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  1. Mechanical Intelligence

From their earliest years the brothers Wilbur Wright (1867–1912) and Orville Wright (1871–1948) displayed a rather unusual interest in the working parts of any kind of device, particularly the elaborate toys their father often brought home to them from his travels as a bishop in the United Brethren Church. They would take these toys apart in a state of extreme excitement, avid to figure out what made them tick. Then they would reassemble them, always with some modification.

Although the boys were reasonably good at schoolwork, neither of them received a high school diploma. They wanted to live in a world of machines, and the only knowledge that really interested them was that which related to the design and construction of some new device. They were extremely practical.

In 1888 their father needed to quickly print out a pamphlet for his work. To help him, the brothers cobbled together their own small job press, using the hinge from a folding buggy top in the backyard, rusty springs, and other pieces of scrap. The press worked brilliantly. Inspired by their success, they improved the design, using better parts, and opened their own printing shop. Those who knew the business marveled at the peculiar press the brothers had concocted, which managed to spit out 1,000 pages per hour, double the usual rate.

The brothers, however, had a restless spirit. They needed constant challenges, and in 1892 Orville discovered the perfect new outlet for them. With the invention of the safety bicycle (the first bicycle featuring two wheels of the same size), America had become seized with a biking craze. The brothers purchased their own bicycles, entered races, and became fanatics in the sport. Soon they were taking their bicycles apart and making minor adjustments. Seeing them at work in the backyard, friends and acquaintances would bring them their own bicycles for repairs. Within months they knew bicycle technology from the inside out, and decided to open their own shop in their native Dayton, Ohio, where they sold, repaired and even modified the latest models.

This seemed to be the perfect match for their skills. They could make various changes on a bicycle, take it out for a test ride, feel what worked and didn’t work, and then make further improvements. They were constantly striving to make the bicycles more maneuverable and aerodynamic, changes that would qualitatively alter the experience of riding and give the rider a feeling of being in complete control. Dissatisfied with the latest designs, they decided that the next logical step was to build their own aluminum frames and design their own custom-built bicycle. This represented a steep challenge—it would require months of on-the-job learning to be able to properly build frames. The slightest flaw could cause all kinds of horrifying accidents. In the process of learning this skill, they purchased a slew of the latest tools, built their own one-cylinder engine to power them, and steadily became master bicycle craftsmen. Those who rode the Wright brothers’ bicycles could feel right away the superiority of their version, which included technological improvements that would soon become industry standards.

In 1896, while convalescing from an injury, Wilbur read an article that would haunt him for years. It concerned the death of Otto Lilienthal, the leading designer of gliders and an expert in the growing field of aviation. He had died in a crash with his latest glider design. The photographs of the various gliders he had built, all in flight, astounded Wilbur—they looked like the wings of a giant prehistoric bird. As someone with a powerful sense of visualization, Wilbur could imagine the sensation of flying itself, and it thrilled him. But what surprised him in the article was that over many years of test flights, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, Lilienthal had never been able to maintain the flight long enough to get a feel for the necessary improvements, and had probably died because of this.

Several years later, newspapers were filled with stories about the latest pioneers in aviation, many of whom appeared to be getting closer to the goal of creating a motored flying machine. It was now turning into a race to be the first to succeed. His curiosity on the subject getting deeper, Wilbur decided to write to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., requesting all of their available information on aeronautics and flying machines. For the next few months he pored over the materials, reading about the physics and mathematics behind flight, the designs of Leonardo da Vinci, and the gliders of the nineteenth century. He added to his reading list books about birds, which he now began to observe and study. And the more he read, the more he had the strange sensation that he and his brother could actually be the ones to win such a race.

At first glance this would seem an absurd idea. The men in the field were all experts with incredible technical knowledge, some with impressive college degrees. They had an enormous head start over the Wright brothers. Designing and building a flying machine was an expensive venture that could total thousands of dollars and lead to yet another crash. The favorite to win the race was Samuel Langley, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who had an enormous government grant to pursue his work and had already successfully flown a steam-powered, unmanned model. The brothers came from a modest background, and the only money they had was the slender profits from their bicycle shop. But what all of these men lacked, in Wilbur’s mind, was some basic common sense when it came to any kind of machine.

These aviators had begun with the premise that what mattered was to get the machine in the air using a powerful engine of some sort, figuring the rest out once flight had been achieved. Getting in the air would impress the public, gain attention, and attract financial backing. This led to many crashes, constant redesigns, the search for the perfect engine, new materials, and more crashes. They were getting nowhere, and the reason was simple. As Wilbur knew, the key to building anything right is repetition. It was only by getting their hands on bicycles, fiddling and tinkering with them, then riding them and gaining a feel for what worked, that the brothers had been able to design a superior variety of bicycle. Because the designers of the flying machines could not fly for more than a minute, they were locked into a vicious cycle—they were never airborne long enough to learn how to fly and properly test out their designs, or get a feel for what might work. They were doomed to failure.

Wilbur discovered another great flaw in their thinking that shocked him: they all overvalued the importance of stability. They thought in terms of a ship floating through the air. A ship is designed to maintain balance, and to move in as stable and straight a manner as possible; tipping from side to side is far too dangerous. Based on this analogy, they decided to design the wings of their flying machines in a slight V shape, to compensate for any sudden gusts of wind and to keep the cruising aircraft in a straight line. But Wilbur felt that thinking in terms of ships was the wrong analogy. Instead, it was far wiser to think in terms of a bicycle. A bicycle is inherently unstable. It is the rider who learns quickly enough how to keep the bike in a secure position, and to steer it properly by leaning to the side. A pilot of a flying machine, as he imagined it, should be able to safely bank and turn, or tilt up or down, and not be locked into a rigid horizontal line, like a ship. Trying to free the machine from the effects of the wind was actually quite dangerous, because it would remove the ability of the pilot to adjust.

Armed with this knowledge, it was easy enough for Wilbur to convince his brother that a flying machine should be their next and ultimate challenge. They would have to use their limited profits from the bicycle shop to fund the project. This would force them to be creative, using scrap parts and never trying anything beyond their means. Instead of beginning with a grandiose device to test out their ideas, they would have to slowly evolve the perfect design, just as they had done with the printing press and the bicycle.

They decided to begin as modestly as possible. They designed various kites to help them determine the perfect overall shape for a test glider. Then, based on what they had learned, they fashioned the glider itself. They wanted to teach themselves how to fly. The usual method of launching a glider off the crest of a hill was too dangerous. Instead, they decided to move operations to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the site of the strongest winds in the United States. There, on the sand dunes of the beaches at Kitty Hawk, they could get airborne from small elevations, fly close to the ground, and land in a soft bed of sand. In the year 1900 alone they were able to perform more test flights than Lilienthal had attempted over many years. They slowly perfected the design, and improved the materials and configuration—for instance, they learned to make the wings longer and thinner to improve the lift. By 1903 they had a glider they could fly for considerable distances, with remarkable control over turning and banking. It was indeed like a flying bicycle.

Now it was time to take the final step—adding the engine and propellers to their design. As before, they looked at the designs of their rivals and noticed another weakness: they had modeled their propellers on those of boats, once again opting for stability. Based on their own research, the brothers decided that the blades should be cambered, like the wings of a bird—that would give the plane more thrust. Looking to purchase the lightest engine to power the machine, they found it was far beyond their budget. So with the help of a mechanic in their shop, they built their own engine. In total, the cost of their flying apparatus would come in under $1,000—considerably less than any of the designs of their competitors.

On December 17, 1903, Wilbur piloted their flying machine at Kitty Hawk for an impressive fifty-nine seconds—the first manned, controlled, and powered flight in history. Over the years they would improve the design, and the flight times would increase. For the other competitors in the race it was a complete mystery how two men without any engineering or aeronautic experience or financial backing had managed to get there first.

The development of the airplane represents one of the greatest technological achievements in our history, with profound ramifications for the future. There simply was no real precedent or model to base the flying machine on. It was a genuine puzzle, and it required the highest degree of ingenuity to solve it. In the history of its invention, we can observe two radically different approaches. On the one side was a large group of engineers and designers with backgrounds in the sciences who saw the problem in abstract terms: how to get the plane launched and propelled, how to overcome wind resistance, and so on. They focused largely on the technology and worked to create the most efficient parts—the most powerful engines, the best-designed wings, all of this based on elaborate lab research. Money was no object. This process depended on specialization—individuals who focused on different parts and who specialized in different materials. In many cases, the designer would not end up being the pilot; someone else would do the test flights.

On the other side were two men from a completely different background. For them, the pleasure and excitement of design was in doing everything themselves. They designed the machine, built it, and flew it. Their model depended not on superior technology, but on the highest number of test runs, creating an optimal learning curve. This revealed flaws to be worked on and gave them a feel for the product that could never be had in the abstract. The emphasis was not on the parts, but on the overall flying experience; not on power, but on control. Since money was a factor, supreme importance was placed on ingenuity in getting the most out of the least. The differences between the two approaches can be seen in the analogies they chose to base their designs on. The abstract thinkers opted for the ship analogy, working on the similarity of navigating an alien medium (water or air), which made them place importance on stability. The Wright brothers chose the bicycle, which emphasized the rider or pilot, the user-friendliness of the machine, and its overall functionality. Focusing on the pilot instead of the medium ended up being the right answer to the puzzle, because it led to the design of something that could be maneuvered. From that starting point, a more complex airplane could be easily evolved.

Understand: mechanical intelligence is not a degraded form of thinking, as compared to abstract reasoning. It is in fact the source of many of our reasoning skills and creative powers. Our brain developed to its present size because of the complex operations of our hands. In working with resistant materials to create tools, our ancestors developed a pattern of thinking that transcends manual labor itself. The principles behind mechanical intelligence can be summarized as follows: whatever you are creating or designing, you must test and use it yourself. Separating out the work will make you lose touch with its functionality. Through intense labor on your part, you gain a feel for what you are creating. In doing this work, you see and feel the flaws in the design. You do not look at the parts separately but at how they interact, experiencing what you produce as a whole. What you are trying to create will not magically take off after a few creative bursts of inspiration, but must be slowly evolved through a step-by-step process as you correct the flaws. In the end, you win through superior craftsmanship, not marketing. This craftsmanship involves creating something with an elegant, simple structure, getting the most out of your materials—a high form of creativity. These principles work with the natural bent of your brain, and are to be violated at your own peril.

  1. Natural Powers

After graduating from architecture school in Spain in 1973, Santiago Calatrava experienced some anxiety at the thought of rushing into an architecture practice. (For more on Calatrava, see here.) He had ambitions early in life of becoming an artist, but gravitated toward architecture as a more expansive form of expression—something functional yet sculptural, something that could be realized on a large public scale. Architecture is a strange profession. It involves so many constraints when it comes to actually realizing a structure—the desires of the client, the budget, the materials available, the landscape, and even political issues. In the works of great architects in history, such as Le Corbusier, we can see a lot of their personal style in the finished product, but with many others their work becomes overwhelmed by the various constraints and interferences. Calatrava felt that he had not developed a sufficiently large vocabulary or mastered enough elements to be able to assert himself. If he went to work at a firm, his creative energies would be buried beneath all of the commercial pressures, and he would never recover.

And so he made an unusual decision: he would attend the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich to gain a degree in civil engineering. He wanted to become an engineer so that he could understand the limits of what was possible in designing buildings and structures. He had the idea of someday attempting the construction of buildings that could move, transgressing some of the most fundamental principles of architecture. For such a purpose, he studied designs by NASA in which various devices had been made that could fold up and expand, making them practical for space missions. Such designs required mastering new engineering principles that Calatrava immersed himself in at the Institute.

After graduating in 1981 with an engineering degree, he finally began his practice as an architect and engineer. He was now well versed in the technical aspects of his job and in the basic requirements for completing a work, but no one had instructed him in the creative process itself. He would have to learn and invent such a process for himself.

His first big project came in 1983, when he was asked to design the façade of an already existing structure—an enormous warehouse for Ernsting, a well-known clothing manufacturer in Germany. He decided to cover the structure with untreated aluminum. This would tie the entire building together, but on each side the sunlight would create different, sometimes dazzling effects. To Calatrava the key part of the design was that of the three loading bay doors, each on different sides of the warehouse. Here he could experiment with his ideas of movement and foldability. And so, not certain where or how to begin the actual process, he started to sketch out various possibilities for these doors. As a child he had loved to draw, and he was constantly sketching. He had become so proficient with a pencil or brush that he could draw almost anything with great speed and accuracy. He could sketch as fast as he could think, his innermost visions translated with ease onto paper.

Without any sense of where he was headed, he began to draw in watercolors, putting everything that came to him on paper, almost in a free-associative manner. For some reason, the image of a beached whale occurred to him and so he drew it. He took it further and metamorphosed the whale into the warehouse, the teeth and mouth of the whale opening into the bay door. Now he understood the image. It was as if the warehouse had become Jonah’s whale, disgorging trucks and materials from its mouth. On the margin of the drawing he wrote, “the building as a living organism.” As he stared at the sketch, his attention was drawn to the rather large whale eye he had painted to the side of the mouth/bay door. It seemed like an interesting metaphor all by itself, and indicated a new direction to take.

He began to do different drawings of eyes on the sides of the warehouse, with the eyes turning into the doors. Now his drawings took on more detail and became more architectural as he began to sketch out the actual sides of the building and the doors in a more realistic rendering, but still based on the opening and closing of an enormous eye. In the end, this would turn into the actual design of the folding doors that would raise themselves up in the curved shape of an eyelid.

By the end of the design process Calatrava had generated a large number of sketches, and as he thumbed through them in sequential order, he could see a most interesting progression—from the loose imaginings of his unconscious to more and more precise renderings. Even in the most accurate sketches of the façade, however, there was still apparent some kind of artistic and playful element. To look at the drawings was almost to see the gradual development of a photograph in a chemical tray. Taking this form of attack was immensely satisfying. It gave him the feeling of creating something that was alive. Working in this way, his emotions were deeply engaged as he played upon all kinds of metaphors, both mythical and Freudian.

In the end, his design had a strange and powerful effect. Working with only the façade of the building, he had created the look of a Greek temple, the aluminum undulating like silver columns. The bay doors added a surreal touch, and when folded up, looked even more like the entranceway to a temple. All of this blended perfectly with the functionality of the structure. It was a great success, and garnered him immediate attention.

As the years went by, one important commission followed another. Working on increasingly larger projects, Calatrava could see clearly the dangers ahead of him. Completing a design could often take ten years or more, from the initial sketch to the actual construction. In that time, all kinds of problems and conflicts could arise, which could end up spoiling the initial vision. With larger budgets would come more constraints, and the need to please many different people. If he were not careful, his desire to transgress the rules and to express a personal vision would get lost in the process. And so, as his career progressed, something inside him made him return to the method he had developed for the Ernsting warehouse, and to elaborate it even further.

He would always begin with the drawings. Drawing by hand had become increasingly unusual in the era of computer graphics that had come to dominate so many aspects of architectural design in the 1980s. As a trained engineer, Calatrava knew the tremendous advantages the computer provided for running models and testing the soundness of a structure. But working exclusively on a computer, he could not create in the same way as he could with pencil or brush and paper. The intervention of the computer screen cut off the dreamlike process of sketching, the direct contact it gave him with his unconscious. His hand and his mind seemed to work together in a way that was primal and real, and that could not be duplicated through a computer.

Now his drawings for a single project would number in the hundreds. He would start out in the same loose manner, building up all kinds of associations. He would begin with a feeling or an emotion that the idea of the design sparked in him. This would lead to an image, however vague. For instance, when asked to design an elaborate addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, what first came to mind and then to paper was the image of a bird about to take flight. This image would go through the mill of his sketching process, but in the end the roof of the building he designed featured two enormous, ribbed panels that would open and close according to the sunlight, giving the impression of an enormous prehistoric bird about to fly over Lake Michigan.

Most of these early, free associations would revolve around nature—plants, trees, human figures in various poses, skeletal ribbing—and would be intimately tied to the landscape. Slowly, the shape of the overall structure would come into focus through this process, as he would make the idea increasingly rational and architectural. As an adjunct to this process he would build models, sometimes beginning with a completely abstract sculptural shape that in subsequent versions would become the design for the structure itself. All of these drawings and sculptures were like exteriorizations of his unconscious and nonverbal thought processes.

Inevitably, as he moved closer to the construction phase, he would come up against constraints, such as the materials to be used and budgetary considerations. But working from this initial strategy, he experienced these factors merely as creative challenges: for instance, how could he incorporate certain materials into the vision he had sketched out and make it all work? If it were a train or subway station, how could he make the platforms and the movement of the trains fit into the overall vision, even enhancing their functionality? Such challenges excited him.

The greatest danger he faced was that his energy would go flat over time as the design dragged on into years, and he would lose touch with his original vision. To combat this, Calatrava would maintain an attitude of constant dissatisfaction. The drawings were never quite right. They had to be continually improved and perfected. By pushing for perfection and holding on to this constant feeling of uncertainty, the project never froze into something rigid and lifeless. It had to feel alive in the moment, as his brush touched the paper. If what he was designing began to feel dead in any way, it was time to start over. This not only required tremendous patience on his part, but a good deal of courage, as he wiped out the work of several months. Maintaining the edge and feeling of aliveness, however, was more important.

As the years went by and Calatrava was able to look back on all of his projects, he had a strange sensation. The process he had evolved felt as if it had come from outside of him. It was not something he had created through his own imagination, but rather it was nature itself that had led him to this perfectly organic and beautifully effective process. The projects would take root in his mind with some emotion or idea, and slowly grow through the drawings, always alive and as fluid as life itself, like the stages of a plant leading to a flower. Feeling such vitality during the work, he would translate this sensation into the structures themselves, evoking awe and wonder in the public that saw and used them.

Because the creative process is an elusive subject and one for which we receive no training, in our first creative endeavors we are most often left to our own devices, to sink or swim. And in these circumstances we have to evolve something that suits our individual spirit and our profession. Often, however, we can go quite wrong in evolving this process, particularly with the pressure to produce results and the fear this instills in us. In the process Calatrava developed for his work, we can discern an elemental pattern and principles that have wide application, built as they are on the natural inclinations and strengths of the human brain.

First, it is essential to build into the creative process an initial period that is open-ended. You give yourself time to dream and wander, to start out in a loose and unfocused manner. In this period, you allow the project to associate itself with certain powerful emotions, ones that naturally come out of you as you focus on your ideas. It is always easy to tighten up your ideas later on, and to make your project increasingly realistic and rational. But if you begin with a feeling of tightness and pressure, focusing on the funding, the competition, or people’s opinions, you will stifle the associative powers of the brain and quickly turn the work into something without joy or life. Second, it is best to have wide knowledge of your field and other fields, giving your brain more possible associations and connections. Third, to keep this process alive, you must never settle into complacency, as if your initial vision represents the endpoint. You must cultivate profound dissatisfaction with your work and the need to constantly improve your ideas, along with a sense of uncertainty—you are not exactly sure where to go next, and this uncertainty drives the creative urge and keeps it fresh. Any kind of resistance or obstacle that crosses your path should be seen as yet another chance to improve your work.

Finally, you must come to embrace slowness as a virtue in itself. When it comes to creative endeavors, time is always relative. Whether your project takes months or years to complete, you will always experience a sense of impatience and a desire to get to the end. The single greatest action you can take for acquiring creative power is to reverse this natural impatience. You take pleasure in the laborious research process; you enjoy the slow cooking of the idea, the organic growth that naturally takes shape over time. You do not unnaturally draw out the process, which will create its own problems (we all need deadlines), but the longer you can allow the project to absorb your mental energies, the richer it will become. Imagine yourself years in the future looking back at the work you have done. From that future vantage point, the extra months and years you devoted to the process will not seem painful or laborious at all. It is an illusion of the present that will vanish. Time is your greatest ally.

  1. The Open Field

Martha Graham’s father, Dr. George Graham, was one of the few pioneering doctors in the 1890s to specialize in the treatment of mental illness. (For more on Martha Graham, see here and here.) Around the family he did not talk much about his work, but one subject he would discuss openly with Martha completely fascinated her. In working with his patients, Dr. Graham had developed the ability to judge much about their states of mind from their body language. He could read their level of anxiety in how they walked or moved their arms or fixed their eyes on something. “The body does not lie,” he would often tell her.

In high school in Santa Barbara, California, Martha developed an interest in theater. But one evening in 1911, Dr. Graham took his seventeen-year-old daughter to Los Angeles to see a performance of the famous dancer Ruth St. Denis, and from then on all she could think about was becoming a dancer. Influenced by her father, she was intrigued by the ability to express emotions without any words, strictly through the movement of the body. As soon as St. Denis opened up her own dance school (along with her partner, Ted Shawn) in 1916, Martha enrolled as one of its first pupils. Much of the choreography was a kind of free-form ballet, with an emphasis on making everything seem easy and natural. There was a lot of posing and moving about with scarves, similar to the work of Isadora Duncan.

At first, Graham was not considered a promising dancer. She was shy, always staying toward the back of the class. She was not particularly built for the art (she did not have a lithe ballerina’s body), and she was slow to pick up the choreography. But when she was given her first solo, St. Denis and Shawn saw something that surprised them: she exploded with an energy they had not suspected in her. She had charisma. St. Denis compared her to “a young tornado” when she took the stage. Everything they taught her she had a way of transforming into something sharper and more aggressive.

After several years she became one of their leading students, a major performer in their troupe and a teacher of the Denishawn method, as it came to be known. But soon she began to tire of this form of dancing. It did not suit her temperament. To get some distance from the school she moved to New York, and to support herself she taught classes in the Denishawn method. Then one day in 1926, perhaps upset at her leaving the troupe, Ted Shawn surprised her with an ultimatum—she would have to pay $500 for the right to teach Denishawn exercises and dance material. If not, she was strictly forbidden, under penalty of a lawsuit, ever to use any of their methods in her classes or personal work.

For Graham, this precipitated a crisis of sorts. She was now thirty-two years old, no longer young for a career in dance. She had barely $50 to her name, which meant that she could never pay Shawn even if she had wanted to. To earn extra money she had already tried working in popular dance shows on Broadway and had hated it, vowing never to go back. But as she weighed her options, one idea kept recurring to her. In her mind she had always been able to envision a kind of dance that did not exist in the world but that spoke to her innermost desires, both as a performer and a spectator. This dance was the polar opposite of the Denishawn method, which now seemed to her like empty, arty gesturing. It was more related to what she had seen of modern art—somewhat jagged and occasionally dissonant, full of power and rhythm. It was a visceral form of dance that she envisioned, and as she imagined it her thoughts kept returning to her father and their discussions about the body, about the language that all animals express through their movement.

This dance she could visualize was rigorous, based on a new kind of discipline—not at all free-floating and spontaneous like the Denishawn style. It would have its own vocabulary. She could not shake the image of the beauty of this nonexistent dance. She would never have this chance again. With age comes conservatism and the need for comfort. To create what was not out there, she would have to start her own school and dance troupe, building up the technique and discipline on her own. To support herself, she would have to give classes, teaching the new dance movements she would be in the process of creating. It would entail a tremendous risk, and money would be a constant problem, but her desperation to create what she could imagine would fuel her past any obstacles.

Within weeks of Ted Shawn’s ultimatum, she made her first move. She rented out a studio, and to show her pupils that this was a new kind of dance they were going to learn, she covered the walls in burlap. Unlike other dance studios, her studio would have no mirrors. The dancers would have to focus intensely on what she was teaching and learn how to correct themselves by feeling the movement in their bodies, not becoming fixated on their images. Everything she wanted in this new form of dance was outwardly directed at the audience, without self-consciousness.

At first, it all seemed rather impossible. She had only a few students, just enough to cover rent. They would often have to wait for her as she slowly invented some new kind of movement or exercise, which they would then practice together and refine. A few early performances, although awkward, managed to attract more recruits, enough for Graham to think of creating a small troupe. From this group, she demanded the utmost discipline. They were creating a new language and would have to work hard. Week by week she built up a set of exercises that would bring the dancers more control, along with an entirely new mechanics of movement. She and her recruits would spend an entire year working on and perfecting one simple new technique, until it became second nature.

To distinguish her method from other forms of dance, she placed all of the emphasis on the torso. She called the torso “the house of the pelvic truth.” She had determined that the most expressive part of the human body came from the contractions of the diaphragm and the sharp movements of the torso. This would be the center of focus, not the face and arms that made dance too romantic. She created endless exercises to build up this area, and she encouraged her dancers to feel the deep well of emotions that came from using these muscles.

Much of what stimulated her in this early phase was the desire to create something that had never been seen before on the stage. In Western dance, for instance, it was taboo for a dancer to fall—that would be a sign of a mistake and loss of control. The ground was something to resist and never surrender to. She decided to turn this around by creating a new sequence of controlled falls in which the dancer would melt into the ground and reascend, ever so slowly. This required building up a whole new series of muscles. She took this concept further, using the ground itself as a space upon which the dancer could move like a coiled snake. In her new system, suddenly the knee became a different instrument of expression—a hinge upon which the dancer could balance and move, giving the effect of weightlessness.

Slowly, as the work progressed, she could see coming to life the new form of dance that she had visualized. To add to the effect of newness, Graham decided to design and sew her own costumes. These costumes, often made out of stretch materials, would turn the dancers into almost abstract shapes, accentuating their sharp movements. Unlike the usual fairy-tale decor that was used for ballets, her sets would be minimal and stark. The dancers would wear little makeup. Everything would be designed to set them off from the stage and make their movements explode.

The response to her first series of performances was electrifying. The public had never seen anything remotely like it before. Many were disgusted and repulsed. Others found the work strangely emotional, giving dance an expressive quality they had never suspected it could possess. The work elicited extremes of reaction, a sign of its power. Over the years, what had seemed initially so harsh and ugly began to be accepted, as Martha Graham had indeed single-handedly created a new genre—modern dance as we know it today. To avoid this dance turning into yet another convention, she would constantly struggle to upset people’s expectations, never going over old ground, and constantly changing the subject matter of the dances, from Greek myths to Americana and depictions from literature. For close to sixty years after the formation of her troupe, she continued to drive herself to create that feeling of newness and immediacy she had always wanted.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to human creativity is the natural decay that sets in over time in any kind of medium or profession. In the sciences or in business, a certain way of thinking or acting that once had success quickly becomes a paradigm, an established procedure. As the years go by, people forget the initial reason for this paradigm and simply follow a lifeless set of techniques. In the arts, someone establishes a style that is new and vibrant, speaking to the particular spirit of the times. It has an edge because it is so different. Soon imitators pop up everywhere. It becomes a fashion, something to conform to, even if the conformity appears to be rebellious and edgy. This can drag on for ten, twenty years; it eventually becomes a cliché, pure style without any real emotion or need. Nothing in culture escapes this deadening dynamic.

We may not be aware of it, but we suffer from the dead forms and conventions that clutter our culture. This problem, however, sets up a tremendous opportunity for creative types, one epitomized by the example of Martha Graham. The process goes as follows: You begin by looking inward. You have something you want to express that is unique to yourself and related to your inclinations. You must be sure it is not something that is sparked by some trend or fashion, but that it comes from you and is real. Perhaps it is a sound you are not hearing in music, a type of story not being told, a type of book that does not fit into the usual tidy categories. Perhaps it is even a new way of doing business. Let the idea, the sound, the image take root in you. Sensing the possibility of a new language or way of doing things, you must make the conscious decision to play against the very conventions that you find dead and want to get rid of. Martha Graham did not create her work out of a vacuum; her vision corresponded to what ballet and modern dance of the time were not giving her. She took their conventions and turned them upside down. Following this strategy will give your work a kind of reverse reference point and a way to shape it.

Like Graham, you must not mistake newness with wild spontaneity. There is nothing that becomes repetitive and boring more quickly than free expression that is not rooted in reality and discipline. You must bring to your new idea all of the knowledge you have acquired in your field, but for the purpose of reversing it, as Graham did with the Denishawn method. In essence, what you are doing is creating some space in a cluttered culture, claiming for yourself an open field in which you can finally plant something new. People are dying for the new, for what expresses the spirit of the time in an original way. By creating something new you will create your own audience, and attain the ultimate position of power in culture.

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