The Pain & Paradoxes of CREATIVITY

Published: 6th April, 2020

“Fuck you Isabel”, my mind screeched as I was about to put a spoonful of steaming hot Indian breakfast soup in my mouth. No matter how much I enjoyed the sensation of something hot flooding the in-betweens of my tongue and teeth on a cold winter morning, the only thing that interested me then was where did "Isabel" come from? And why did I curse her?

I don't have a single friend or a family member with the name Isabel, neither have I ever met someone named Isabel.

Somewhere along the way, I think the word Isabel embedded itself into my subconscious and probably, got mixed with something else that was already in there. Then, at the right moment–which is never for me to decide, but the subconscious itself–it decided to blurt itself out.

Blurting out of randomness is maybe just trash piling up in the head and being vomited. But what if it is more? What if, it's the subconscious trying to whisper an idea for a poem, a story, an app or a film? What if it's the universe giving me a chance to be creative?

“Every time you hear an echo from your Subconscious, you know yourself a little better. A small echo may start an idea. A big echo may result in a story.”Ray Bradbury, Zen in the art of writing

For a good part of and until the first half of the twentieth century, the genesis of ideas, creativity and the creative individual were kept from serious scientific research. Creativity was, so to say, too complex and frivolous to be studied by the white coats.

This doesn't mean creativity and creative contributions weren't recognised. They were. Recognised and celebrated, but not understood. Questions like, what is creativity? Why do some people find it a good idea to spend years before a big break, and if not for a break, their entire lives tortured on streets squiggling lines, splashing paint and writing words?

And those whose contributions do succeed and are recognised, how did they do it? How did they manifest in the world something that was only in their heads? How did that thing get in their heads in the first place? And from the lives and accounts of such individuals why all of them agree that pushing something out of your skull and into the world often is damaging, or the result of damage, or, both.

When the questions are abundant and the answers are few, we have a reputation of turning to god, religion, myths and our mothers.

“Where did you keep the pink sock again mum?”- Nash

Up until the mid 20th century, the concept of genius and the muse sufficed to explain creativity, the creative individual and creative outputs.

Romans believed that a gifted person had a genius, a guardian angel, a conduit to their inspiration. The one that whispered ideas, sometimes clear sometimes wrapped in vague abstractions like "Fuck you Isabel". Along the same lines lies the myth of "muse". A divine spirit that visits you and makes you make stuff. The day when you paint in a fury is the day when the muse was sat right on your shoulders. And when you waste the most creative part of your day producing utter shit, that day, the muse didn't choose to visit you.

And if you’re one of those who can’t ever write a poem, a book or paint a picture, or sing an original lullaby to your cat, then you don’t have a genius or a muse. You are a piece of...

At least that's what the Romans said.

When you wrap mysteries around myths this beautiful it takes Science a long time to come around and pry through it.

If you go by the words of self-help gurus who always have answers to everything including what F.R.I.E.N.D.S character I am if I own pink socks, then, "Everyone is creative". We all have jewels buried inside, we're just waiting for the right moment to unleash our “creative potential”.

Such opinions on creativity make you feel better and maybe that’s why they sell. But, on second thought, such opinions aren't really wrong. We humans, as a specie are creative. We rule this planet. Despite having 0 actual in the wild surviving capabilities, no sharp teeth or nails, can't sprint for more than 5 minutes, can't climb trees quickly, can't camouflage, can't survive cold without the aid of ripped off skin and fur. Our infants are defenceless and can't walk for fucking years and are annoying as shit. Despite all this..

We rule this planet.

Because we have language, language gives us thought, thought gives us the ability to conjure stories, people who believe in those stories can organise themselves in groups, groups collaborate, groups rule.

Thought gave us the power to look at a log of wood and imagine a car. That same thought gives us the ability to dwell on the past and fear the future. That's imagination, that is creativity and in that sense humans by definition are creative.

“The ability to generate ideas/artefacts that are new, surprising, and valuable – is an aspect of human intelligence in general”- Margaret Boden

And that, could’ve been the end of the story.

The Production Gap

Even if we take "everyone is creative" to be true in a scientific sense. There are still facts that make accepting that a little uneasy. Maybe we're not ready yet to admit it to ourselves or to our friends or to our children or to our friend's children that even if we're all creative some of us make more things, do more things, make better things, suffer more and suffer better.

That gap of all of us being creative and some of us faring better at it is understood by the self help industry as lack of motivation.

Pick a few sentences out of the famous talks and quotes and you will see that all they are teaching is motivation. They are pushing you to make more stuff, get that thing out of you. This, in itself, has whole another value of its own but that is not teaching creativity is it? Assuming that creativity can be taught in the first place.

In 2004 Margaret Boden published a study which had a segment talking about classifying creative outputs. If the result of a creative process is something that is new to all of humanity or makes an impact on the course of civilisation it's H-creativity or Historical creativity. And when you make something that is new to just you, and doesn't have an impact on the human civilisation, it's personal creativity or, P-creativity.

Now to be "more" correct, not every creative output can be exclusively put into a P or an H bucket. Things make more sense when you consider P and H creativity as extremes of a spectrum and not one of two trash cans, wet goes here and dry there. I didn't mean trash cans I meant buckets. Most creative outputs go into the trash anyway so fuck it...

The point is, if you try and put whatever you have made, or anyone else has made into the H-P Creativity spectrum, it will find a place in it, and in that, everyone again, is creative. The Dreamcatcher you designed last weekend can sit with Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in the same spectrum just way left near the Personal end.

But why the gap–even in the H-P creativity spectrum–when all of us are born creative? Is the self-help industry correct? There's just a lack of motivation? Most of us just aren't motivated enough to fully utilise our gifts or even recognise them?

The Biological Gap

Two groups, preferably of equal sizes are considered when performing scientific research. Research, say to establish or to learn more about the differences between a group of a selected specimen and the rest of the population.

The group being tested for the difference is called the test group, or the oddballs. The other group is the control group, which is used as a benchmark to establish the difference.

For the 1987 research titled, Creativity and Mental Illness: Prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives, Nancy Andreasen selected a test group of 27 men and 3 women writers. She made sure that the group represented a valid cross section of contemporary American writers. These are our oddballs.

The writers were matched for age, sex and educational status to an occupationally varied group of 30 control subjects. The 30 control subjects formed the control group.

The 60 individuals (test group + control group) were studied and tracked for mental disorders and illnesses for 15 years. At the end of 15 years 2 of the 30 oddballs had committed suicide.

The writers were also found to have significantly higher rates of alcoholism (30%, compared to 7% of the control group).

43% of the writers had had some type of bipolar illness, in comparison to 10% of the control subjects.

Andreasen also observed that it was not only the individual writers but the families of the writers were riddled with both creativity and mental illness, while in the families of control subjects much of the illness and creativity seemed to be randomly scattered. This also to some degree confirmed the earlier arguments of researchers like Lombroso and Ellis who argued that creativity and mental illness run in families and both tendencies are hereditary.

Andreasen's and other similar studies suggest that the behavioural gap between the writers and the control group had something to do with biological traits. This lies in parallel with the school of thought that suggests creativity is a biological trait in the sense that not everyone is creative but only a few of us are. We're born with it and in the end it cannot be taught.

All of this can be better understood like so.

A trait is a genetically determined characteristic. Extroversion is a trait, introversion is a trait and some, including me, would argue, being an asshole is a trait as well. We're all genetically predisposed without a single say to be introverted extroverted criminals sadists masochistic sanctimonious e.t.c e.t.c

In any case, consider a biological trait, we'll call it O. O for obsessive, other, over-the-board, oddball, otherworldly? I don't know. Obtuse? I said I don't fucking know! Leave an introvert in a social setting for enough time and they will wither, isolate an extrovert from social interaction for enough time and they will start to wither too. Stop an O from making things and they will wither just the same. It's not that making stuff makes them happy, it's that not making stuff makes them really unhappy.

That's the line. There is the biological gap. I am okay not writing that poem I felt like writing, you'll be okay not completing that story that you started, you'll be just fine procrastinating buying paint to finish your half-painted piece because the paints ran dry. Every day you will look at the half finished canvas and it will not affect your mental health. And even if you finish something, the feeling of it being not good enough will not make your cerebrum pound. But it will do all of that and more to an O, sometimes leading to erratic behaviour, alcoholism and even suicide.

To draw an approximate parallel, you can see obsessing over cleanliness is just another biological trait, some of us are born with it. I cannot live with dishes in the sink, but maybe you can, in which case I hope you burn in hell.

One very small window of the house of creativity opens towards the sea of greatness and we accept that to be the entire truth.

And it's not our fault. Availability bias makes us do that. If I ask you to recall a red flower the word Rose will start forming in your mouth even before I finish the sentence. Which isn't wrong, but just so that you can only recall one red flower doesn't mean there are no other red flowers on the planet. Some are in vases in offices, some in the hair of a pretty girl and some growing beside a gutter.

If I ask you to recall someone creative you'd probably end up naming a celebrity, which isn't wrong but there are other people who are equally or more creative but aren't celebrities. They could be a waitress, or they could be rowing a boat across Venice singing an original poem. Rose is a famous red flower and celebrities are famous creatives.

Because your mind equates being creative to celebrity to success/money and applies the transitive law it has us believing creativity = success the entire time. Which is only true for a very very very small fraction of people who are creative and dare to monetise their creativity, or can earn money being creatives. And then, there's a whole industry promising to teach you creativity and a whole another set of people telling you it's biological, creativity can't really be taught. Whom will you trust? Best selling authors or the people whose minds screech fuck you to imaginary females while having soup for breakfast?

I don’t want you to leave this mind blurb of mine with definitive answers, because I don't have any. I expect to leave you with questions you never questioned before. Because questions mean movement. If an answer is a full stop, a question is a turn of a new page, the touching of an ink soaked nib onto a fresh white hot paper. Only questions worth attempting to answer are the questions that sprout more. Because what will we do if we have answers to everything. Where is the god we’ll run to with our bag full of answers saying “Here, we now know everything there is, now what?”.

We’re all different with faults and follies and gains distributed on a lottery. Instead of yearning for something you didn’t get, it does better to look into your bag and make something good of the junk you did get. As a specie, our differences in temperaments and interests is precisely why we have managed to do what we have done. We put a man on the moon for fuck’s sake, and that was about 100 years ago. If we were a specie of everyone writing poems about the moon, we would’ve never stepped on it. So young, so beautiful, so ambitious, so wounded we are. There is chaos and beauty and there is no other place, no heaven we’d rather want to be in or we can. If a god ever shows up we’ll show him our scars, our betrayals and the human condition, we’ll also show him our music, our dance, our paintings, our best selling books, our dreamcatchers, we’ll show him people laughing in the face of mortality, lovers embracing each other in the face of inevitable separation and then we’ll ask him, "Wouldn’t you wish to be one of us?" And he’ll probably say yes.