'From Nothing' to New Film on Creativity

As the saying goes, creation is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Tim Cawley would agree, and the independent filmmaker has recently completed a documentary that affirms the old adage. Cawley’s film “From Nothing, Something,” which premiered at the Somerville Theatre last night as a part of the Independent Film Festival Boston, illustrates that creativity is a laborious enterprise, a process about perseverance if it is about anything at all. The documentary explores some of the diverse forms creativity and the creative process can take, and it includes the testimonies of several Harvard faculty members and alumni. It was meant, Cawley says, to dispel the myth that creativity arises as a fully formed flash of genius.

Cawley admits that the film, his feature-length directorial debut, is not a definitive statement about creativity. He had hoped that it would be, he says, but making a movie on the subject proved a huge task. “It was like making a movie about breathing,” he says. “I had the complete audacity to go, ‘I’m going to make [a movie] about thinking things up.’” The film incorporates interviews with creative thinkers in a variety of vocations, from cancer researchers to a movie-creature designer, as Cawley hopes to show the importance of creativity in fields outside of, as well as within, the arts. “If I said to you, ‘What’s a creative person?’ you’d say an artist or a novelist. Those are the first major answers, and you’d be right,” Cawley says. “[But] I wanted to [cover] people who make things and are close to the product—that was essential to me.”

With “From Nothing, Something,” Cawley investigates the unromantic side of inspiration––failures and long hours spent pacing back and forth, contemplating the task, and waiting for the muse. “You learn by getting a little bit right and a bunch wrong,” Cawley says, pointing out the importance of the trial-and-error method in creative work.

Tom Perrotta, a novelist and former expository writing preceptor, emphasizes that the process demands commitment and drive. “Every artist has to go all in at some point. You think, ‘I’m doing this to save my life right now,’” he says in the film trailer.

Preston Scott Cohen, an architect and a professor at the Graduate School of Design who is featured in the film, stresses that creative work also should not be forced or excessively esoteric. In his projects, he says, he engages his creativity in breaking from convention only when he feels is needed. “I prefer to see [architecture] as necessary, yet I want things to happen that are strange.… I have to look for the reasons for things to become strange,” he says. “I am looking for a reason to create, to be creative.” He is especially inspired by the prospect of breaking free from the limitations of his medium. “I like the idea of doing something I can’t do; that’s the beginning for me,” he says.

Perrotta, like Cawley, expressed interest in how creativity produces a tangible result, how an imaginary construct can become a real product. “There’s this feeling of making a material object––in my case, a book––from immaterial agents,” he says. He added that writing a novel requires constantly solving one problem after another, and as a novel can take a long time to complete, Perrotta stressed the importance of getting satisfaction out of this process rather than anxiously anticipating the end product.

Having assembled so many perspectives on the act of creation, Cawley found that he himself drew inspiration from the film. “The fun thing of making a movie like this is [that] every time I hit an impasse, the answer was in the movie. The movie’s an instruction booklet on how to get the [project] done,” he says. He hopes that for others interested in creative work, his film will spark ideas or provide direction. “The best you can do is to get a bunch of people in a dark room, sit and watch this thing for 80 minutes, and have people walk out inspired [to] do something or feeling a little bit better about the madness they inflict on themselves, trying to make things.”


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