Monday, November 14, 2016

How To Be Intuitive: Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

 This is part of a series of blogs about creativity, imagination, 
 and the need to shape our future. See these previous blogs:

There comes a point where the mind takes a leap 
— call it intuition or what you will — 
and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, 
but can never prove how it got there. 
All great discoveries have involved such a leap.
Albert Einstein

Intuition is often both a clear thought and a strong feeling at the same time -- it is a thought that literally *hits* you with its importance and often comes unexpectedly, out of the blue. 

Archimedes getting into his bath just before the Eureka moment

The most famous intuition story is about Archimedes and his Eureka moment. Eureka roughly translated means 'I've found it'. Archimedes was trying to figure out whether a crown was made of pure gold or contained some silver as well. So he needed to determine the density of the irregular shape of the crown. After struggling with the problem, he put it aside for a while. Then later sitting in his bathtub -- all at once in a flash -- he understood how to measure the volume of the crown by the water that was displaced, the key information he needed to make his calculation. He realized that the volume of water that rose when he got into the bath was equal to the volume of his body and therefore he could measure the volume of an object no matter how intricate. The story goes that he screamed, "Eureka" and was so excited he jumped out of his bath and ran naked though the streets of his city.

In our logical number driven world, intuition is frequently dismissed as not fitting with our modern rational outlook, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Einstein's great insights and Newton's as well -- two key thinkers whose ideas were/are critical for the creation of our modern world -- were originally flashes of intuition that then took years to work out, years to understand how to do the math on paper.

In his early twenties Newton saw an apple fall and suddenly in a flash connected the force that caused it to fall to the Earth with the force that affected the orbit of the moon -- a story that appears to be mostly true. Nevertheless his central work that described the necessary calculations and formulas, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), would not be published for another 20 years -- as  it took him that long to come up with the correct math.

A page from Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687)
in which he gave a detailed explanation of the forces of gravity.

One unique aspect of intuition is that while it feels true, how you arrived at that idea or any obvious proof of its truth is often missing. And finding that rational logical proof can be a lengthy process. 

As a teenager Einstein fantasized about riding a beam of light. He invented what came to be known as 'mind experiments'. For example, if he were traveling at the speed of light and looked into a mirror, would he see his reflection? Yet it would be ten years before he could work out the math for his Special Theory of Relativity.

“Imagination is the highest form of research.” 
“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking” 
Albert Einstein

I believe that intuition needs to be and can be developed just as becoming skilled at math is learned. As I said about imagination -- there are ways to markedly increase your ability to imagine and the same is true for intuition.

Yet intuitions can often be wrong. So how do you know when a feeling is something you should explore or ignore?

Like much of human thought, intuition can be tested. I follow my intuitions often, but at the same time test them to see if my thought process plays out the way I think it should in the real world. Over time I have learned when to trust things and when not to -- and also to become more aware of the things that were triggering my educated guesses.

I think of myself as having a 'tool box' for my creative and imaginative thinking. Sometimes my approach is simply information gathering, sometimes logical, sometimes intuitive, sometimes I imagine several scenarios and pick the one that seems to have the best chance of succeeding. Being able to fully imagine several outcomes is often quite helpful when I need to make a decision. In hindsight my method really combines all of these -- as I use each tool when the situation requires it. And when one tool does not work, I change to another.

Perhaps one of the oddest aspects of intuition is that it is both active and passive. On the one hand you are looking for something (active) on the other hand intuition requires that you be receptive to thoughts that come into your mind (passive), as though from somewhere else. This is a key part of intuition -- to both move and be moved, to search and to be found. Again this is a bit at odds with out modern mindset, but this is how it works.

(Left) By chance as he walked near a blacksmith's shop, the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras heard a musical harmony when different sized blacksmith hammers hit an anvil. 
(Right) This sudden insight led to his understanding of the mathematical relationship between notes and became the basis for Pythagorean tuning.

The normal workday requires focus and attention while tuning out distracting elements. Intuition requires a more receptive and listening frame of mind. Neither approach is right or wrong -- they are simply tools in your tool box that give you the flexibility to try different approaches.

Intuition did not come naturally to me. I was brought up in a quite strict rational, logical, left brain environment. I had to teach myself to be intuitive but then test my intuitions against reality -- as intuition must pass the reality test just as logic does. 

Intuition is the supra-logic that cuts out all the routine processes of thought 
and leaps straight from the problem to the answer.
Robert Graves

Here are some examples of my intuitive thinking.

One of my first successes happened when I was sixteen. During summer vacation I went to New York City convinced I could find a sublet apartment for little money. This was just a guess on my part and everyone said it was impossible. After staying with friends and spending a week searching, it looked like I was wrong. Then I decided to go to every laundromat in the area and look at their bulletin boards. And guess what? I found a small hand written note for a summer sublet, a very tiny apartment that today would be about $400 a month, that I then rented for two months.

Here is another example:

I knew at an early age that I wanted to write and had worked on my writing up through my years in college. But when I had almost completed my bachelors degree in English and was enrolled in the Honors Program for Creative Writing, I also knew that I wanted to do something more. So I made a deliberate effort to find another art form to compliment my writing. I wanted to do something quite different -- something that required less thought, something that I could do with my hands. 

A principle goal during that time was to discover a visual way of working -- as I felt that reading and writing were not enough. However, I had been told by my father and others that I was not visual. Yet my intuition was that they were wrong.

But where to start? 

I could not draw -- it was just not something I could do as I had tried many times. But I liked working with my hands. For example, in eighth grade in a shop class, I had designed and built a simple tray out of plywood and molding. The tray not only worked well but was almost indestructible -- as I continued to use it for the rest of my life.  

Then I remembered constructing a model of the Wright Brother's first airplane, known as the Wright Flyer -- out of balsa wood and tissue paper -- for a history project in grade school. I built it with balsa strips to frame the wings and then stretched and glued tissue paper over the frame. There were no plans, so in addition I had to draw a design best as I could from old photographs. But perhaps more importantly, I remembered a feeling of extreme satisfaction when I had completed the model.

Then having just seen the Calder retrospective in New York -- the man who invented mobile sculpture -- I decided to make some simple mobiles out of balsa and tissue paper. In a sense I was picking up where I had left off nine years before when I had made the Wright Brother's plane. And voila! Making these mobiles was exactly what I had been looking for. I found that I enjoyed working with my hands as it put me in a different frame of mind -- quite different from reading, writing and doing research.

(Left)The Wright Brothers first airplane, the Wright Flyer
(Right) An example of a mobile (not by me) based on Calder's work

Now flash forward a couple of years: After I made the initial mobiles, one hands-on creation led to another. Then all of a sudden I had a camera in my hands and it was like a revelation -- it was what I had been looking for. Composition, positioning myself for a shot, and darkroom developing gave me the tactile visual art form I needed. So I have been working with photography ever since. 

(Left) One of my first successful photographs on film -- of water and reflections in a pool near my house. I developed the negative and made the print.
(Right) 30 years later: a digital photograph taken from a van while moving in the rain in traffic -- in which I used all my photographic skills (depth of field, camera movement, close-up focus, long exposure).

That is just one story about using my intuition but I could tell you many more. Because of my intuitions I found the house that I now live in 30 years ago, I met my wife, I developed my particular type of photography that I in part invented called time-flow photography and I started working with computers in 1983 -- when no one thought they were that important for individuals. And today as I work with my art photography, my intuitions guide me every step of the way. 


I do believe intuitive thoughts and ideas will come about in different ways for different people and different disciplines. But I think the following general approach would apply to many. 

When you are tackling a problem gather as much information as you can, have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, imagine a number of scenarios, brain storm a bit and come up with some possible solutions -- but then put everything aside and go do something else for a while. It is often when you let go that the unconscious process of problem solving occurs and that out of the blue the correct solution comes to you -- like a flash. 

The Eureka Moment is also known as the Aha Moment 
Years ago I was friends with a scientist whose specialty was the 'Aha Moment'. She emphasized that her studies showed intuition was not a logical process that cranked out an answer, but rather one that required struggling with a problem and then letting go for a while. As this next link explains, intuition often requires immersion followed by incubation before the Aha Moment can occur.
Here is a recent study about how the brain comes up with an Aha solution.
This article goes into detail about how your off-time is often the best time for intuitive solutions.

To go back to Archimedes, I am quite sure he had been wrestling with the problem of how to determine the density of an irregular object when he finally gave up. While I do not know for sure, I imagine that sometime later while thinking about something else he took a bath. Then in a relaxed state he saw the water rising as he got into the bathtub and BANG, it came to him. He realized the volume of the water that rose was equal to the total volume of his body. And that with an irregular object if he factored in its weight in relation to the volume it displaced, that would give him the density. Eureka!

There are no rules here -- we're trying to accomplish something.
Thomas Edison


Reason and Intuition:
Reason and intuition are often seen as opposites. But, as a philosophy teacher pointed out, when used to their fullest extent they can almost be the same. The mistake is to equate reason with logic. Logic is mechanical and rigid -- reason is flexible. The teacher suggested, for example, that when considering a problem you fully imagine the problem and walk yourself through it in your mind. Out of that imagining would emerge the solution. And this process could be thought of as reasoning or as being intuitive. 

What that man creates by means of reason 
will pale before the art of inspired beings. 

Inspiration is closely related to intuition -- as an idea that encourages you to act can come out of the blue, for no reason. Again, I feel it is important to pay attention to such ideas and to do something when they occur no matter whether you are at work or at the beach. I have carried a notebook with me since I was 20 years old; I find the simple act of writing an idea or making a drawing on paper gives such ideas a reality. Later when I have time, I go over my notes in my notebook and decide which ideas I want to work on. Otherwise, like a dream, these thoughts can vanish and if you do not pay attention to them, they will stop coming to you -- a variation on 'use it or lose it'. As a creative person you want to encourage ideas; finding a way to pay attention and to record them will help keep your ideas flowing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Work of the Imagination

The Work of the Imagination
A Crisis of Imagination: 
We Must Imagine the Future to Survive

This is part of a series of blogs about creativity, imagination, 
and the need to shape our future. See these blogs:
Living With Rejection: Living the Creative Life
How To Be Intuitive: Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

What is now proved was once only imagined.
William Blake
  Yet even Blake could not have imagined the impact human technology would have on the Earth as a whole.

No society has ever yet been able to handle the temptations of technology...
We have to learn to cherish this Earth and cherish it as something that's fragile, that's only one, it's all we have. We have to use our scientific knowledge to correct the dangers that have come from science and technology.
Margaret Mead
We are all interested in the future, 
for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.
Plan 9 From Outer Space (Directed by Ed Wood) :)

The future of humankind is now directly tied to our imagination. Whether we know it or not, we have taken on the task of managing the Earth itself. With the effect that technology has had and will have on the environment, we must learn to imagine a world that we are now in charge of.

“Imagination is the highest form of research.” 
"I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
 "Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere."
Albert Einstein

While we have abundant data from satellites, photographic imaging, temperature readings, the rate of glacier melting, etc., this is only the beginning. This is merely data. This data must be combined in sophisticated ways to create knowledge. And then with a foundation of knowledge we must begin to imagine what our world will look like in 50 years or 100 or when our great-grandchildren are alive. For the first time in our history we must look at ourselves and monitor our effect on the world's climate. 

The task is huge. it requires people who can think across a number of disciplines -- which takes many years of study, many more than it takes to get a standard advanced degree in only one subject. Then it requires that people think 'outside the box' to find a way that we can live with and mitigate the impact of human technology on the Earth.
The old bond between humans and nature has been permanently altered by technology. The task of the 21st century artist and inventor is to forge a new relationship between humans and the world, since our fate is inseparable from that of the Earth.
Rick Doble (1999)

This is a tall order. But a key is the ability to imagine what the future could be. As I wrote in my blog The History of the Future , the future must first be imagined before actual working inventions, concepts and formulas can be created. I call this initial thinking 'The Work of the Imagination'. 

(Top) 1902: Still from the Méliès Sci-Fi film: A Trip to the Moon. The command module that held the astronauts was inserted into a super-gun to send it to the moon. 
(Bottom) 1964: A NASA drawing of the command module that would take astronauts to the moon.  (NASA)
The similarity in the shape between the module in the 1902 film fantasy and the actual NASA design is remarkable.
1972: The Apollo 17 actual command module floating above the moon in 1972. Notice the similarity in shape and even the similarity in construction with the Sci-Fi module (above) in the Méliès 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon.


The Imagination Connection Between:
Jules Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon (1865)
and the Apollo landing on the Moon in 1969
Book cover of an English translation of Verne's novel of 1865.

"During their return journey from the moon, the crew of Apollo 11 made reference to Jules Verne's book during a TV broadcast on July 23, 1969. The mission's commander, astronaut Neil Armstrong, said, 'A hundred years ago, Jules Verne wrote a book about a voyage to the Moon. His spaceship, Columbia [sic], took off from Florida and landed in the Pacific Ocean after completing a trip to the Moon. It seems appropriate to us to share with you some of the reflections of the crew as the modern-day Columbia completes its rendezvous with the planet Earth and the same Pacific Ocean tomorrow.' " 

NOTE: In Jules Verne's novel the command module was shot into space by Americans from a location in Florida just as the Apollo 11 mission had done. In the novel the method for firing the command module into space was with a Columbiad super-gun.

Now many of the things imagined will not be built or will not work, but from a world community of imaginary technologies and outcomes, the necessary ideas and technologies could emerge.

I find that few men of imagination are not worth my attention. 
Their ideas may be wrong, even foolish, but their methods often repay a close study.
Stephen Jay Gould

Late Breaking News!

NOW! On October 5, 2016 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three nanotechnology scientists who have made great advances in designing microscopic machines known as molecular machines or nanomachines. The idea of such machines first appeared in a 1966 science fiction  movie, Fantastic Voyage. This concept was so farfetched everyone assumed it was pure fantasy. In the movie a tiny submarine, smaller than a white blood cell, was placed into an important scientist's body so that his damaged brain could be fixed. This is a contemporary example of the importance of imagination -- and that what has been proven must first be imagined.  


However, we live in time that is quite self-conscious. And the constant comments and chatter that people now experience on their cell phones and social media has put an additional damper on this kind of thinking. I call this a 'Crisis of Imagination'.

Think I am exaggerating, consider these lyrics from a popular contemporary song.

Stressed Out  (2015) by Twenty One Pilots
Album: Blurryface
I wish I found some better sounds no one's ever heard
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new
I wish I didn't have to rhyme every time I sang

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I'm insecure and I care what people think

My name's Blurryface and I care what you think

I am not sure why Blurryface thought his fears would go away when he got older. As teachers know, kids often become quite critical as they grow up and lose the ability to draw or paint with the freedom they had when they were younger. As many people have pointed out, from Picasso to Einstein, this is neither necessary or desirable.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
Pablo Picasso

The Supertramp's Logical Song of 1979 says it best:
(Album: Breakfast in America)
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

The effort to make young people logical and clinical as they grow has been around for a long time. However, I do believe that our era today is more self-conscious than when I was growing up. I also believe that this can put a damper on 'thinking outside the box' or on fledgling ideas that are often rudely criticized before they have a chance to develop.

However, I also believe the ability to reach out to the creative and imaginative side can be recovered. Like anything, to be able to imagine you must do the work. Don't use it and you lose it. Like exercising muscles, you must use your imagination on a regular basis. And the more you use, it the easier it is to see new things in your mind.

Plan 9 From Outer Space was the winner of the Golden Turkey Award as the "Worst Film of All Time" and Ed Wood (writer, director and producer) as "Worst Director." Ed Wood is now admired for his perseverance as a moviemaker in spite of overwhelming obstacles. Oddly it was the Golden Turkey Awards that brought him out of obscurity and a reevaluation of his work; his relentless enthusiasm in spite of damning criticism has earned him a respect that he was never given in his lifetime.

Part of learning to imagine requires that you do not let others influence your ideas in a negative way. First of all you do not have to share your work unless you want to. Second when you do share your work pay attention to the attitude behind any comments. Did the person 'get' what you were trying to do; did they have their own agenda and see what you were doing as a threat or as incompatible with their preconceptions. Were they constructive or were they jealous? Everyone has their own point of view which affects how they see things -- but some people can be more objective than others.


In a limited way all of us use our imagination often. We use it when we think about an upcoming party on Saturday or when we think about our home when we are away. Imagination is always there, but is often used for everyday tasks rather than creative tasks.

So how could a person add to, develop and enhance their ability to imagine?

When I was teaching a short story creative writing class, I assigned the following exercise: I asked each person to go back to a house or place that they had known as a child and fully describe it. I asked them to walk through the place in their mind and to use all of their senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell etc. I asked them to touch the walls, look out the windows, smell the food in the kitchen, sit in a chair. No one that I taught over a number of years had any problem with this exercise and for many they felt it opened a door to the imagining they needed to write a good short story.

In a personal example, I built a small studio out in the woods of our property. I drew a crude drawing of what I wanted with measurements  (I really cannot draw) but it was good enough to tell the builder exactly what I wanted. Then I went into the woods, cleared the area where the studio was to be and put stakes in the ground at each corner with a string from stake to stake. Then I put an actual chair on the ground in the middle and looked out through the imagined windows, sat at the imagined desk and grabbed a book from an imagined bookcase. When the building was finished it was exactly as I had imagined it and it felt quite comfortable.

"To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."
Thomas Edison

(Left) A MAGIC BULLET: In the early 1900s physician and scientist Paul Ehrlich imagined an ideal medicine, a 'magic bullet', that would attack harmful diseases but would avoid hurting the normal body. This idea has been a key concept in the development and discovery of a number of modern medicines, such a cancer drugs and antibiotics.

(Middle) WAR OF THE WORLDS: Robert Goddard was inspired by the fictional novel War of the Worlds of H. G. Wells which he read in 1898 at the age of 16. Considered the father of American rocketry, in this picture taken in 1926 he was standing next to the first liquid-propellant rocket -- an essential element of modern rocketry.

(Right) 2-WAY WRIST RADIO: In 1946 a 2-Way Wrist Radio was introduced in the Dick Tracy comic strip. In 1964 this turned into a  2-Way Wrist TV that Dick Tracy wore. A small wireless portable easy to use communication device such as this became a central idea that led to the development of cell phones.


I have always been interested in ancient peoples and cultures; I had what I called my 'museum' starting when I was ten years old. I collected all kinds of things from different time periods including Indian arrow heads and a Neolithic stone ax. My Dad encouraged me and brought me things from his travels around the world. And he told me a story of going into the Cave of Altamira -- which was open at the time -- and seeing the Paleolithic paintings on the cave walls. Ever since then I have been fascinated by this time in human history.

When I started writing this blog, one of my themes was that ancient people were just as smart as modern people, given the technology of their time. I was quite sure about this based on the quality of the 15,000 year old cave paintings at Altamira which were beautiful, had remained in good condition and also contained realistic drawings of bison.  

In my research for this blog I came across articles about the Neolithic passage-tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. Although people had been aware of it for centuries, it was only about 50 years ago that a dedicated archaeologist realized it was aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. As I read more about Newgrange, what I call 'bells and whistles' went off in my head -- a sign that there was something very significant about this new stone-age structure. My intuition and my imagination were starting to kick in.

Photograph of Newgrange showing how the light moves down the passageway. 

Used with permission: photo by Anthony Murphy,

So I collected photographs of Newgrange, read reports, and put together data about the way the sun entered the passageway. Next I imagined myself in that passageway as the sun entered it around the time of the winter solstice. The light came in, advanced down the opening, reached to the back and then receded -- an event that took about 17 minutes. As a photographer with 40 years experience I could see all of this quite clearly in my mind.

After much research and putting together data from various studies, I came to the conclusion that the Neolithic people at Newgrange, 3000 years before Greece or Rome, had built a precise instrument that could determine the day of the winter solstice in real time -- which the Greeks or Romans could not do. Whether I am right or not remains to be seen -- but there is a way to definitely prove it.  

Here is the link to this article which I first posted it on this blog:
Computing the Winter Solstice at Newgrange: 
Was Neolithic Science Equal To or Better 
Than Ancient Greek or Roman Science?

To my delight my article has been well received and reprinted at the official Newgrange website in Ireland.

So that is my story but here is another one by a master inventor with a detailed explanation of how he was able to imagine and then build a number of sophisticated electronic devices.


The American Magazine
April, 1921
Making Your Imagination Work for You
An Interview With Nikola Tesla

Two great men who lived by their imagination: 
(Left) Nikola Tesla "in front of the spiral coil of his high-voltage Tesla coil transformer" in 1896. 
(Right) Mark Twain playing with electricity in Tesla's lab in 1895.

By that faculty of visualizing...I have evolved what is, I believe, a new method of materializing inventive ideas and conceptions. It is a method which may be of great usefulness to any imaginative man, whether he is an inventor, business man, or artist.
Some people, the moment they have a device to construct or any piece of work to perform, rush at it without adequate preparation, and immediately become engrossed in details, instead of the central idea. They may get results, but they sacrifice quality.
Here, in brief, is my own method: After experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation.
Then follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem. I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.
This feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the actual solution is in my mind subconsciously, though it may be a long time before I am aware of it consciously.
Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind, I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch, I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made accurate drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.
The inventions I have conceived in this way, have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine, and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.
 One of Tesla's inventions, the electric induction motor of 1888, 
that he first imagined in detail in his mind.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Living With Rejection: Living the Creative Life


 This is part of a series of blogs about creativity, imagination, 
 and the need to shape our future. See these related blogs:
 The Work of the Imagination 
How To Be Intuitive: Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

The solitary visionaries are despised or regarded as abnormal and eccentric.
Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art
The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept. Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation. Freed from a false sense of security and community, the artist can abandon his [her] plastic bank-book, just as he [she] has abandoned other forms of security. Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar. Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible.
Mark Rothko, The Romantics Were Prompted
In 1891 when Herman Melville died, his book Moby-Dick, that had been published 40 years earlier, was out of print, a commercial failure, and virtually forgotten. It would take another 30 years after his death for the first new mentions by favorable reviewers to appear. Today It is considered perhaps the greatest American novel. 

Moby-Dick was far ahead of its time, combining a number of elements and writing styles such as an "exploration of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God. In addition to narrative prose, Melville uses styles and literary devices ranging from songs, poetry, and catalogs to Shakespearean stage directions, soliloquies, and asides." "One of the most distinctive features of the book is the variety of genres... sermons, dreams, travel account, autobiography, Elizabethan plays, and epic poetry." 

As an accomplished published writer, Melville must have known that he was testing the limits of what his audience of the day could accept -- yet he must have hoped that at least some of the more than 60 reviews at the time would 'get it.' As the famous contemporary author Hawthorne wrote "What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones. It hardly seemed to me that the review of it, in the Literary World, did justice to its best points." 

But oddly it was an English reviewer D.H. Lawrence who in 1923 wrote that it was a masterpiece which helped bring about its rediscovery. In fact, time and time again it has been critics from other countries who recognize the worth of an artist who cannot find recognition in their own country.

The saga of important creative original artists and thinkers whose work is initially rejected and often ridiculed, repeats itself again and again. The list is very long and includes some of the most famous names in science, archaeology, music, literature, and art and some of the most important technology of the modern world. 

We think of a person who is original and creative as a good thing: a person brings gifts to the world and reveals things not seen or understood before. This gifted person adds to sum of human knowledge. As a result, civilization reaps great benefits. 

That is the myth -- which in a sense is true but only long after the person has died in all too many cases.

Culture grows and changes often due to the contributions of men and women with original ideas. While we think of their work as beneficial, they themselves often had to work independently and alone -- frequently shunned by their own society.

Original creativity, almost by definition, is breaking new ground, coming up with new ideas, taking us out of our comfort zones. And what this means for many original and creative people is that their work may be misunderstood, rejected and often scorned -- in large part because it is unfamiliar.

Here Is A Brief List Of Important People 
Whose Work/Ideas Were Initially Rejected:
  • J.S. Bach: After his death he was considered merely a musical technician. For about 100 years his works were not played and as a result many were lost -- including two major masses. He is now considered by some the greatest composer of all time.
  • Franz Schubert: While respected for his song writing, his other work went unrecognized during his lifetime. He is now considered one of the five most important classical composers by many.
  • George Bizet: His opera Carmen met with terrible reviews and he died thinking it was a failure. Carmen is now one of the most performed and popular operas.
  • Herman Melville: Moby-Dick was virtually forgotten when he died. It is now considered one of the greatest novels by an American.
  • Henry David Thoreau: Not well understood or published during his lifetime, his work has led to the civil disobedience movement in India and the Civil Rights movement in the US, along with a host of other ideas about nature and simple living that have become important in the last 100 years.
  • John Keats: Criticized for not being highly educated and part of the lower class 'Cockney School', his work was not taken seriously even years after his young death. He is now considered one of the greatest poets in the English language.
  • Edgar Allan Poe: Not considered an important writer during his lifetime, he is now regarded as a major American author who invented the detective story and made considerable early contributions to the short story and early science fiction.
  • Franz Kafka: Now considered a major 20th century author, very little of his work was published during his lifetime.
  • William Blake: Blake's poems and paintings were virtually unknown during his lifetime. He is now considered one of the major Romantic poets and painters.
  • The Impressionists: One critic likened the Impressionists to mad men who wanted to pass off unfinished and poor paintings as legitimate art. Today their work is one of the most popular styles of painting. 
  • Vincent Van Gogh: He only sold one painting in his lifetime -- paintings which now sell for millions of dollars.
  • Paul Gauguin: His work was ridiculed at the Post-Impressionist exhibit in 1910 -- and it was not until the 1940s that his symbolist imagery began to be appreciated. His paintings now sell for millions of dollars.
  • Johannes Vermeer: He was virtually forgotten after his death for almost 200 years -- not unlike JS Bach. He is now considered one of the greatest Baroque painters and his work is virtually priceless.
  • Alfred Wegener: The principal scientist who championed the idea of tectonic plates was ridiculed during his lifetime. This idea is now considered essential for understanding earthquakes, continental drift and Earth science. 
  • Albert Einstein: Considered a poor student he was not given any recommendations after getting his degree and was confined to a patent office in Switzerland. His work in physics is now considered the most important of the last 100 years
  • Arthur C Clarke: Wrote a detailed plan for placing geostationary/geosynchronous satellites in orbit -- satellites that would appear stationary in relation to the Earth because they would orbit at the same speed the Earth turns -- that could be used for communication. Although his math was correct, he was derided for promoting this idea. These satellites are now the cornerstone of modern communications for cell phones, the Internet, TV etc. The orbit which Clarke predicted, 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above the Earth, is now known as the Clarke orbit and the array of satellites placed in this orbit is now known as the Clarke Belt.
  • Robert Goddard: Now considered the most important early rocket scientist, he was subjected to humiliating criticism. In a condescending review, using incorrect math, the prestigious New York Times derided Goddard's idea that a rocket could go to the moon. This review caused Goddard's money to dry up and severely limited his ability to continue -- all of this happening as the Nazi's were using his ideas to develop V-1 and V-2 rockets that were effectively used to bomb England. 
  • The Cave of Altamira: When the paintings by stone-age people were discovered in this cave, experts -- who never went to the cave -- denounced the findings, some even accusing the man who found them of fraud. Now these paintings are considered one of the most important discoveries about Paleolithic people.


Consider this: Without the contributions of Goddard, Clarke, and Einstein (above) the modern world we have today would not exist. Goddard's rockets are required to put satellites into orbit. Clarke's geosynchronous satellites are now used by cell phones, TVs, the Internet etc. for communications, and Einstein's formula's about space-time make corrections that properly sync Earth and satellite times -- and without which cell phones, GPS and other technologies could not operate.

(Left) Indian Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III. (Middle) The first working geosynchronous satellite, Syncom II. (Right) Time dilation formulas based on Einstein's General Theory of Relativity -- used to correct the time difference in a moving satellite to the time on the Earth. Formulas from:

Now to be fair -- there are many unusual ideas that will not past muster. Each needs to be looked at carefully. As Carl Sagan said about scientific ideas, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Or as Pierre-Simon Laplace said in the 1700s, "The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness." Yet each work needs to be judged on its merits but not because it is different or because something like it has never been seen before. 


But there is a flip side to this. I believe that those of us who must be creative -- no matter how hard the path -- are the lucky ones. 

Henry Thoreau, himself unappreciated during his lifetime, wrote "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Many if not most people show up for work and pay their bills but wonder "what is the point" or ask themselves "isn't there more to life than this." Often they dream about doing something artistic or creative if they could ever find the time away from the daily grind. 

For the creative person, those questions have been answered:
Creativity is not secondary, it is primary. 

Such a person might say: Being creative gives me nourishment, without it I would starve. So I create because I must create and my creativity gives me a reason for living and immense satisfaction. 

Nevertheless everything comes with a price. To commit to a life of independent creativity means you'll probably live modestly at best and you'll never be rich or famous. Many of the people you know may think of you as unsuccessful. Your work will often be rejected by established people in your field -- and you may have to put up with damning reviews.

I am writing this article in part because a young friend of mine, Daniel Diver who is just starting out, was turned down by a school for computer animation. We have become friends because he wanted to use some of my experimental art as a background for his animation. I was delighted that he liked my work -- so of course I said yes. I did not realize that he would: draw the figures, write the music, write the lyrics, sing the words and create the animation. And I feel that it all worked very well together (see the animation below).

This abstract picture by Rick Doble is a photograph of TV static that was then enhanced with software. Doble was interviewed by NPR (National Pubic Radio) about his work with television static.

When I saw that he had been rejected by a school (he posted their letter to him on his website), I felt the need to give him some positive feedback about his work. Then I asked him to write a short piece for this blog about his views of being creative and the struggles he has had to endure. 

Here Is What A Young Artist, Daniel Diver, 

Had To Say About His Experience 

See his website at:

See his video(s) on YouTube at:

I have no idea what I'm doing. I feel like I'm alone in a pitch black room and creativity has taken my hand and seems to be slowly leading me through it.

I've always been into a lot of different things - mostly writing, drawing, and music - but never all three at the same time. For some reason, depending on the day, one of them is always more dominant. This seems to be a perpetual problem, because I've never been able to just focus and master one medium. I can't actually play an instrument, so I pluck-bang and sample. When I write, my grammar sucks and my spelling is alien. I think drawing is a strength but even my drawings are cartoon-y and unfinished. This might be why people and/or institutions have never taken me seriously. However, I actually think that it’s the ability to bang around between these mediums that has kept me working and it has helped me develop a style – albeit one that’s kinda ratty.

Over the past few years, I started seeing a sort of spider web forming in my writing, drawings, and recording. In 2015, I started messing around with animation and I was able to roughly animate my drawings to some music I was making. It totally freaked me out and gave me a new wave of inspiration, followed by some confidence, which led me to apply to school again. Ultimately, this would be met with a second letter of rejection that I received three months later. It hurt BAD and I felt super-lost. But after the initial let-down, I feel like my work is actually starting to make sense - not just to me, but maybe even to one or two other people.

This is a video by Daniel Diver who used my TV static background in the video. He did everything to create this artwork: wrote the music, the words, did the drawings, the graphics and the animation.

Daniel's story as a young artist is very similar to my own story, looking back. I was first a writer who also became a photographer. But in addition I became involved with personal computers in the early 1980s long before most people were working with computers. At the time I had no idea how these different skills were going to fit together, I just knew that it felt right. But now with the Internet all of these skills do fit very nicely.

So The Moral Of The Story Is This: 

If you feel the need to be an artist or do creative original work of any kind -- then explore that feeling. If being creative gives you a deep satisfaction, then consider pointing your life in that direction.

Also if you see new and unusual work that you like, let the artist, scientist, writer etc. know -- and tell them what you found interesting and be specific. Those of us who put our work out there need to know that some people 'get' what we are doing.

To see a Haiku-like poem I wrote about this, go to this blog:
A True Writer Must Write