September 10, 2010

On Creativity, Part III - What If?

        If creativity consists in making new things and making things new, the next question is clearly, "But how does it work?  How do you do it?"  Stephen Nachmanovitch (in Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts) says, "What we usually call creativity involves factors such as intelligence, ability to see the connections between formerly separated facts, ability to break out of outmoded mindsets, fearlessness, stamina, playfulness, and even outrageousness."  I like this definition, but it describes an awfully tall order.  I look at it and begin to doubt my own creativity.  I know I don't have much stamina, sometimes I feel pretty dense, and how successful am I at breaking out of outmoded mindsets?  I wouldn't know, since if I haven't broken out of them, I can't see that they're outmoded.  And most people think of intelligence as something they cannot change, just like their creativeness, reinforcing the idea that creativity is some nebulous attribute that a special few people magically have.  The rest of us may as well forget about it.
        As opposed to Nachmanovitch's definition, I find a much simpler explanation of creativity compelling.  It may be less philosophically accurate than Nachmanovitch's perhaps, or less descriptive, but it's much more concrete and accessible.  It's something you can actually do something about.  My explanation of creativity is simply asking "What if?"  To elaborate, "What if" questions are, consciously or unconsciously, what the mind is doing when it's being creative, and creative people are those who ask "what if" questions.
        What I found when I started thinking about creativity this way is that I could more consciously prod myself to start asking "What if" questions in order to brainstorm more creative ideas.  (What if the character I'm writing about has to deal with people she likes doing cruel, stupid things?  What if I try to design a block to be printed with light ink on a dark background?  What if I tried telling a story purely in the form of letters between two people?  What if I take the ancient stylized symbol with three rabbits, and render it as if the rabbits were real animals?  What if D and I were inconveniently carried off one evening by a large dragon, and P and T had to rescue us?)  The more practice we have in creativity, the more our minds may slur across the individual questions and present us with compelling ideas whose origins we can't trace.  Nevertheless, somewhere in there, "what if" questions were being asked.  Deliberately coaching ourselves to creativity through the use of "what if" questions gives us the ability to show our minds the way, when they move sluggishly.  It allows us to do consciously and with some control what we thought we had to wait for our subconscious to do on its own.  And, like any exercise, it strengthens our ability to use creative habits of mind at all times, both deliberately and by receiving inspiration.
        It is through creativity, through asking "what if," that ways around obstacles are found, new insights are reached, and the world is not taken for granted.  That push toward creativity is the real power of art.

[Picture: Stairway in the Garden, wood block print by AEGN, 1998;
Three Rabbits, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.]

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