Archive for December 5th, 2010

One of my minor irritants is the way that the word “creativity” is used in our culture. Too often, it is applied too freely, while other times it is used in a way that suggests that the speaker has little sense of what creativity is about.

These mis-uses matter to me, because creativity is central to my life and self-image. In fact, I might summarize my life so far as a series of movies closer and closer to the point where I could focus on creativity – specifically, writing – and make a living from it. I have an idealistic view of creativity, considering it one of the highest values to which humans can aspire, and the expression of all that is best in us.

Taking the subject so seriously, I feel the slightest pinch of annoyance when it is used too loosely. These days, “creativity” is used in all kinds of places where it shouldn’t be – not just of a craft (which is sometimes just an art with a low social status), but of marketing, business strategy, or simply lifestyles. Frequently, “creative” almost becomes a synonym for “skillful” or “interesting.”

I can accept this usage as an analogy. Like a Venn diagram, all these things overlap to a certain degree with creativity; for example, they all involve skill, hard work, and ingenuity. But, for the most part, to describe such things as creative seems to exalt them more than they deserve, just as comparing an executive to a Japanese samurai or Antarctic explorer does. The connection is a bit of a stretch and should not be taken literally.

What creativity has that these other things lack is sincerity – an aspiration to achieve the highest results regardless of effort or sacrifice. Instead, the motivation of such things is more mundane – utilitarianism, selling products, getting a promotion, or closing a deal, perhaps. The purity of intent I associate with creativity is either totally absent from them or secondary. A marketing campaign may be apt or clever, but if you insist that it literally creative, then I can’t help thinking that we need another word for what a musician or a writer does.

I have the same sort of annoyance when I hear people talk about waiting for inspiration to strike – or, as I recently heard, someone talking about the time of day when they are most creative.

To a large extent, I can see scheduling your work for a time when you are least likely to be interrupted (although as I write that, I can’t help reflecting that if many writers, especially women with family or social demands, like Jane Austen or Sylvia Plath, had waited for the perfect moment, they never would have finished anything). And I appreciate the rare gift that arrives fully formed in my mind that needs only minor touchups to the first draft to complete it.

But, in my experience, the correlation between when you feel most creative and when you do your best work is practically non-existent. At times, a passage that feels like a gift from the gods becomes, in the cold light of revision sloppy, incomplete, or worthy only of deletion. Even more frequently, the passages that work best in my work originate, not in an instant of inspiration, but in reworking upon reworking. Most of the time, creativity seems to reside not in some magic attunement with the sources of inspiration, but in the ability to take pains to get something right. Yet I doubt that most people — even many artists — can be persuaded of the fact.

I suppose that both these misunderstandings about creativity reflect the high value that we place upon it. In modern industrial culture, creativity is widely seen as the highest form of accomplishment (consider how we remember artists but rarely business executives, and the importance of musicians and actors in popular culture). Everyone wants to be seen as creative, and many of us seem to want the maverick image that artists have had in our culture for the last two centuries. But, as these examples also prove, most of us have no real idea of what creativity might actually be.

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