Questlove: 'I don't even know if I'm a creative'
In Questlove’s thoughtful new book Creative Quest, the musical artist-producer details how everyone — not just artists — can unlock creativity. He chronicles his own musical journey, and zeroes in on the importance of mentors the power of collaboration. It’s part memoir, part useful guidebook on how people can access their artistic side.
Questlove chatted with EW about what he tried to convey in Creative Quest, the hardest thing about writing it, and whether he has any writing routines or rituals. Read on below, and pre-order your copy of the book here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One of the things that struck me about the book is how specific you get about the creative process and ways to unlock creativity, like micro-meditations and spending time outside your chosen discipline. It’s practical advice for what most people assume is a personal, hard-to-put-into-words process. Why was it important to you to convey this?
QUESTLOVE: I’ve read many a creativity book, and there’s this tension between extreme abstract general nothingness that reaches but absolutely helps no one. Stuff like “Everyone has the power…you just have to click your heels together.” But the other side of that coin are extremely rigid specifics designed as instructions: “Wake up at seven a.m. on the dot and sit facing northeast.” None of that stuff worked for me, so I wanted to split the difference, and be specific about my own specifics. They work for me. Sometimes I kinda see that they work for others. Not really a guarantee there. My book doesn’t come with a coupon… Hold off in calling your lawyers.
You give a lot of credit for your creativity to your mentors and peers. Why?
I say right off the bat: I don’t even know if I’m a creative. I am in that field. I do stuff. I have achievements and accomplishments. Some days people have to remind me of projects I completely forgot about like say that Off Broadway play called Hamilton. But I sometimes think that I’m best used as an observer and an analyst. I’m comfortable in the passenger’s seat. I love looking at the way that other people work and trying to figure them out. When are they at their best? When do they trip and fall? What does that mean to them? I’ve also been doing this since I was young, and I grew up around musicians, so I’m trained to understand that older, more experienced creatives have way more knowledge that I might not have. The last thing is that I’m a natural collaborator. I’m in a band, have almost always been in a band. On the show, I play with other bands every night. I have written soundtrack music for other people’s films. When I write, I co-write. So I am always trying to fit my creative impulses in and around other people’s.
You write about the importance of curation. How do you think social media fits into this and affects the creative process?
Let me count the ways. [Laughs] Tremendously. Let’s start with the internet, which gives the average person access to everything: every song, every TV show, every movie. More or less, I know — I’m well aware that there are prestige products that you can’t get online, but think about the vast number of things you can see/hear/read from your own laptop or phone. So it’s easier than ever to build your identity from pieces of other works. People are, more than ever, collages or mosaics. But that means that they’re getting flooded with stimuli all the time to the point of numbness, which means that the role of the formal curator or critic has changed. It’s more common that when something new appears, or something old resurfaces, you hear a number of opinions about its placement, its importance, and its context from all angles, and from all kinds of people. So you’re not only curating other artworks all the time but curating opinions about those artworks.
What was the hardest/easiest thing about writing this book? If there was one thing people will take away after reading it, what would that be?
I was highly reluctant to place myself in “wise sage” mode. I felt way too young to give life lessons. It was exhausting to go through my own creative process without feeling like I was conducting an autopsy. Even for someone with my special interest in — and large appetite for — analysis, there were times that it all got a little dizzying. Sharing my failure, which is an important part of the process of learning lessons, left me in a weird vulnerable place especially when some of those things were happening in real time. I was constantly TMI-ing myself. The easiest part was collecting and retelling all the great stories and inspirational moments I’ve had with other people. If there’s one thing I want people to take away from it, it’s that creativity is an ongoing process. There aren’t easy answers. There aren’t pat exercises to do every day. But you have to keep doing it. It takes time. It can make you feel insecure. Luckily, it’s one of the only fun, rewarding, and wisdom-producing things on the planet.
What was your writing process like? Do you have any routines or rituals?
My co-writer Ben Greenman and I have done a bunch of books together now, and we have a process pretty well worked out. We sit down at the beginning and blueprint the whole building. We know where the columns go and where the doors go and where the windows go. We know which walls are load-bearing. Once that’s done, the rest of the process is easier. When we get together to write, we can drop into the book at any point. If I’m in the mood to discuss success and failure, we can do that. If I’m in the mood to discuss the dangers of self-parody, we can do that. Discussions happen. Time passes. We write. We edit. Eventually, a book.