Monday, June 11, 2012

What is Creativity?

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.


  1. I realize that I'm heavily biased, so you may not believe me, but you are DEFINITELY creative! Remember how you would tell stories when we cooked together? And you used the example of a young child writing a good poem - I wish I still had the card you sent me when I went off to BYU. I showed it to my friends because it was so good that nobody would think that a 6-year-old could write it.

    When I decided to major in math, I was 13 years old and not too concerned about my future job prospects. I assumed I would eventually change my major to something more practical, but I just kept wanting to take more math classes! I had no intention of going into a math-related career, but I wound up with a math degree because I loved it. Now I have a job where I get to do math all day, and it's great (although if I want better pay or benefits I have to get over my fear of speaking in front of a classroom). I think you're making a good choice, as long as you're okay with the possibility of a low income. You could choose a major that would lead to a high-paying job that you wouldn't like, but what would be the point of the money? Wouldn't you just use it to try to be happier? I'm not in favor of bypassing happiness in pursuit of money (although the best situation is getting both)!

    1. Thank you, Carrie! I have to agree with you--happiness definitely does not equal money. But there are a lot of things that money CAN buy, that I love, that aren't necessarily material. For example, time with my family. No limits on how many children I can afford to have. The opportunity to travel. Comfort in my old age (and possibly my parents' comfort in their old age). Education. The safety of knowing that I could pay for medical needs for myself and my family, if anything bad were to happen.

      So, sure, a nice car and a house would be nice, but there are a lot of things that money can buy that aren't necessarily material but would provide a lot of security, comfort, and peace. Research shows that relationships suffer more in lower-income families than in higher-income families. There are a lot of benefits to having money that can really improve a person's quality of life.

      Anyway, that's kind of a long rant about stuff I'm sure you're quite aware of, but it's just to say that it's a bigger sacrifice than it may seem to accept the possibility of a low income. I had to really come to terms with the fact that I'm willing to sacrifice a lot of things, if need be, in order to chase my dreams and do what I love.

      Of course, that's not to say that I'm necessarily going to sacrifice all of the things I mentioned in order to write. Actually, I hope I don't, because I don't think it's worth it. But I might have to sacrifice some of them. At the very least, I have to accept that it's going to be a balancing act. By choosing my dreams, I have to give up knowing for SURE that I will have the kind of security that comes with money. In any case, my life will probably be harder. But I've concluded that it will be worth it.

    2. I pondered mentioning this last night and didn't because I really had to get to bed (and also because it sounds pretty sexist). But my comments were influenced by the idea that, if your life goes according to plan, you probably won't be the major source of income for your family. If you are in a situation where you're earning the majority of the income, there's a high chance that you'll already be missing out on some of the things you listed (like having as many children as you want). I would probably counsel a man to be a bit less willing to accept a low income, to have a backup plan, and to search harder for a career that would pay well even if he would enjoy it somewhat less than his first choice. (But I don't think I could ever advise someone to deliberately go into a career that he knew he would dislike.)

      A woman who expects to be a stay-at-home mom someday is already planning to take a huge hit to her future income. If she winds up not taking that path, I would hope that she is involved in something very rewarding. I've had jobs I hate, and I can't bear the idea of forcing myself to slog through that for half my life just to have security and a nice retirement.

      I also think that as long as someone is earning more than the minimum required to pay for the basics of living, a lot of the other things you mentioned are achieved more by good planning than by just having a higher income. I think a lot of upper-middle-class people feel just as financially strapped as lower-middle-class people, just because it's human nature to expand our expenses to meet our incomes. Ken and I have never had higher incomes than we do now, but our pay raises never seem to make us feel richer. If our income doubled tomorrow, I bet we'd feel great about it for a year or so, and then we'd get used to it and start feeling like we needed more (unless we could discipline ourselves to keep living on the lower amount and save the rest).

      Boy, I have a ton to say on this topic! But I'm going to stop now.

  2. I agree with everything both of you have said! And I would add...

    I have a lot of respect for people who do jobs they hate just to make ends meet. I had several friends in Logan whose husbands worked two jobs to make sure their wives stayed home with the kids. They didn't like their second jobs, but they did it for the sake of their families. There are millions of jobs in the world that are horrible but still need to be done (ever seen the show Dirty Jobs?) I truly admire those who take on these jobs to contribute to the world and make money for their loved ones without complaining. Not everyone can have a job they can't wait to get to in the morning (or at night).

    Also, I believe Emily should get the education for a job she wants. I am starting to think about what I am going to do when the kids are both in school, and sort of thinking about going back to school myself for a master's degree. Kids don't stay young for long, and a part-time career while they're still at home that expands to full-time when they're grown is not that far-fetched. It's possible that it's not too many years away, depending on when you get started and how many children you are able to have.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Annette; I couldn't agree more. What you and Carrie have said brings up the point, too, of being a stay-at-home mom and NOTHING else. I really admire people who do that and give up everything else so they can focus all their attention on their kids. However--and this might seem very ill-fitting for a BYU student--I don't think I'll be one of those people. I want to stay home with my kids, but I don't think that has to mean I won't have a career. I think that's one of the great things about the digital age; we really can have the best of both worlds, if we want it. But it's not easy, of course, and it requires a lot of focus and balance.

      So this might surprise some people, but I don't plan on giving up writing when I have kids. A career is not a "back-up plan" for me. I know a lot of really amazing women who are fantastic mothers who also have careers they're really committed to, and I think they're just showing their kids a great example that they can follow their dreams no matter what. Don't misunderstand; I certainly don't want to be a "career woman" or to put my work above my family. If I ever did have to choose, or if one ever got in the way of the other, I would give up writing for my family, hands down. But I personally believe that, with the career I've chosen, I can do both.

      Actually, I really don't like the word "career." I prefer the word "dream." My biggest dream is to have a family and another dream of mine is to write. And I don't think those dreams are mutually exclusive.