Three Thoughts on Creativity

From magician Nate Staniforth.

Three Thoughts on Creativity
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“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”

- Jack London

Creativity is a tough subject. It defies definition and understanding. We know it when we see it, maybe, but trying to discuss creativity in a practical or useful way rarely ends up being particularly practical, or useful, or creative.

Here’s the problem. Magicians talk about creativity as though it’s a kind of goal or aspiration: I wish my magic could be more creative. But this is backwards. Creativity is not a goal or an ideal so much as the result of one. Vision—aesthetic, artistic vision—your artistic vision: that’s the goal. If you set off in a new and imaginative direction with your work, you’re bound to take some uncommon and original—which is to say creative—steps to get there. But the vision must come first.

So, here are three ideas that have been helpful to me in better understanding and clarifying my own vision for my work as a magician. These aren’t hacks or tips or action items on a list you can cross off as you go, but together they make up a kind of ongoing process that has served me well. I hope it’s useful to you.

Step 1: Find the Geniuses

Read as many good books, and listen to as much good music, and watch as many good films as you can. That's my advice. Spend as much time doing this every day as you do actively thinking about magic. Most magicians don’t need better tricks so much as they need better dreams, and the idea here is to actively and deliberately push your imagination onward with a steady, constant exposure to great work. Find the good stuff and soak in it. Let it challenge you, and push you, and press up against your sense of the world and change it. Find the work that moves you and let it move you. Get a library card and a Spotify subscription. Then sit, and read, and listen. Doing this for a day will change your entire week; making it a part of every day will change your entire life.

We have the greatest works by the greatest writers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers of all time available to us on our phones right now. It took Tolstoy five years to write War and Peace. You can download it today and read it in a month, and if you bring to the reading the same rigour and sensitivity that he brought to the writing, you’ll receive everything he was trying to give you. The asymmetry of the exchange is staggering: one month of your effort for five years of his undivided attention and wisdom and insight. John Coltrane took months to work out the musical structure of A Love Supreme: you can listen to the whole record—today—immediately—in half an hour, and in that time, you’ll feel the full weight of those months and the entire lifetime of experience that preceded them. It will knock you over if you let it. And my point is, you should let it.

You’re not looking for entertainment, edification, sophistication, or knowledge. You’re trying to find the stuff that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. You're trying to have your mind blown, over and over, as often as possible. You’re not waiting for inspiration so much as hunting it down and devouring it.

Here’s why this is so important. In this collection of books, music, films, and creations of all kinds, you will uncover little sparks of insight or inspiration, like small signal fires pointing the way forward toward your own innate sense of what is good. You’ll start to discover the aesthetic territory that appeals to you, and when you go to create your own work as a magician, these works will invariably lead you away from the work everyone else in magic is doing and push you off in your own direction.

Step 2: Make Things Outside of Magic

2013 was a crazy year for me. I did a US college tour, then moved to London for three months to film a TV series, then back for another US tour, and then I decamped to LA for two weeks to rehearse an entirely new show before taking it to Australia for a month of performances. By the time I came home, I didn’t want to think about magic ever again. So, I started learning to make other kinds of art. I played the piano and guitar every day. I bought a camera and walked through the forest every morning to take pictures. I started writing a book. And together, these other forms of art transformed the way I saw my work as a magician.

There’s a trap in magic, and as easy as it is to fall into this trap as a beginner, I think it’s actually more dangerous to those of us who have been doing this for a while. The danger is that after years of flailing around as a beginner, eventually, you find some success. You find a way to do magic that feels right. People like it. And the overpowering temptation at that point is to freeze your creative development and keep doing the same thing over and over because you’ve found an approach that works.

So, the trap is that you never become the magician you could have been at age 37 or 47 or 57 because you got pretty good by the time you turned 27, and then you just stayed there. You can become the best magician you know how to be and still fall far short of your potential in magic, not because you don’t have the right skills but because you don’t know what you don’t know—about yourself; about your capabilities; about your own capacity for so much more than has been asked of you as a magician so far.

If you want to keep growing as an artist, at some point, you’ll need a way to uncover or excavate those parts of yourself—of your creative, artistic self—that have so far gone undiscovered through your work as a magician. You could know all of the tricks and all of the sleights and all of the methods and all of the techniques in the world and be able to do all of them flawlessly. You still would never find the creative capabilities you’d discover in yourself with a notebook, or a camera, or a guitar.

So that’s why you take up writing, or photography, or music. Not so you can abandon magic and launch a new career as a writer or a photographer or a musician, but so you can find the parts of yourself that you haven’t encountered yet as a magician, that maybe you can only find as a writer, or as a photographer, or as a musician, and then bring them back to your work in magic.

Once you’ve written an album of songs, written a book, or taken ten thousand photographs as a photographer, you won’t ever be able to look at your previous work in magic in the same way. Not because it wasn’t good, but because you’ll have grown. You’ll be a larger version of yourself than you were before, and your work in magic will be forced to grow and expand to accommodate the person you’ve become.

Step 3. Don’t Hide From a House Fire

Finish your work. Make the thing. See how it matches up against your hopes and expectations. Try again. Keep going. By trying—and failing, and failing, and failing—to fulfill your aesthetic vision, you will discover so much about it that you’d never know if you kept all of your ideas secure in the indefinite future of someday. Despite everything, make it now. Things are bound to go wrong as you drag your idea from the halls of your imagination into the real world of flawed, finished creations, but it’s the only way to make progress.

I’m struggling with this currently, so this is for me more than anyone. I’m deep into work on my second book for the general public, and I fight every day with the realization that it will never be as good on the page as it is in my imagination. There’s a sense of security in the thought of keeping the book as an untested, undamaged ideal rather than an imperfect but completed creation, but this is like hiding under your bed from a house fire. You can’t stay there. You may get burned on the way out, but it’s the only way to safety.

So, dream the best dream you can and then make it real. And then do it again and again. You’ll get better and better as you go, and all of us will benefit from the wonderful stuff you’ll bring into the world and show us.

Thanks in advance, and good luck.