What’s Behind the Creative Impulse?

This article appeared originally at Remake Learning, a blog of the Kids + Creativity Network in Pittsburgh

We’ve been pondering exactly why the “creativity” piece of our Kids+Creativity Network is so important. There’s plenty of neuroscience that delves into how the churning gears of our brains come up with divergent ideas and, on the other hand, what stifles them. But if you ask creative minds, there seems to be another consensus on the creative process—it’s a mystery. Nobody really has a universal trick.

That’s not for lack of trying. Benjamin Franklin took “air baths” (sat around naked), Beethoven ground 60 beans into every cup of coffee and Georgia O’Keefe was an early riser. But the routines of creative minds still leave the age-old question unanswered: Why do creative ideas hunker so deep into the crevasses of our grey matter when they’re desperately needed, yet rise up so bright and clear while we’re shampooing?

For Paul Simon, that utter mystery of the creative process is “part of joy.” In a conversation at The New Yorker Festival with Paul Muldoon, poetry editor of the New Yorker, Simon did offer one hint. He told a story about how as a kid he would walk along with his head down, in case there was dime on the sidewalk. “And then one day I found a dollar. So you see you have to be always looking.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, writer of “Eat, Pray, Love,” echoes that sentiment in her TED Talk, “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” After writing her internationally best-selling memoir, Gilbert wrestled with the likely possibility that the greatest success of her career was behind her. But something she learned relieved the pressure of forcing a new creative idea. She discovered that ancient Greeks and Romans believed creativity didn’t come from human beings, but rather distant, unknowable spirits that unexpectedly paid visits. The Romans called these spirits “geniuses.”

Gilbert explains that, rather than fretting over how to yank creative ideas from the depths of our consciousness, openly waiting for visits from a “genius” teaches us to be receptive, and to forgive ourselves if the inspiration just doesn’t come.

“Why not think about it this way? Because it makes as much sense as anything else I have ever heard in terms of explaining the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process. A process which, as anybody who has ever tried to make something knows, does not always behave rationally. And, in fact, can sometimes feel downright paranormal,” Gilbert said.

Working hard and learning to love the process while receptively preparing for a “genius” is a bit like keeping your eyes peeled for a dime and finding a dollar. It pays to always be looking—and being ready for creativity or luck to hit.

“Lucky people take advantage of chance occurrences that come their way. Instead of going through life on cruise control, they pay attention to what’s happening around them and, therefore, are able to extract greater value from each situation,” writes Tina Seelig, quoted in a post about making your own luck over at Brain Pickings, a font of information on creativity and innovation. Making your own luck turns out to have a lot of parallels to tapping into your own creativity—both take awareness and patience.

Being receptive to floating muses is part of the battle in the creative process. But other creatives stress dogged persistence and trusting instincts.

“I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads ‘Don’t think!’ You must never think at the typewriter—you must feel,” Ray Bradbury has said.

Absorbing the wisdom of scientists, artists, and luminaries is eye opening, but there’s another group of people whose creative impulses are particularly unfettered—kids.

“During pretend play, children effortlessly describe objects as other objects and then use them as such. A comb becomes a centipede; cornflakes become freckles; a crust of bread becomes a curb,” writes James Geary, author of “I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.” Because their brains aren’t yet conditioned to narrow patterns of thinking, kids have wild imaginations and a natural talent for metaphors .

Fostering that creativity is an important part of learning. There’s an “A” in STEAM, after all. While technology is propelling new ways to teach hands-on STEM, art is just as crucial to nurture, especially as districts struggle to hold on to funding. Nurturing creativity and giving kids the chance to explore doesn’t necessarily result in oil paintings and concertos, but rather in divergent ways of problem solving and rewarding ways of self-expression.

There’s no limit to the creativity that flows from kids once they get a chance to express it. As Maya Angelou once said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use it, the more you have.”

By Kathleen Constanza

Photo courtsey of Krissy Venosdale