An Interview with Jonathan and Dawn Rundman, by Daniel D. Maurer
Dan's Note: Today I've interviewed Jonathan and Dawn Rundman, a married couple and two exceedingly creative people who produce the podcast Creativity Drill, a podcast I had also been asked to participate in. Jonathan is a professional singer and songwriter and Dawn is a nationally recognized teacher, presenter, author, and resource provider. She specializes in the faith development of children. They both have great insight into what stimulates creativity and how creativity can transform the way you perceive the world. Enjoy! -- DTSM, Daniel D. Maurer
Daniel: Jonathan, as a songwriter and a musician, why do you do it? I imagine it's the emotional response is what you're after.
Jonathan: My whole motivation for making music and composing changed quite a bit over the last decade. In my early years, my motivation for producing music was radically different than it is now.
Daniel: In what way?
Jonathan: What I used to do is play music more as . . . a "documentarian," if you will. I used song-writing like I was a historian or "museum curator" or something. My goal was to document the world. There was very little emotional connection between the music and me. But what happened in my late 30s and early 40s was that I was home with [our kids] for about six years. I was the stay-at-home dad. I had pretty much dropped off the face of the earth as a musician—I wasn't touring or really producing any new songs. When I returned to recording, I had discovered my motivation had transformed me into a different person.
Daniel: What changed?
Jonathan: It was becoming a father . . . maybe having a mid-life crisis! I suddenly could tap into an emotional part of me that I never had access to before. Look Up was the first album I recorded where my emotional transformation played a part in the production of it. I'm still a pretty stoic guy (I'm Finnish and Lutheran after all). It was, I suppose, a "light switch" experience—it's like I was driving and I hung a left, or starting driving on a different road. There's no doubt I'm my creativity has morphed into something new. I've been out there for 25 years and I've seen a lot of changes in my musical career. But my emotional connection with music was the big one
Daniel: How about you Dawn? How did (or does) the creative process transform a person?
Dawn: I started reading a book about four days ago called Focus, by Daniel Goleman. I found one of the studies the author cites in the book where researchers were doing functional MRIs of hip-hop artists. They asked the artists to perform two types of rap when they were hooked up to an MRI—one group did a rehearsed set, and another did freestyle rapping.
What they found is that in the brains of the freestyle rappers, a broader, more divergent set of neural networks was being activated. In the Focus book, Goleman stressed that this indicates the importance of allowing your mind to wander. It shows me that people with different parameters for thinking—like someone with Attention Deficit Disorder—have an important part to play in the larger scheme of creativity.
Sometimes it really blows me away.
We have a friend who's a freestyle rapper. The way he can just come up with lyrics right there, on the spot, to describe something that JUST happpened at a party we're at, is really incredible. So, I guess what I want to say is that the creative process comes about in ways where society doesn't necessarily think it should. And it happens in and through people who allow themselves to have new experiences and think in different ways.
Daniel: Alright. Maybe I'm okay then . . . I'm pretty ADD.
Dawn: Of course you're okay! But attention is important too. The point I'm making is the state of flow is really important. Both mindful attention and the wandering of the mind are important to the creative process. The flow state is harder for me find as much now, because I don't take the time to practice it as much . . . after a hard day's work I need to make an effort to enter into a flow-state. For me, that's doing artisanal activities like making jewelry.
Daniel: I know exactly what you mean. When I was a kid, I suppose in fifth grade, I used to have this fascination with drawing spaceships or submarines. I never could keep my attention in the classroom. Teachers often were frustrated with me. I feel kind of bad that we don't allow kids to find these flow-states in school, but instead force them into a more socially acceptable learning style . . . but one where they probably won't excel as much at. Life isn't always like that, though; sometimes you just gotta work; you can't find flow. The process of change (and learning) I think requires that we find this state of flow and go with it.
Jonathan: Vunerability is important too. There are people in my life that knew my music [from before] and they tell me, "Wow. You've really changed!" It's not a value judgement—they still like my music and love me as a person, but now I have this emotional component I didn't have before. That change has radically improved my music.
Daniel: This is a beautiful transition to another question I have for you both: you produce the podcast Creativity Drill. Do you think there is a "transforming process" that creative people grow into to begin to surpass the person we had been the day before?
Dawn: Well, you need to put in the time. You gotta make the time. There's the whole theory of the 10,000 hours, that you need to put in that much time to allow the process itself to change you to become an expert.
Jonathan: For me, I've gotta have uninterrupted time too. I need to have one, big, chunk of time. A half an hour here, forty-five minutes there . . . that doesn't work for me. So that means I need to find—and make—the time to find my creative groove.
Daniel: Time's a brutal master though—there are a lot of demands on it and our society doesn't allow us to always find the time we need to creatively produce the way we want to.
Dawn: That's true, but if it's something you want to do, you'll make time. I don't think you can force it, though: I read about a VP at the company Oracle who took a month off in Hawaii and actively unplugged from the stresses of his work life. Once he relaxed, and wasn't actively thinking about the business, that's where he came up with his best ideas. He got the multi-million dollar idea by not diligently pursuing it! I think it shows you need to pay attention to your creative cycles when your brain, neurologically speaking, actively interconnects the more disparate parts.
Daniel: Does that mean that creativity is a transforming process, and not an event?
Jonathan: I think that's right, but you don't always get a hit out of that process! Over a decade, I've got maybe four or five "signature" songs. Not all your ideas are going to have longevity for the long haul—a song that stands the test of time. But if you're lucky and you're productive you'll find your creative streak eventually.
I was just watching on Netflix a documentary about John Denver who was the biggest star in America in the 70s. After his big hits—Rocky Mountain High or Sunshine On My Shoulders—he had a period of about fifteen years with nothing. He slid into depression and alcoholism and eventually died in a plane crash. He never got to have his big comeback. It happens a lot, unfortunately.
Daniel: What's one last thing you want to say about the process of creativity and how it can be transforming in a person's life? Creativity sounds kind of like a random process, it's ephemeral, and different for everyone. What's the common factor?
Dawn: I think you have to be open to new experiences. When I walk outside on a cold winter day in Minnesota, instead of thinking how much it stinks that it's cold outside and I'm miserable, I try to be open to the other parts of the experience—ways that focus instead on how I can be grateful for that moment. Maybe it's looking at the snow the way it falls, or how the cold bites my skin. It's finding openess and being open to new experiences that lead us to new ideas. Creatively perceiving the world from different angles is a transformative way to live. Life isn't a closed system, at least from a spiritual standpoint. In psychology, they talk about how language can have infinite generativity—you can utter a sentence that no one has ever said before. It might be only five or six words, but language is really cool like that.
Daniel: How about you, Jonathan?
Jonathan: I think you should be gentle with yourself—and forgiving of yourself—in your creative life. You may never have a magic moment like you're trying to live up to in your past—or you might have to wait a decade before you can think of an idea as magical as you believe you can create.
Daniel: I read something akin to that idea about writing. It was something like this: "Your ability to become a good writer is directly proportional to your tolerance of the embarassment that comes in writing years of shit!"
Jonathan: [laughs] Yeah! And especially if you're following up something successful. It's hard enough to be creative at all. But if you have to follow up something big—if you start becoming legalistic, you jump into a sea of judgment. You'll get lost in a sea of measuring, of quantifying, a sea of look-how-good-I-once-was. So, what you have to do is be gentle with yourself. You don't have to write the number one song every time. You gotta keep reminding yourself that everything's gonna be okay. Poor John Denver was never able to be gentle with himself. He caved into despair because it was too painful for him; he got eaten by the realization that he wasn't the same "star" he once had been. I suppose I see things from my Lutheran theological perspective. It's about grace. Measuring or judging yourself isn't going to help your process at all.
Daniel: Thank you, Jonathan and Dawn, for taking the time to share your understanding of creativity and how it informs personal transformation.
J & D: Thanks Dan!
About Jonathan and Dawn
Dr. Dawn Rundman speaks and leads workshops across the country at conventions, seminaries, and congregations. Her writing has appeared in Children's Ministry magazine, Lutheran Partners, and The Lutheran. Dawn's first children's book is Alphabet Adventure, especially for 3-year-olds. Dawn is the co-host of the Creativity Drill Podcast, with her husband, musician Jonathan Rundman.