Sunday, December 6, 2009

True Creativity

Some months ago I was asked to write a chapter on dyslexia and creativity for a new book to be published in the United Kingdom next year. The chapter is done. But in doing it I was made aware once again how of central creativity is to my own investigations -- that is, real creativity -- not mindless reverence for the merely different or the shocking.

I my view, creativity is one of the highest forms of what human beings are capable of doing -- and often involves a perfect solution to a major problem or question -- whether in art or design or science or politics. Yet, the term and the idea are often misunderstood and frequently abused.

Many years ago, I attended a small conference on creativity organized by the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington, DC. The speakers were a Harvard psychologist, a local woman known for her witty books on ordinary life, a sculptor and a self-satisfied chair of the panel.

Many years later I happened to touch on the subject in a conversation with a friend of a friend. We did not know each other then but we had both attended the same small Smithsonian conference that day -- and we had both come (strikingly) to the same conclusion.

We had both felt that no one on the panel knew anything about real creativity (as we had experienced it) -- except, possibly, the sculptor. But it seemed that he had limited means of articulating his experience.

Other than the sculptor, all the panelists were mainly greatly pleased with themselves -- full of ego and arrogance -- immensely pleased with all their own cleverness and wit.

In contrast, we both felt that we had been privileged to experience real creativity -- which was rare as it was wonderful.

In both cases we had felt that we were taking dictation -- from some other place. Ego had no part of it. I can recall trying to write as fast as I could, fearing to lose some of the wonderful strings of words that fit together so beautifully and expressed exactly what needed to be said. Of course, in some sense it must have come from me. But is not how it was experienced. I was full of gratitude, as was my new friend.

We both saw that something of a true test of true creativity might very well be the unexpected perfection of the product or the solution to the problem. But there is no sense of how clever am I. Rather, there is deep gratitude at the gift one has been given.

In a brief prose essay, Robert Frost seems to have captured something of this sense of what it means to be involved in a genuine creative process --

“Scholars and artists thrown together are annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books.

“They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields. . . . The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic. . . .

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

“For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn't know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from a cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. . . .

“It must be a revelation, or series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader. For it to be that there must have been the greatest freedom of the material to move about in it and to establish relations in it regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity.”

Quotation from Robert Frost, "The Figure a Poem Makes," Complete Poems, 1967.