WTF is Creativity Anyway?

The Thing I’m Making Today Is: A Commitment

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. WTF, exactly, does it mean to be creative? Everyone coos about my creativity all the time, but most of the things I create are, like, excellent grilled cheese sandwiches and snappy one-liners. This gives me a serious case of imposter syndrome, or something like it. What, exactly, are they seeing? Am I selling them a version of myself that’s not real? Is this my fault? Someone must be doing something wrong if someone sees me as creative.

But I don’t think that’s really what’s happening.

When we talk about people as creative, I don’t think we’re usually talking about what they make, although that can certainly be part of it. I think we’re talking about an unusual way of thinking or seeing the world.

But first, the dictionary definition.


This is helpful, I guess. It’s some words about a word that mean a thing, so we can all know we’re talking about that thing when we say that word. But it does nothing to help explain the feeling of creativity, those moments when you have to walk away from a conversation to write something down, or you wanna cancel your plans to stay home and edit an image, or the absolute yearning to make/do/experience a thing in a new way.

I’m curious about the thing that lives in our brains and whispers ideas to us.

I started today with a bit of research and came across this nifty bit from the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, whose acronym, PNAS, my brain can only read as “penis.” I’m sorry. I couldn’t live alone with that. Now it’s yours, too.

Anyway, the short version of the rather complicated research* is that creativity happens when neural circuits that don’t usually work together take a minute and cooperate. For example, our amygdala and prefrontal cortex aren’t usually buddies–the limbic system tends to fire when immediate survival is important, and it overrides our rational brains, which tend to think too slowly and calmly to do things like help us run the fuck away from a threat. Neither appreciates distractions by unnecessary outside stimulus, for the most part, who decides what’s worth remembering and what’s not. Life threat? Your amygdala is in charge. Alarm on your watch telling you it’s time to go to your meeting? Executive function steps in to tell you to gather you things and go. Unimportant? Your hippocampus dismisses it. All of these tend to be relatively singular functions (although nothing in our brains is completely independent).

Brains that are being creative, however, engage our lizard brains and our highest selves at the same time; all while absorbing and differentiating incoming stimuli. We make memories and remember stuff simultaneously. We get to play with the parts of our brains that react both irrationally and analytically, and we can access our memories while preparing for the future–ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

Yo. Brains are neat. This blows apart the myth that creativity is a right-brain function, which is cool because that means I can stop trying to write left-handed to improve my creativity, an exercise once suggested to me by a writing professor. I’m not sure it’s ever improved my writing, but it’s definitely made me feel like a frustrated, overgrown preschooler.

I haven’t figured out how else this is relevant to me, yet, except that I suppose that I could accept that my circuitry likes to talk to itself.


Here’s what I know about my own creative process:

I’m a cause-and-effect person. I gravitate to art forms that let you play within a pre-established framework. I love photography, for example. When I’m wearing my photographer hat (a relatively rare occurrence these days), my job is to capture magic at the intersections of subject, lighting, and perspective. I use a pre-defined and predictable set of tools to manipulate your perception of those intersections. There’s nothing particularly inventive about this sort of art, but I’m good at it.

I admire people who seem to create out of thin air. Avant garde thought processes seem antithetical to my own: I am comfortable illuminating what is, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be the sort to create or discover entirely new things. What would it feel like to live in Yoko Ono’s brain, or Lil Picard’s, or Wendy Whitely’s?

I wish I was more naturally experimental, but I am a perfectionist by nature. It is very important to me that everything I do is beautiful and right. How can a person play in an undiscovered world, then, if she can’t quantify or qualify her performance in such a place?

I get really stuck in this place between wanting to create and wanting to do well. Photographers can do a lot of things well, but to be honest, I’d rather be the person who invented the camera.

So that’s my goal. It’s my birthday in less than two weeks, and I want to dedicate the next year, my 39th revolution around the sun, to learning to create new things. I want to become more comfortable being wrong, I want to learn to do new things, I want to push the envelope of the new things I’ve learned. I want to be less concerned with outcome and more concerned with experimentation.

So here are my commitments:

  1. I’m gonna make something everyday, beginning on October 20, 2018, and lasting at least until October 20, 2019.
  2. Some days it will probably be neat. Some things might be really bad. I’m not going to worry about that part.
  3. I’m gonna learn everything I can about creativity in the process.
  4. This will be an open-book journey. Feel free to judge me along the way, although do that quietly. We’ll probably all be better served if you come here to play and learn, too. I’ll share what I learn, and I’d love it if you would share your ideas with me, too. Please?

So there.

The Thing I Made Today was a Commitment.

I have no idea what I’m making or learning tomorrow.

*It’s been 20 years since I’ve taken a psych class, so my understanding of What Brains Are might be muddy. Send me a message to correct me if I’m understanding anything wrong, but be nice.

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