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Interview

This is an interview by Tessa Ryser, as part of a research project she was conducting at Utah State University in the fall of 2009. She has published it elsewhere, but she agreed to let me put it on this site, too.



Creativity Interview with Michael Spooner

Interviewer: Tessa Ryser
Background Information:
I am an undergraduate at Utah State University, pursuing a BA in English, emphasis in creative writing, and a BFA in Art, emphasis in drawing and painting. I am an Honors student currently researching Newbery authors’ creative processes for my honors contract with Professor Joyce Kinkead. I requested an interview with Michael Spooner (who I am currently working under as an editorial intern) to delve further into the creative process of writers and learn more from his thoughts and insights about creativity itself. My favorite Harry Potter character is Hermione – no contest.

Interviewee: Michael Spooner
Background Information:
Michael Spooner makes his living as the director for USU Press and has been since 1993. The press focuses on academic audiences, publishing scholarly work in several fields including folklore, creative writing, and composition. He talks to his computer incessantly and has a hard time leaving his work at the office, but has somehow found the time to write three young adult novels and two children’s books. The most recent, Entrapment, was published in June 2009. His favorite Harry Potter character is Hermione – no contest.

Inspiration

1) What inspires you? Why?

I don’t think my experience would be much different from anyone’s. That is, I’m inspired by beauty and pain, by the natural world, mechanical wonders, by exceptional moments in art of many forms, by extraordinary intellectual insights. And so on.

2) Who do you consider to be a visionary? Why? Who has been the greatest inspiration in your life? If you could interview anyone past or present, who would it be?

“Vision” is so contingent a concept that I really have trouble applying it. I do admire other people, and I find in their lives much to honor and respect. But I may believe that we are all too irreconcilably different--and too irredeemably imperfect--to hope for any real purpose in looking to their lives for patterns that I might be able to recapitulate in my own. Which is to say, I guess, that I don’t have any heroes. It’s quite sad, when you think about it.

I assume that my parents have had the most influence on my life; but that's not the same as "inspiration," is it? I would assume that the same is true of you and everyone else; that is, we are all imprinted, for good or for ill, by those who have charge of us in our most formative years.

3) What landscape or nature area inspires you? Is there a particular place where you feel the most creative? Can you describe the feeling?

I have a love-hate relationship with nature. I have been scraped, scratched, bitten, bruised, thumped, bumped, frozen, scorched, soaked, smoked, burned, and battered too often to accept the Romantic era’s empty-headed joy in the face of nature. I probably have something closer to Tennyson’s attitude, where nature is red in tooth and claw, utterly indifferent to human life--in fact, to life of any kind.

Which is not to say that nature is uninspiring to me, just that it is not an unmixed inspiration. So I've felt "wonder" at the same kind of natural scenes and phenomena that call up wonder in most people. Mountains, canyons, rivers, ice and fire, wind and rain--the usual suspects. Also at a leaf, an insect, blood, internal organs, and things you see under a microscope. I also fear those things.

When I am writing, I think I need a lot of light, so I tend to find myself writing most easily when I am near windows; very hard for me to work in the basement or, say, in a hotel room or other fairly enclosed space.

4) If you had the chance to live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose and why? What about a different historical period or event?

I tend to be caught somewhere between Voltaire, who suggests ironically (and with unassailable logic) that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and WS Gilbert, who derided “the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone / all centuries but this / and any country but his own.” One could say I am content to live in my own place and time . . . or one could say that I’m resigned to it.

5) Does music strongly affect your work? What type of music inspires you the most?

I find music deeply enriching and sustaining, but I have extremely eclectic taste. I love everything from opera to sea shanties to Motown to string quartets and the music of Bimstein, who samples electronic noise and the sounds of Utah barnyard animals.

6) Who is your favorite author? Favorite book? Why? What books did you love when you were little? What children’s books do you admire now?

Ok. I don’t think you can get any better than Umberto Eco in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum, although Michael Chabon does come close, and so does Iain Pears.

When I was a child, there wasn’t the range of children’s literature that there is today. I read stuff like the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, the stories of Beatrix Potter, the early work of Maurice Sendak (Little Bear, etc). Of current works, I think Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books are very well done, and in the more serious vein, I don’t think we’ve exceeded the quality of Katherine Paterson, Lois Lowry, or Cynthia Voigt. I think most of what’s published in the most popular genres (fantasy and sci-fi) is just very disappointing. I don’t mind escapist fiction, but I find it deeply mystifying--and discouraging--how poor the writing is in the worlds of dragons, fables, tech-dystopias, magic, and princesses. I am also sick to death of novels attempted in poetry.

7) What movies have inspired you? How?

What I like in movies is how compressed the timeline is, so that you can really see the story structure. Plus, I like dialogue, and in movies, the strengths and weaknesses of dialogue are pretty clear. But again, I wouldn’t use the word “inspire” to describe my own experience. I probably live too much in my head, but when I watch movies, I’m more attentive to how they work than to how they move me. Because of this, I tend to enjoy movies that are strong in dialogue and that explore complicated relationships. When I think of great movie narratives and dialogue, I think of those written by people like Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, the Cohn brothers, etc.

8) Do you ever have to purposefully search for inspiration? Where do you look?

I don’t think I search for inspiration so much as I watch for narrative tricks, gimmicks, ruses, and structural ideas to rip off. You can find those wherever you find narrative--in novels, short fiction, movies, TV shows, operas, wherever.

9) What physical activities inspire you the most? Why? How does it make you feel? (physical like running, swimming, drawing, hunting, etc.)

Anything that hurts.

10) Do you consider yourself to have a lively imagination? If so, how do you put it to good use? Do you daydream?

Yes I daydream altogether too much. The thing about human identity, according to me, is that we humans are inveterate story makers. We understand the world as a narrative with ourselves in the leading role, and this is how we create our individual sense of self--like, I’m the person to whom everything is happening.

It seems to me that, in part, the task of writing fiction is for the writer to put him or herself in the place of a character who is pursuing that very human and very unconscious process of self-creation.

Creativity

1) Where do you get your ideas? Every Newbery speech and author’s website I have thus far read addresses this question and it often appears as number one on the most frequently asked question lists. Why do you think readers are so interested in the answer? Does understanding the origin of ideas assist the creative process?

See, I’m not sure that understanding the origin of ideas is really of any use to anyone. Ideas come from one’s own life experience, and that is really far too tangled a network of impulses and influences social and biological for anyone to sort out.

But then, probably when a reader asks that question, they are not looking to apply your answer in any particular way; they’re just curious about how your mind works. Still, to me, it’s more important what you do with the ideas than where they come from. But nobody asks you that question — what you do with your ideas — because the answer is obvious: it’s all about butts in chairs (to quote Stephen King, I think).

2) What is creativity to you? Do you consider yourself creative?

I’m not sure what creativity is to me. Probably, it’s all about incongruity: juxtaposition and surprise. What you want to do is put ideas and language into play with each other in ways that are just a little bit unusual. Familiar enough to allow the reader to track your train of thought, but strange enough (i.e., new enough) to keep their curiosity working.

3) Do you believe creativity is innate or learned? Please explain. What would be the most important action one should take to become more creative?

I think creativity must be innate, but innate in every individual. For example, practically every human child is capable of learning language, and that is an incredibly creative process. We can see creativity throughout the life of an individual, whether they work with their hands, with words, with other people, whatever. Even simply engaging another person in conversation requires a miraculous cognitive ability to invent, extend, refine, and respond to a welter of ideational input.

So the question becomes why do some people find themselves driven to express their innate creativity in ways that are recognized by society and culture as “artistic”? The answer to this is probably environmental. Each of us is enabled or disabled differently by social or physical experience, and our manner of creative response is no doubt channeled as a result.

Can we become more expressive, or more inventive in our expressivity? I hope so. We are constrained by the limits of our own circumstance, but we can often choose some influences, too (like what we study or what we watch or whom we marry). This, of course, contributes to the shape of our environment, channels our creativity and so on.

Cognitive scientists no doubt have far better explanations. But one of the more elegant images of such things that I know comes from Herman Melville. Ishmael, in Moby-Dick, finds the image of weaving to be an appropriate metaphor. Ishmael is weaving a rug or something, and he sees the vertical strands of fate (the warp of his fabric) crossed by the horizontal strands of human will (the woof of the fabric). But he says a life is given its particular and idiosyncratic final shape by the stroke of random chance that tightens the interweaving strands together (which is the wooden “sword” that slaps the strands together in the loom).

4) What do you do to get into your “creative zone” or get your “creative juices” flowing?

I need to be happy, or at least interested in what I’m doing, and I need music, and I need an extended period of time in which to work.

5) What are your experiences with writer’s block? And how do you overcome it?

Usually this happens to me at points of transition. I think I get focused on what’s happening currently, and that becomes a sort of box. The only way I know to overcome it is to continue experimenting. Stick with it. Butts in chairs.

6) What effect (if any) do you believe childhood has had on your creativity as an adult? Have any other events or moments had a substantial impact?

There’s no way around our own childhood, but I don’t think we have access to very much of how it influences us. I assume that the more we are encouraged to experiment and express ourselves as children, the more comfortable we will be with invention--the twin of creativity--as we grow.

In my own case, I know that literacy was very important to my parents, but they weren’t big on rewards or encouragement. It was more like my duty to do well, so that if I actually did well, then I was merely achieving the expected. Nothing there to praise, really.

I don't mean to criticize my parents. They were/are good, kind, and loving people. But they both came from long lines of rather stern northern types, who felt that a little discipline was actually healthier for a child than any amount of indulging. I don't fully endorse this view, although I do see its wisdom.

7) There is a long history of extremely creative people, particularly writers and artists, suffering from various mental illnesses and often committing suicide. Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Allen Poe, Jackson Pollock, Paul Simon, Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sylvia Plath… to name a few. What do you think of the correlation between creativity and madness or psychological issues?

I think many writers and artists live with compulsion or a sense of being driven. Compulsion is an ally of imbalance and, while it can make the experience of creation a very intense one, it can be very hard to control, and, obviously, it can become self-destructive.

8) This summer, I traveled to Switzerland and took a class on creative thinking. We discussed the Swiss mountains and speculated on why people find mountains so inspiring. What is your opinion? Why do people find mountains and nature in general inspiring?

Personally, I find the natural world interesting because I know that I am of it, and yet I know it is utterly indifferent to me. I mean, a mountain will outlast me by an infinite measure, so in an important sense, I don’t even exist to it. Besides, a mountain has no nervous system through which to perceive me. So, again, I tend to think of Romantic-style sentiment about nature as hogwash.

As for the organic side of nature--the life-force, let’s call it--the quality of my personal life is also infinitely insignificant. To nature, I exist only as fodder for the food chain and for the mindless imperative to reproduce. We human organisms are yeast in a bowl. Life only wants to extend Life; it doesn’t care what kind of life we live. I have never heard a good reason to have children, and I'm convinced that we continue to have them--globally speaking, most parents even bring them into lives of certain pain and poverty--because we are driven to do so by deep biological urges over which we have little control.

Does this make me a misanthrope? Not at all. We're just talking about nature and our role in it.

I think we who are products of Western civilization--especially Western religions--see ourselves both as an expression of nature and as alienated from it (and often we think we’re above it, somehow). That's silly.

Nature’s infinite inaccessibility is something we can understand intellectually, but experientially it is beyond us. Thing is, we’re more comfortable with something we can engage experientially, something we can “identify with.” So we invent gods who create nature and who make us important.

In some other cultures, humans are much more at peace with being part of an infinite, incomprehensible process. All life is one, all nature is one, and this is not something to get worked up about. I admire that.

Not that it’s easy, but peace of mind comes when we can accept that we small beings participate in the great being-ness of the universe.

Here's the part that isn't so contrary. My theory is that people find nature inspiring because it pushes us to the edge of our capacity to comprehend.

9) Also, in Switzerland, we practiced bringing something “new” into our lives each day in order to inspire. What do you think of this concept?

Sounds great. Newness is what stretches us.

10) Please describe your own creative process. Please include how you feel during the process and what role your emotions play. What role does research and knowledge play?

I don’t have coherent answers for this, so I’ll just list features of the process of which I’m aware:

  • I tend to invent and revise at the same time; this means I write slowly.
  • I don’t normally outline.
  • As a way to battle carpal tunnel syndrome, I have begun composing with voice-recognition software instead of the keyboard. It’s quite different to hear your own voice composing.
  • Often at the beginning of a session, I will reread what was written during the last session, as a way to launch myself into the new.
  • I can focus and write for hours on end; this drives my wife crazy. Not good.
  • In my fiction, I tend to write in scenes, and often find myself re-sequencing scenes at later points in the process.
  • Very difficult to create when I’m not happy.
  • I seem to be sensitive to music. I like to have music playing while I am writing, but I will choose the music with a view toward creating particular ambience. That is, I can’t be funny while listening to something dark, tragic, violent, etc. Can’t be mystical or emotional while listening to something comic.
  • I invite feedback early and late. I don’t seem to be particularly defensive about what I’ve written. I tend to learn from comments of readers, regardless of how “expert” they might be.
  • I have just enough background in rhetoric to believe that all writing, even fiction and other forms of “creative” writing, are done best when they are done with an awareness of audience, genre, and other elements of context.
  • I don’t believe that art exists in a vacuum, nor that only its creator knows what it “means.” Art is a form of communication, and without someone receiving the communication, it is without meaning.
  • research is important for background, but that’s pretty obvious; I don’t reflect on the emotional side, beyond what I wrote above; I do think about the emotional response I’m trying to elicit from the reader.