What Creative People Never Tell You About Creativity

Paint-Palette-PROF1005-de 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. 

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.

10 thoughts on “What Creative People Never Tell You About Creativity

  1. Hi Glenn. I enjoyed your blog post on the matter of creativity. It is a fundamental truth of sound doctrine that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Culture at large takes this for granted, and it has contributed to the decline of meaningful art.
    My friends, who were educated at the Cleveland Institute of Art (a good school by measure of those in the field) have stories for me about meaningless conversations with classmates on what truly brings “creativity” and “meaning” to an object of art.
    Problem: We have substituted ourselves in God’s place as the STANDARD by which art is held up against. If it’s creative “for you,” then it’s creative. If you call it “art,” and can explain it away, then it’s ART.
    Christ is the standard for truth, and he was intimately involved in the first act of Creation, as was the Holy Spirit. Together, the Tri-une God sits apart as the only truly creative Master. We are playing in His sandbox.


  2. Great writing man! These are the things I wish I wasn’t too ignorant to accept when I ‘started’ getting serious about art.
    Truly nothing about us is original. We are in a sense little carbon copies of our parents and later on in life of those things that influence us.
    I guess in this respect the thing I most look forward to when getting to come face to face with God is learning about true colour! New colours based on nothing but pure imagination and will.
    Glad to see you post on art too! Keep it up!


  3. These thoughts are actually a great relief to me. Creativity is within my power and not something reserved for the elite artists alone.
    I heard once at a writers’ conference that some story lines are so powerful they do not need to be reinvented. In fact, a general audience might be frustrated with a major deviation from the expected. It is why we crave the story arc pattern: God’s involvement with man is the greatest ever told.


  4. This is good, Glenn. When I first started writing music I found myself getting frustrated when I realized I had unintentionally taken elements or themes from other composers. As I dug a little, though, I realized that all of my favorite writers also borrowed some of their material from their contemporaries or predecessors; it’s just a part of the process. Not saying plagiarism is a good thing, but on some level everything is borrowed and re-arranged into a new order. Like Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.”


  5. My friend and I both like to dabble in painting. It is no surprise to me that our pieces sometimes resemble each other; imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Of course the variances and bits of our own personalities that show up in these pieces( and my friend’s great amount of skill compared to my not so great skill) show that these paintings are creative, unique, although shadows of each other. The similarities do not detract from the creativity and value of the respective pieces of art.


  6. Great post Glenn! I’ve been following your blog for a while, but never commented.
    One of my dad’s sayings is, “I never had an original thought” 🙂 There is something profoundly honest about seeing every good and perfect thing as a gift.


  7. Hey Glenn, really enjoyed this post. Some really thoughtful writing. Love this subject, and you’ve hit on some really poignant parts of the matter. What you said about the drive to “be different” is spot on. It is, I think a necessary part in coming to a fuller knowledge of what art is about; I think all artists struggle with this throughout all stages of their artistic maturity (I certainly do).
    I especially found what you said about creation “ex nihilo” interesting. It’s one of those things that is sometimes tough to accept; but as a composer, it’s amazing to see how most of music (one example of art) throughout most of known musical history has used the same forms and progressions, the same cadences and chords. You’re right about the consistency of it, it’s simply inescapable for an artist, something to which we all have to resign ourselves.
    I do however, think there is something important in art beyond just form and bare elements, something elemental to why artists exist at all.
    Take painting, for example. When the painter sets out to paint, he admittedly uses tools, things he has. The paint is preexisting, as is the canvas; but when those inanimate elements come together in a particular way, through the intent, and from the heart, of the artist, they can potentially bring about a spiritual or emotional significance, that transcends the physicality of the art itself. A truly transcendent piece of artwork brings about a gravity to the artwork that gives the piece existential meaning beyond just the mere brushstrokes.
    When we say that God created “Ex Nihilo”, we mean, as you mentioned above, he spoke into the void, and created light, brought something from nothing. On an even deeper level, when Jesus came, He stepped into the void of sin, and filled it with life and light. That is the fundamental element of the incarnation. God’s nature is to fill the void with light, to bring life out of death, meaning out of purposelessness.
    As artists, that is what we are called to do; live out the incarnation. Speak into the void of our lives, and the lives of others, and with God’s help, bring life and light into that void. If we as artists are relegated in our creativity to only put paint into recognizable patterns, write notes on a stave or arrange letters on a page, if our ability to “create” is wrapped up in the tools and elements we use, then I think art would be an exercise in futility. Artists don’t create for the benefit of the form, though form is no doubt a fundamental part of the process; we create because we’re trying to grasp something, whether that be truth, or existential understanding, or something else. Art is about trying to comprehend that which we don’t understand; it would be meaningless as reiteration alone. Michael Demkowicz said it very well:
    “Art is what happens when a person encounters mystery and feels compelled to make something of it.”
    Getting back to the point at hand, we can’t bring something OUT OF nothing, but in some inexplicable way, we can – with God’s help – bring something INTO nothing. We can fill emptiness, as a co-creator with God, and bring life into darkness, through God’s hands guiding ours. I think it’s a mystery, but there is some way in which we can potentially do more than just reiterate. I think, perhaps, that what you said about theme and variation is part of the exposition of that.
    Anyway, sorry this comment is so long, hopefully you can find meaning in the midst of the rambling!


  8. That is so interesting. I really like what you had to say about imitation and also uniqueness. I recently took a music history class and it struck me how all of the people we consider revolutionary started as cover bands. Even the Beach Boys borrowed major parts from Chuck Berry.


  9. Oh one more interesting thing… Thomas Jefferson basically plagiarized most of the Declaration of Independence. When asked about it he has this great quote about how he was not aiming for originality but more to capture the corporate voice of his peers. I think he would agree with you. (Alot of what he wrote came from George Mason and John Locke.)


  10. Great thoughts, everybody! Thanks for making this an enriching discussion…Your personal stories about struggling to accept some of these ideas over the years were great to hear.
    And, in particular, Joel– BRILLIANT thoughts. I love the idea that though we cannot bring something OUT of nothing, we can bring something INTO it…ala the incarnation. Yes, art is most redemptive when it is incarnational. Love it.


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