particular attention to your aesthetic experience and cultivate that part of your awareness. Becoming a reader who notices even the subtlest effects will make you a better writer.  Furthermore, your Reader’s Journal will allow you to revisit those passages, study them, and unpack their magic, for instance, how the allusion to Greek temples sets off Capote’s description of the plains of western Kansas.

Enter at least 100 words of excerpts every week (not counting your insights about the passages).  Everything you read (in and out of class) is fair game. 

My goal, like Nabokov and Meisner, is to cultivate each student's attention as a reader.  Because if she can learn to access her impulses as a reader, she will begin to access them when she reads her own writing and thus learn to discern when her writing feels contrived and where it feels natural.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 2 supplement — "When you act, don't think!"

The actress Ruby Dee. Note the expressiveness that flows through her relaxation, the result of her ability to quiet her mind and let things happen.  Image via .

The actress Ruby Dee. Note the expressiveness that flows through her relaxation, the result of her ability to quiet her mind and let things happen.  Image via


“When you act, don’t think!”

This is the advice from acting coach Jack Waltzer, who elaborates on the Repetition Exercise in the following clip.

As we saw Sanford Meisner stress in the previous post, artists need a procedure to get their thoughts out of the way so that their impulses can emerge.  Repetition is such a procedure.

Thus, when Clark Terry advises jazz students to “Imitate, assimilate, innovate,” and when Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester advise writers to copy and compose, they are not only encouraging us to learn from masters, they are laying out a procedure that allows us to get out of our own way.

Thank you for reading.



Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 2 — Sanford Meisner

Sanford Meisner.  Image via .

Sanford Meisner.  Image via


We have been exploring jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s principle of creative process—Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.

This is a clip from one of legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner’s master classes.  In this exercise, one of his trademarks, two actors are paired together and begin an improvised scene by repeating each other.  The idea is that one starts from a mechanical repetition and finds one’s way to a repetition that is from one’s own point of view.

Sometimes, a flash of clarity inspires the repeating actor to introduce the next thought and take the lead, at which point the other actor becomes the repeater.   The idea is that the repetition provides a door to emotions that lie beneath the surface.


Meisner interrupts when he feels that the attention of the actors has drifted from the moment and they have begun to force things and get ahead of themselves.  

Staying in the moment is demanding work, which explains the exercise’s design.  From Sanford Meisner on Acting . . .

Meisner: What does it do for you Bruce, to imitate the other fellow’s movements?

Bruce: It takes the heat off yourself.

Meisner: To take the heat off yourself, as Bruce just said, to transfer the point of concentration outside of yourself, is a big battle won.

Sanford Meisner on Acting, Sanford Meisner and Dennis Longwell, p. 26 

Notice how shifting the point of concentration outward evokes the earlier examples of Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate that we've explored.  Creative work  calls on our deepest attention, and in order to access that attention, we benefit from a procedure that starts outside of ourselves.

 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.



Creative Process Part 1 supplement — Degas vs. "Picasso"

"Dancer with a Tambourine" by Edgar Degas.  On the left, a study; on the right a painting.  Images via  and .

"Dancer with a Tambourine" by Edgar Degas.  On the left, a study; on the right a painting.  Images via and


“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

This saying is often attributed to Pablo Picasso, though it’s possible this is a refinement of quotes from others, including T. S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky.

Whatever the case, it is commonly regarded by artists to be a profoundly true observation. 

Compare that idea (don’t copy, steal) with this quote from Edgar Degas: 

“You have to copy and recopy the masters and it’s only after having proved oneself as a good copyist that you can reasonably try to do a still life of a radish.”

Edgar Degas (from

A number of those who endorse the first statement might also endorse this second.  Why?  Jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s formulation, “Imitate, assimilate, innovate” holds the key.

In the quote above, Degas is describing the first step in Terry’s process— imitation.  In other quotes, Degas bears witness to the wisdom to the rest of Terry's formulation.

“The studies you have amassed are useful only as supports, as valuable pieces of information . . . You must do over the same subject ten times, a hundred times.  In art nothing must appear accidental, even a movement . . . Make a drawing. Start it all over again, trace it. Start it and trace it again.”

Edgar Degas — (quoted in From the Classicists to the Impressionists: Art and Architecture in the Nineteenth Century, Edited by Elizabeth Gilmore Holt,  p. 402)

Here, Degas may not necessarily be describing studies of great paintings but of nature.  Still, the general approach fits with Terry’s: a creator fixes her attention outward and then draws it inward—assimilation. 

And below, Degas describes the final step—innovation

“It is very good to copy what one sees; it is much better to draw what you can't see any more but is in your memory. It is a transformation in which imagination and memory work together. You only reproduce what struck you, that is to say the necessary.”

Edgar Degas, (quoted in Maurice Sérullaz, L'univers de Degas, p. 13)

It is at this point that an artist might be said to have progressed from copying to stealing (in the formulation attributed to Picasso).  Note that what Degas and Terry and others are pointing out is that an artist needs to copy before she can steal. 

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 1 — Copy and Compose

The following series on Creative Process draw heavily on Clark Terry's advice to young musicians:  “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  I am indebted to my close friend and colleague Donald Schell (founder of Music That Makes Community) for drawing my attention to Terry's quote as well as for the following crucial insight: Imitation leads us to our individuality.

In a previous post, I mentioned jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  Jazz players and improvisers from other traditions have followed this path.  They transcribe solos by favorite artists and learn to play them—imitation.  They bring some of those moves into their own solos—assimilation.  And eventually they find themselves playing something utterly original—innovation.  

Terry's insight is a powerful one, one which I want to explore over the next two weeks.  It goes much deeper than the surface understanding that I just presented.  It actually extends all the way to the audience.  They, too, imitate, assimilate, and innovate.  But let's start at the beginning.

The first observation is that Terry’s insight applies in any number of creative forms.  A recent discovery of mine is a book on writing, Copy and Compose: A Guide to Prose Style by Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester. 

From the introduction . . .  

Writing is a skill, and like playing the violin or throwing a discus, it may be learned by observing how others do it-then by trying to imitate, carefully and thoughtfully, the way it was done. In writing, we can “observe” by copying sentences and paragraphs written by master stylists. And we can consciously imitate these sentences and paragraphs in our own writing, making them a part of our basic repertoire. . .

Having copied a model, word for word, in our own handwriting, we next choose a subject of our own, one as distinct and different from the content of the model as possible. Then we write our own passage, keeping in mind the general syntax, diction, phrasing, and any special characteristic of the model. Saying what we want to say, giving expression to our own concepts, observations, ideas, and beliefs, we imitate the manner and style, the structure and syntax, and the formality and texture of the model. Our own version is what is sometimes called a pastiche. In many European schools, students regularly learn the art of writing by composing pastiches or short pieces of composition in the style of another . . .

Reading, copying, and imitating are not an end in themselves, of course. They are means toward the development of our own style and our own mode of expression. By becoming thoughtful, practicing copyists, we can more easily achieve the goal of good writing. Instead of waiting to discover the methods of effective and powerful writing in a time-consuming trial-and-error way, we can become familiar with the work of the masters and benefit from their achievements.  We can more quickly reach an effective level of com- position that will give us power to communicate.

Copy and Compose, Weathers and Winchester, p. 1, 3, 4-5

Weathers and Winchester then provide models of different style of prose sentences.  For example . . .

#1 — The Loose Sentence

I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket. 

G. K. Chesterton, A Piece of Chalk 

After describing the workings of this sentence structure, readers are instructed to . . .

Copy Chesterton's sentence; then compose a similar loose sentence, enlarging upon the initial, main thought by the addition of other details. Extend the sentence as long as you dare, sustaining interest as long as possible.

Copy and Compose, Weathers and Winchester, p. 8

The book proceeds with models of over sixty types of sentences (the periodic sentence, the inverted sentence, the master sentence, and so forth) and then, later in the book, various species of paragraphs (the topic sentence first paragraph, the paragraph of narrative details, the paragraph of contrasts, etc.).  

As Clark Terry suggests, starting from imitation can help us access what is truly original within us.

Copy and Compose is out of print, which is a shame.  The book's ideas, however, are there for the trying.  The approach is well established in all creative forms and for very good reasons, some of which we will explore as we continue.

Thank you for reading.