Thursday, January 06, 2011

On Creativity

I was thinking about creativity last night, and looking through some old sermons for some source materials for something I was working on, when I came upon this:

Apparently, when St. Petersburg was being laid out in the early eighteenth century the town planners faced the problem of the many large boulders brought by a glacier from Finland that had to be removed.

And there was a particularly large rock in the path of one of the principal avenues that had been planned, so bids were solicited for its removal. All were very high, which was understandable because, in the early eighteenth century, there was no heavy equipment like front-end loaders and back hoes and there were no high-powered explosives. As the officials pondered what to do, a peasant presented himself and offered to get rid of the boulder for a much lower price than anyone else had said possible. Since they had nothing to lose, they officials gave him the job.

The next morning the peasant showed up with a crowd of other peasants carrying shovels. They began digging a hole next to the rock. They carefully propped up the rock with timbers to prevent it from rolling into the hole. All afternoon they dug, with a curious crown gathering because they seemed to be making the problem worse—not only was there a huge bolder in the way of the street construction, but now there was an ever-growing hole as well. Undetered, the peasants continued digging, and when the hole was deep enough, the timbers were removed and the rock dropped into the hole below the street level. It was then covered with dirt, the excess dirt was easily carted away, and the construction of St. Petersburgh could continue.  [This story was in Bits & Pieces, October 15, 1992, pp. 9-10.]

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would have been that peasant. Oh, I’d like to be, and I try, sometimes I come close, but most of the time I don’t “rearrange what I know in order to find out what I do not know” (as George Kneller, a professor of the philosophy of education, defines creative thinking).  Most of the time I don’t live my life creatively, and that’s too bad because over and over again I find myself coming up against bolders that are too large to move out of my way, problems that appear insoluable because I’m looking for a particular kind of answer. Over and over again I find myself spending more than I need to of my emotional, intellectual, and spiritual capital to overcome a block in my life because I can’t see past the most obvious approach.

In his book A Whack on the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech lists ten ideas that block creativity: 
  1. The idea that there is a “right” answer—knowing that, or assuming that, there is a “right” answer has kept many people from finding the solution to their problem;
  2. The idea that “That's not logical”—apparently the guy who invented Nike shoes began by simply wondering what would happen if he poured rubber into his waffle iron;
  3. The idea that you must follow the rules
  4. The idea that you must be practical
  5. The idea that you must, at all costs, avoid ambiguity
  6. The idea that “to err is wrong”—I once heard a colleague say that ministers had to become better at “conducting funeral services for ideas” because far too many churches were so afraid of having an idea fail that they rarely tried anything new; I think that that could apply beyond churches . . . ;
  7. The idea that play is frivolous—it is so easy to get so serious about problem solving, but I’ve heard that Albert Einstein said that he knew his theory of relativity was right not just because all of the formula worked out but because it was “beautiful;”
  8. The idea that “that's not my area”—I remember reading that Thomas Edison credited his success with figuring out how to create the filiment for his lightbulb to the fact that he knew nothing about metallurgy so that he didn’t know that what he was trying to do couldn’t be done;
  9. The idea that we shouldn’t be foolish;
  10. And, probably, the biggest stumbling block of them all, the idea that “I'm not creative.”

 And here the example of so many of our experiences with the creative arts can illuminate a wider field. “I can’t sing;” “I can’t paint;” “I can’t draw;”—these mantras have kept literally millions of people from exploring and expressing their own creativity. What’s sad is that the unspoken half of these ideas is what gives them their power, yet they are also the half that is relatively easily debated. What we really mean when we say “I can’t sing” or “I can’t paint” is that “I can’t sing like Ella Fitzgerald,” and “I can’t paint like Georgia O’Keefe.” Of course not. No one can. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t sing or paint like Erik Wikstrom. (A freind once confessed about going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and seeing some of O’Keefe’s paintings and thinking, “these really aren’t very good. The only reason that they’re hanging in this museum is because they were done by Georgia O’Keefe.” Even O’Keefe, it seems, can’t always paint like O’Keefe!)

If creativity, whether in the traditional arts or the art of living, is about looking “afresh at what we normally take for granted” (George Kneller again) and “breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way” (Edward De Bono, an expert in creative thinking, puts it), then that is something we can all do. It might take some work; it might involve some intentionality; but the sculptor Pegot Waring was right, “Creative imagination is given to everyone, [even though] most [people] do not realize that they possess it.”

In Gassho,

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Cori Lynn Berg said...

Thanks, Rev.. this was one I needed to hear. I don't need to paint anyone else's paintings.. just my own. Glad I found your blog and am really looking forward to reading more!

RevWik said...

Hi Cori Lynn,

Glad you like the blog. Is your profile picture one of your paintings?

Cori Lynn Berg said...

It sure is!

BTW, I loved your post so much, I linked it in my "Saturday Share" post. I went to seminary and got a master's in Art and Theology. You're my kinda peep!