KR Reviews

The Seed: Questlove Examines the Roots of his Creative Process

Creative Quest. Questlove with Ben Greenman. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2018. 281 pages. $27.99.

With Creative Quest, co-leader of The Roots, Tonight Show musical director, and City University of New York professor Questlove sets out to write “a personal guide to the creative process, but . . . also a practical guide, to the degree that creating things can never be practical.” The book doesn’t focus on the minutiae of drumming, and Quest addresses readers working in any medium, so it’s not exactly a craft book, but Creative Quest could serve as a worthy companion to writing guides like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it approaches similar subject matter in more universal, and more encouraging, terms. It is a book on creative problem solving from a successful professor of the arts, but written for the Twitter generation.

Portions of Creative Quest are inspired by his CUNY lectures, but unlike Gardner’s writing students in the 1970’s, Quest’s students are developing their talents amidst a constant din of Facebook posts, Instagram selfies, and political tweetstorms. While Quest tweets as much as any leader of the free world, he also acknowledges the risks of constant connection. “One of the things that’s being lost,” he writes, “along with the ability to really focus and concentrate on the bottom of that well [of creative influence], is the ability to establish hierarchy, a confident sense of knowing which events (or ideas) are the big planets and which ones are the small moons orbiting around them.” Creative Quest is Questlove’s guide to helping artists identify and focus on their own “big planets.” Venerated writing guides like Gardner’s excel at examining sentence and story-level considerations, but Creative Quest does more to encourage contemporary readers to harness their own raw creative impulses.

Creative Quest’s opening chapter, “The Spark,” serves as a sort of thesis statement in which Quest defines the concept of a creative person broadly as “anyone who is making something out of nothing by virtue of their own ideas.” The subsequent nine chapters are broken up into brief subsections, most running fewer than five pages. Topics include creative mentorship, collaboration, artistic mimicry, and the commercial market. For the most part, the chapters could be read out of order as they move associatively rather than chronologically through Quest’s creative life, a structure fitting of the topic. The sentences from Questlove and co-writer Ben Greenman are conversational in the manner of someone whose career has matured alongside social media. He writes, “I don’t say this [about success] to brag or even to #humblebrag.” He later chats on the page about Greenman’s role in finding quotes. “Okay. I admit it. I didn’t Google them. Ben did.” Professor Quest’s writing style is #casual.

Quest has said that he reads a lot of self-help books, and the book sometimes follows the genre’s more banal conventions, most notably with the inclusion of pseudo-spiritual one-liners that could be lifted from self-help texts on any topic. “Make an effort to make your life different,” he writes; “Your central creative ideas move with you, and you move through them.” Such phrases are sprinkled throughout the book, but they usually appear in service of more helpful advice. He suggests that we summarize what we learn from the media we consume. “Isolate your insight,” he writes, “and turn it into a short thesis statement.” It is easy to imagine how useful it would be for an aspiring writer to summarize the impact of every piece of media they consume.

I’ve recently plowed through a stack of craft books on writing, with the intention of finding inspiration and influence. Their advice tends toward work-harder-and-be-better. Stephen King encourages us to quit television and to produce a few novels per year. Vivian Gornick recommends virtuoso understanding of the situations in our stories. Charles Baxter tells us to not be poets. E.M. Forster tells us that our characters will only seem real when we know everything about them, including (I assume) their genetic structures. Novelist Melissa Pritchard asks us to approach writing as a spiritual act. Quest, on the other hand, tells us to write our own book reviews before writing our books. “Imagine the blurbs that will be on the paperback,” he writes.

He does this for every Roots album before he begins work on it. Seemingly a self-absorbed act of sabotage, he says that it helps him better visualize how the finished record should sound. It’s difficult to imagine Wallace Stegner, for instance, encouraging a young writer to imagine the critical reception of an unwritten first novel. But Creative Quest is full of similar tips on how to channel potentially unhelpful energy into productive creative energy. “Make your environment reflective of your tastes,” he writes. “Eliminate distractions, including the distraction of being without any of the distractions you need.” He puts a fresh twist on this common enough advice by using comedian Seth Rogen’s process as an example. Like a writing instructor, Quest advises aspiring artists to consider their audience, but he uses The Kid from the movie Purple Rain as an example for driving the point home. John Gardner’s illustrations tended toward the classical, and Quest’s tend toward pop culture. Celebrity name dropping occasionally moves the book into gossipy territory, but anyone working in late-night television would have trouble avoiding this, and the diverse list of celebrity artist references actually becomes one of the pleasures of reading the book. Questlove seems capable of finding inspiration anywhere and the artists he uses as examples become the foundation of a diverse listening, viewing, and reading list.

He invites readers to engage a smorgasbord of media and to embrace some distraction as part of the creative process. Between reading sections of this book, I watched a Norm Macdonald stand-up special, browsed YouTube clips from The Tonight Show, examined the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, considered Rube Goldberg’s machines, listened to The Roots album Phrenology, and created an epic Spotify playlist. During college, I attended a free Roots concert that was genre-bending and inspiring. I went, mostly, as a distraction from my studies. Quest’s playing sounded like a drum machine possessed by Stevie Wonder, only slowing for a version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” and quieting for a ten-minute melodic drum solo that got a stadium of college kids to shut up, lean forward, and listen closely. Reading Creative Quest, if you heed the author’s advice to follow certain distractions, can be a genre-hopping multimedia journey. And for aspiring writers, it’s likely to prove a helpful one.

Seeing The Roots in college was like going to the pharmacy for aspirin but instead having my brain replaced. Creative Quest isn’t as affecting as that performance, but it’s an important addition to the wider canon of books on the creative process. In his verdict on what it takes to become a successful artist, Questlove is decidedly Gardner-esque: “When it comes to the process, just persist, persist, persist. It has positive effects for your ideas, but also for the entire human machine that produces those ideas. Remember: life is short.”

That’s Quest’s way of saying, no pressure, you can do it.

Jason Hess
Jason Hess lives with his wife, the writer Jillian Weiss, in Portland, Oregon, where he works in the public library. His fiction has appeared in December Magazine. More of his writing can be found in Camas: The Nature of the West, Whitefish Review, and Los Angeles Review.