I was thinking about creativity today, triggered by an email sent me that started off with, “How do you manage to be so creative?”
I’ve been asked this question before, and have generally answered it with “I have no idea” or “I’ve never really thought about it before” because for me, creating is as natural as breathing. But this time, I decided to delve into it some more.
My thought is that, as in most things, asking about creativity is worthy of a Zen “mu” (roughly translated, “Wrong question.”) It assumes that creativity is a thing, which some (maybe all) people possess, and I just don’t see it that way. To me, creativity is not a characteristic but a verb: it’s something you do, not something you are. This makes it much more approachable, because it doesn’t allow people to classify themselves as “creative” or “non-creative” (a mental blocker if I ever saw one), but addresses the much more important question, “How do I create?”
And to me, creating is as simple as taking a trip somewhere. To go somewhere, you need an idea of where you’re going, a conveyance to get you there, and mastery of the conveyance. Creative vision, a medium to work in, and sufficient mastery of the medium to create what you want.
All three are important. Without an idea of where you’re going, you’re unlikely to create anything. The goal does not have to be immutable; in fact, the more rigid and specific your goal, the more likely you are to run into problems with it unless you are pretty familiar with your conveyance, its limitations, and your skill. (Driving up Mt. Everest in a car is not going to happen. Rock climbing Mt. Everest isn’t going to happen either, unless you are a virtuoso of climbing.)
This is one of the biggest problems for novice creators – they either set goals that are inappropriate for their skill/medium, or they are so intimidated by/unfamiliar with the medium that they can’t think of any goals. (This is often mistaken for “lack of creativity”.) This is where having an experienced guide can come in handy – they can either tell you when you’re over-reaching, or give simple, achievable goals to get you over the hump of doing something.
Novice creators also frequently become frustrated by their lack of skill. They think, “Oh, I can’t do this” and give up. I think that the journey metaphor helps here: we think of walking as a very basic skill, but it takes us over a year to learn! Similarly, we drive without thinking about it, but it takes months of practice before we’re really comfortable driving. Viewing it through the lens of something familiar, a skill already developed, makes it less intimidating.
Finally, the medium. Every medium has limitations. You can’t go driving up a rocky slope in a car, and while you can walk from San Francisco to Washington, DC, it’s going to take you a very long time. Creators confronted with a new medium can get frustrated because they are trying to achieve something that the medium simply will not do. “Painting a picture” in words is simply not possible except in metaphor; words are linear and abstract, a painting is concrete and visual. Traditional basketweaving techniques on a floor loom will not work. To create something successfully, one must remain within the constraints of what is possible for a medium, technique, or the tools at hand. Missing any of those will result in frustration, very common for novices in any medium. (This is where consulting with experienced people helps.)
Goal, conveyance (medium and tools), skill. Those are the components of creating, which is much more interesting than “creativity”.