Friday, April 6, 2007

The Box: Part 1

Creativity is largely misunderstood in our culture, if not in all cultures. There is a mystique about it that we attribute to artists and craftspeople who "create" something from nothing; paintings, poetry, stories, music, etc. And while those activities are clearly creative ones, doing those things, in and of themselves, is not necessarily "creative," but merely "crafty."

You can write, for example, a highly derivative song, or one that isn't very good. You can paint a hyper-realistic painting -- one that requires an amazing amount of craft-skill -- but that says nothing that a camera couldn't say about the view that you're reproducing. Those acts aren't particularly creative, though they may require certain unique and specialized skills often associated with people who are also creative.

That's the tricky part. People who are creative often find ways to express those urges that require deep craft skills. Why? Because the demands of creativity are harsh and often intense. If you need to say, write, sing, paint, draw -- create -- something perfectly, you need those tools to be very, very good.

The tools you bring to the creative process are "the box."

What am I babbling about today? People are always talking about "out of the box thinking." That's fine. It's good to not be bounded by custom or routine. Problem is, to be truly creative -- and not just random -- you need to really understand the box before you can get out of it. Otherwise, how do you know if you're out of it, or just standing inside it upside down? Or if you have one foot inside and one outside? Or if you're just in another box very similar to the one you're trying to get out of?

Part of the myth of creativity is that "creative types" can kind of "float away" from the bonds of surly normality, loosening the grip of those mundane, typical ideas that keep most people pasted to common, ordinary ideas. "He's so creative," we'll hear about someone like that. "His ideas are so different." Well, to have different ideas, you need to know or have heard of the regular ideas first. And you need to know why some of them worked, and some didn't. It's no good coming up with a wildly different idea that somebody else has already tried, but that has already failed. That's not creativity; that's stupidity. That's no knowing that over there, on that side of the outside of the box, there be dragons.

When I was studying writing in school, we had to practice writing all kinds of verse that we didn't necessarily want to write on our own. At the time, I was not enamored of rhyming poetry. And I didn't like being assigned to write it. But being forced to write it gave me something; the ability to understand it much better, and to choose to write it or not. So now, I know that box better. I can get out of it, or not. But if I hadn't been forced to learn about that box (rhyming verse), I couldn't claim to be "getting out of it" when I write non-rhyming verse... it's not a creative act to do so. It's an ignorant act.

So the first step to freeing yourself from any kind of artificial construct is to understand it enough to be at least competent in it. To understand why someone else might choose to use it. That way, if you want to reject it, you're doing so because of a conscious choice, not because it's not a color you have in your palette.

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