The Mystery of Creativity

The world thrives on creativity. From entertainment to the arts to science and business, creativity plays an important role in giving us novel ways of looking at the world and solving problems. Thousands of books have been written on the topic of creativity. Many claim there is no mystery to creativity, and they offer approaches and exercises to make creativity “easier.” But there is no denying that there is no clear explanation for how and when creativity will “hit.” In my own creative endeavors, I’ve noted various approaches I’ve used.

Computer programming. In the early days of microcomputers and personal computers, there was a periodical titled Creative Computing. Computers were opening up entire new ways of looking at problem solving and hobbyists and experts were just beginning to recognize the potential for recreational computing. When I took a course in assembly language programming forty years ago, our homework had to be done on a DEC PDP-8/E minicomputer. Given an assignment to instruct the computer to flash the console lights from one end to the other, I went one step further and wrote a series of instructions that would produce more interesting patterns. A useful exercise? Only in learning how to tell a computer what to do at a very basic level. But mastering this in a creative way was very exciting.

Writing. I have long realized that the creative process in my writing is haphazard and difficult to describe, predict, or direct. For example, the development of the story in my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, involved a great deal of the following:

  • work on an idea

  • connect that idea to something else

  • sit on the idea for a while

  • turn the idea upside-down and see what happens

  • throw some new ideas at the work and see what sticks

  • trim away what doesn’t fit

  • go back to other ideas and see if they will connect

It was very much a process of evolution. It was also frequently like the process of accretion in planet formation, where over time bits and pieces glom together and attract more pieces.

Music. There are parallels in the development of music that I’ve written. I’ll toy around with a sound, a series of notes or chords, and jam with myself for a little bit. I’ll then develop something different, then think about how and whether those pieces could be connected. Then I go back in, as the work develops, and trim away excess while fleshing out other parts and laying down parallel tracks to give the music fullness.

Model trains. I’m currently working on a model railroading layout in my basement. It’s based on an N-scale train (one of the smallest size trains available), specifically a model of the Eurostar produced by KATO in Japan. There’s not much room in the basement, so the challenge I set myself was to construct something within a defined space, using as much of the track I have available as possible. I’m not into the highly-realistic scenery and detail that most train enthusiasts are. Instead, I’m trying to create something that looks futuristic. For the components, I’ve been collecting various household odds and ends, as well as leftover parts of various toys and toy systems, much like the found object concept in art.

Contrary to what some people claim, I still believe there is a significant amount of mystery to the creative process. This can be a cause for frustration when creative energy can’t be readily tapped, but it can also make for some real satisfaction in the end.

(For further reading, see Joe Fassler’s Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.)