Frizzed hair, paint-speckled skin, leopard print jeans, scribbled out calendars and a chronic inability to get anywhere on time. These are all stereotypes of a creative person. Creatives aren’t supposed to make sense in the Real World – a place for analysis, measurement, and clear economic incentives. Creativity is for spacy artists and everything else is for those pants-wearin’ analytical types.
But how did that result-oriented CEO get where she or he is today without re-envisioning a process? How did that on-time engineer revolutionize the way we live without a wealth of ideas? And who do you honestly know that is either all creativity or all analysis at and in all times and contexts?
I have been thinking a lot lately about the joints between these two types of intelligence, whether or not it’s even useful to think of them as separate beasts, and how important it is to find the right environments for both. I have been thinking, too, about spaces in which creativity thrives. And asking:
What does it mean to be a creative person?
For me, it’s this key trait:
The ability to expand upon an idea.
I am reminded of something David Mitchell said on Fresh Air last year, “If you try to write about the universe, you’ll end up staring at the bricks at the bottom of your garden. But if you start with those bricks, you may well end up writing something new about the universe.”
He was talking about the tendency towards esotericism in postmodern art that shoots for revolution (and it should be noted, too, that he’s paraphrasing from Lowell), but the turn of phrase works here.
If you write about the bricks, you get the universe.
That is, start with a small part and follow it down the chain until the whole is something meaningful.
Fans of brainstorming maps will get the drift here, though I prefer to think of this concept in terms of neural nodes, spreading activation and the theory of emergence (that order and patterns emerge from simple interactions).
To me, a neural web is like revisiting a crime scene and putting the clues together. Sometimes I challenge myself to follow the links back from a thought at the end of the day to the very beginning and determine to what degree my thinking is determined by internal feedback loops and how much was stimulated by an outside input line.
(I never get very far, by the way. Once their job is complete, past neural nodes tend to fade into the background until once again called upon).
Call it whatever you like, there is no creativity if an idea isn’t picked up with, layered upon, run with.
Which brings me to a related area that has fascinated me for some time now, whether in my own creative life, in collaborations with colleagues or in one-on-one teaching experiences. In what conditions will an idea grow legs and start walking?
I point yet again to another radio program, Think, out of Dallas, TX, which, awhile back, featured a cyborg expert from Scotland. It was just about one of the coolest interviews in the history of interviewing and I could go on about many aspects, so I’ll just narrow in on the idea of “synchronicity” in the cyborg context.
This word has been appropriated by the business community and is so overused it has become mostly meaningless.
“Let’s synchronize our thoughts on this,” says the out of touch manager who’s just there for the paycheck.
Wikipedia actually does a much better job of defining it:
“The idea of synchronicity is that the conceptual relationship of minds, defined as the relationship between ideas, is intricately structured in its own logical way and gives rise to relationships that are not causal in nature. These relationships can manifest themselves as simultaneous occurrences that are meaningfully related. Synchronistic events reveal an underlying pattern, a conceptual framework that encompasses, but is larger than, any of the systems that display the synchronicity. The suggestion of a larger framework is essential to satisfy the definition of synchronicity as originally developed by Carl Gustav Jung.”
The cyborg expert (whose name I can’t seem to remember or find anywhere) discussed synchronicity both in terms of a human mind syncing with technology (the best kind of cyborg situation) and in terms of human minds syncing with one another.
And this is where I’d like to extrapolate his thoughts to include creativity.
When two minds meet for a discussion, I see two little bumper cars emerging from a chaotic ring to do what they do best: bump against one another. There is a quick exchange of initial thoughts that are either rolled with or not, and then each car goes back on its merry, chaotic way.
If, for whatever reason, the idea is not “rolled with,” it dies. Or, the bumper car that truly believes in its little puppy cradles it gently until it can find another bumper car that’s more receptive. This is a situation I occasionally run into with my more literal students. They toss an idea out there, I get excited and ask a question meant to get them pondering, (E.g. “Why do you think there was more to Daisy than Fitzgerald wrote into the text?”) and then I receive the dreaded, most horrible, awful, soul-killing answer of all:
Here comes the guillotine, slicing both the idea and any hope for this project to bits.
(I’m over-exaggerating here, of course. I am one determined gal and I prod at my students until they give me more than this. But it is a total buzzkill to hear these words).
Take that same question with a likeminded, brainstormy kind of person, and? Well, let’s just say we always find our universe. Which is not always a good thing for my perfectionist students, who need an outside force to pull them from this giant net of ideas and say, “Just go this route. Come on back down to earth.”
Encouraging both types of thinking – generative thought and the narrowed down, analytical kind – is crucial to being a good teacher, but it goes beyond simply inspiring. These are actual mind melds. At times like these, the cyborgian professor would say our minds are thinking as one. That’s what it truly means to be in sync.
Sorry, Justin Timberlake, but there is no greater high than this, and, conversely, there are few things that feel as awful to a creative person as repressed ideas – that damn guillotine getting in the way again. This is what I began to struggle with at the end of my time in Seattle. There were so many ideas I didn’t have the time to explore. They sat inside me, kicking me, then withering up and dying admittedly overdramatic deaths.
Now that I am in Austin and have involved myself in a number of new and creative endeavors that involve both working on my own and with other passionate, creative people, and as I look back on my past business and think of what it took to invent and run, I am finally putting my finger on a truth that seems simple but has eluded me for some time.
It’s not that some people are innately better at opening up to ideas than other people (though environment will cause many people to close off), it’s that we open ourselves in different ways. Another way to put it: creativity speaks many languages. We each have to discover which one we speak.
If only I had known this in graduate school!
Here is how I work: I think of a concept. That concept might be represented by an out and out idea, an image, a turn of phrase, or a single word. These are my stick figures, my scaffolding. I get psyched. I want to talk with people, connect, invite others as psyched as I am to help me build my little stick figure man into Goliath.
A lot of this must take place inside of my own head (my own thoughts collaborating with my own thoughts), but I also need other people. This is something I don’t think is true for all artists, and something that put me out of sync in graduate school. I went into workshop with my skinny, dorky, unpolished stick figures without knowing or telling anyone they were stick figures, and then was hurt when no one said, “Hey, what an awesome Goliath!”
Both in this setting and in other collaborative settings, I assumed that because the people I was talking to were also creative, we were creative in the same way – that running with each other’s thoughts would be the easiest thing in the world.
But I was oh so wrong. And the same thing holds true in other creative settings as well. I have listened to other artist’s ideas and thought, “What is the point of this? Where is this leading? Um, this is dumb.” and I have had other artists look at my work and say, “That’s a bad idea.” And then we’ve each taken our own ideas either back into our own heads for greater development or to another artistic mind that thinks more like we do.
This is a space for the right kind of creative exchanges.
“Can we put a cape on that stick figure?”
“Can we give him muscles?”
“Can we make fun of those muscles?”
“Can we do so in a stereotypical New York accent?”
And we’ve started walkin’, here.
As a teacher, knowing this makes my task a very delicate one. I must walk that fine line between guiding students towards opening up their minds and giving them that tight framework they need to be productive. I need to feed their creativity without smothering it in my own.
As a writer – for myself, for magazines, for marketing agencies – I need someone to look at my pathetic scribbles and say, “That? That looks like a book. Let’s roll.”
I am finding my creative context. What’s yours?