Beyond a Definition, the Creative Experience

A while back I had the opportunity to take a creative thinking class designed for DC knowledge workers.  Despite my best efforts to blend in, it seems, my boss had identified me as a Creative Person.  Perhaps she inferred this from the way my eyes got a bit too wide when another manager tried to stomp on my proposed new way of depicting something.  Or maybe it was the fact that my work gets a turbo boost better when I’m given free rein to tackle a problem, without trying to rebuild the box within which everyone else is thinking.  “I wonder why she isn’t a superstar like that all the time,” I’m sure my managers asked themselves.

And so, when an ad fell into her inbox, my boss said to me, “Hey, there’s this workshop on how to apply creative thinking in the workplace that you could sign up for. Would you be interested?”

When you spend time reading about giftedness, it’s easy to end up with impostor syndrome.  For instance, while I’m plenty good at math, I’m not a prodigy and actually had to study to grasp calculus.  Or while I love languages, I know others who have nearly memorized the OED and the dictionaries of a few other languages besides.

But output?  In the form of idea generation, word count, visualization, fluid analogizing?  That’s what I do.  That’s easier than breathing.  (No, I’m serious.  I recently found out from an expert that I breathe wrong, and I’m working on it for my meditation class.  Breathing, it turns out, is hard.  Ideas are easy!)

So I arrived at creativity training wondering if, perhaps, I’d meet kindred spirits: others who too often feel thwarted or trapped at work, who pour out ideas but then have no chance to catch them, who are aware that they seem to be fueled by something different and process that fuel differently—but who are nevertheless team players who want to channel that drive to envision and to produce more effectively.  People for whom breathing gets even harder the longer they spend without an outlet for all those ideas.  Without being productive, in the autotelic way.

And though the class was a lot of fun and the instructors themselves did seem to be kindred spirits who appreciated what I was talking about (and were perhaps trying to survive in DC the best way they knew how), I nevertheless found still more evidence that this kind of thinking is not the norm.

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I’ve talked before about the need to define our terms. Words like gifted and socialism mean different things to different people, and you can end up having a heated discussion about two disconnected things if you don’t clarify what you mean when you use them.  “Creativity” is another such nebulous term, as the instructors of our class knew well.  So to launch the workshop, they supplied us with a definition that had been crafted by well-credentialed experts in psychology and others who are obligated to render quantifiable data on this issue: creativity, they say, is the production of “useful novelty.”

Well, maybe.

Granted, some people might be thinking of the generation of something novel and useful when they speak of being creative.  But we already have a few words that fit that meaning better: innovation and invention, for starters.  If those don’t mean producing useful novelty, what do they mean?  If “creativity” becomes just another synonym for those things, then something else important loses a word.

But fine, for the time being, let’s run with “useful novelty,” at least to describe what the course was trying to teach us how to reach.  This, then, led us to something else that I agree is an essential component of creativity: divergent thinking.  (Here’s the Wikipedia page about it if you’re not familiar with the subject.)  The instructors of this workshop sought to teach us how to think more divergently.

And this gives rise to quite a different syllabus than you’d see in a workshop on how to survive if you’re naturally highly divergent.  That, of course, is not a criticism of the class.  Indeed, as someone who was already demonstrating divergence in a room full of people who saw that as something to be emulated, I ended up feeling affirmed and gaining self-knowledge.  The instructors told us about research that suggests that adults working in places like DC think tanks use divergent thinking a mere two percent of the time (“Ah!  They’re talking about the lack of visionary intelligence!” I thought) and suggested that the ideal should be closer to 20% divergent thinking and 80% convergent.  (One could even go higher with divergence, as one of the instructors suggested to me privately later on, though convergent thinking does take more time.)

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So it appears that those of us who hang on to our inborn divergent tendencies into adulthood don’t make up a large enough group to make a DC workshop addressing our needs worthwhile.  But if we did, that workshop would focus on effectively advocating for your divergent ideas in a highly convergent workplace.  And one step to that is having allies to reassure you that you’re not crazy, and that there might be value in your ideas.

That’s one reason I want to push back against redefining of creativity as “useful novelty.”  If that’s how the more convergent disciplines insist on defining it, then those poor souls formerly recognized with the illustrious word “creative” will instead have to use that self-deprecating word that I frequently use despite readers’ protests: “weird.”

Instead, I would argue, creativity describes a lived experience.  But what is that experience?

Our instructors addressed this pretty well in a module on the history of creativity.  They explained that way back in the day, creativity used to be seen as a religious experience.  Quite simply, it was divine inspiration.  It was the Muses!  Yep, we all know the deal: you can’t quite put your finger on what “it” is, but “it” comes from the gods.  They’ve given you a vision.  That’s what makes you creative.

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This delightful illustration of the Muses is by Wegs on DeviantArt.

I understand why, in a class for professionals, the Muse Model is not useful.  The thesis of the course, after all, is that “anyone can be creative,” meaning everyone can learn creative thinking techniques.  And that’s true.

At the same time, that this is true does not nullify the fact that some people are born with a genuine, intense creative energy.  We need a word that describes these people so we can identify them—the way my boss identified me when she sent me to this class.  Or the way the teachers in the gifted program did when they picked me for the a small group that wrote our Christmas play.

“But both of those are instances of supporting the production of useful novelty,” one might arguably respond.  Yes, but the problem is that the people in question are out there experiencing life in the grip of the Muses long before the novelty they churn out can be evaluated.  Never mind that (as the eminent creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges, even as he supports the “useful novelty” definition) a person’s output is often determined to be useful only after years pass, as is the case with some famous artists.  Did Van Gogh only become legitimately “creative” after he died, when his work was finally recognized?  Csikszentmihalyi and many others would say yes.  I respectfully disagree.  His inner qualities were the same either way—and that matters.  Most creative people, of course, don’t suffer the way Van Gogh did, but all but the most fortunate surely could benefit from having their experiences recognized.

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Before they gave us the “useful novelty” definition, the instructors had us write a haiku to describe what “creativity” meant to each of us.  I knew what they were probably going for (I’d already read Csikszentmihalyi), so I tried to head them off at the pass.  Here’s what I wrote:

Intense energy
A poem by Pearl S. Buck
Sums it up for me

Neither the instructors nor anyone in the class had ever heard of this piece (I guess it’s not really a poem), though it’s become almost cliché as an epigraph on the personal web pages of creative types.  If you don’t already know it, allow me to share:

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.
To him…

a touch is a blow,
a sound is a noise,
a misfortune is a tragedy,
a joy is an ecstasy,
a friend is a lover,
a lover is a god,
and failure is death.

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create – – – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation.  By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.

Buck is also clearly speaking of overexcitability, which is another key component of the creative experience.  And when they asked me to talk a bit more about my haiku, that’s what I tried to explain this to the class:

“It’s about having a wider aperture, taking in more than people usually do, and working with more material in your brain.  So you might say that creativity is linked to intensity of processing.”

And they liked this.  They were clearly turning it over in their heads, students and teachers alike.  But again, you can’t really teach this (though you could encourage someone to widen their aperture), so we left it there.

And hey, that’s all right.  What they were teaching was still good and valuable.  And I did have a lot of fun in the class.  There were boxes of crayons on each set of tables with copies of pages from those grown-up coloring books out for us to use while we listened to presentations.  I lined up the crayons in rainbow order and colored away, the only one in the class who was constantly doing so.  I was the one volunteer to share my answers, only to have the instructor answer, “Ah, you went from Step 1 all the way to Step 5!” with a friendly laugh, or offer to discuss a digression with me after class.  And I got to meet people who were, if not exactly kindred spirits, thoughtful people who seemed to like me because of and not despite my quirkiness, which it was permissible to share in this very non-cubicle environment.  It was kind of professional therapy for me after being in an office—and a city—that is all about convergent thinking.

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Even so, I do want to stand up for the Muse Model of Creativity.  “Useful novelty” is great, and surely worth valorizing.  And these people whom I call creative do have an unusual capacity that could potentially, under the right circumstances, lead to a strikingly original work of art or a vision that leads to a scientific paradigm shift.  But it is also certainly true that a person who is constantly motivated to pour our creation may not actually be producing anything of quality at all; there are lots of divinely inspired primates out there, but it still takes a long time before one of them hammers out Hamlet.  I understand why businesses therefore eschew dreamers who churn out ideas without ever following through.  I don’t want to be that type of person myself, and that workshop I’m envisioning for naturally divergent types would help us avoid this danger.

So let’s not lose the experience that Pearl S. Buck is describing—rightly labeling it creativity, for there is no other word for it—by rerouting that word away from those we all use it to describe.  For better or for worse, the desire to pour out creation gives rise to a lived experience that is worth putting a word to, the better for their teachers to help get such children on the right path, the better for them to find kindred spirits, the better for them to make a contribution when they grow up, the better to discuss working well with the Muse.

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This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
Follow the link for others’ takes on this topic.

Images: AidaGorodskaya on Pixabay, Comfreak on Pixabay, Wegs on DeviantArt, and Wokandapix on Pixabay.

6 thoughts on “Beyond a Definition, the Creative Experience

    1. Thank you, Paula! That means a great deal to me, and I’ll take that as encouragement to keep doing so. It can be scary sometimes, because others may not understand and may even have ill will toward me, but I keep doing so because I hope it can be valuable to someone out there.

      Also, I’m delighted but not surprised that you also are part of Team Muse!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Enjoyed this. Liked the “wider aperture” and the ability to hold more in one’s mind than average.

    So far, in my life, my creativity has rarely been useful. But I would consider myself a creative person. And so I take issue with the “useful” aspect of any novel creation. But then I would think, you do too.

    The way I’ve always analyzed any box-external ability I’ve inadvertently exposed is through this label: Recombinatorial, that is, to be able to take mundane or tired ideas, theories, objects or even words and recombine them in unique and unexpected ways. Your wide aperture and grander mental expanse would allow more stuff to get shuffled around inside your shake-em-up box which low-and-behold, pumps out novelty like a fire hose.

    Without idea fodder, creativity is dead.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m glad another creative person likes that metaphor. 🙂

      And yes, I do take issue with that “useful” aspect. I understand why usefulness is, well, useful, and why someone would therefore pursue it. But I think words like “innovation” convey that already. Let us creative folks have a nice, valorized word! So while I’m trying to walk a line and see their point, when it comes down to it, they can’t have this word. But maybe, if they haven’t experienced what Pearl S. Buck describes, they don’t have any way to understand why this matters….

      Recombinatorial! You’ve just given me a word to describe my blogging style! I don’t want to separate my various interests into nice little search engine optimizable niches, because that would preclude my being recombinatorial, and then I’d have little of value to say. Thanks for sharing your take on the creative experience!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a brilliant essay on creativity – how it is so misunderstood by others, how it is underutilized in Washington (no surprise there!) and how trying to put creativity in another box with this useful novelty label just misses the point. I love your use of the Pearl Buck poem and how truly creative people have a calling that compels them to express themselves. The dilemmas, as you point out, is to not become too bruised due to one’s sensitivity, and to figure out how to fit in to some extent with real jobs out there. A lot to think about. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Gail! It’s encouraging to have heard from both you and Paula, trained as you both are in psychology, in defense of the Muse Model.

      As for the dilemmas you noted, I’d love to direct readers to your blog. Hey everyone: Gail participated in this month’s Hoagies’ Hop too, and she has some great thoughts on the subject. Take a look!

      I also want to make this post a foundation for more exploration of this topic. I’m pondering a future post on convergent thinking, what I think of it as a proud divergent thinker (spoiler: I think it’s useful, too!), and how to find an optimal balance between these two modes. Among other ways I’ll try to build the workshop that I wish I could attend.

      Like

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