How To Be Creative

| January 19, 2014

 “Language serves not only to express thoughts, but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.” –Bertrand Russell

I’m writing about creativity today. When thinking about such elusive topics I often start with a “seed,” then mull it over and see where it may lead me. This post is my “thinking out loud” for the morning.

Creative writers take pleasure in language, much like creative photographers do in visual compositions. We don’t just aim to be understood or to pass along dry facts, we want the very experience of coming in contact with our work to be enjoyable and valuable to our viewers and readers. It is probably also true that, as photography is becoming more popular and more people are striving for excellence in image-making, language in many cases exhibits opposite trends, which is regrettable. But, that’s a topic for another time.

These thoughts came to me as I ran across some old pre-workshop questionnaires submitted by former participants, and examined their responses to a question regarding what they hoped to learn. Two answers caught my eye: one person said they wanted to “learn to see” and another stated they wanted to “learn to be creative.” The commonality is subtle but undeniable – both expressed a desire to learn a skill they already have. Of course, neither is meant in a literal way, but I did wonder about the risk of being led to incorrect answers by asking the wrong questions.

A desire to “learn to see” clearly does not refer to the physiological or cognitive skills required to perceive visual information, and in the context of photography, it can readily be understood as a wanting to improve one’s ability to compose successful images in a variety of situations. When expressed in this way, addressing the issue becomes easier. Any number of lessons and techniques exist that can be taught and practiced and contribute to the photographer’s “visual vocabulary.” This, however, is not the case with creativity.

Consider one of the more commonly used definitions of creativity: the production of something both novel and useful. In other words, just coming up with something that had not been done before is not sufficient. The product should also have demonstrable benefit.

Let’s start with the requirement for novelty. How do you teach someone to do something nobody thought of doing before? The very question is a paradox. Teaching requires that tried-and-true methods exist, which lead to predictable outcomes. Considered in this way, another paradox presents itself: creative people are least likely to pursue well-trodden paths. The very existence of a recipe that can be applied toward predictable results is the opposite of creativity.

Usefulness may be an obvious requirement when creativity is applied to, say, computer software or electronic devices, but what makes a work of art useful? In my mind it comes down to the degree to which it enriches the experience of the person viewing it (i.e., it is subjective and not quantifiable but can still be examined in terms of whether it exists or not).

With these definitions and challenges in place, then, how do you teach someone to be creative? Better yet, can you teach someone to be creative?

This is where a rephrasing of the question may come in handy. If we assume that all humans have the capacity to be creative (which, I believe, is a plausible premise), then the real issue becomes one of degree and requires a different approach than a how-to lesson. Put a different way: it’s akin to the difference between teaching someone to ride a bike versus training them to win a bike race, assuming they already know how to ride. For each scenario, the focus, methods and processes are very different. In the former case, the focus is best placed on such things as accomplishing proper balance, how to make turns, how to use gears and brakes, etc. In the latter, the focus is different: strengthening of specific muscles, proper nutrition, developing self confidence, etc.

So, if people already have the capacity for creativity, however it came to be, then the real challenge is not to help them acquire it from scratch, but to train it in order to accomplish creative solutions to a greater array of challenges. As with the bike example, the focus becomes isolating and exercising the things known to lead to better creative performance. Think of it as training the “creative muscle,” which surely is a much more achievable task than evolving one from nothing. Not easy, but achievable.

Now I can write about creativity, and hopefully say something … useful.

Convoluted Paths


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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (7)

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  1. Roy Abbott says:

    Excellent outline of the issue, but “isolating and exercising the things known to lead to better creative performance” is a tall order. I’m not sure I know what they are, but my guess goes along those lines. I think it is a pattern of thinking which involves trying things which seem interesting and being confident enough to judge the results yourself. If occasionally someone else confirms that judgement it is a helpful affirmation of your ability and the quality of the idea. Not something which can be taught or learned easily.

  2. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you, Roy! Studies of creativity are a fairly recent phenomenon so, while we know some things, we still don’t have all the answers. It is a fascinating subject to think about, though. Certainly it’s a tall order and not easy, but these are among the things that make thinking about it and trying to decipher and teach it so rewarding.

    “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” –Rainer Maria Rilke

  3. Roy Abbott says:

    The Rilke quote is great way to put a positive spin on a “defeatist” attitude.

    I’m glad you are focused on studying creativity. There is certainly an analytical aspect of your personality which in addition to your talent might be important in isolating new insights.

    One thing which I can’t get out of my head is the notion that perhaps creativity can’t be taught. Years ago I had the pleasure of hearing Kurt Vonnegut, who was teaching at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop at the time, talk about teaching creative writing. His conclusion was essentially that, except for minor tweaks, it couldn’t be done.

    By the way, I just read your iBook More Than a Rock and loved it.

  4. Great analysis, Guy. I often believe that the majority who ask “how to see” or “how to be creative” are least able or willing (most often due to work, family, or other commitments) to invest the time and energy necessary to “see” and create. These are often incompatible goals within our instant-gratification culture, and no e-book, blog, or workshop can replace the time that should be spent DOING. Besides being born a photo-prodigy (such a thing?), there never have been any shortcuts and I’d suggest that the journey is as rewarding (if not more) than the actual work itself.

  5. Having worked in quaity management for most of my life, I have heard time and time again that people believe that they are not naturally creative. My experience, though, has shown me that people simply do not recognize their own creativity, and by using a strengths perspective, they are able to tap into what already exists within themselves and expand its application.

  6. I think creativity can be taught. However, I think there are prerequisites that include mastery of the camera, software and emulating the great photographers who have come before. Whether capturing a clearing storm from tunnel view in Yosemite or lighting a pepper, cabbage leaf or human form. Only when you’ve mastered the technique can you move in a new direction and do creative work. For me, developing an “artistic voice” has been a mater of trial and error until I found the subject matter that mattered to me.