As you know, I love Elizabeth Gilbert, and I love what she has to say here about creativity. This made me reflect on a question I've thought about quite often in the past few years: what is creativity? Where does it come from? Are some people more creative than others?
I was originally inclined to say that anyone and everyone could be a creative genius if they really worked at it. I don't like to put people in boxes and say that some people are just simply more creative than others. I like to think that quality work depends on consistent effort more than anything else.
But I realized that it isn't quite so cut and dried. Take Mozart. Mozart, a child prodigy, began composing his first symphonies when he was about four or five years old. Now, really. How many four-year-olds have you ever met who could compose a symphony? Or paint a masterpiece? Or write a poem that was remotely good? Or even cook their own breakfast?
Clearly, not just anyone can be a Mozart. Even if I decided to start devoting every second of my day for the rest of my life to learning to compose, I wouldn't be able to go back in time and make myself that way as a child. Maybe Mozart had a bit of a jump start--he was just born with talent, while the rest of us are a little more average when it comes to natural talent. But then we run into a problem: that's saying that we're each born with a level of creativity, and implying that nothing we can ever do will ever change that level. Maybe we can reduce our creativity by ignoring it, but no matter what we do, we can never exceed our maximum capacity.
I don't know about you, but that conclusion is a little hard for me to swallow. Doesn't effort mean anything at all?
Okay. Maybe I have an unhealthy obsession with this topic. Like I said, I've been thinking about this for years. I've actually been working on this post for a couple of weeks, trying to organize my thoughts, and it's just occurred to me that maybe what I need to be writing about--rather than speculating about the origin of creativity which I probably won't come to any kind of conclusion on anyway--is why I care about it so much.
My father was an engineer. It was very logical for him to be an engineer. He was good at it. It paid the bills. It didn't interfere much with his family life. It was very useful. And on top of it all, he liked it, too. See? It makes sense.
I admire my dad more than almost anyone, and for a brief time as a child I actually wanted to be an engineer. But it became very clear at a very young age that that wasn't the right path for me. And the older I got, the more terrified I became that I might actually end up doing something that...*gulp*...didn't make sense.
Making sense is very important to me. One of my greatest joys in life is winning arguments. (It's very painful for me to let go of an argument when I know I'm going to win. Even when I know that the results may involve crying and silent treatment. It's one of my greatest failings.) So the idea of doing something just because I love it was actually pretty scary. What if I couldn't make any money? What if I couldn't figure out how to do it and still be a good family member? What if, what if, what if...?
Most of all, though...what if I wasn't good at it?
That would make the least sense of all.
And when I realized that what I really love is creative writing, I started thinking about creativity and whether I had it. That was when I got caught in this death spiral discussion with myself trying to figure out whether I was creative, or what kind of creativity I had, or whether I could learn it...
I mean, after all, if I'm creative, then it makes sense for me to be a writer. But if I'm not creative, then I'm toast.
But as you can see, I never quite came up with an answer to whether I was creative or not. So I had to make a decision. Either I had to find a new dream, or I had to be willing to push forward whether it made sense or not.
It absolutely terrified me, but I believe I remember the day when I made the decision, closed one door, and opened the other wide.
I was at a major fair last year. (Does that already make my story sound silly?) There were two particular presentations I wanted to attend: the English major presentation, and the Journalism major presentation.
Journalism, of course, makes sense as a major. There are lots of clear-cut careers in journalism. English, on the other hand, is a lot more vague and open-ended. And as we all know, English majors are just naive students with no ambition and no talent; they just ended up in the major because they like to read. (Right?)
Journalism was first. I followed the group into the building, up the stairs, into a cramped, windowless room. I stood in the doorway, unwilling to commit to actually sitting down.
I have no idea how the presenter started introducing the Journalism major--I'm sure she did a brilliant job--but a few sentences in, I took a glance around. The students wore very serious expressions, their eyebrows knit analytically. They nodded in a superior manner, as though they already knew the ins and outs of the major. I stared at the blank, windowless walls of the journalism building.
I walked out. I went straight to the English major presentation.
And I have never looked back.
Since then, I have added an even more seemingly impossible element to my dream of being a writer; now I want to be a travel writer. And maybe it is impossible. Maybe I'll change my mind. But I've gained this: I'm no longer a prisoner to what makes sense.
Not that doing things just because they make sense is a bad thing. It worked out well for my dad, and it works out for countless other people. But I sincerely believe that it's not what I was meant to do. I was not born to live in fear of a creative, fulfilling future.
Maybe I wasn't born with a pile of burning creative writing energy. Maybe I'll never be able to learn it. But at least I'll be doing what I love and I'll be trying my level best. I won't be stuck in a windowless building surrounded by nodding people with knitted brows. (I guess I should stop saying that...I mean, I have nothing against journalism majors. Seriously. In my experience since then, they are really wonderful people.) Even if I'm a starving writer cranking out manuscripts out of a basement--eating mac & cheese every night--drinking brandy out of a flask--in a room filled with cigarette smoke--unable to get anyone to read my writing except my nearest, dearest family members...
Okay, well, no brandy or cigarettes, seeing as I don't drink or smoke. And heaven forbid the mac & cheese. But you get the picture.
Happiness is more important to me than logic.