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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

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On Creativity

An interview of artist, writer, musician and computer programmer
Michael David Crawford by Matt Buice.

Copyright © 2003, 2006, 2015 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

The following is from an email I sent to Matt Buice on April 23, 2003. Matt was a student in the Spring 2003 semester of The Psychology of Creativity at California State University, Northridge. A class assignment required each student to interview a creative person that they found on the Internet. I asked for and received permission from Matt to post my interview on my website.

Update: July 18, 2015. I revised the HTML markup and CSS (structure and presentation) to match my new website.

Update: March 13, 2006. I revisited this page today for the first time in nearly three years, and have added a few notes about things that have changed since I was first interviewed.


The Interview

Hi Matt,

Here are the answers to your questions. I hope you find this helpful. I find my own creativity to be mysterious enough to myself that I'm not sure I really have anything useful that I can say about it.

Etudes for Piano, Vol. 1, No. 1-10

by Philip Glass

[ Buy at Amazon]

Etudes for Piano cover

After writing most of what follows, it occurs to me that what I wrote might be interesting to other people who visit my website. Would you mind if I posted your questions and my answers on my page?

(Top) Who has inspired you?

In music, J.S. Bach earlier in my life and Philip Glass later. I would say that now Glass is my favorite musician and composer, I find his music both moving and fascinating.

In visual art, Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher.

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

by Betty Edwards

[ Buy]  

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain cover

Also I credit my ability to draw to Betty Edwards. I learned from her wonderful book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain in 1984. Before reading it, I could draw nothing but stick figures. What I learned from this simple, clear book laid the foundation for all of my creative abilities, even my music and my computer programming. I cannot recommend it enough.

There is a sort of connection between Escher and Bach which is discussed in Douglas Hofstadter's book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid that I read just before I went to college that I found very inspiring in itself.

Gödel, Escher, Bach
an Eternal Golden Braid
20th Anniversary Edition

by Douglas Hofstadter

[ Buy]  

Gödel, Escher, Bach cover

In writing I think my greatest inspiration is Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Reading ZATAOMM also helped me straighten out a lot of the mental problems I had at the time I read it in my 20's (I'm 38 now).

In computer programming, I am inspired by Richard Stallman. When I first started programming computers for a living, I didn't like it very much and I also wasn't very good at programming at all. But when a visitor installed Stallman's program GNU Emacs on our Sun workstations, and I read what he had to say about Free Software in the GNU Manifesto, and then read the GNU Emacs source code, I decided that programming really was a worthwhile activity after all. I thought that GNU Emacs was a tremendous and valuable piece of work and wanted to write a program like that myself someday, and from that point on decided to take programming seriously and began to work very hard to learn to program well.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
An Inquiry Into Values

by Robert Pirsig

[ Buy]  

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance cover

That was fifteen years ago. Almost all my programming is self-taught; I've worked very hard to learn it from the very fundamentals - for example early on I read Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming on the bus on the way to work.

I still haven't written my Magnum Opus program but I have gotten to be quite a good programmer and have written a lot of good software along the way.

(Top) Do you try to convey your emotions through your creativity?

Very much so, although the emotions that move me would probably be regarded as rather odd by most artists. For example, the CircleFlower pattern:

Circle Flowers

is a very powerful symbol for me. I've been drawing the interlocking circles since I was a small child, it represents the perfection of mathematics to me. As a child it was a source of endless frustration for me that the physically limited compasses I tried to draw the circle flowers with wouldn't do a perfect job; I found being able to draw it perfectly on a computer a wonderful gift.

I think my emotions come out most in my music. I composed most of my pieces while I was going through a lot of depression, and the music expresses my sadness. Paradoxically, it relieves that sadness to play my compositions.

(Top) Does your creative energy come from within or external sources?

From within mostly. Sometimes I'm captivated by something I read, see or hear, but mostly it comes from within.

My article Living with Schizoaffective Disorder discusses how manic depressives are creative. Being hypomanic feels very creative, and one does come up with lots of ideas while manic. But my experience is that real creativity does not come from being manic; really I am the most creative when I'm feeling normal. The reason is that to accomplish anything of substance requires more than just being struck with a novel idea - it requires hard work and persistence to carry out your idea. I'm really only able to do that well when my mood is normal.

Also a manic person isn't very good at critical thinking. While one does come up with lots of ideas while manic, one thinks of bad ideas at least as much as good ideas, but isn't able to think critically enough to discern the difference.

I'm a very inwardly-focused person. I'm very quiet and for most of my life I was very shy. I'm not so shy now but I still keep to myself most of the time - I work out of my home and live out in the woods. I do like people, and have some very good friends, but I'm not at all a gregarious person.

I have what I feel is a very rich inner, mental life. My wife, however, describes this as me thinking too much - she feels that I'm missing out on the world because I spend so much time in my head. She encourages me to experience more of the real world, she feels that being lost in my thoughts as I enjoy doing is really self-deception. She has encouraged me to meditate, which I enjoy but haven't done that much.

(Top) Which of your "creations" gives you the most pride/satisfaction?

I think my piano compositions Geometric Visions, more specifically the piece Recursion. It still gives me a thrill to play it.

And as I said the circle flowers are a powerful symbol for me. However no specific one is my favorite, rather it is the idea behind them, the fact that you can tile the infinite plane with a sequence of circles in which six circles fit perfectly around another one. It's an ancient geometrical construction; I like to represent it in particular ways but what I feel is really important about the circle flowers is as old as the Universe.

(Top) Is there a certain place you go for inspiration?

Not specifically. I guess it's because I'm so inwardly focussed, that I draw my inspiration from my thoughts rather than my environment.

(Top) How do you differ from others in your genre?

I am a hopeless computer geek. Before I got into computers in a big way, I was into physics and astronomy. I've been grinding telescope mirrors since I was twelve years old.

That kind of interest in science and mathematics is not very common for artists and musicians. I've observed that more mainstream artists and musicians don't like my art and music much, but science and computer people do. I understand that M.C. Escher had that problem when he was alive, that he was despised by the art community but loved by mathematicians.

(However it is common for both scientists and computer programmers to be musicians. I have heard that musicians tend to be better than most people at cracking secret codes.)

It is my goal as a pianist and piano composer to be as good as Philip Glass. But for that to happen I'm going to have to spend a lot more time at the piano than I've been able to for a while. I'm afraid I owe a lot of money and the only way I'm able to keep up with the payments is to work as a software consultant, so I'm not as able to spend as much time at my creative work as I would like.

(Top) Has your creativity changed stylistically as you have matured?

One notable thing is that my drawing got darker and made more use of areas of shade rather than lines. This resulted from taking a drawing class at U.C. Santa Cruz, and also spending a lot of time at life drawing (drawing the nude human figure). This is for the simple reason that when I drew purely for my own enjoyment I always looked at my drawings close up, but in drawing class I noticed that when my drawings were hung on the wall they were hard to see after I sat back at my bench, because they were so light.

I haven't done so much drawing or painting for some time but I have done a lot more photography. Even more recently my main creative outlet has been my writing.

I'm afraid my piano composing has somewhat stagnated. Early on everything I played was improvised, and I made great progress at composing new pieces. But once I had several fully formed pieces I stopped improvising as much and started playing my existing pieces more. The result of that has been that I've gotten very good at playing my own music but haven't created anything new in a very long time.

My solution to that for a while was to finally start taking piano lessons from a wonderful teacher named Velzoe Brown. I taught myself to play piano by ear and so I couldn't read music. Velzoe had me play mostly pieces by Bach and Mozart by reading the scores. What my hope was to learn a lot more than I knew about music theory as well as to be influenced by the music I played but I'm afraid my programming work got real hectic and I dropped out. I would like to take lessons again sometime soon but can't take them from Velzoe because I moved across the country.

(Top) When do you feel most energized?

Late at night. I am by no means a morning person. I usually get out of bed in early to mid-afternoon, and during the day I am mostly useless. Generally the only useful thing I do during the day is run errands and often I hang out at the cafe with my wife and sometimes my neighbor Pamela.

I almost always stay up past midnight. I probably go to bed most frequently at 2 or 3 am, but quite often - probably about once a week - I stay up all night and well into the next day. Usually that's because I've got some programming work I need to do but sometimes it's just because I feel like it.

My programming work takes me a lot of time but even so I don't usually set into it until 10 or 11 pm. Usually what makes me decide to stay up all night is that I'm "in the groove", getting a lot of work done, and I want to hang onto that while I have it. My biggest problem with my programming is that I have a hard time focussing on my work and am often completely unproductive. When I am productive I try to seize the opportunity and so stay up all night to get as much work done as I can while the feeling lasts. Then I sleep for 20 hours.

A therapist I saw briefly a few years ago told me that she'd heard that "schizoaffectives do better at night". That's definitely my own experience but I tried to find out more about it, to try to find some published literature that would substantiate her statement, but I could find nothing.

During the day I always feel uneasy, rather scatterred, unfocused and sometimes anxious. At night I feel calm, that's the biggest difference between night and day for me is that I feel calm and so sometimes I am able to focus.

(Top) Who do YOU consider to be creative? Why?

The world abounds with creative people who are unfortunately unable to get much recognition. I think one of the great opportunities that the MP3 audio file format, internet radio and peer-to-peer filesharing has given us is that just about anyone who can make music can now publish their work online and so gain some recognition.

I think that's what the record companies are the most afraid of. They won't say it but I'm sure it's the case - that they're not worried so much about people copying their CDs to MP3 and sharing proprietary music, but that everyone will start to get their music directly from the artists without the record companies being able to get their cut at all. They fear the loss of their control.

The web presents a similar opportunity especially for writers. The popularity of weblogs is driving this. There is a similar opportunity for visual artists but it is not as good for those who produce traditional media because of imperfections in reproduction - even a really good JPEG is nothing like seeing the real thing in a gallery.

I think the ability that the Internet gives the artist and the viewer or listener to communicate directly with each other, no matter how they may be physically separated anywhere in the world, is already creating a phenomenal surge in creativity that will be without historical precedent. We are entering an era where anyone can be creative and be recognized for it.

However, one of the functions that traditional distribution systems have had is that they do separate the talented from the talentless. I don't think it ever did that very well in that far too many talented people never got their work published, but traditional media have provided some level of selectivity.

While there are lots of talented writers who keep weblogs, for each gifted writer there are hundreds more who produce drivel. However the Internet has an answer to that.

One is the use of peer moderation of the sort they use at Kuro5hin in which article submissions have to survive a vote of the members before they are published openly at the website. There are no hard-and-fast rules at Kuro5hin but just in general the k5 moderators are a pretty critical bunch and their standards are reflected in the quality of the articles that get published there.

A larger-scale and less formal sort of peer review is enabled by hyperlinking. People who like what others have to say, play, paint or draw will link their webpages from their own web pages or weblogs. Having lots of links not only brings visitors who are randomly surfing, it also boosts the ranking of your website in the search engines. And in fact my software consulting website www.warplife.com ranks very highly in a number of search engines I think mostly because of the articles I publish there. I write more about that in How to Promote Your Business on the Internet.

Getting linked is a non-linear phenomenon. If you have a website that many people are likely to favor if they see it at all, then some visitors will give you a link. But that brings more visitors than you would expect from random selection, and some proportion of those new visitors also give you a link. The end result is that a really well-done website (for whatever definition of "well-done") gets linked far out of proportion to the inherent quality of the site. Having a truly large number of links will put you on the first page of search engine search results or even make you the #1 search hit, which drives even more recognition.

The Free Software community website Advogato is an experiment in a sort of peer review system called "certification", where each member certifies other members they hold in either high or low regard, with the result that a measure of your status called the "trust metric" is produced. You can read more about the trust metric at Advogato's trust metric.

Anyone can keep a weblog at Advogato, but you can only publish articles there if your trust metric rating is high enough.

But I haven't really answered your question have I?

As far as specific people I consider creative, aside from the ones who I credited for my inspiration, I think I would also add Michael Moore, for using film making as a very effective medium for progressive political change. Moore is able to drive home his message far out of proportion than he could if he simply wrote or spoke what he had to say.

My friend Darryl Ferrucci is an exceptionally creative person, not just for being a talented photographer and choreographer, but for his commitment to living the life of a creative person and producing quite grand work while possessed of very limited financial means.

Similarly my friend Charles Gadeken. I know Charles from when I worked at Working Software, but that was just his day job - Charles is a pretty committed artist. He produces ambitious works of art and then burns them to cinders. He does that every year at Burning Man and also does it on the beaches near San Francisco.

I think the common thread between all three of these is their commitment to their vision.

(Top) What advice would you give to someone following in your steps?

Practice, practice, practice. Whatever your art is, practice it devotedly. If there's every anything I do wrong it's that I don't practice enough. If you learn to play a piece on the piano you should learn to play it well enough that it is no longer an effort. Some might fear that too much practice will dull one's creativity, but I don't think that's the case. Being skilled gives you the tools to advance in your creativity.

Don't be afraid to produce bad art. It is much better to produce piece after piece of work you're ashamed of than to produce nothing at all. If you stop working because you've had a run of bad results, you will also not run the risk of producing anything good either.

Some people are afraid to show off any but their best works but my personal feeling is to let it all hang out. That's why I don't feel shy about keeping a weblog. Actually I have two:

I have tons of photos and drawings that I would like to put on my website but the reason I haven't yet is that I just haven't found the time to deal with it, rather than any hesitation from being shy about showing off my work.

Don't be afraid to be strange, or to produce work that you feel might not be accepted. I'm the first to recognize that much of the work I produce requires peculiar taste to be liked. I read once that when Philip Glass was just starting out, people would throw tomatoes at him when he performed, and once a member of the audience even tried to drag him offstage to make him stop playing!

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

by John Cage
Performed by Boris Berman

[ Buy at Amazon]

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano cover

The most creative people, the ones who really drive the most significant advances in both art and science, are not conventional people. They are regarded by their peers as just plain wierd. Listen to some John Cage compositions sometime. You might think they're not so strange - by today's standards. But consider that he was composing music that way in the 1940's, and compare it to some of the popular music of the day.

There was a time when those who advanced our thinking risked being burned at the stake, for example Giordano Bruno.

Even now, many creative people (particularly creative children) risk being made fun of. Probably what is the worst torment is to labour in obscurity, risking that one may spend a lifetime working at some art without ever becoming known. But to be true to yourself, that's the risk you have to take.

Well, I hope this helps. I enjoyed answering your questions, please feel free to ask any more that you might have.


Tilting at Windmills for a Better Tomorrow.

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