There is a myth about creativity that will surface in almost every conversation about the subject. It may not be expressed in quite the same way; it isn't even always said. But at the bottom of almost every discussion on creativity is the belief that creativity is about authenticity, it is about being unique, being different, being an individual. When a person does "what no one has ever done before", she is being creative. When a person copies or incorporates ideas or methods that have been used before, he is being dull and uncreative.
What Creative People Never Tell You About Creativity
But here are three things that every artist knows but is reluctant to admit…three reasons why the confusion of creativity with authenticity is misleading:
1. Only God Creates Out Of Nothing
Ex nihilo is the Latin phrase the Church used to explain that when God made the world, He didn't have any starting materials. He made it all from scratch. Out of nothing.
Every creative person thereafter has been building with His lumber. We are, as it were, painting with a fixed palette. All our so-called inventors are not making new things; they are taking existing things and combining them in such a way as to bring new possibilities to our world. A musician is working with a finite amount of notes. In Western composition, 12 to be exact. In Eastern melodies, intervals "within the cracks of the piano keys" are acceptable, but even then, the possibilities run out. Every dye ever made reflects a color God first sprayed in our universe. Even in our most creative work, when we join with God to co-create life, we are not creating something out of nothing. The building blocks of art are ancient.
2. Imitation is an important part of creativity.
OK, so not much room for disagreement on the first point. But here's is where things get a little dicey. No one who truly aspires to be creative cares to admit the amount of imitation they've engaged in. I recently went with my wife and Rob and Sarah Stennett to hear the award-winning short story writer Tobias Wolff do some readings at Colorado College. He talked about how in virtually every field of art imitation was an acceptable form of learning. Painters might begin by sitting in front of a Monet and trying to recreate it. Musicians will mimic riffs from Hendrix or Armstrong or Coltrain. But writers are somehow disdained for writing stories that imitate Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
Why the double standard? Why not come out and admit that imitation is how we learn to create, in all fields? Imitation places us inside the head of an artist, making us see the notes they chose and the ones they ignored, the colors they blended and the combinations they used. It lets us peer at the world through their eyes as we try to re-create their "creation". Since none of us are making new "materials", we can learn about how to rightly combine these materials from the works of others. We learn to talk, to put words together, by being spoken to; we learn to pray by praying the prayers of Scripture; and we learn to create by re-creating the works of others.
3. Creativity is a combination of "theme" and "variation".
OK, so if we're not creating ex nihilo, and if imitation is part of the creative process, then where is the individuality, the uniqueness? It is in the way we reference the "theme" and the way we vary from it. What this means, then, is that the unwillingness to include any part of "theme" or a norm in our work means that we've lost any point of reference for others. It may be "creative", but it is isolated and esoteric. Let's think of it this way: a language that is truly unique is also utterly useless; it is a language known and understood only by you. It is gibberish. So, any art that refuses the inclusion of "theme" or even fragments of a template is an art that is individualized to the extreme. No one else can participate in it or benefit from it or be inspired by it. But if what we create is to have some sort of "public service" to it (the word "liturgy" comes from a Greek word that means a civic or public service)– and not all art has to– it must be willing to submit to "theme and variation."
If you think about it, human beings are unique not in an absolute sense, but we are unique in the way themes and variations of those themes combine in us. We all have themes of God's image in us; we are sullied by the familiar stains of sin. Yet there are infinite (?) variations of God's nature and sin's defacement in each of us. And it is those combinations that make us unique. This may be disappointing to have to admit that we are more like each other than we had supposed, that no one is truly all that different. Even more deflating is the realization that if we all sought to be "extraordinary", no one would be extraordinary since extraordinary would then be the new "ordinary." We find ourselves, then, pursuing creativity like a teenager wanting to be different: we want to be different, just like everyone else. And so we are forced finally to admit that we are all more similar than different. We are living displays of theme and variation. And so is everything we make.