When I was in First Grade, our class was introduced to haiku, the classic Japanese form of short poetry structured in three lines, of five, seven and five syllables each. After our teacher explained the concept, read us some examples, and showed how to count syllables (do they still do the thing where you put your hand under your chin while enunciating words?), we were told to take out a sheet of paper (this stuff, remember?) and pen our first haiku. I thought for a few minutes, dutifully jotted one down, counted to make sure the syllables worked out, and handed in my work.
Some time later that day, I was summoned to speak with our teacher, and there were a couple of other grownups behind her desk, though I did not know who they were. Uh oh! Trouble! The teacher asked me where I got the poem I had submitted. I told her I wrote it. She nodded and asked if I wrote it by copying it out of a library book. I said no, I just thought it up and wrote it down. She kept pressing me on other possible sources for the little poem, and I kept telling her that I made it up, following her instructions. She then asked me to define a specific word within the poem, and to explain a specific phrase. I answered her as best I could.
I do not recall or have that entire poem intact anymore, alas, but I do remember that the issues that led my teacher to call in the guidance police and interrogate me on whether I had actually written it or not were my use of the word “ere,” the elegance of my alliterative phrase “gray-green grass,” and the fact that I inadvertently did exactly what a haiku was really supposed to do — juxtaposing images around a seasonal reference — while most of my classmates were writing straight literal odes to their cats or toys or mothers. Clearly, no little country cracker from South Cackalacky should have been able to do that, right?
The thing that finally convinced the teacher and the school-yard Stasi agents that I had not somehow plagiarized the poem was the fact that when I was asked to read it aloud, I pronounced the word “ere” as “err-eh,” (I had only seen it in my favorite poetry book, but had never heard it spoken), so my middle syllable count was actually off by one. So apparently, I really hadn’t been carrying around a little Bashō masterpiece in my Speed Racer lunchbox just waiting to spring it on someone for my own gain at an opportune moment. I was dismissed and off to recess I went, a bit concerned and confused.
Some time soon thereafter, I was promoted directly from First Grade to Third Grade, branded smart beyond my limited years, at least in part because of that little poem. I learned three key things from this confluence of events:
- Being creative can cause trouble
- Being creative can open doors to opportunity
- People correlate artistic creativity with full spectrum intelligence
I have never stopped writing since then, for pleasure and for pay. My first real job was as the “Teen Editor” of the Mitchel News when I was 13 years old, per the photo at left. I was supposed to be a beat reporter, doing interviews with new kids and documenting the things in which the young people on the military base where I lived were presumed to be interested. But after a column or two like that, I got bored, and I started doing record reviews of Jethro Tull and Steely Dan albums instead, or handicapping sports seasons (Remember the NASL? I went out on a limb and predicted that my beloved Washington Diplomats would win the 1978 title. I was wrong), or writing creepy poetry about some of the weird old buildings and spaces on the base. I also gave the way-popular movie Grease a thumbs-down, one-star, bomb review, eliciting howls of rage from most every girl I knew on base, and the guys who wanted to impress them. That might have been the bridge too far.
I was fired from the job after about a year, because my creative voice was not the creative voice that the newspaper’s publisher desired me to have, or at least to create, for his readers. So I learned a lesson there, too: creative writing and “technical writing” (for lack of a better term) were not the same thing in the eyes of publishers and readers, and there was a difference in the things that I wrote for myself and the things that I wrote for others. (Well, I also learned, much to my chagrin, that my cushy desk job writing stuff was a whole lot easier than cutting grass, delivering newspapers, clearing brush, or washing dishes, all of which I had to do at one time or another to earn my scratch after I was chucked out at the press room, alas.)
That distinction between creative and “technical” writing is true to this day, of course, although then and now, there’s always been one thing that sort of sticks in my craw when I actively ponder it, and it’s the fact that I do not perceive either form of writing as requiring any more of less creativity than the other, though only gets called “creative.” One type might require research, one type might not. One type might require the creation of characters, one type might require creatively describing real characters. One type might require me to write in dialog or dialect, creating a voice for other people to speak, one type might require me to speak in a voice other than my own to appeal to the whims and tastes of the people or organizations who pay me for my efforts. But they all require creativity.
I enjoy both types of writing, in different ways, and in different times. When I sit down with a blank page or a blank screen before me, and I get up some time later leaving a big blob of words behind, I feel that I have created something. It may be a newsletter column, it may be a poem, it may be a story, or it may be a Credidero article. All equal in my mind in terms of their worth (though I know from experience that in the eyes of those who pay for my blank paper and computer screen, my “technical” writing is of far greater value), all requiring the same basic sets of linguistic skills, all involving creativity. I have to start with an idea, I have to formulate structures around the idea, I have to put the idea into a meaningful context, I have to deploy resources to ensure the idea is valid, I have to find the right words to share the idea with others. When that’s done, I have made something, from nothing. Voila, creation!
Interestingly enough, this concept that humans can be creative and practice creativity is actually a shockingly modern one in Western Culture. In Plato’s Republic, the wise old Greek philosopher is asked “Will we say, of a painter, that he makes something?” and he replies “Certainly not, he merely imitates.” For centuries, the widely-held philosophical belief was that only God could create something from nothing — creatio ex nihilo — while we mere mortals were stuck with imitating, or discovering, or making, or producing, oftentimes guided by inhuman forces, like Muses, or Daemons, but certainly not creators in our own right. Poetry was one of the first arts to be granted license to be seen as an act of creation, with other written texts, and other arts genres following in the 19th Century. It was only in the early 20th Century when Western people begin to speak of “creativity” in the natural sciences and technical fields. So whether they realize it or not, the creative folks today who (somewhat pretentiously, to these ears) call themselves “makers” instead “artists” are actually invoking a 2,000-year old paradigm that (again, to these ears) devalues the fruits of their labors, rather than (as likely intended) anchoring them as somehow more “real” or pragmatic that the stuff that the arsty-fartsy types produce.
I find the long and wide-spread cultural reluctance to embrace and value creativity as a deeply personal, deeply human, deeply individual endeavor or trait to be fascinatingly awry with own beliefs and experiences on this front. When I interview for jobs or freelance assignments, or even in just regular conversations (because I’m like that) and I am asked what I consider to be my greatest skill, I always default to “communications” — I am a story-teller, at bottom line, and I can make people believe in my organizations’ work and mission, by talking to people, and by writing to people. If you hire me, I’ll do the same for your organization!
I create narratives on the job, sometimes from scratch, sometimes from consolidation of extant texts, but there’s a deep creative element to both of those activities. I also tell stories on my own time, fictional ones, poetic ones, accounts of events yet to come, documentation of events gone by. A concert review is a story. A fundraising appeal is a story. A speech is a story. An explanation of a research finding is a story. I am a story-teller. And I would not be a story-teller if I did not possess a finely tuned sense of creativity, and a desire and skill to create something that did not exist until I turned my mind to it. I can’t imagine my mind, in fact, if it was not anchored in that desire to create stories. I have done lots of creative things in various creative fields over the years (a bit more on that later), but my stories and my writing are as intrinsically me, myself and I as anything else I do.
I generally think of this a good thing, though research may indicate otherwise. A study involving more than one millions subjects by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reported by the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2012, found that, as a group, those in the creative professions were “no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism.” Phew! But wait . . . within that surveyed cohort of creative types, the researchers did find that writers (!) had a “higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves” (!!) and that dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder.
Well, uhhh . . . yeah. That. Kettle, pot. Pot, kettle. We writers are apparently the most damaged creatives, the Vincent van Goghs and Roky Ericksons and Francisco Goyas and Nick Drakes of the world notwithstanding. For the record, if I look back at the my family tree just for a couple of generations, and across a couple of close cousin branches, every single one of those disorders appears, often multiple times. So is the creative drive that I think of as a gift or a blessing actually just a side symptom of a spectrum of mental illnesses passed on to me as part of my innate genetic code?
Maybe. The suffering artist stereotype probably didn’t emerge without evidence, after all, and when I think about the periods in my life when I was most floridly, obsessively creative (not just in writing), they probably do correlate closely with the periods when I felt the most vulnerable or damaged. Being driven can be a good thing. And being driven can be a bad thing. Beautiful stories can emerge from dark spaces, and dark narratives can emerge from a happy place. Keeping busy and being productive can be cheap forms of self-administered therapy, or they can be positive manifestations of a mind well, truly, and happily engaged.
I think of big part of managing my own creativity is being self-aware enough, through long experience, to know which of these conditions are in play at any given time, and to create accordingly. In the 1990s, to cite but one time-place-topic example, I wrote a novel, called Eponymous. It was about a dissolute musician-writer named Collie Hay, beset with a variety of substance abuse issues and mental health problems, written in the first person, explaining why and how the writer wrote, and knitting a narrative about how creation and destruction often go hand in hand. The epigraph of the book, the very first words you read when you open it, say “For the Demons . . . Fly away! Be free!” The very last page of the book, in the author’s bio, says “J. Eric Smith is not Collie Hay. Honest.” But, uhhh, y’know. Of course, I’d say that. I’m a writer, and not to be trusted.
One review by a trusted colleague who was also a damaged writer type noted “Eponymous is a hall of mirrors. J. Eric Smith, the author, who’s been an upstate New York rock critic, has written a book about an upstate New York rock critic who is himself writing a book. The book-within-a-book device is hard to pull off, but when it works (see Tristram Shandy and Adaptation) — and it works well here — it’s lots of fun.” And it starkly lays bare the correlations, at least in my case and in my mind, between written creativity and dysfunction, without even really bothering to explain them, since they just seem(ed) to me to go hand in hand, as a given. It also felt good to write, and some demons did, in fact, flitter off as result of having written it. Poof! Therapy!
(Side Note #1: If you want to read Eponymous — and 20+ years on from creating it, I’m not sure I’d really recommend it to you — find a cheap, used print version of it, not the Kindle version. It was adapted as an e-book without my permission or supervision, and a lot of the internal formatting [there’s poems, lyrics, other stuff of that ilk] got messed up and is very difficult to read on an e-book reader. I don’t make a penny from it either way, so it’s your call if you want to score it, but I just don’t want you to have to struggle with a nasty mess of on-screen gobbledygook if you do wade into the thing).
While I’ve focused my personal observations here on writing, I should note that I have been and remain creative in other ways too. I’d claim photography as the visual art form in which I have the greatest interest and skill, and I’ve been a songwriter, singer, musician and lyricist over the years as well, though mainly in my younger days. Until precisely 1993, in fact, I would have cited music as my primary creative skill, and the one which I was most willing, able and likely to achieve success (critical, if not commercial) over the years.
How can I date that end point so accurately? That was the year when we got our first home computer and I got online for the first time. My home recording studio began gathering dust soon thereafter. For a long time after that when people would ask about how my music was going, I’d say “I’m in remission as a musician these days,” so once again, even way back then, I was lightly associating creativity with illness, even if I laughed it off in so doing. But we all know that every joke has a bit of truth behind it.
(Side Note #2: If I could snap my fingers and have any job in the world, hey presto, right now, I would want to be the principal, non-performing lyricist for a commercially and critically successful musical act. The Bernie Taupins, Roberts Hunters, Peter Sinfields, and Keith Reids of the world have got good gigs! I have had the pleasure of having my poems recorded as lyrics by a few musicians, and it’s deeply satisfying, let me tell you. That’s likely to be one of the areas I’m going to focus creative attention on when I retire from my last day job accordingly. Maybe the group or singer that hires me would let me provide the photographs for the album covers and promotional materials too. A fellow can dream, right? Even a broken creative fellow?)
So creativity has touched and shaped my life in a variety of ways that fall under the “artistic” umbrella, but the amount of time I spend on those pursuits pales in comparison to the amount of time I spend at my job. Sure, writing and speaking and story-telling are cornerstones to that, and as noted above, and I feel that those facets of my professional work are every bit as anchored in my core, latent sense of creativity as are my most absurd and fantastic pieces of fiction and poetry. But just as the concept of creativity evolved and was adapted in the early 20th Century to include the sciences and technical endeavors, the latter part of the Century saw the definitions expanding further into organizational, operational, and business dynamics, and the ways that groups use creativity to build and sustain corporate culture.
Look at tech behemoths like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Netflix, just off the cuff. Sure, there were certainly some blindingly creative people within their corporate structures who made the technical products and business services they provide, but they would not be what they are today without other visionaries imagining, designing, and implementing completely new business models and marketing approaches unlike anything seen or experienced before them. The brains behind those new business models were certainly engaged in forms of creativity, making new and valuable things (many of them concepts, not stuff), filling market spaces that nobody knew existed before they dreamed them up and monetized them. If you had told me when I was a teenager that by my 55th birthday I’d be able to listen to any song in the world while watching a movie, doing my banking, typing to a pen pal in Australia, and playing a video game, on my phone, at the beach, all at the same time, I’d have said you were watching way too much Jetsons for your own good. That’s just silly, Astro.
The transformative nature of the tech sector means that much of the recent and current research into and writing about creativity in the workplace focuses on organizations and individuals within the Silicon Valley sphere of companies, because the cause-effect-impact relationships there are easy to identify, evaluate and explain. But the work that many of us do in non-technical sectors can involve just as much creativity, and can have just as transformative an impact within our organizations, or within the smaller external spheres in which we operate. I’m confident that 100 years from now, the types of activities that are granted “creative” status by default will expand to include countless more fields and activities, many of which are unknowable or inconceivable today, even in the creative minds of the most brilliant futurists.
But maybe we shouldn’t wait 100 years to afford “creative” status to certain endeavors that aren’t seen as “earning” it today. We’re all creative, each in our own ways, every time we produce something that wasn’t there before we cast our hands above the waters and say (to ourselves) “Let there be a thing,” whether anybody else knows we did it or not, whether it has any use or value at all to anybody, whether it can be experienced in the world of the senses, or only within the spheres of our minds. We may create alone or with others. We may create to heal ourselves or hurt ourselves, others likewise. It may feel good, or it may feel bad. We may intend to create, or we may create by happy accident. It’s all the same: “Let there be a thing,” and there will be, and sometimes it might even be really, really good.
Creatio ex nihilo was long the sole province of God, or the Gods, or Muses, or Daemons, or other inhuman forces swirling in the vapors around us. I believe that by claiming creativity as our own human right, in all the things we do, and celebrating its fruits, we don’t denigrate the God(s) that inspire us, but instead become ever more like them.
Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this sixth article complete, I roll the die again . . .
. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number One: “Community”
All Articles In This Series: