I dwell in possibility.
~ Emily Dickinson (the best poet ever)
Are You Sure?
It’s right here, really: Everything you ever wanted to know about creativity. Yes, all your questions answered. (We don’t leave out even a single one.) And all that, too, served up in the scant moments it would take you to feast on a bowl of cherries.
Isn’t life sweet?
Alas, reality intrudes. I’m sorry to inform you that the bold statements made above were by someone else. Definitely not me. You see, moi, I don’t do that kind of stuff. Why in the world would I make the audacious claim that I’ve got answers to all the deep questions anyone has ever posed about the essence of creativity?
For one things, the creativity czars of the world would be out to scalp me. And I can’t just let that investment (in my scalp) go down the tube, especially after years of putting up with the chore of tending to it with gobs of that foul-smelling Head & Shoulders shampoo. What to do now?
Disguises Up, This Very Second
Quick, lest anyone catch the drift—imagine Tarzan taking a super-deep breath through his flared-up nostrils in hopes of catching a spoor of predators—we are going to stave off the specter of scalping by artfully divulging all that follows under a pseudonym (By the way, and while stranger things have happened, I invite you to stay tuned for some pseudo-randomness in this very area—pseudonyms, that is—if you care about asserting the rights of writers, authorship, and that sort of thing.)
Let’s pick an innocent enough name, and yet sounds like a world-renowned expert in all things creativity. How about Humbert Humbert? (That’s right, the first and last names are identical: We want to really, really throw all those snivelers off our track lest they get a whiff of identity or authorship.)
Let The Questions Roll In…
Meanwhile, why don’t we rack our memory to make sure we got that right—Speak, Memory, or forever hold your peace. Yeah, I do think we got all our ducks in a row.
Your quacks, I mean, questions—on all things creative—come in and Mr. Humbert dutifully answers them, one by one.
Here we go.
A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.
– Albert Einstein
Dear Mr. Humbert: Is the road to creativity a long and winding one?
Dear Sue-Irl Ng: Yes. Swirling, and that too sinuously, is exactly what the road to a more-creative you will be. Its serpentine track will lead you far and wide. On top of that, the road is amorphous; it will be decidedly fluid, in the sense that the road will mold itself to the unique tracks of the seeker who follows his or her own trail to creativity.
But not to worry. And lest all this is starting to sound too New Age—we sure don’t do non sequiturs around here either—allow me to elaborate.
The fuller story, as it unfolds, has us scanning the horizon in search of landmarks—nope, not those roadside signs that tell you how far away your next outlet mall or rest area is. We’re talking about being in this for the long haul; hence the need for signposts and landmarks.
But before you jump into that U-Haul, a word to the wise: Think of your journey to a more-creative you as the unfurling of a rose bud into a marvel of beauty and splendor, or the unfolding of a grubby chrysalis into an untethered and oh-so-graceful butterfly.
So yes, dear Sue-Irl Ng, we’re grooving right into the tracks of that (possibly apocryphal) joke about a pedestrian in New York City asking the first musician he sees for directions, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?“, and gets the weary reply from the musician, “Practice. Practice. Practice.”
One more time, this time altogether, the answer to “How do you become more creative?” is, “Practice. Practice. Practice.”
With that, I urge you to stay the course, a long and winding one that it surely is (Do hold on to that Carnegie Hall metaphor with all your might.) Moving on to the other questions we see trickling in…
Oh, I nearly forgot to mention, but if you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Invention is the talent of youth, as judgment is of age.
– Jonathan Swift
Dear Mr. Humbird: Is creativity a renewable resource?
Dear Enner Gee: Funny that you should ask. I happened to be gazing at a picture of some lovely wind turbines scarcely a minute ago (elegant at least to an engineer’s mind.) What’s baked into that pic, but left unstated, is a glimpse into processes that warrant constant replenishment. For example, sunlight or wind keep shining and blowing, respectively, their availability depends on time and weather, of course. Automaticity writ large in the service of constant replenishment, amirite?
(What’s this? Aha, I see a slip being handed to me, alerting me to how the ill-advised use of mannerisms—these confessionals, amirite?—can inadvertently divulge a person’s identity. Sigh, we may just have busted our pseudonymous subterfuge.)
But we are not cowered. Onward.
(By the way, it’s Mr. Humbert, not Mr. Humbird—I neither hum nor am I bird, and definitely not a hummingbird at that, if those hovering critters are what you had on your mind.)
Yep, much like you—and here I assume that you, too, are presently under the impression that creativity is somehow inherently renewable—yours truly, too, had labored for years under the same illusion! So allow me to burst the bubble: There’s nothing automatic whatsoever about the renewability of creativity. Nope. Nothing of that sort.
So yeah, there’s nothing inherent in creativity which would lend itself to making it automatically renewable.
But there are a set of four pillars—I recently heard them being brilliantly formulated as such by a trusted friend—which you can erect and thereby enable the edifice of creativity to stand robustly, and for creativity to thereafter become renewable: As The Boss has been known to say, you can’t start a fire without a spark.
So yes, first we crawl, then walk, and finally run. (That’s how we do it.)
And not to be dogmatic, but those traits—think of them as the pre-conditions which must be met to have a balanced equation “unfurl” itself out into a renewable whole—are the very pillars upon which creativity can be advantageously founded. In no particular order, those traits, then, are:
- Curiosity (Or, a fire to be lit)
- Passion (Or, sticking your neck out)
- Devotion (Or, what are the ways that I may serve thee?)
- Humility (Or, let me sit at your feet to learn)
More light will be shone on this delicate and elusive matter, I’m sure, in the course of our taking on more questions, so keep the faith. Meanwhile, allow this paradigm to sink in (pillars and all!) and be comforted in the knowledge that laboring under that illusion we talked about at the outset—that creativity is inherently renewable—is decidedly not a raw deal.
We may skin our knees into rawness every now and then, dear Enner Gee, but we also grow as we learn. Paradigm shifts happen.
The journey is the destination, after all. And while there is no royal road to creativity, there is a way. It’s not easy, but we’re up for it, right?
We’re warming up now. Let’s bring on more questions.
I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
~ Albert Einstein
Dear Mr. Humburg: Would you please tell us something about curiosity—the first of the four pillars upon which you had opined that creativity is to be founded—and how to cultivate it?
Dear Q. Rheus: Goodness, we have here a fellow lover of my beloved em-dash—I regale in your masterful use of those lovely grammatical critters in posing your question—so let me be the first one to welcome you to the show. And just so you know, don’t you go anywhere.
(By the way, it’s Mr. Humbert, not Mr. Humburg. I don’t look like a hamburger, do I?)
There’s an abundance of material, actually, on this very topic. Head straight for the following handful of coordinates to check out
Once you’ve checked that stuff out, dear Q. Rheus—go ahead, I’ll wait for you right here—you will probably realize that, yes, we’ve written quite a bit on that topic; maybe a bit too much. Our readers are totally satiated: Adding more material on top of that would be sheer folly. And we’re not going there.
But yeah, the TL;DR on this is that cultivating curiosity is akin to kindling a fire. It’s a fire to be lit.
Passion makes idiots of the cleverest men, and makes the biggest idiots clever.
– Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Dear Mr. Hummer: Will you tell us of the ways of cultivating passion in the service of a more-creative me?
Dear Dylan Thomas: Certainly. I will share what little I know about this most elusive of the four traits that form the bedrock of creativity—passion—notwithstanding the long-standing tradition of everyone (and their brother!) taking the liberty to opine ad nauseam on what this passion thing is all about.
(Sigh, one more time folks, it’s Mr. Humbert, but I suppose you can call me that… Oh dear, what in the world is generating all this kinda eventually-consistent pseudo-randomness when it comes to pseudonyms; not that I’m using one, amirite? Darn, gotta be careful about slips of the tongue in the area of those oh-so-endearing mannerisms.)
Anyhow, dear Dylan Thomas, you keep on rage, rage, raging against the dying of the light—I’m sure you’ve got good reasons for not going gentle into that good night. Me, when bedtime rolls around, I don’t think twice: I repair to get my beauty sleep.
Oh, by the way, when allergies season arrives in Wales, and should you get those bedtime sniffles, I suggest that you go with herbal remedies. Just don’t take Nyquil, unless you really, really have to. Not being owlish here; thought I’d share the tip because Nyquil sure could put a damper on your nocturnal raging.
Seriously, though, passion—the kind that will keep you motivated to soldier-on in the face of adversity—comes from a place of deep desire in the human heart. It’s almost the opposite of fads; the fad will not be for you, lad. So if you’re the kind who follows the latest fashion, than you might as well forget about passion.
Put another way, dogged perseverance comes from deeply-felt desire. It comes from a sense of conviction. You feel it in your bones.
And it all begins with finding something you truly believe in, something that brings you joy. And when you find that special something, you have to believe in your own self. You’ll know that you’ve found it—that special something—when the prospect of putting in those proverbial 10,000 hours fades into the distance as a minor detail. With you fired-up, boredom goes out the window, because
Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.
– Arthur Schopenhauer
Above all, remember that cultivating passion is not at all about competing with others; it’s all about competing with your own self, to see how far you can push yourself in search of excellence in your chosen field.
Put another way, dear Dylan Thomas, you take it to the limit. Then you do it again. And again—later, rinse, and repeat.
The TL;DR here would be that cultivating passion (in the service of a more-creative you) is having the guts to stick your neck out and the gumption to have a skin in the game.
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley (in his poem One Word Is Too Often Profaned)
Dear Mr. Humdinger: When it comes to fostering creativity in oneself, is it true that devotion plays a role in “fueling” the magic?
Dear Deevo Shen: You got that one right. Yes, devotion is about imbuing a sense of service. Devotion is all about bringing nurturance into the equation, and doing so with the poignant tenderness with which mama bird and papa bird tend to their fledglings they’ve helped procreate.
It’s warm, it’s fuzzy. Most of all, it’s real; you can bet your bottom dollar on that!
Devotion just may be the polar opposite of the scams that unscrupulous individuals will try to sell you on, with promises of making a quick buck. Making a buck—in fact, making lots of bucks—is perfectly fine. It’s just that money is a poor motivator for cultivating the kind of devotion we’re talking about.
Take it from yours truly, Mr. Humbert—sigh, it’s a humdinger, but I’ve grown used to having people call me by all sorts of names—that the subject of money is one that I strongly advise you to not bring up with the proprietor of this blog (in the context of advertising and that sort of thing which lies on the slippery slope at the periphery of true content.) Over the years, I have come to believe this guy Akram truly thinks that devotion is the next best thing since sliced bread.
But I digress. (Hey, that’s not my lingo: That proprietor dude made me say that! Me, I am, of course, Mr. Humdinger, I mean, Mr. Humbert, and I surely never digress. So there.)
Look, let’s leave the question of identity to the realm of the lovely, literary mysteries populated by the likes of famed detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend Dr. Watson. Closer at hand, as we cruise around the ins and outs of cultivating devotion in order to become more creative, I recommend that you to get yourself a copy of a stellar—and often-overlooked—book by Joyce Carol Oates entitled The Faith of a Writer. It may well be some of the best money you ever spend.
In particular, I invite you to check out a section (in The Faith of a Writer) where Oates introduces a marvelous, brief, and altogether tantalizing passage from John Updike’s autobiographical book Self-Consciousness.
There’s something magical about devotion. Then again, there is no royal road to creativity; you have to beat your own path and carve out a passage through the thicket. Your unique acts of devotion—ones that only you can identify, and I know you’re up to it—will make the arduous task of carving a passage through the thicket that much easier.
Devotion, dear Deevo Shen, then, would, for its TL;DR, be imbued with the sentiment inhering in the rhetorical question, “What are the ways that I may serve thee?” (And would you like some fries to go along with that? Darn, the dining meme—I must be getting hungry.)
Tell you what, though: Let’s take a few more questions while we’re on a roll. Food can wait for a bit.
The fittest may also be the gentlest, because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation.
~ Theodosius Dobzhansky
Dear Mr. Hummerson: Will you now tell us something of humility—the fourth of the four pillars upon which you had opined that creativity is to be founded—and how to cultivate humility in the service of fostering creativity?
Dear Hannibal Humble: You—and me along with you—now stumble on to a crucial yet often-overlooked trait, one that has much to offer in the quest to become more creative.
Let’s go a tad meta here. You will be like the tree that gives shade to the passersby who take rest under its canopy. Wait, we’re not done yet: The part having to do with hitching your wagon to a star comes later. (Hold your horses, partner.)
You see, I could easily have chosen the realm of software architecture—my, excuse me, Akram’s area of expertise—but let’s broaden our horizons and take an example from the realm of writing. Look, nobody is born a Dickens or an Oates or a Faulkner. We all have to start somewhere. Somewhere humble. First we read, then we write, right? (Akram’s telling me right now to replace that trailing “right? by the more fashionable “amirite?”, and get me in trouble. But I ain’t doing that. Hah. No sir. Not me.)
So yeah, we all start at the pastry cart. (Goodness, my stomach continues to growl. And I want to roll and rumble, dear Hannibal Humble. But I’ll stick around just to answer your question!)
What I really meant to say was that we all—at least the writers among us—start cultivating humility through the sincerest form of flattery: imitation. I’m not making this up; would-be writers up and down your street are at this very moment trying to imitate their favorite writers as they hone their own craft. The good ones succeed. But the great ones, in their quest to imitate, end up failing.
But guess what? Even as they fail at imitating their favorite writers, they end of doing something wonderful and strange: They wind up creating a truly original piece of work that’s strikingly original, strange perhaps, but beautiful in conception and originality, wondrous in its strangeness.
They came looking to imitate their heroes—and heroines, to be sure—out of sheer admiration; they ended up creating art.
You, too, can do it.
(Meanwhile, I’m telling you, that guy Akram is looking over my shoulders to make sure it’s really me writing this stuff—Sheesh, he’s a stickler for authentic expression, though I could never really tell what he was reading on any given evening.)
Moral of the story: Stay humble, dear Hannibal Humble. Work with devotion. Put in the hours. There’s no such thing as an overnight sensation.
So the TL;DR here would be that cultivating humility is the sentiment that would accompany the pronouncement, “Let me sit at your feet to learn.”
(Have I ever digressed? Oh no, not me. But as an aside, that Dobzhansky quote atop this dialog—”The fittest may also be the gentlest, because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation“—is something I encountered while scouring the field of Polyvagal Theory. As an avowed bagel-lover, I even proposed the rubrics of a Polybagel Theory which, alas, did not quite leaven as much I had wished for it to; an ill-starred Baker’s dozen, perhaps.)
Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Dear Mr. Humdrum: Do creative people march to the beat of a different drummer?
Dear Dee Dum: Fiddlesticks. Nothing of that sort, dear Dee Dum. Next question?
You cannot put a fire out;
A thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a fan
Upon the slowest night.
~ Emily Dickinson
Dear Mr. Humberson: Can we perhaps imagine creativity as a vessel, which, when filled with the “fuel” of the four traits you have enlightened us with—curiosity, passion, devotion, and humility—could be used to refactor a problem (or a challenge, or even a vision) into something new and more-tractable?
Dear Wize Won: You’ve asked a deep question. For crying out loud, you’re making me rethink my entire conceptualization of this creativity business. I thank you! (By the way, do you usually have Trix cereal for breakfast? Just asking.)
Why, this is beautiful. The way you formulated your question is making it all come together; the pieces of the puzzle are fitting together. A full picture is emerging. This is heady stuff. Stand back.
We take five deep breaths. We take it all in.
This is what we need to do to “conquer” creativity: We fill-up our fuel tank and never stop filling—imagine if you will a vast storehouse of experiences which has infinite capacity and can always take on yet more experiences, a bit like the fabled Hilbert Hotel which always that can always take on additional guests, even infinitely many of them.
Do that kind of fueling (and refueling) long enough and the engines of your ingenuity are bound to roar even if you end up shy of notching infinity (Sorry, Hilbert Hotel custodians about all those tips you’ll admittedly miss out on.) But yeah. You guessed it: Your creativity soars.
So get those oars out, dear Wize Won, and start rowing like crazy. (With an oar in each hand, we will set sail on the nighttime sea, and maybe even write an ode or two during times of respite, under the glow, of course, of those magically luminous fire-flies.)
TL;DR says: “Fill ‘er up.”
But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
~ Kahlil Gibran (in The Prophet)
Dear Mr. Humvee: Does Kahlil Gibran’s utterance about letting there be “spaces in your togetherness” have any bearing on fostering creativity?
Dear Starry-eyed Sarah: So the other day I spotted a bumper sticker on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle pungently proclaiming that “If I Have to Explain, You Wouldn’t Understand“. Not being trained in the science—art?—of metaphysics, I feel inclined to curl up like a porcupine and let my quills announce my reluctance to engage in matters such as the one you bring up here.
Wait, there’s this guy though…
Yes! I remember now: His name is Akram—fiddlesticks, it rhymes with “drum”—and oh boy, can he tell tales! Go talk to him about such matters (at your own risk, I hasten to add) and he’ll help you connect dots where there were (seemingly) no connections to be made. Even if the oceans dry up and the earth shrivels into an iota—imagine a world replete with vertices, yet wholly devoid of connecting edges—that guy will help you make connections.
Remember what I said, though. Once you get him started… (Just sayin.)
Speaking of the deuce, just the other day he was excitedly telling me about hearing some profound thoughts that touch upon the theme here: Gesturing animatedly with his arms in explication—or maybe he was simply fighting off an airborne infestation of horse-flies above his head—he could scarcely hide his excitement in sharing some talk he had heard from a friend (yep, the excited chap we’re still talking about is the same deuce whose name rhymes with the drummer boy’s drum. Dee dum, Akram.)
Anyhow, the gist of that talk was that we need to ponder more; there are some areas of cognitive dissonance in describing creativity as an artifact of pre-conditions. Explicitly downplaying the inhibitors of creativity, specifically: (1) ego, (2) hanging on to existing paradigms as doctrine, (3) not taking a step back to view a given problem through the macro-micro lens, (4) overwork or stress, and (5) overly uni-dimensional focus on a specific area.
Wow. I’m smitten by the clear-eyed thinking. What more can I add to that glory, dear Starry-eyed Sarah, except to remind you, in the words of the Sage of Concord, to “Hitch your wagon to a star.”
Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay.
~ George Bernard Shaw
Dear Mr. Hamilton: Is it true that creative people have Trix cereal for breakfast?
Dear Beatrix Potter: ARGHH! Somebody get me out of here: One more question reminding me of food—there goes my stomach, growling again as a potent reminder of just how famished I must be—and I press the “Eject” button. (I’m sure they have one of those around here, even though they don’t offer complimentary snacks to guests like yours truly, Mr. Humbert—or, I guess, Mr. Hamilton, to you.)
Since you ask, creative people do have a marked propensity for working energetically; they’re only warming up while others are closing shop. Either they—the creatives, you know—have monumental supplies of good old Trix cereal stashed away in their desk drawers or they’re not good at keeping track of time so don’t know when to stop. (Or maybe both!)
At any rate—and you can witness that important-looking official in the pic above ratifying “Trix-for-one-and-all!” into law—the future is bright for Trix-munchers. They may (or may not) march to the beat of a different drummer, but they sure got their priorities right when it comes to selecting wholesome, nutritious elements from the food pyramid.
Should you, dear Beatrix Potter, say fiddlesticks to that, let me remind you that the Energizer Bunny, too, has been known to regularly (and slyly) wolf down Trix morsels. And you know how that bunny—the perpetual-motion machine that it is—keeps going and going and…
Hmm… Beatrix Potter… Your name sure sounds familiar…
Wait, is it you who wrote a ton of books involving furry bunnies hopping all over the countryside or something?
Methinks I don’t stand a chance against an onslaught from hordes of feral rabbits. Help—Somebody sign me up for that witness relocation program I heard you all talking about!
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
~ Jelaluddin Rumi (Sufi poet extraordinaire)
Dear Mr. Humswung: They say that a rolling stone gathers no moss. But really, where do creative people tend to congregate?
Dear Field Stone: I don’t know. And frankly, at this point, I don’t care. You don’t give me any food. No snacks for the guest. No nothing. On top of that, my host subliminally bombards me with questions laden with themes suggestive of mouth-watering goodies.
It’s too much for one person to take.
My stomach, for crying out loud, dear Field Stone, continues to growl, growling into a widening gyre; the centrifugal force is a bit much for me to continue defying…
I choose to press the “Eject” button.
To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.
– Charles Dickens
Dear Mr. Humsing: Can creativity be likened to the tendrils of the jellyfish inasmuch as the leitmotif holds water when it comes to going deeper (and deeper still) into the substrate where creativity can gain purchase, scaffold-like, and thereby blossom and burgeon?
Dear Langwidge Lover: We regret to inform you that our guest—the illustrious Mr. Humbert—has left our premises in a huff, without exchanging so much as a word. He did slap on top of that blue table over there a rumpled slip of paper on which he evidently scribbled something on his way out the door. Let’s see, the slip says…
Oh my. Sorry, dear Langwidge Lover, but the subtext there seems to be that you’re up the creek, without a paddle. Please hang up now, and try your call again later.
Character develops itself in the stream of life.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We Debrief 🎬
We Emerge Unscathed
Now that was quite a pickle we just got ourselves out of, wouldn’t you agree? That business of writing under a pseudonym, something told me, was snake-bitten from the start, beset at its outset as it was by the equally flustering business of pseudo-randomness: Our poor pseudonymous guest (Mr. Humbert Humbert) sure got the deal of his life as he tried to field the penetrating barrage of questions with which he was bombarded, even as he was called by names—Humsing, Humvee, Humberson, and Hummerson were only a few of those names—that were any but his own.
To make up for that (asinine asymmetry in the unfolding of events unannounced), we are going to honor his presence—all of the 30 minutes that he graced our digs—by a replica of the picture that had marked the onset of our trek. Yes, scroll down some to behold one more time that selfsame, long, and winding autobahn.
A Choice To Be Made
And as it appears into view, let yours truly—I’ve been called a sprezzatura by my well-wishers and also some less-charitable names by the not-so-much-well-wishers—leave you with the words of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre when he remarked that
One must choose whether to live one’s life or tell it.
The choice is yours. You have to live a life that’s right for you, not merely an aura (of you and your life) that somehow sounds right. Do you want to tell your life rather than live it?
You see, the world is packed with people just like you and me who have made—and continue to make—choices solely because they thought it would make their telling of their life that much “cooler.”
Can we resist such temptations? Can we shut our ears to the siren calls of fads and fashions? There’s got to be more to life than that.
Creativity And The Authentic Self
Imbued with the wherewithal of the oh-so-elusive stuff that is creativity, I am firmly of the opinion that we can repulse those siren calls which can—and will, if heeded in folly—buffet us in the treacherous seas of distraction. So let’s you and I choose to resolutely swim with the currents of our authentic self. Shall we?
Let’s refuse to be anyone but ourselves.
Embracing creativity can—and will—help us in this area.
The seas can be choppy and the road long and winding—depending on how you view the journey metaphor—but there’s no better time than now to begin your own journey to a more-creative you, a more-fulfilled-you.
I won’t even pretend that I have the answers—let alone all of them—but let’s you and I rig our worlds for creativity, always reminding ourselves that
Character develops itself in the stream of life.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe