Archive for January 2013
Creativity is a mystery. We know, or at least believe, everyone has the ability to be creative. But if it’s true we all have creative ability, why are some of us more consistently creative than others?
There are several theories as to why this is so; why some people appear more creative than others. They run the entire gamut of the “nature vs nurture” argument; genetic makeup, environment, opportunity, practice, even being exposed to certain types of music in utero. The truth is we don’t know why some people are more creative than others.
Part of the problem, I think, lies in our misidentification of creativity. We tend to think of creativity in very narrow terms. Even social scientists do this. They tend to think of creativity in terms of problem solving. We in the general public, on the other hand, tend to think of creativity as having to do, almost exclusively, with the arts. While it is true that problem solving is a component of the creative process, the ability to solve puzzles does not equate with the creative effort necessary to, say, write a novel. We may see the problem solver as “clever” or “smart” or even “insightful” but very seldom creative. Why? Because we tend to think of creative people as being expressive. But we all express ourselves. Maybe not artistically, but we do express ourselves. So, if creative people are expressive, and we all express ourselves, why aren’t we more creative?
Part of the answer, a very big part as it turns out, is fear. Or, more precisely, uncertainty. Humans like certainty. They like knowing things will turn out for the best; the best being to their advantage. They like being comfortable in the knowledge their chosen course of action will have the desired result. When you enter the realm of creativity, you’re never certain how things will turn out. It is a decidedly uncomfortable environment, filled with unknowns. A chosen course of action may have the desired result, or it may not. Fear of the “not” is what keeps most people from expressing their creative talents.
This is what separates true creatives from those I like to call “coincidental” creatives. True creatives possess the courage of their creativity. What do I mean by that?
Courage is defined as the will to act in the presence of fear (not). True creatives acknowledge the possibility of the “not” while embracing the “may”. Before taking a particular action they will consider a variety of possible actions, knowing if one proposed solution doesn’t work, a second or third or fourth, may. In short, true creatives don’t quit. They view creativity as a process, not an end in itself.
In contrast, the coincidental creative tends to be somewhat reactionary, using his creative talents only in response to immediate contexts. If a proposed course of action bears positive results, all well and good. If not, the usual response is, “Well, I gave it my best shot.” They don’t pester a problem, looking for alternate or even multiple solutions. For the coincidental creative it’s the results that matter. Something either works for it doesn’t.
So, given that we’re all creative, which type are you? True creative or “coincidental”?
This post will be lengthy; moreso than usual. It’s part biography, part autobiographical; a tribute, if you will, to my mother who passed away four years ago next month, so please bear with me.
I’m a “Boomer”, born in ’47 during the latter half of the first great post WW II population explosion. My parents were, if not then, soon to be solidly middle class. Dad worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he advanced quickly from blue to white collar status. His rise in the corporate world was due as much to his ready acceptance of transfers as to his organizational skills. Mom was a housewife. In those days it was possible, at least in postwar America, for a family to live comfortably on a single income.
There is a story; I suppose you could call it a legend (it certainly has attained “mythical” status within the family) concerning my mother’s attitude toward people of differing backgrounds and social status. It also serves to explain, to some extent, her attitude toward civil rights in the 50s and beyond.
At some point after the birth of my brother, Bob, it was decided my mother needed some assistance on the home-front. Raising two boys was no easy task and having a maid, even part-time, would allow my mother more time for her “wifely duties”; shopping, child rearing, attending various social functions with my father and various other civic responsibilities, Dad was determined to climb the corporate ladder as far and as fast as possible. To that end he “networked” tirelessly. He joined the Rotary Club and played golf and softball. Both my parents were regular churchgoers. Mom was a member of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Dad co-authored the official history of Sacred Heart parish in Winchester, Va., a parish we belonged to at the time. Hiring a maid was seen as a necessity.
I don’t know how long my mother enjoyed having a maid or if enjoyed is the proper term. Truth be told, I’m not sure she relished having a “servant” at all. In any case, the situation was short-lived.
The way Mom told the tale, at some point during one of the days the maid (I don’t know her name, Mom never mentioned it. I’ll call her “Ellie”) was working there was a lull in the day’s activities. Bob and I were down for a nap and there was a break between one of Ellie’s duties and the next. This, Mom decided, was the perfect time for the two women to become better acquainted, to sit down, have coffee and chat. I’m certain, in retrospect, my father’s frequent absences and the resulting loneliness were also mitigating influences.
I can only guess as to how the ensuing conversation unfolded.
“The boys are finally asleep,” Mom said, retrieving a cup from the kitchen cabinet and filling it with coffee from the pot on the stove. “Ellie, why don’t you pour yourself a cup and join me?”, she added, settling onto a chair at the kitchen table.
“No thank you, ma’am,” Ellie replied, arranging a shirt on the ironboard.
“Oh, come on. The ironing can wait for now,” Mom said. “Let’s get to know one another.” She sipped her coffee and watched Ellie. The maid remained focused on her task, the iron in her hand gliding back and forth, smoothing the wrinkles from one of Dad’s shirts.
“You pay me to do the washing and ironing and such, not to sit and drink coffee,” Ellie said, intent on the ironing.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”
The iron stopped, momentarily, its steady glide across the fabric, then continued. “Yes, ma’am, it does.”
“Excuse me,” Mom said, nonplussed.
“Miz Thomas, you are my employer. I am your employee. Only things you need to know about me is, do I come to work on time, do I do the work you want me to do the way you want me to do it and do I steal.” Ellie hesitated a beat, then added, “Which i don’t! And the only thing I need to know about you is, will the check you give me every week bounce, or not.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you, Ellie,” Mom said. “I just thought we could be friends.”
Ellie stopped ironing and placed the iron on its pad. “Miz Thomas, you n’ me, we don’t ‘zactly move in the same circles. What you think was gonna happen? We go shoppin’ t’gether? Maybe stop at the lunch counter down Woolworth’s?”
“I don’t know. I hadn’t thought. . .”
“I know you didn’t,” Ellie cut in. “But you’re white and I’m black. And in case you hadn’t noticed, those two color don’t mix well, ‘specially in Virginia.”
“I . . .don’t understand,” Mom said and lapsed into silence.
“I know you don’t, Miz Thomas,” Ellie said, gently, “and maybe it’s best you don’t. But please, try to forget the likes of you n’ me being friends. It won’t bring either one of us nothing but grief.” Ellie picked up the iron, moistened her finger, touched it to the iron’s surface and was rewarded with a reassuring hiss. “Lord, look at the time,” she said, glancing at the clock on the wall. “I best be getting this ironing done.” She looked at my mother, a kind of half-smile on her face. “You best go look after those boys of yours, Miz Thomas. They be waking up soon.”
Mom remained seated for a few moments,studying the woman at the ironing board, the silence between the two women growing heavy and uncomfortable. She started to say something, then thought better of it. She heaved herself off the chair and went to attend to her children.
Later that same day, as Ellie was preparing to leave for the day, she said. “Miz Thomas, I believe this will be my last day.” She shruuged into her coat and adjusted her hat, just so.
“Ellie,” Mom said, thunderstruck. “You mean you’re quitting?”
“Don’t misunderstand, Miz Thomas. Wasn’t nothing you done. Fact is, ‘ceptin’ that talk we had earlier, it’s been right pleasant workin’ for you.” Ellie picked up her purse and tucked it under one arm. “I just figure you can be quite willful once you put your mind to it and you won’t give up tryin’ to make us friends. And I just can’t work under those conditions.”
“Ellie, please. I’ve enjoyed having you work here. Won’t you at least think about stayin’?”
“I have thought about it. Haven’t thought about much else since our talk. ‘Fraid my mind’s made up.” There was no animosity, no rancor in her tone.
“Well, if your mind’s made up, I guess there’s nothin’ left to say.”
“I guess not, ‘cept I would ‘preciate a good reference.”
“Of course, Ellie,” Mom replied. “I will mention the fact you can be quite willful,” she added with a wan smile.
“Thank you, Miz Thomas. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Ellie.” And with that Ellie was gone.
I don’t know how the incident affected my mother. I know she didn’t become, as a result, either a civil rights firebrand or a segregationist. I know she did pay more than passing interest in the events of the civil rights movement, especially those involving Dr. King. When the Civil Rights Act finally passed Congress and President Johnson signed it into law, Mom had only one comment. “Its about time. It’s about damn time!”
Why isn’t writing considered art? Why is it art and literature, not art of literature? Both art and writing (and here I’m referring to fiction writing) are the result of myriad crafts; discrete skill sets honed to, or near, perfection and combined, one with another, until a desired effect is achieved.
Both artist and writer must, over time, acquire and master the crafts specific to their chosen medium.
A painter would learn drawing, drafting, composition, perspective, how to blend color, etc. . . If necessary, he may learn the rudiments of carpentry in order to make frames for canvases, or how to plaster to prepare a wall for a fresco. All the while the artist practices technique so the color he applies to canvas or wall appears smooth and even, not ladled on with a trowel (unless, of course, that is the effect he desires, in which case he is required to acquire yet another skill set).
A writer learns language, grammar, composition, dialogue, narrative form, descriptive device and so on; all the while practicing his technique in order to develop a unique style, a voice. He does this so he is able to apply the various skills he has mastered in a smooth and seamless way and avoid causing unnecessary confusion in his reader. But once he adds characters to his story (and what is a story without characters?), he must acquire at least a minimal understanding of the skill sets of the characters; what they do, how they do it, perhaps even how they feel about what they do. If he fails in this, his characters lack depth and appear mere caricatures rather than living, breathing people. He doesn’t have to put everything about the character in the story, but the knowledge gained lends depth to the portrayal.
By contrast, the artist needs only to see his subjects. For example, Degas didn’t have to become a dancer to paint his ballerinas. He didn’t have to experience hours of practice, aching muscles and blistered feet. He only needed to watch them. Writers need to involve themselves more deeply in the lives of their subjects.
So why then isn’t writing art? Both artist and writer acquire and master similar skill sets, similar crafts; only the medium differs. The artist chooses paint and canvas; the writer, pen and paper.
I think the answer lies in the idea that writing, like reading, is too personal an activity to be art.
A painting is static, When completed, a painting is what it is; an isolated moment in time. Degas’ ballerina is forever frozen in time, waiting. The writer presents us with a dynamic vision; a story from which we, as readers, can draw lessons about our own lives and a deeper appreciation of the lives of others. And, if a character is portrayed with exceptional skill, we may be inspired to emulate him or her. I doubt very seriously if anyone was inspired to become a dancer after viewing one of Degas’ portraits.
And yet the most, the best, we can say of the successful writer is he or she is an exceptional storyteller, a master of the craft. Given what’s required for success in writing, I suppose that’s the best one can hope for.
Throughout history writers have attempted to gain the attention of the Muse, that indefinable source of inspiration that will provide the impetus for the story they feel compelled to tell. They have used every sort of trickery and guile to accomplish this, all designed to convince their particular Muse of their worthiness to receive her gift. Many — most in fact — fail miserably in their attempts owing to the fact it is Muse, not the writer, who determines the worthiness of those upon whom she would bestow her gift. And she does not bestow her gift lightly on any and all who beseech her. She must be pursued, wooed, romanced and seduced into relinquishing her gift of inspiration.
It is more than a little obvious I envision the Muse as female. I often imagine her, a young, nubile girl, draped in diaphanous fabric, perched on the corner of my desk, daring me to look up from the page. But I do not dare turn my attention from the task at hand, no matter how beguiling an image she projects. She is testing me, daring me to abandon the work and place myself in thrall to her charms. I cannot. I must not. If I surrender, even a moment, to her now, she will forsake me, abandon her perch and go in search of another more deserving.
I cannot convince her to impart her gift, her genius, through words. No prayers, no matter how fervent, can convince her of my worthiness. Any fool can pray; they do it all the time. I must act to demonstrate all my skill, technical mastery of my craft; to show — not tell — my dedication to the task at hand by constant practice, perfecting each line, each word until they are honed to knife-edge sharpness. I must do this again and again and again. Then, perhaps, when I have practiced sufficiently to prove I possess the skill, the determination to use her gift to its fullest advantage; when I have demonstrated the endurance to see the task through to its conclusion, then she may lean forward from her perch and whisper, breathily, in my ear the words I long to hear, “You are inspired!”
During a TED talk in 2006 (http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html) education and creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson said this concerning creativity: he said, “. . . if you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original”. “. . . Prepared to be wrong. . . ” I think that’s a very telling phrase. It means in order to come up with a viable idea, we have to assume a certain amount of risk, and whatever our investment in the creative process, be it time, energy, money or all three, may be lost. As writers, we live with risk on a daily basis.
Early on in my marriage I was ravaged by guilt over my writing. Having been divorced numerous times prior to my present union, I was fearful the investment of time and energy (I was often absent, if not physically, emotionally), not to mention money was putting my marriage at risk. It was a risk I was unwilling to take. I set aside the writing and channeled my still roiling creative energies into other, more profitable (if not satisfying) pursuits. I became a professional cook, then chef. As a hobby, I made jewelry. But I never completely abandoned writing.
As a chef I wrote a training manual for my restaurant staff and penned a food & wine column for a local newspaper. I made page after page of journal entries on every topic that piqued my curiosity or passion.
I have no idea how the people who see my blog feel about it. Thanks to WordPress’ analytics I know it’s seen, if not read and that’s okay because sometimes it’s enough to know you aren’t “playing to an empty theater”. Still, it would be nice to know what others think of the work. Do the people who see my blog derive any enjoyment from my creative efforts? Any value? Do they agree/disagree with what I have to say?
I have no answers to any of these questions. All I can do is put it “out there” and wait for positive feedback.
Of course, I could be wrong. But that’s a risk I’m willing to take.