When creativity does not go where predicted


You may read this article on Medium if you wish.

You have decided to write a mystery novel. You sit at your desk, pencil in hand, excitement about to pour onto the page. You focus the excitement into the first sentence. You tell us about a detective who has just begun the toughest case of his life. He collects the evidence, he interviews the witnesses, he follows the clues. You are near the end of the story. It is nearly time to reveal the culprit. Your pencil nearly meets the paper…and then halts.

What if this person really isn’t guilty? What if this isn’t the entire story? What if the detective was merely an unwitting pawn in a much larger, and more dangerous, game?

Your writing completely changes directions. Now, the conflict is not only between multiple characters, but between you and the creative process. The original idea for your story was fine. Readers would have loved it. You were ecstatic as you approached the ending. Yet now, your mind seems fixated, even obsessed, with this new idea. The story appears to have taken on a life of its own. Why does this happen?

Consider a housecat (I have used this analogy before): it does not appear when called. Even if one baits it with treats, there are no guarantees. The cat may appear to obey commands, but it is not truly loyal to you; it is loyal only to its treats and whims. If it ceases to obey commands or be persuaded by the treats you have offered, then something else has captured its interest. Therefore, the only way to keep its attention is to follow its interests, rather than your own.

So it is with the creative process. Attempts to control it in the same manner in which one controls a mechanical tool often meet with failure. The creative process is not a mere tool; it bears greater resemblance to a person. It cannot, and should not, be controlled. It need only be guided, and, where necessary, followed.

This requires a high degree of trust between a creator and the process. We are accustomed to control. We are used to predictability. This is not wrong, of course. Without these things, life could easily turn into chaos. For many professions, procedure is critical. One must be able to predict that an aircraft will function safely, or that a medicine will cure a disease, or that a building will not collapse.

Creativity, however, seems to function differently. As stated in a previous article, any attempt to impose set procedures onto it appears to destroy it. It cannot be led. It does the leading. Many creators spend their entire lives learning how to trust its lead, even when its destination is not clear.

How does one accomplish this when a deadline nears? In the professional world, “writer’s block” is no more valid an excuse than “doctor’s block” would be to a surgeon. A film soundtrack must be completed before the film is released. A book must be published by a certain date to maximize sales. A musical composition for the concert hall must be completed in time to allow the performers to rehearse it. How does one make the creative process reliable while still ensuring a good, original result?

The aforementioned trust is one side of the coin. The other side is the editor. We all know him. In a previous article, I called him the “traffic cop.” He is the one who guides the process once it has done much of its work. He is the one who ensures that a composition does not veer “off the rails.” He makes certain that the work is understandable to an audience. He guarantees that a work remains within the scope of what is called for. After all, one would not compose a symphony when only a thirty-second commercial jingle was required. One would not paint an ultra-realistic landscape if only a picture of a flower was needed. One would not write a novel if only a blog post was requested.

One may take small ideas and develop them further, of course. Some of my best ideas (though perhaps I should allow the listener to be the judge) have begun as simple tunes. Melodies originally intended only to introduce television shows have been arranged into full concert suites (the Star Trek music is notable for this). Conversely, melodies from large-scale symphonies or suites have become so popular that they are often repurposed for commercial applications (with examples too numerous to list here). The creative process is remarkably adaptable. In fact, this adaptability requires and reinforces a different sort of trust. The “cat” and the “traffic cop” must learn to trust each other, and the creator must learn to trust both.

For Discussion

  1. How have you learned to trust your “inner traffic cop” and your “inner cat”?
  2. Does your creative process resemble this, or is your experience different?
  3. Have you ever created an idea with one purpose, only for it to change later?

Why is it difficult to “teach creativity”?

If you wish, you may also read this article on Medium.

Why is it difficult to impart the creative flow to another? Why does it defy all attempts to systematize it? Why is it so difficult to explain what happens during the process? While I do not believe to have found all of the answers, perhaps this brief article will point in the right direction.

In physics, there is a principle known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In simple terms, it states that it is impossible to know all properties about a given particle at the same time, since the act of measuring a property will change it. Imagine that you are in a dark room, and that you have a bouncing ball in your hand. You can see nothing, but you must locate another bouncing ball that is floating somewhere in the room. The only way to do this is to bounce your ball off of the other, using the sound of the bounce to tell where the other ball is. The problem? As soon as your ball hits the other ball, they will both change positions and trajectories. This makes your measurement an approximation at best, and useless at worst. Thus, it is impossible to know the exact position of the other ball.

Creativity seems to behave in this way. Any attempt to define it, or to impose a system onto it, destroys the act of creating. Why is this so?

The brain naturally seeks patterns. If it does not find one, it will create one. It will innately impose structure onto the unstructured, and this is one of its great strengths.

When it is simply receiving information, it is receiving preexisting patterns and storing them for future use. This does not require it to create anything. When it generates information (through creativity), it is creating new patterns. Attempting to impose an existing pattern onto a pattern that the brain is attempting to create will interfere with the act of creation. In fact, it will turn the act of creation (a generative act) into a receptive act.

Consider the archaeologist (I am fond of this analogy): the act of digging in the dirt is like the creative process. When a priceless artifact is simply handed to the archaeologist, he will no longer need to dig. When a teacher attempts to impose a system onto a student’s creative process, he ruins the creativity and turns the unique act of it into merely another exercise in recall.

How, then, does a teacher “teach creativity”? Paradoxically, by not teaching it. A child will play with blocks, paints, or other objects without being told. He will make a fine mess in a sandbox without being taught how. We are born knowing how to “dig in the dirt.” Therefore, a teacher does not need to teach this skill. He need only show the student where to dig. As stated in a previous article, creativity and curiosity are not skills to be taught, but instincts to be recovered.

Instead of providing a detailed process through which a student will always arrive at a polished result, the teacher need only provide a prompt, such as “make up some sad music.” The student will explore sad-sounding motifs, harmonies, melodies, and colors on his own.

Notice the use of the word explore. One of the most unique, essential, beneficial, and enjoyable aspects of the creative process is its randomness. Uncertainty provides the environment that lights the spark of curiosity. Curiosity, in turn, fuels the exploration that is the very lifeblood of creativity. Certainty of outcome makes this exploration unnecessary, which, in turn, makes curiosity unnecessary. The student must feel free to, as Ms. Frizzle says, “Take chances, and get messy.” (Magic School Bus, anyone?) They must be free to be curious.

To summarize, creativity cannot be “taught”; it can only be “pointed at.” It cannot be systematized; it creates its own systems. It cannot be defined; it writes its own definitions. The key to imparting it to another is not to open the door for them, but to show them that they already possess the key. One need not control the creative fire; he need only ensure that it ignites.

Creativity: Do you hate everything you write?

You may also read this article on Medium if you wish.

When I ask a student to compose a short tune, I frequently hear, “I don’t think it’ll be any good.” Conventional wisdom is to encourage such a student: “Of course it will be good! You will come up with something great. Have confidence!” This, of course, is well-intentioned. After all, what teacher would not wish for his students to feel empowered?

However, this may actually cause more harm. Consider what happens immediately afterward: the student, feeling encouraged, makes another attempt at creativity…only for it to fail yet again. He is, again, unhappy with what he has composed. This has reinforced the idea that “it will not be any good,” and, even worse, it has damaged the trust he has placed in his teacher. If enough of these failed attempts occurs, they, like weeds in a garden, will begin to grow and choke out any remaining spark. They will form a psychology within the student that says, “You are not creative,” and this may continue for the rest of his life. Yet worse, the student may come to believe himself beyond the help of a teacher, which may lead him to give up creativity in the arts altogether.

How does one defeat this monster? How does one aid students who fear that they will not create anything good? How does one help students to create art that they are proud of?

Consider an archaeologist mentoring an apprentice. The apprentice says, “I’m excited for the dig, but I’m afraid I won’t dig up anything good.” The more experienced archaeologist says, “Oh, relax! You’ll dig up a valuable artifact on your first try, I’m sure. We will write an award-winning paper about it, and become world-famous.”

Such a scene, of course, is ridiculous. The more experienced archaeologist would more likely say, “You might not find anything valuable today. In fact, you probably won’t. We are digging in the dirt, so most of what you get will likely be just dirt.” In fact, such a conversation is unlikely to even take place. Any archaeologist, whether a beginner or a master, will know that the very first thing he touches will be dirt. He will likely touch a large amount of dirt, possibly for quite a long time, before finding even a fragment of something valuable. This is implied. No one even needs to ask.

And yet, with creativity in the arts, we are often quick to treat this differently. Students who fail to create a masterpiece on their first try believe they do not possess “the gift,” and they abandon their creative pursuits.

So, what do I tell students who fear that they will create something “bad”?

I tell them, “You probably will…and there is nothing wrong with that.” I tell them about the archaeologist, and how most of what he digs up is mere dirt. I tell them that they will forget about the dirt once they find an idea they do like. I tell them that their first few compositions are unlikely to be very good, but that they should persist nonetheless. I tell them to compose or improvise every day, whether they are proud of the result or not. I tell them that even the “great masters” did not compose great works one hundred percent of the time. Every composer has written a piece of which he is not proud. Every artist has painted a picture he dislikes. Every actor, dancer, or musician has given a lackluster performance. (In fact, a simple Internet search is likely to reveal many such performances. Viewing these can encourage a young student, as they see that experienced performers are still quite human.)

Some allow these failed attempts to define them. After experiencing such failures, they fear that they will never find anything valuable again. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if one stops digging in the dirt, of course he will never dig up anything valuable again!

But others do not. They feel discouraged, they may take a short break to clear their minds, they may refocus on certain aspects of their technique to fix problems – but, ultimately, they do persist. They wake up the next morning and write anyway. They show up at a dance rehearsal even though they are embarrassed. They audition for the next role even though they feel that they do not deserve it. They say, “That last performance was absolute dirt. I suppose I will just keep digging until I find something.”

And, eventually, they do find something. They recover their stride. They regain their confidence. They keep creating. And through this, they find a new freedom. They find that dirt is not merely an annoyance: it is an essential part of the process. After all, where is the creativity if the answers are simply given to us? Where is the fun in such a process?

Do you fear that your initial compositions will not be good? You are probably correct. Create them anyway. Do you think your first story will be confusing nonsense? It probably will be. Write it anyway. Do you believe that your first painting will have crooked lines, poor color choices, or unrealistic textures? It will likely exhibit all of those problems, and more. Paint it anyway. Create every day. Explore every day. Be always on the lookout for new ideas. Dig in the dirt. Enjoy the process in the same way that a child enjoys playing in a sandbox. Through this, you will discover the ideas that you do like. You will, in time, create something that you are proud of. Your technique will improve. Your imagination will awaken. You will grow in your understanding of your inner world, and in your ability to share it with others. You will be able to encourage others struggling with self-doubt from your own experience. And, in the life of an artist, there are few better teachers than experience.

New short story: “Arsabal”

I have recently published a short story to Amazon, which you may view here. Those with Kindle Unlimited can read for free, or anyone can purchase a copy for $2.99. If you enjoy it, please feel free to leave a review. Thank you!

Short Description

On a distant world where tradition rules all, a young military recruit must undergo a mysterious trial. Success will induct him into a cadre of legendary warriors; failure will cost him everything. What deep secrets does this trial protect? Why are all who observe the trial forbidden to speak of it? Will he prove himself worthy, or perish in the attempt?