Human Creative Work

All human creative work is similar, whether we are doing science, writing a story, drawing a cartoon, designing a government, inventing God, or developing software.

In each case, we begin with things and then make connections between them. In some cases, we know the things to be of our own invention, like the characters in a story. In others, the things exist independent of us, like the materials we utilize in engineering, or the particles physicists study. In this case, it is easy to forget that what we are actually working with in our creative process is not the objects ourselves but our idea of them. The idea, of course, may or may not fully encompass the object; the idea may also extend further than the object, containing aspects of what the object represents to us that have nothing to do with its existence independent of us.

Object-oriented software development provides a good example here. In the real world, there exists an object called an "invoice". Unlike the stone or the particle, it is a manmade object, but nonetheless external and real to us. We then shadow it with a software object called "invoice." Though the ultimate goal may be to have the software object produce the real one, in designing our software we are mirroring (or, as software architects say, "modelling") real objects with virtual ones. And the duality is never completely eliminated; an object of class "invoice" is not itself the invoice; the invoice is the piece of paper on which the object prints itself.

So when a software architect talks to her client about the "invoice" there is a certain ambiguity of language as to whether the subject is the paper object, the software object, or both. Similarly, when we talk about Anna Karenina, the Mona Lisa, a bridge, Congress, the Holy Trinity, or a quark, we are discussing a virtual object: the idea we hold of each of these in our minds. In some cases, this idea models a real object and sometimes (probably more often) it does not. Sometimes we do not know. For some years, scientists spoke of "phlogiston" assuming they were discussing a real substance, but they were mistaken. But we do not typically draw a very strong distinction between objects that are real and otherwise. In the list I have given, a majority of people would agree only that Anna Karenina is not "real". Others would add the Holy Trinity to this list. But a bridge, a quark, the Mona Lisa and Congress are not all "real" in the same way. A Martian looking at Earth through a telescope could see the Brooklyn Bridge, or maybe even the Mona Lisa, but would not see a quark, or Congress. In the latter case, the Martian might see a building and a group of people inside, but it would not be apparent that it was Congress. In other words, the quality that makes this particular collection of people into "Congress" would not be visible through a telescope.

Like the Sunday book review section, we divide our world into "fiction" and "nonfiction". But, again like the book review, only the former category is meaningful to us and the latter is a catch-all for everything not clearly fiction. This oversimplified binary view elides the fact that not all nonfiction is equal. A cookbook, a biography of Harry Truman, a field-guide to the birds, a book about your inner child and a history of the UFO crash at Roswell are all characterized as "nonfiction", but differ from each other in quite significant ways. My point is that much of the time we think we are dealing with real things in our work when we are really dealing with ideas.

William Gibson coined the phrase "cyberspace" and defined it as a "consensual hallucination". Many of the things we characterize as "real"--including Congress and the invoice-- are also "consensual hallucinations". Human institutions like Congress exist and have meaning only by agreement. Similarly, an invoice has meaning only because of a series of other ideas that, gathered together, define and support it: money, service performed, an obligation to exchange the former for the latter. Even the Mona Lisa is no more real than an invoice. Though it (like the invoice) can be "seen" by the Martian, the Martian may no more recognize it as a representation of a human being than a dog would. Only by bringing a set of ideas to the viewing of it, along with the right equipment, do we enable ourselves to characterize the Mona Lisa as "real".

The Brooklyn Bridge inhabits yet another level of reality. Like the Mona Lisa or the invoice, we assign meaning to it by the operation of a group of ideas that have adhered to it. For example, I look at the Brooklyn Bridge very differently than I do the Verrazano, another bridge which connects Brooklyn to somewhere else. The Brooklyn Bridge is "prettier" (I am applying a number of ideas about aesthetics). It is older, so I associate more history with it and am more sentimental about it. It connects Manhattan and Brooklyn, while the Verrazano connects Brooklyn to Staten Island, a place I hardly ever desire to visit. For these and other reasons, I regard the Brooklyn Bridge as more important, more satisfying than the Verrazano. But the difference between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Mona Lisa is that a dog or a Martian can use the bridge for the basic purpose it was meant to serve--to cross the river--without understanding any of these other features. A dog interacting with the Mona Lisa--for example, chewing on the frame--would not be carrying out anything like the purpose which Da Vinci had in mind: the admiration of the picture by a human being. But the Brooklyn Bridge also was created at least partly to be admired by humans.

When we start discussing physics I am on very infirm ground. But physicists probably would agree with me that a quark, like an invoice, is an idea. The invoice is a container for certain data meaningful to humans. The quark is a container created to associate certain behaviors--which we believe we have observed with our extremely limited equipment--with certain explanations of them. So was phlogiston. When a container can no longer consistently contain the explanations for all the behaviors we associate with it, we throw it away and choose another--the human action for which Thomas Kuhn first coined the phrase "paradigm shift".

Once we have identified our objects, we begin to think about the way they are associated with each other. Our software architect thinks about the interaction between objects "client", "project" and "invoice". There can be many projects to a client, and many invoices sent relating to a project. But we do not invoice two clients for one project. When we think about building a bridge, we may for various reasons be thinking about the river, its banks, a highway, nearby buildings, and the boats that may pass underneath. In painting Mona Lisa, Da Vinci may have been creating connections between a woman, a landscape, and a smile. Congress and related institutions were born as a result of a group of people thinking about the relationship between government and individuals, authority and liberty, the states and the federal government. And the quark, as we've already said, is even more clearly the result of thinking about the otherwise confusing interactions of different "things".

Another feature common to all human creative thinking is that it is disorderly and subjective. Sometimes it is not clearly thinking at all: the final (or nearly final) work is born full-blown from the unconscious mind as dreams are. A dream is, in fact, another example of human creative work, which has many features in common with the other work we will be describing. Even when we are engaged in a conscious design process, we do not always proceed in the most obvious or logical way. The Mona Lisa may have begun with the smile, not the woman or the landscape. The design of the Brooklyn Bridge may have begun with a vision of cables or a central walkway, after which the designer added the other details necessary to complete the design. Like Cuvier, deducing the appearance of an animal from a single bone, we may start our creative work with any fragment, then identify the objects and make the connections necessary to create the whole. The finished work, of course, will usually mask the creative process. You cannot look at the Mona Lisa and know, with any certainty, that the smile was the first or most important element in the artist's mind.

Writing a story

I should say by way of apology that I am not insisting that all creative work is done exactly in the way I am describing. However, I believe that much creative work of all descriptions is done this way. For example, many fiction writers may make up a story differently than I do. However, I think that the following account of how I invented two stories is relevant to the study of the way much human work is done.

In writing two stories which I published in last month's issue of The Spectacle, I began with a phrase. Now, most of the stories I have invented did not begin this way and in fact, when you do so, you run the risk of creating puerile or artificial work. More often, I begin with a person, think about features of personality which would determine the person's reaction to certain stimuli, and then a story emerges. In these two cases, I also followed this process--but a particular phrase inspired me to think up the people and follow the rest of the process.

In the first case, I had long wanted to write something entitled Change at Jamaica, a phrase uttered by the Long island railroad conductor when he takes your ticket and tells you where to change trains. During a period of my life when I commuted once a week to Brentwood, Long Island in connection with some unpleasant business responsibilities, I used to daydream about these words, wondering if there ever would be "change" at Jamaica. Waiting for a connecting train, I imagined myself embedded in the platform while millions of years passed, awaiting an evolutionary change that would set me free.

In writing the story, I began with the requirements of a protagonist with a daily commute and a change of trains at Jamaica station. I thought he would be a lonely person who would commute in the opposite direction than I had--from Long Island to Manhattan. He was indecisive, depressed, and had very little energy. Something more than the phrase must make Jamaica the crux of the matter, the arena in which the principal action would take place.

It was easy to decide that he would see, and admire, a young woman every day at Jamaica, invent a personality and history for her and daydream about meeting, loving and marrying her. He would invent a relationship with her; his challenge would be to break out of fantasy by really meeting her. At this point I knew that this paralyzed young man, as I had already designed him, would never be able to make the breakthrough. I knew the end of the story: she would smile at him one day, and he would bolt. Change would not happen at Jamaica. "All his virility passed in dreams," wrote Zola of one of his characters.

When I wrote the story, a very interesting thing happened. It ended differently than I anticipated. Many times I have had that experience in writing fiction: once you design a character, he or she begins to lead a somewhat independent existence. The personality you have designed may wind up responding differently to the stimuli than you originally intended. You may realize that a particular ending you contemplated was a wish fulfillment, not likely to occur in the world you designed. (This is remarkable when you consider that all fiction begins in a wish fulfillment.) An action may turn out not to be worthy of a character, or may simply be inconsistent with what you now know about her. In the case of Change at Jamaica, something rather different happened.

My protagonist needed a reason to commute to Manhattan, but could clearly not be a professional or hold any kind of responsible or challenging job. Even making him a student would make his life too meaningful. So I made him a drop-out from graduate school, working in the university library filing cards in the card catalog. This particular job occurred to me because I had done this myself, some hours a week, during my senior year of college.

I gave my protagonist a co-worker, a very smart young woman who was not exactly pretty but whom he found very interesting because of her intelligence, sarcasm and poise. I described my actual co-worker in the library. I wrote a scene in which he tells her about the woman he sees every day at Jamaica; their friendship organizes itself around daily discussions of this event. Then I realized that I had created an imbalance in the story; there was now a presence in his life too lively and forceful for this rather depressed tale. I was at a crossroads; I did not want to remove her; it was possible that this was really the story of a man pursuing an improbable love while ignoring a possible lover right at hand. But the young woman I had created was so decisive that, if she felt anything for the protagonist, she would let him know. And it was clear that if a woman he liked and felt attracted to reached out to him, he would respond to her even if she was not the one he most wanted. A story intended to end with the protagonist more alone than before, locked in ice in a wasteland, ended instead with a change indirectly sparked by the encounter at Jamaica. Once I had these two characters, it was clear to me there was no other valid choice than to bring them together, like an irresistible force and a highly movable object.

The other story began when I was waiting in the Houston airport and listened, as I had so many times before, to the innumerable announcements for so-and-so to pick up the white courtesy telephone. And I imagined a story about the telephone: A man would hear a woman with an unusual name being paged, and recognize her as someone he had known long ago. He would pick up the white courtesy telephone and ask that she be paged again. She would answer, but he would have no way of knowing where she was in the airport. He would have a conversation with her aimed at persuading her to come and meet him. She would not.

In order for the story to be significant, there were a few requirements. It must be someone he had really loved, not a casual acquaintance. But, if she had left him, it would be a story more pathetic than Change at Jamaica: humiliated once, he would be pleading with her, only to be humiliated again. Therefore, he must have left her, as a result of some chaotic or egotistic behavior he had since come to regret. I imagined that they had lived together while in film school in New York; that, overwhelmed by his sale of a script, he had imagined that he could do better than her; that eleven years later, a modestly successful hack novelist, he profoundly missed her. When she answered the page, he would have just a few minutes to mix honesty with charm and persuade her to meet him. I knew she would not come; he would wait until his flight left, first hopeful, then puzzled, finally angry.

But the woman was an enigma; it was impossible to see her clearly, as the protagonist could not. He had hung up the phone thinking that she might show up, and I did not know for sure why she had not. Was she being cruel, or had she been in the grip of contrary impulses, tempted to see him but frightened? I saw it was necessary, at the end of the conversation to shift to her perspective. Once I did that, she took over: she went to the place he had told her he was waiting, looked at him and then left when he did not pick her out of the crowd. She had changed much more in eleven years than he had.

I am not arguing, by the way, that either of these endings make for better art than the endings I originally contemplated. I could easily argue the contrary: for post-modernist endings, full of ambiguity and despair, I substituted neat O'Henry style conclusions. A radio play I once heard of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener did not improve on the original by explaining Bartleby's sadness (his infant daughter had died). What was mysterious but universal in Melville's story became specific and trivial in the radio version. In a forgotten story of Nabokov's recently published in the New York Review of Books, we are exposed to all the adversities and inspirations in a young Soviet writer's life. When, at the end, he finally sits down to write, what he produces is not the art we expected but extremely trite "socialist realism". Similarly, though I believe in the quality of the raw material I used, I may not have the equipment to produce what I desire.

What makes it worth relating the process by which these stories were made remains relevant whether they are good art or bad. In one I began with a man, a woman and Jamaica station. I added another woman and a library. The other started with a man, a woman and a white courtesy telephone. In both cases, by the time I had written much of the story, some features of the characters changed the ending I had anticipated. The attributes of the objects I had created did not allow them to stand in exactly the relationship I had imagined. Perhaps some writers don't even imagine an ending; they create characters and let them provide one.

(In another essay written after the entire story series of the Kazoo Concerto was completed, I go into much more detail about the disorderly process I followed to create it. For example, Samantha Lazare, the central character and moral focus of the series, is the woman created as an afterthought while writing Change at Jamaica.)

Drawing a cartoon

A well-known cartoon by James Thurber shows a man and a woman in bed. One is saying to the other, "Did you hear a seal bark?" Above them, its flippers hanging over the bedpost, is the seal. Thurber wrote that he set out to draw a seal on a rock, but made the rock so square it looked like the headboard of a bed, and thus got the idea for the cartoon.

Designing a software application

For the past seven and a half years, I have worked in an organization that employs a large number of recruiters. One of my jobs there was to supervise all development of software tools supporting their work.

Sometime in the early 1980's, an executive of the company perceived that the recruiters could benefit from the use of a database application (prior to that, they were keeping information about job applicants on cards). A simple database was created with fields for name, address, phone number, notes, and keywords representing the individual's technical skills.

Some time later, another database was created to support the mailing of resumes to corporate clients. This database recorded company name, address, the human resources or technical contact, and the skills the company was looking for.

A few years after that, a third database was created to track the recruiters' production. This one "knew" that a particular applicant had been offered a job by a client company and the offered salary, and also kept track of the "state" of the offer (pending, accepted, rejected, etc.)

In the meantime, some simple subsidiary applications had also been written, most of them ways of distributing plain text files around the organization. These included a "sent" file (record of which companies particular resumes had been sent to), an "interview" file (updated when an applicant is seen by a company), and a "compcall" file (job listings phoned in by client companies).

Along came the World Wide Web, and we used it to make other information more accessible to the recruiters, including the resumes of applicants and proposals we had written to clients.

We now had ten or more places you needed to look to find inmformation on a single individual and a transaction pertaining to him, and none of these were connected to each other. For example, we place Joe Botz, a C programmer, at Clarion Corporation. There is a record on Joe in the applicant database, an entry in the "sent" and "interview" files pertaining to him, and an offer record indicating that he accepted a job at Clarion. In addition, Joe's resume is in the Resume Repository application, and there is information on Clarion in the company mailer database and in the Compcall file.

We had a belated epiphany that these separate applications were all fragments of one large knowledgebase, and we designed a new generation of our applications where a recruiter, utilizing a Web browser, could navigate from Joe's record to his resume to the offer record to our file on Clarion without ever leaving the application. Writing an essay

Writing a monthly issue of The Ethical Spectacle is no different. I begin with a topic and some preconceptions about it. For example, I know I am against the death penalty, but I haven't clearly elucidated my reasons. I sit down and begin to write, and as do so, I start making connections to things I have read and identifying gaps in my thought I need to fill. I may vaguely recall that Ronald Dworkin has said something about the death penalty, and I search through several of his books which I own looking for it. It occurs to me that I should know what all of the current arguments are pro and con, and that several books I bought on "practical ethics" contain chapters on it I have not yet read. Perhaps, after I have glanced into one or two of these, I start to write something; every essay begins with a "hook", and just creating the hook forces me to focus my thoughts. By now I have identified that there is a "substantive" and "procedural" component (as there is in everything.) For example, I may argue that no-one substantively deserves death. Instead, I may argue that, though there are people who deserve the death penalty in some over-arching sense, we are procedurally incapable of determining with any certainty who they are.

By this point, I also recognize that there is a moral and a practical component which are quite different from one another. The moral may be the zone in which I am most comfortable, but the practical often leads to more effective advocacy. Thus I must decide whether there is a place in my essay to quote recent news reports about prisoners who caught fire, or had to be electrocuted a second time, to stress the cruelty of the affair.

Going down this path leads me to consider the people involved in seeking and administering the death penalty. I think I have anecdotal evidence that they are callous, dishonest, manipulative, shockingly amoral and sometimes quite murderous themselves. I sense the beginnings of a moral argument that you cannot have a good thing which is the province of very bad people.

I am now on a hilltop surveying a valley which is still shrouded in fog, but with a few features emerging from it. The rest of the work--the writing--involves chasing the fog and revealing the rest of the topography.

By the time I have finished writing, my thoughts have often shifted. In linking ideas to one another, I often find they will not stand in exactly the relationship I anticipated. For example, my views on gun control have become more middle of the road. This is similar to the phenomenon I described above of a character behaving differently than one thought.

An important decision is whether I am writing one essay or several. Sometimes I can only synthesize my thoughts up to a point; especially in the earlier issues of The Spectacle, I tended to write five or six fragments about a topic instead of one better elucidated work. This is a sort of design failure similar to the creation of ten separate software applications when we could have made a single one. It also reminds me of the response of a lawyer I once complemented for writing a forty page legal brief in a weekend. "If I'd had more time," he said, "it would have been shorter."

Giving a speech

A few days ago, I made a toast at a wedding reception for my youngest brother. At family events as diverse as a bar mitzvah and a funeral, I have organized talks around quotes from Henry David Thoreau; but Thoreau was never married and had nothing useful to say about relationships.

I woke at five-thirty a.m. on the day of the reception, not having prepared anything, and for some reason, started thinking about an incident the night before. I was in a van heading into Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with some out-of-town employees of my company, and we passed a huge, vacant industrial building, Bush Terminal. A few years ago, the landlord had opened what was billed as "the world's largest indoor paintball facility", which predictably failed, and I had made a comment to the group about how shocked the owner was that no-one wanted to pay good money to come to Brooklyn and be stalked up dark stairwells by people with weapons.

I realized that when I tell stories like that, I am perversely proud to be from Brooklyn, which is a strange, jangled kind of place, and this got me thinking about "sense of place", the topic on which Shannon, my brother's wife, is writing her dissertation. The wedding itself took place in Virginia, and Shannon is researching the rural community in which she grew up and where she and Richard now live. They were married on the hilltop behind her parents' house, and the little house in town which they rent looks like they have lived there for years rather than months, because it is filled with beautiful things, including paintings done by Shannon and her sister, and exudes that indefinable air of "centeredness" which makes a home. So Shannon herself has a profound sense of place. I had my topic: I could start with Bush Terminal, then move on to the sense of place, talk about Shannon and Richard and their home in Virginia. I now had two or three comments which I knew would get a laugh, and I planted them at intervals and selected one for the wrap-up. I took a sheet of paper and wrote on it: BUSH TERMINAL SENSE OF PLACE SHANNON HILLTOP QUILT HOME and IVY; these were the headings I needed to hit, and I wrote them as a safeguard so I could glance at the sheet while talking if I drew a blank. That afternoon, I gave the toast and was pleased by the response.

Designing a Government

Unfortunately, we do not live in a time when we can easily access a large number of uninhabited Earthlike worlds. If we could, we could engage in unlimited experiments in human self-government and the realization of ourselves and our desires.

If you and I were given an empty planet and invited ten thousand people to join us, I imagine that the first thing we would do would be to get everyone together to discuss the form of government which we wished to have.

Assuming that we had invited people who thought rather like us, there is no doubt we would want a democracy. First we would need to decide whether we wanted a strong democracy, in which the maximum number of decisions are made by the entire group, or a weak democracy with a maximum number of checks and balances, to protect against the tyranny of the majority.

Having lived our lives up until now in a weak democracy where one often feels that one's voice matters little, let's imagine that we opt for a strong democracy where most decisions will be made by all ten thousand of us acting together.

We have now created a sort of landscape, but must populate it with particular features. In our assembly, we start calling out at random the concepts and protections we want to include in our new state.

We must have some sort of a court system, with redress for private wrongs, and also enforcement of some minimum set of criminal laws for all our protection.

Someone objects that if we go too far down this road, we will create a government similar to the ones we are escaping. "Why do we need to presuppose any laws, criminal laws in particular?" she asks. "We're all good people. Why don't we carry on as we are, and identify particular incidents that concern us as we go along? Maybe none will happen and we won't even need courts or laws."

Someone else points out that we could embody all three divisions of government--executive, legislative, and judiciary--in our assembly. Thus, we could call the whole group together to act as a court when necessary--either to enforce pre-existing laws, or, as the woman has just suggested, to sanction or punish people for events which offend our communal understanding.

A lawyer is very offended by this suggestion. "Do you realize," he says, "that in the latter case you are acting as a legislature, to pass a law, and then enforcing it against someone immediately, ex post facto? That's no better than a lynching."

A professor of constitutional law points out that what we are really doing here is writing a constitution. "A constitution is metadata," she says. "We need to establish the metadata before we start discussing the data itself. We're in big danger here of getting down to particulars before we agree on the principles."

Everyone agrees, and led by the professor, we make up a list of things that really concern us:

Once we have listed enough principles, we will start linking them to each other and creating a structure which brings them into the particular while incorporating the framework upon which we have agreed. Since the design of a government is evidently a spiral process, like the design of software, attempts to go from the metadata to a particular system will sometimes lead us to revise the metadata. One can imagine, based on the foregoing, that we will create a government with two branches, a legislature (with an executive appointed only in times of crisis, as in early Rome) and a judiciary. We will probably agree that the judges should be appointed by the legislature (thus effectively elected) for life, so they can be really independent of us. We might create a special technology court to rule on introduction of new technologies. And so on.

Designing a system of government is similar to designing anything else. Please note also that telling a story about the design of a government, as I have just done, is almost the same as designing a government.

Inventing God

All religions are concocted in much the same way as a story, government or software application. In Catholicism, which is quite typical, we have a landscape populated with a monotheistic God, some pre-existing myths from earlier religions, some real human beings and some other animistic forces we wish to incorporate in our framework. We create a hierarchy of God, Holy Spirit, Son, saints and holy men. Along the way, we pick up the things outside Christianity which we need to have inside, much the way a dream presents a wish fulfillment to mask an anxiety that might otherwise wake us. In this way, pre-existing pagan rituals get picked up as Christian ones, and (to pick an extreme example) Hypatia, a pagan philosopher murdered by Christians, is echoed as a Christian saint.


Freud saw that dreaming is an unconscious creative process carried on in the absence of the conscious and orderly mind. He also pointed out that the more narrative (or linear) a dream, the less we could learn from it, because it likely had been revised, and its meaning clouded, by the intervention of the conscious mind.

A dream, like all the design processes we have discussed, throws out a series of issues important to us and then establishes them in some kind of a structure. The framework of a dream, of course, is highly fanciful and may seem confusing or irrational, but it is no less a designed structure than a story or software application.

One of my earliest memories is of a dream about a bee that flew out of a cat's ear. In thinking about the dream, I recognize I was reacting to the birth of a baby brother, whose crying I incorporated in the dream as the bee's buzzing. The bee emerging from the cat's ear is probably some confused idea of birth, and so forth. Analyzing the structure of a story like Change at Jamaica is very similar to analyzing a dream. In fact our stories contain many unconscious elements as our dreams do, though by virtue of the linear structure we impose on them, we may make them more obscure and harder to interpret than our dreams.


Dreaming is the ultimate metaphor for human creativity, because it is a wholly unfettered creative process. It is interesting that people who seem completely unimaginative to us in daily life must also dream, so there is a creative process at work in even the dullest human. Thoreau said that there is a force in every one of us that could float the British empire like a chip.

It is interesting that we are so ambivalent about dreaming. Some people are frightened by the power of their dreams, and others never remember them. Dreams are structures in which we explain away our fears, protect against the unknown, and catch frightening thoughts in webs which make them manageable. Our conscious creativity (if creativity can ever be called "conscious") is no different. But humans resist new ideas, whether embodied in art or in practical developments. Calling someone a "dreamer" is most often pejorative, though it may sometimes be a compliment. Zola described one of his characters as losing all his virility in dreams, while Proust said, "If a little dreaming is dangerous, that which cures it is not less dreaming, but more." I am with Proust.

There is only one kind of dreaming. The dreaming we do when asleep is not different than the kind we do when dreaming stories, speeches, software, science, or governments.