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Some Ramblings On Creativity

As an artist I don't really think about creativity until I'm going through some sort of block. On days when the inspiration seems to slow (and this happens to everyone), you might be in the shower and begin to wonder what 'creativity' is and how one can keep being more creative. When you have a project or deadline, you cant just wait for inspiration. You have to work through it, and train oneself to keep a flow of ideas going. Below are just a few of my thoughts on the subject, examples from my creative heroes, and ways one can try to be more creative.

My notebook. Usually everything begins with ideas scribbled here. Its not pretty.

Creativity in my opinion, is something you have or don't have (like someone's ability in mathematics; I know I'm just bad at it, but I can still practice to improve a bit), but creativity can be encouraged and trained if you want. It leads us to a legitimate question: why do you want to be creative? if you follow Jordan Peterson's lectures, The Curse of Creativity, he argues that those endowed with creativity are burdened with a gift or an ability for which they might struggle with their entire lives to try and be recognise or make a reasonable living from: yet a life without creativity leads them to wither and die (sometimes literally). Creativity, and making a living from it especially, is a zero-sum game. It's one reason why many creative people have some sort of melancholy or depression. If you want to be happy, why torture yourself?

Frustrated scribbles from my notebook

A creative person potentially faces a life of financial struggle if they pursue their creativity, or a life of frustration and unfulfilled ambitions if they don't pursue it instead for the sake of material comfort or societal and family expectations. Isn't it better to just be born un-creative and happy working at an insurance company or somewhere like that, rather than creative and most probably frustrated and struggling to make ends meet? Well... while making a living from creativity might be tough, a good reason to still pursue creativity is the joy of being creative for its own sake. As one of my favourite writers Henry Miller wrote:

Henry Miller

"There is the happiness which comes from creative effort. The joy of dreaming, creating, building, whether in painting a picture, writing an epic, singing a song, composing a symphony, devising new invention, creating a vast industry."

We shouldn't think of the financial goals too much, but just enjoy the creative process for its own sake. Why is being creative so enjoyable? Two reasons: I believe the happiness which creativity brings, is ultimately tied to a sense of triumph over death. Secondly, through art and creative acts we can share/communicate with out fellow human beings.

Humans are afraid (subconsciously or not) of death, and we respond to this fear in two ways: 1) subsuming ourselves in life and the crowd and not think about death; by being too busy working, commuting, chores, drinking, sex, drugs, doing whatever it is we do to distract us from the thought that our lives are meaningless and soon to end. 2) Desiring to rise above death somehow by leaving a mark, doing something meaningful that we hope will last longer than we do by creating a work of art, a novel, music etc, and so give us a sense of immortality. 'Creating' children and raising a family is also part of this category. Creating, is a way of cheating death, and we are happy when we do.

When an artist creates, they are ultimately sharing; sharing their view of the world with you. You either like a work of art because you share the artist's view, or you don't like it because you don't share that view. That's why art is subjective. Another way to put it, is that an artist is communicating with you. This communication is perhaps best felt when we read a book by an author, and we feel that they are talking to us directly; as if they knew our situation in life and talking exactly about that. One of my favourite writers, Henry Miller, understood that and argued that it wasn't enough "write a good book, a beautiful book, or even a better book than most. It isn't enough even to write an 'original' book!" He goes on to say:

"One has to establish, or re-establish, a unity which has been broken and which is felt just as keenly by the reader, who is a potential artist, as by the writer, who believes himself to be an artist...And we are all unique. The longing to be reunited, with a common purpose and an all-embracing significance, is now universal. The writer who wants to communicate with his fellow man, and thereby establish communion with him, has only to speak with sincerity and directness. He has not to think about literary standards-he will make them as he goes along-he has not to think about trends, vogues, markets, acceptable ideas or unacceptable ideas: he has only to deliver himself, naked and vulnerable."

Henry Miller was talking about writing, but the same can be said of all arts and creation. Creativity is not just a means to combat our fear of death by leaving a mark for all time, but a way of communicating and sharing with our fellow human beings what we feel it is to be human.

Creativity doesn't come from thin air, or nowhere out of the blue. It comes from your various sensory experiences throughout the day. Staying locked up in a dark cave, blindfolded, is probably the worst thing you could do to be creative. We need to go for walks, explore, expose ourselves to new experiences and things and be open to them! I am amazed how people will go on a trip somewhere new and not have any opinion about it because they didn't really open their eyes to something they can't understand or recognise.

James Joyce, scribbled draft of Finnegans Wake

One also has to work at creativity. By that I mean very few ideas are perfect first time round. You might be lucky and score a 'hole-in-one' on the rare occasion, but most ideas take time to formulate and then go through a refining process. Don't expect the results of anything to be perfect on the first go with no corrections or alterations. Some artists make it look easy and some want to give the impression that it is divinely inspired. Michelangelo for example, destroyed many of his preparatory drawings (the ones he didn't consider good enough anyway) so that people would think his work was perfect without changes. It is rarely the case in reality. But many artists cover their tracks simply because the process doesn't look so impressive at first. One of my favourite illustrators Yuko Shimizu describes her initial sketches as 'brain puke'. I think that is the most appropriate term.

Hokusai, Red Fuji, from the '36 Views of Mt Fuji' series, circa. 1836

Creativity is sometimes called 'good plagiarism'. What that means is that a creative idea is usually made from two or more old ideas that already exist, but put together in new ways to make something new. To take an example of my own practice: Hokusai's 36 Views of Mt Fuji (something that existed since the 1830s) + the BT tower (a childhood memory of mine, and something many people have seen) = 36 Views of the BT tower (a new Ukiyo-e inspired way of looking at London). You have to connect things you see around you which other people have perhaps so far, failed to do. In that sense, nothing is "new" or truly "original".

Original pencil sketch of BT tower

I had a photographer friend who was working hard to create some new photographs. She was drawn to Zen Buddhism and ink paintings, and kept studying those, but found it hard to create something new. In other words, the artist in this case was only looking at the same thing time and time again but not exposing themselves to something new to add to the equation. You have to go out and explore completely new things to combine your ideas with. If you open your eyes, you will realise you are surrounded by new things all the time, but we tend to think and want to see only what we want to. Our brains are lazy and recognise what we know and can impose on the world around us. We have to try break that sometimes. When you see an insect, don't just think "its just a bug", think "what different colours this creature has from others, different shapes, how can I use or incorporate this in my work?" This may sound trite, but think of Franz Kafka's novel 'The Metamorphosis' about a boy turning into an insect...

Digital print of BT tower

Inspiration is therefore all around us, and there is no need to necessarily go somewhere exotic or special to be creative, but it does potentially expose us to new things that may be helpful in our quest. Hockney wouldn't be Hockney without his experience of living in the bright light of California which he injects into his landscapes of Yorkshire.

Going back now to those slow days, I just keep in mind what Hemingway said. Think what you like about him, he was a disciplined artist that worked extremely hard at his craft:

"I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it."

Knowing when to stop and take a break is important. What you do on that break is also important. Relax, look at the world around you, take time to think, and ideas will come. Express things which are also relevant to you and your experiences. Chances are that if they are relevant to you, they will be relevant to other people too.



Nov 08, 2022

Enjoyed this article, thanks. It made me think the word creativity here could be replaced by "entrepreneurism." Sometimes being creative (good plagiarism) is what some people do to build a whole new business. "Creativity is sometimes called 'good plagiarism'. What that means is that a creative idea is usually made from two or more old ideas that already exist, but put together in new ways to make something new."

Edward Luper
Edward Luper
Nov 08, 2022
Replying to

Yes exactly! creativity doesn't belong just to artists. entrepreneur, scientists and inventors too. Thomas Edison is the perfect example of the inventive entrepreneur. Any inventive problem solver in fact.

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