The Dreamer visioned Life as it might be,
And from his dream forthright a picture grew,
A painting all the people thronged to see,
And joyed therein -- till came the Man Who Knew,
Saying: "'Tis bad! Why do ye gape, ye fools!
He painteth not according to the schools."

                                The Man Who Knew -- Robert Service

According to Thomas Edison, genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.  We rather think Mr. Edison spoke from the Olympian heights of his own creative genius when he delivered this insightful sermonette.  Most mortals are not so blessed.  But still, Robert Service's poem begs the question.  Does creativity and genius burst full flower out of nothingness or does it require nurturing and old fashioned cultivation?  Does it appear as a dream in the mind, thence to flow almost unbidden into the world, confounding and overturning the existing order and establishing a new?  Or does it require a long apprenticeship -- where one must first learn the tools and established practices of one's chosen artistic domain -- before one flings oneself into the void on a hitherto unknown trajectory?  These are questions that are likely to draw strong responses either way, with little likelihood of convergence.

There is certainly a level at which Service's poem captures a truth that holds across many domains, namely the resistance of entrenched establishments to new ideas.  Having said that, the poem is potentially misleading if one reads (or perhaps, misreads) the "dreamer" tag too literally -- i.e. as indicative of the absence of structured thought and design. I suspect Service himself knew quite well the value of such; his poetic meter is too well developed to indicate otherwise.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;

Years ago, I would have naively bought Service's thesis literally.  My simplistic belief then was that the embodiment of artistic genius was the mystic who conjures the new by a creative process both impenetrable and dreamlike in its effortlessness.  For me, the change in understanding came when I read of a brain study delving into how artists and creative performers process information compared to the rest of us.  (Sorry, too long ago; don't have a reference.)  According to the study, most of us who are not creative in an artistic field process input from that field as a right brain activity -- i.e. holistically.  On the other hand, creative artists and performers process their fields as a left brain activity -- much as I processed mathematics and systems engineering tasks back when I worked for a living.

I found this result compelling, and for me it took a little of the mystery out of the creative process.  As a systems engineer, I always felt that there was a certain harmony in a well-designed system.  Physicists say similar things about the systems of equations with which they attempt to understand the universe.  In fact, many physicists even use the term, beauty to describe those equations -- the same term we all use to express our response to art.  I don't have the creative or compositional ability of an artist but perhaps those who are artistically creative have an analogous sense of harmony amongst the elements they blend to create their art.  To push the analogy a bit farther, I had to go though many stages of education, training and professional development as I progressed from working with individual components until I was capable of working at the systems level.  Is it unreasonable to speculate that someone working in an artistically creative field might first need to at least understand the tools and elements of existing art before embarking on the creation of new forms?

In the Service poem it might be more accurate (though less poetic and engaging) to suggest that the "dreamer" was in reality the inventor of an entirely new set of rules.  And the Man Who Knew was simply a plodding follower of the old rules, lacking in the creativity needed to devise new rules of his own and hence jealous of others who were not similarly forced to follow them, as he was out of necessity.

Some will contend that the best artists and the most talented photographers have the inborn gift of being able to see things naturally and to create beautiful works of art -- or for photographers, compelling compositions.  Others feel that achievement comes not to those with talent but rather to those who are motivated to work harder.  Frankly, this sounds a bit like a rerun of the long standing nature vs. nurture debate.   I've always felt that forcing a choice between the two is a false dichotomy.  It strikes me that hard work alone will carry one farther along some of life's paths than others.  For challenging fields, I would think there is an element of truth in both the talent and the hard work viewpoints.  It is rare that in a challenging field hard work alone will fully compensate for lack of innate talent.  On the other hand, most of us can cite stories of superb talent wasted because individuals did not put in the hard work needed to develop and fulfill their natural talent.

But, to sustain an intense level of effort over time also requires commitment and passion -- a self-belief, a will to continue, and a drive to excel -- especially when success does not come right away, as is often the case.  In the example of Robert Service's fictional dreamer, self-belief was clearly lacking -- fatally so, as it turned out, because the spurned protagonist did away with himself following rejection of his bold new work.  In real life, those who will succeed must ultimately be made of sterner stuff.  Exceptional accomplishment in difficult fields, particularly creative ones, is likely the product of all of these.

As an addendum, speaking from personal experience as one who does not have a particularly gifted natural eye for composition, there are certainly guidelines that can be learned and applied, works of others that can serve as inspiration or points of departure, skills that can be developed and refined.  Not everyone can be at the pinnacle, but everyone can become better by study, by attention to detail, and by working harder.

None of this explains where ideas come from, of course, but it does suggest that there may be more similarities in brain processes than previously imagined between what we traditionally think of as "creative" domains -- painting, sculpture, music, creative photography, the writing of fiction, etc. -- and the so-called hard disciplines such as the sciences and engineering.  I'm sure many will find that thought anathema, but does it matter?  The real question is, how do we tap that creative wellspring from which ideas originate and thereby achieve whatever the depths of potential that lies latent in each of us?

Perhaps the answer lies not in dreams alone but rather in the determined pursuit of one's dreams by more tangible means.

©   2013 Michael W. Masters    Return to top