Scientists often complain that non-science people use the word “theory” incorrectly. In science a theory is something that is backed by so much evidence that it perfectly describes and predicts something. It’s a variation of a Law. The theory of evolution is equivalent to the law of gravity. To the general public a “theory” means “something I imagine to be true”; exactly the opposite of it’s actual meaning.
There is a similar misunderstanding in the arts. People, both inside and outside the field, refer to ideas as “creativity”.
Imagination is not creativity, it’s just imagination. We all have it, artist and layman alike. But creativity has, at it’s root, the word “create”. To actually create something is to be creative. Not to be involved in actually creating things is not to be using your creativity.
In the study of creativity I believe there needs to be a more well stated taxonomy of production that allows for a description of all the steps in the process. The raw chain of events could be described as:
Loading – Imagining – Editing – Creation
Loading is the effort it takes any imaginative person to achieve a high functioning imagination. It’s going to include things like reading books, watching movies or TV, going to new places or having new experiences, meeting people and having relationships of various quality. These things all serve to fill your mind with new ideas.
Without the raw material that comes from external input imagination becomes limited and often mystical or disconnected from reality. Knowledge and experience gives the imagineer lots of raw material with which imagine art-objects that will speak to others in real world ways. A book might have a moral or give an emotion that leads to a touching lyric. Or it might be a book about writing lyrics or music and it just changes the way you approach the subject of the creative process altogether.
The next stage is where your imagination is put to work in the service of imagining a compelling idea for an art-object. This is the phase where you decide what it is that you wish to create. A song, lyric, playing style or even “how to get the kids to eat vegetables”. Sometimes, with the proper loading, an idea will come, seemingly, “out of the blue” and you will suddenly have an all-but-finished art-object idea. This often is accompanied by a squirt of positive brain chemicals and an overarching emotion. That’s when you know you’ve really rung the bell and come up with an idea you can really believe in. The best art-objects are emotionally driven. But that emotion doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from the loading of life experience combined with knowledge that help explain to the imagineer what it all means. Much of this happens subconsciously, but often it comes from having thought about it. Those who notice their own imagination working will notice that things that come from out of the blue are often answers to some question that the artist has been pondering such as, “why do I feel this way?”, “why did this happen?”, “how can I describe the awesomeness I feel?” or “where did I put my keys?”
Sometimes imaginative ideas take a bit of effort. People who work every day in the creativity industry can’t afford to rely on some magical inspiration to strike them out of the blue. They are often on a deadline and have to create something NOW! and it has to be high quality and be appropriate in whatever context that art-object will be offered, whether a movie cue or desert topping. In context, movie cues make lousie desert toppings. At this level of imagineering you can see the need for extensive pre-loading of knowledge and experience. High quality creations come from, generally speaking, people who have spent a considerable amount of time studying and experiencing a wide array of different things. There are many books available on the topic of how to get more ideas and I encourage you to look into it.
There are many techniques to prime the pump, the standard being; “think long and hard on the subject then stop, relax and forget about it and the solution will emerge as if from out of the blue over the next little while.” This one works well because most people do think long and hard about the solutions to their problems or for the road maps to their goals. They just don’t often realize that they are actually attempting to use imagination to achieve the result they are after. Those results could be anything from, “how can I have this 7/4 section pleasingly change into this 11/8 section of the musical piece?” to “how can I eat differently and still enjoy eating?” . Both require some imaginative effort to make them happen with a pleasing outcome.
In giving your desired outcome the consideration it requires it’s usually a good idea to write down or record every idea that comes to mind. Every one, without editing, judging or being critical of any of them. This will stimulate your imagination to look down new avenues of thought and has the added bonus of giving you excess material that you can possibly use in another project.
But, taken to the extreme, imagination can have a dark side: enter, the “idea hamster”. We’ve all met someone like this. A thousand ideas but none of them ever gets finished. Some call this “brain crack” because idea hamsters are clearly more interested in the little squirts of endorphins and dopamine, and the resulting emotional boost that accompanies successful brain transactions, than in the work it takes to actually follow through and create something. They are often good folks and well intended, but can be surprisingly ineffective on a team that requires actual accomplishments. In the music world they are the ones that write 20 songs a week but are so busy writing new ones that none of them get edited, recorded or performed beyond the moment of creation.
For the truly creative person there must be something they are actually intent on creating and emotionally driven to create. To this end the creative person needs some idea that has been thought out, but more than that, some idea that’s been run through the rigours of editing so as to refine the idea and polish out the quirky or unworkable bits so that upon execution it will yield a result, an art-object, that is exactly as the artist intended.
It’s been said that “great songs are not written, they’re re-written”, meaning that though the first draft, which is the main heart and soul of the art-object given directly from the artist’s muse, is the foundation on which to build the piece, it’s not always the best version that will completely capture the emotion and vividness in the art-appreciators heart and mind that the artist requires it to. The re-writing, the Editing Phase, is where the raw ideas take shape and become the thing that the artist is seeking to express to us. A change of wording here or a new chord there or raspberry sesame dressing rather than balsamic vinegarette. It’s all in the editing stage that these little nudges towards perfection occur.
But don’t be a slave to the edit. The hardest thing for an artist to do is know when the piece is finished. I believe it’s this one thing that separates the pros from the rest: they know when to stop editing the piece and begin the next phase, creation.
Creativity, to be creative is to actually create something in the real world, outside of the imagination. Whether a sculpture or play, a song or delicious meal for it to qualify as a creative act it must be created, ex-utero, and birthed into the lives of those for whom in was intended.