Creativity: Mysteries, rituals, and the power of practice

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

For the artist, the wellspring of ideas is like the Holy Grail: the elusive key to eternity, the stuff of legend. Creativity goes by many names: inspiration, invention, genius, The Muse. Where, though, does it come from? As writers, we’re obsessed by this question, desperate to derive a map to it, that we might come and drink from it as we desire, fearful that at any moment we may be cut off from it forever. 

As parents, you are confronted daily by the spontaneous creative explosions that are the norm for kids. What’s the only thing more creative than a bored child? A group of children. Hyped on sugar. 

I had a front stage pass to this innate, if raw, creative capability recently. When the play-date ended and I had a few minutes of quiet to work in my office, I sat staring at the cursor while it blinked at me. I had just been tossed about by a whirlwind of creative play, and yet found myself unable to articulate an idea, let alone a useable sentence for my Middle Grade fantasy-in-progress. (O! The irony!) Instead, my mind kept wandering not only to the question of where ideas come from, but to why it is it that kids and adults experience creativity so differently. 

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

So I turned to Google. What could it tell me about the sources of creativity? Apparently, it doesn’t exist in any one part of the brain. According to professor of psychology Arne Dietrich, author of How Creativity Happens in the Brain, creativity taps into many different mental processes. And contrary to the old adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ this 2016 Scientific American article from Tim Vernimmen posits that plenty may actually foster greater creativity. Very Maslowian. The other key factor? The degree to which we are interconnected as a society, at least according to psychologist Michael Muthukrishna. He’s supported by evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich, who (in the same paper) states, “History shows that inventions invariably build on earlier findings that are recombined and improved upon. Most of the things we use every day are inventions that no single human being could ever design within her lifetime.” 

So there are really no new ideas? Just new combinations of ideas? This sounds not only like it could be a quote from Audre Lorde or Mark Twain (which it very nearly is) but like we’re getting close to the idea of a universal mind, or “Over-soul” as Ralph Waldo Emmerson dubbed it. If you think this concept belongs purely with the Transcendentalists and psychologists (a la Carl Jung’s collective unconscious), then you might be interested to learn that eminent physicists David Bohm and Erwin Schrödinger (who won a Nobel prize) also support the theory that there is a single human consciousness which we only perceive as being individual.

I guess it could explain how multiple individuals, or even groups, can arrive at the same point of invention at the same time without communication: whether we’re talking cave paintings, pyramids, or plot lines. But why do kids seem to be able to tap into it so much more readily than those of us with a few more years under our belts?

It all basically boils down to consistently opening the door to invite the creative into our lives. The more often we open the door, the easier it swings on the hinges.

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Striving for Progress

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

– Voltaire

This has become one of my go-to phrases over the years, though it was only in researching this article that I found out who originally said it.  Voltaire’s words apparently best translate to “the best is the enemy of the good,” but that makes me like the phrase even better because now I can appreciate how a little imperfection in the translation actually made it better.

Years before Gretchin Rubin brought this quote back in vogue in her 2009 chronicle The Happiness Project, I first heard this line from a bunch of crusty old CIA officers trying to train the new recruits. They’d fling Voltaire’s pearls before us swine with the same intensity they brought to every lesson, condemning our Type A-ness as a potentially life-threatening flaw, while, in the next breath, berating us for achieving anything less than 97 percent. (Of course, none of those guys ever attributed the quote to Voltaire, though I suspect that they kept the source to themselves out of a matter of habit rather than ignorance. That, and because admitting to knowing Voltaire would have put a chink in the battle-hardened, professor-of-the-real-world exterior they worked diligently to maintain.)

But Ms. Rubin and those cranky old men would all agree (a weird mental image, let me tell you) that perfection is illusory. It’s the destination you’ll never arrive at – the mirage on the horizon. It’s one more hill to climb; one of your own making! Chasing it is a waste of time and, possibly, a surfeit of hubris. Keep that in mind the next time you’re panting to get through one more round of revisions or the ‘perfect’ birthday craft project.

But if we’re not striving for perfection, what are we striving for? Personally, I’m on board with the wisdom of my son’s super-inspiring pre-K teachers who say “practice makes progress,” rather than the much more restrictive and anxiety-producing adage I grew up with.

Here’s the catch, and you Type A’s out there will have already identified this: if we’re exchanging perfection for progress as our goal, how do we know when we’ve hit the mark? How do we know when we’ve lived up to our full potential as writers, or *gulp!* parents? If we don’t have perfection as our destination, how can we tell if we’ve done enough?

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