The freedom to enjoy repetition

I’ve been rereading Clara Claiborne Park’s The Siege for work, and I came across the following passage today in the epilogue. (The Siege was one of the first ever accounts of parenting a child with autism, and remains one of the best written and most comprehensive. Jessy was 8 when the book ended and 23 at the time of the epilogue; she is now almost 50 and an acclaimed artist. There’s a great deal in the book that inspires thought, but I’m endeavoring to restrict myself to one topic at a time.)

Now and then, over the years, someone has been interested enough to show Jessy a new bit of math – logarithms, simple functions, the transformations of equations, Fibonacci numbers. She grasps them quickly, but she doesn’t enjoy them as she did her repetitive arithmetic. She has passed beyond what I can teach her, and her father, who loves and honors mathematics, is discouraged by the contrast between what she seems able to do and the sterile iteration of what she wants to do with numbers.

-Park, 300

I started thinking about how this idea that Jessy’s father doesn’t want to teach her math anymore because she won’t do anything with it, she just wants to do repetitive patterns over and over. Playing with numbers in this way made her very happy, but seeing her do it made her father, a professor, sad, because it didn’t speak to the potential he saw in the math, in the numbers.

This reminded me of my own divide between creativity and technical skill. Somewhere along the way, I have had the idea very thoroughly ingrained into me that having the ability to create something new is far better and more attention-worthy than simply having the technical skill to do well something someone else already thought up. Or at least, I think this about subjects that I care about. In the arts, for example, I was far more interested in 2-D art and writing than I eventually was in dance and music, because I could be creative in painting, drawing, and writing, but I was unable to easily think in terms of dance or music, and therefore didn’t see myself progressing very far beyond simply acquiring the technical skills required for the imitation of others. So why continue?

I’m not sure where I got this idea, so I’m reluctant to say for sure that it’s a cultural value, from here in the US, where individuality is (supposedly) so prized. Partly, at least, it was taught to me in those very classes, because advancement into the higher levels of dance class at my school depended in part on being able to make up choreography of one’s own. What I enjoyed was learning the mechanics of dance, and if they were now going to be requiring me to do things that I had no interest in or talent for, the classes, and dance itself, lost a lot of appeal. With music, I don’t think anyone ever taught me to feel inferior for a lack of creativity, but I was surrounded by overly talented friends in that regard, and I wasn’t that immediately great at the technical aspects anyway, so I was quick to feel the pressure there, too.

My high school 2-D art classes, which I kept up with much more willingly, also prized creativity over technique. Our teacher didn’t actually ever show us much in the way of technique at all, actually. She was more fond of showing us the real basics of, say, how to use the printmaking tools in front of us, and then setting us loose to fulfill her expectations of brilliant, creative, prize-winning artwork. Kind of a high pressure attitude, wouldn’t you say? But I was better at this kind of creativity, so I accepted it more readily.

Over the years, though, I’ve come to see that this attitude is kind of limiting. I don’t take any pleasure from simply playing the cello, which my parents still have at their house, because I have no emotional investment in it. It’s just technical practice that I never got good enough at to enjoy for its own sake, and I didn’t feel being good at playing notes from a page was good enough anyway. (Maybe I just don’t connect enough with music, so this is a bad example. I don’t know.) I’m not free to enjoy the familiar repetition, because it seems like that wouldn’t be caring enough. Much like Jessy’s father; he loves math too much to see it become simply numbers in repetition.

There are other things, though, that I do feel free to enjoy in this way, because I never had any expectation that creativity would be required. Karate, for a notable example. The parts I enjoy are all about technique. There’s an ideal to strive for, and you’re pretty much always learning something someone else came up with before, which is exactly what is expected of you. I mean, sure, back in the day Gichin Funakoshi got creative with the traditional Japanese martial arts and revitalized the practice, but his students codified his teachings, and there hasn’t been an expectation of innovation since then. Which is, to me, freeing. Despite the fact that I’m quite willing to tell people that the martial arts are, in fact, arts, it is still in a very different part of my mind, and so I am still allowed to find joy in repetitive practice of technique.

I’m sure this is all highly subjective. When in college, I enjoyed the two math classes I took precisely because they were an excuse to concentrate on technical mastery through repetition, as a change from all the humanities and social science classes that I took that required, it seemed, so much creative thought. Math majors no doubt have an entirely different view of their field. (Ooh, an analogy! The math I took was like an intro level foreign language class, all memorization of grammatical rules and vocabulary, whereas higher level classes would be the ones where the actual use of the language to produce original thought would be required.) But I still thought that the idea that creativity can be, in some cases, as limiting as finding joy in repetition was interesting. Clearly, there is value in doing both. In all things moderation, after all.

-posted by Dana

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2 Responses to The freedom to enjoy repetition

  1. TheGnat says:

    My eternal frustration is that I desire to be creative, but lack the technical talent and skill to achieve it. And at least for me, while school very much emphasized (especially Grinnell!) creativity over technical skill, at home it was different. I still enjoy playing the guitar, even though my hands are too small for even easy chords on a half-size guitar. I am not at all musically creative, but my parents encouraged me to play guitar because they felt simply playing an instrument was highly valuable, skilled or not. (They adore listening to classical music, so maybe that’s why they don’t demand creativity out of musicians, just great skill and passion).

    On the other hand, from my recent art history class on Far East Asian art, they defintely seemed to at least historically value technical skill over innovation, leaving innovation to a very few brilliant artists, perfectly happy with the vast majority being perfect imitations of the masters’ works. As the Japanese say “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” – in other words, don’t *try* to stick out and be amazing. But American culture, and possibly Western culture in general, expects everyone to be a genius with something. Which realistically, just makes a whole lot of perfectly average people miserable.

  2. Dana says:

    Re: expectations of genius making perfectly average people miserable

    Exactly. My mom handed me an article over the weekend about a millionare entreprenuer, who’s 19 and started his first business at 12. What she was thinking I’d notice was his suggestion that people read the books no one else is reading and encouraging randomness in your life because you never know what it might bring, since that’s sort of been how my life’s been going lately. But my first thought? That it was depressingly pointing out that I am an underachiever. I’m now too old to be a virtuoso at anything.

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