The Paradox of Creativity


September 15, 2017

Creativity is mythologized.

Many times we think of creativity like the ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. We think of creative people as those who are able to come up with original ideas out of thin air and transform these ideas into creative masterpieces. We are not quite sure what goes on in that process, but we know that our favorite artists, writers, and musicians have some speical ability that we reuglar folks do not have.

Countless people can read and write proficiently, but few have ever written a substantive written work. We tell ourselves that we just don’t have the natural talent. A psychologist might diagnose us with a harsh case of cognitive dissonance; it is easier to believe that a successful pursuit of creativity is beyond our grasps than to take action to bring it within our reach.

Creativity is intimidating.

When engaging in a creative pursuit, we are setting ourselves up for failure. After all, creativity is a process of constant failure. Regardless of medium, it takes a tremendous amount of practice for us to be able to achieve a creative vision and it takes an equal amount of studying to conceive that vision in the first place.

A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.

– Paul Valery, “Recollection”, Collected Works, vol. 1 (1972)

Starting a creative project is not the difficult part for me. It is not uncommon to experience a flurry of creative energy in the beginning of a project. I have an idea or a concept that I want to see reach its potential. Soon, however, I realize that my initial idea was incomplete or too fuzzy to know what to do next.

Creativity is hard work.

This summer, I worked on creating a series of folktronica songs using primarily my mandolin and an analogue synthesizer. The synthesizer itself was a new tool to my process and I really enjoyed exploring how it fit into my workflow. I like the songs that I created quite a bit and some have made it over that hump of initial creative energy; others still need refinement, a bridge, or more time to see where they will go.

Through this process, I think I learned a few ways to stimulate my own creative process. I found it incredibly encouraging to engage in my creative medium with other people. Every Tuesday evening, I and a few friends would break out a song book and play music just for the fun of it. While these songs did not relate directly to the music I was working on, it helped to break the monotony of practicing on an uncomfortable chair with dorm room acoustics. I also found our group’s different musical tastes, approaches, and interests refreshing.

I also learned a few techniques for handling the temporal aspects of creativity. While I often worked during time I set aside specifically for creative work, I also found it useful to carry a notebook and a portable audio recorder around for when I came up with something outside of that space. This helped me to deal with my biggest creative struggle: time. Creativity demands our time–the type of time that requires our energy.

Creativity is worth it.

Creativity does not exist in a vacuum. No person is simply a creative person; in contrast, we all have the ability to create, but it is not easy. Creativity requires that we conscientiously work to improve our craft. Creativity requires that we think big and challenge ourselves to embrace being uncomfortable.

Instead of an ouroboros, the creative process is more like a tangled knot of a million snakes each pulling and intertwining on each other. It may not be as clean or pretty of an analogy, but the results show that the effort is worthwhile.