Gatekeepers and the A-flat
Sometimes I worry that listening to gatekeepers is dangerous. I don’t want to get sucked into “kleptomentia”—the unintentional stealing of ideas. How can creative ideas be original if they come from someone else? Isn’t the point of creativity to break free of societal norms?
If you feel this way too, you aren’t alone. Neil Gaiman, bestselling author of Coraline, Stardust, and The Graveyard Book, makes a strong case against listening to gatekeepers when he says, “The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by [gatekeepers]. . . If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do.” I agree with Neil Gaiman. It seems easier to test boundaries if you don’t know about them and if you don’t listen to gatekeepers’ rules. Why not make a double-decker couch?
There is one major flaw to this line of reasoning, however. Without social feedback, how can you know whether you are testing boundaries? You can’t. Without listening to gatekeepers and others, testing boundaries looks more like accidental luck than creative skill. Where’s the use in that? If you want to be creative and to have others accept your work, you need to know what you are up against.
The benefit of listening to social feedback is that you get exposed to good and successful ideas, methods, and patterns. Careful listening and learning with your feedback microphone builds a toolbox you can draw from. Then you can start combining ideas with purpose. To me, this is where purposeful creativity happens—when you mix together your own ideas with elements from your toolbox.
For example, the double-decker couch is a mixture of two accepted concepts in furniture: the couch and the bunkbed. Admittedly, combination alone does not ensure the success of an idea; both Emmett’s friends and my roommates rejected the double-decker couch for various reasons. However, building from tried and true foundations in a new way gives a creative idea a fighting chance to be accepted by others.
When author Neil Gaiman lauds creators who “don’t know it’s impossible,” he is actually lauding those who haven’t fallen into a creative rut, those willing to be purposeful in connecting ideas and listening to feedback. Even Neil Gaiman admits, “I learned to write by writing.” Good writing requires learning—often from gatekeepers—about the traditional scope and conventions of language, structure, and genre. It also takes time, practice, and hard work. With a toolbox full of knowledge, creators like Neil Gaiman can then go about combining ideas in new ways. In truth, my occasional worry about kleptomentia is not about overly heeding the feedback system, but rather a symptom of doubting my ability to make informed creative decisions.
I first realized these symptoms of doubt in myself when I was in high school. My piano teacher at the time was a brilliant man named David. He was a major gatekeeper for me and one of the few people I consider a true creative master. Each week we would sit for forty-five minutes in a cozy room he had walled off from half of his garage, play piano music, listen to recordings, and discuss life.
One music lesson, I brought in a short piano piece I had composed. The entire piece consisted of blocked chords with the melody placed in the highest note of each chord. I played the piece for David, and when I finished he tapped on the third measure with a pencil.
“Why did you choose an A-flat here?”
“I don’t know. It just felt right.”
David leaned back in his chair.
“A couple weeks ago,” he said, “I was a judge at a music competition. A bassoonist came in to play “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven with a piano accompanist. For some reason, instead of playing the melody line like you would expect, the bassoonist set out at a slow plod to play the repetitive, three-note accompaniment for the duration of the piece and had the accompanist play the melody. It took him five minutes to finish.”
David tapped the pencil against his knee.
“Afterward, one of the judges asked the bassoonist as kindly as he could why he made that particular musical choice. The kid said, ‘Because I felt like it.’ And you know what? There was nothing any of us could do about it.”
I could see where this was headed.
David looked me in the eyes. “When you make decisions ‘because you feel like it,’ there is no way to constructively give feedback without turning it personal. So, let me ask you again, why did you choose the A-flat?”
I reflected for a moment before answering. “When I started writing this piece, I wanted to write a hymn, so I chose a hymn harmony here, but the piece didn’t turn out that way in the end. It would probably be better to re-voice the chord so that it sounds more like the rest of the piece, wouldn’t it?”
David tapped the pencil on the side of the piano. “There you go. Now you are talking.”
I changed the note, and I believe that the piece was better off for it.
Now, when I think back to that lesson, I recognize that David provided me with a safe microphone-loudspeaker system where I could showcase my creativity and see how it fared. As a gatekeeper, he was in a position to act as a trustworthy loudspeaker to remind me of the importance of knowing the rules and norms of music so I could make informed decisions. His feedback on the A-flat didn’t quash my vision—it sharpened it. I didn’t feel like the piece no longer belonged to me because I let him guide my thinking. I still held the microphone and had the power to choose. This, I think, is what lies at the heart of creativity—choice.
 Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World, 3.
 Gaiman, Make Good Art, 18.
 Gaiman, Make Good Art, 24.