A lot has been said about creativity, and even more because of creativity. Some writers seem to churn out a book a week, like they’re on some sort of creative-IV-drip. Others take a long time, and a lot of breaks, to turn their creative sparks into stories into publications. This leads to the question, are the first kind of people more creative than the second? Is creativity a limited resource for all but the best of us?
In a previous blog post I have discussed inspiration and how you can’t wait for creativity to find you; you have to go after it with a club. But there is a lot more to creativity than just being inspired. Many psychologists have studied creativity, over many centuries, and yet it still remains elusive. If the fictional people in the previous paragraph are any indication, there is certainly an element of personality to how creatively inclined a person is. While psychologists disagree on whether creativity is linked to intelligence, there does seem to be a clear link to mental illness, due to a certain personality type that is attracted to creative pursuits. That does not mean that people more prone to mental illness are more successful with their creative output. There are many different factors involved, as with everything else in life.
Aside from personality, which we can’t do much about, another important aspect of creativity is knowledge and skill. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction essay collection, A Slip of the Keyboard, at the moment, and in it he describes the importance of reading a wide variety of things. Not just fiction books, but history, technical stuff, basically anything you can get your hands on. And once this information is in your head, you can find it spilling out of you, transformed into a story that might look completely different from what the information started out as. The same goes for skill. Creativity is best built upon a foundation of skill, so that when it strikes you’re ready for it. There are all things that you can practice, ways in which everyone can be creative.
The most important aspect of creativity, in my opinion, is probably intrinsic motivation. The main reason some writers are more productive than others is because they manage to ignore everything else and focus on just writing as much as they possibly can. If you write so much, every day, you are bound to get better at it. It also means that you are right there, at your desk, ready to write down any inspiring thoughts that strike you, and keep producing work even when those thoughts don’t come. Many writers have said that they can’t tell the difference between the words they write when they are inspired versus when they are not.
Motivation is also the most important because it is the hardest to achieve. You can have the right personality, read up on all the things, and practice, but without proper motivation, it is hard to keep churning out stuff. It is certainly the aspect of creativity that I struggle with the most, as I often get demotivated by the thought that my work is not good enough. It’s also why things such as NaNoWriMo are so important, because they offer some nice external motivation to make up for any lack of intrinsic motivation to ‘suck’. Unfortunately, external motivation doesn’t last nearly as long as intrinsic does. If I ever find out how to keep my motivation-switch permanently on, I will be happy to share it, but I suspect it is a different kind of switch for everyone. Please do share how you manage to stay motivated in the comments though, maybe we can figure out the secret together.
Often discounted in discussions of creativity is the environment you are in. This includes the environment you grow up in. If your childhood has you surrounded by books and people writing, you are more prone to read widely, thus developing knowledge, and try some writing yourself, thus developing skill and the idea that it’s not that hard, which feeds back into your motivation. Even if you didn’t have this nurturing environment as a child, there are still things you can do with your workspace as an adult to help you be creative. Sometimes it helps to sit in a cafe, observing people, gaining knowledge in that way. This is again something that differs for everyone; some people need to turn off their internet, some people thrive having twitter side-by-side with what they’re writing. You do you, as the hip kids say (do they still say that? I feel old now).
While I have focused here on an artist’s creativity, and of course writing, there are many different types of work that require creativity. Science is built upon creative endeavours, new ways of looking at old problems. While a scientist requires a different personality type and knowledge background from a fiction writer, they both thrive when they are being creative. Scientists just use creativity in a more restrained, functional manner, which links back to differences in personality types and might very well be why there isn’t a link between science-style out-of-the-box thinking and mental illness.
There is however an interesting link between science and fiction writing, with a lot of scientists who try their hand at writing fiction churning out great books. This probably goes back in part to Sir Pratchett’s motto of accumulating interesting facts. Whatever it may be, I hope I will someday be one of those scientists who becomes a successful writer.