Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Just because you think you're not creative
doesn't mean you aren't!

Water is H20, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,
But there is also a third thing that makes it water
And nobody knows what that is.

D. H. Lawrence, The Third Thing

Creativity is a word that is full of light, it glows and it pleases—people like creativity, they admire it, they want it. How can anyone be against such a splendid word? But I am, I have my own little issue with creativity, it makes me nervous. I have seen that it discourages people who think they are not creative. It limits people who think maybe they are a little creative but not very and certainly not as creative as a friend or a co-worker or the artist next door. And I hope to show as I talk with you today we don’t have to be discouraged and we don’t have to set limits. If you don’t already believe you are creative, I hope you will leave today believing with me that creativity is not beyond your reach, that you are not born without it and that you don’t have to think about it as something that happens to other people.

What is creativity anyway, what are we talking about here? To create means to make something where before there was nothing (although I am not sure what that “nothing” would be), to make something that wasn’t there before. To create means to bring into being, to let something become. To make something new of something old. To connect two things that were separate, to make wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts, like D.H. Lawrence’s water. To create means bringing something from darkness into the light.

Where does creativity come from? Is it inside us, waiting to be stirred up or do we actually create whatever it is at that moment? Or is creativity outside us waiting to be found, to be let in? Or is it both—and maybe there is not as much distinction between inside and outside as we think? These are mysteries and I don’t know the answers to them, but I like thinking about them.

And about the ways in which our language is full of evocative phrases that describe the source of creativity, the experience of being creative: It came to me, we say, it appeared to him, it hit her, it was a leap of his imagination, I was overtaken by an idea, a light bulb went on in my head, it struck me, it occurred to me, I don’t know where it came from. “As the spirit moves you,” a teacher may say, encouraging a child to compose or paint or dance.

If our language has so many ways of expressing creativity, then it doesn’t take a leap of faith for me to assert that it’s not just the word but the thing itself, that manifests in a myriad ways and appears in a thousand guises, that creativity is everywhere and in every thing.

I’m not going to insist that inside each of us is a Hemingway or Botticelli or Miles Davis waiting to break free or that each of us is equally talented: clearly, creativity, like good fortune, is not evenly distributed. Some have more of it than others like blond hair or long legs. But I believe we all have more it than we think we do and I believe with special passion that a creative spirit inhabits each one of us, showing up in one guise or another, at one time or another. I am convinced that everyone is innately and essentially creative. Creations ourselves, we are inexorably driven to create; an imperative moves us to make things. We are built that way, creativity is hardwired into us and creative spirit comes with our territory. Bur the creative spirit can only flourish when it is recognized and saluted. Otherwise it sits in the dark, and it’s probably sulking.

If everyone is creative, then everything we do is an act of creation. Nature, the ultimate creative force, doesn’t begin or end, or pop up every now and then. Nature is at work all the time, when the snake sheds its skin and the tide rises, when the chrysanthemum flowers fade and the baby shouts its first breath. It’s all creation and with nature inside and outside us, we are each one creators, equally capable of living a creative life. I believe creativity is a force that, as Dylan Thomas would have it, through the green fuse drives the flower. It is an essential part of being human.

My nine-year old grandson Jack considers himself to be “very creative” because, he tells me: “I use my mind to make things up.” I know that Jack has a creative spirit or is it that he is a creative spirit? I have seen him sitting on the floor, twirling around, banging his feet together or he may be staring out of the window at the scaffolding around a rising New York University building, when suddenly he shouts “Ahhhh!”, runs to his room, returning some time later with a drawing or this story about, in his words, “the fantastic four endowed with super powers as they chased the bad guys including other dudes from other places.” He had clearly been inspired or the spirit moved him or an idea came to him. Something happened. That is clear. Those dudes from other places came from somewhere!

If there is a creative spirit afoot (and how disenchanted one has to be to deny the possibility!) then must that spirit not be somewhere, doing what it does—within us, about us, hovering somewhere far away? What if it shelters inside each of us, one shared spirit for all or a trace of that spirit in each of us? What if it is actually inside you, born with you in your birth but also around before you were? Maybe it’s a bit like a guardian angel, vigilant but also bit like a Muse, a sort of creativity consultant?

It’s difficult to be too specific about a spirit, the spirit, but if we can agree the creative spirit exists, then that’s good enough for me.


When I started to gather my thoughts for today, it was late summer and I was writing outdoors next to a tomato plant, that humbled me with its huge burden of red, bursting fruits crowding onto each other, shaping each other in their jostle for the sun. I applauded the plant for its fecundity and congratulated it on its creativity. (Nobody else was around so what I was doing didn’t look too weird.) If that tomato plant was not being creative, then what exactly would you call that thing that it was doing? Just a DNA thing? Blindly following its destiny? Maybe. But it was a lot more than that. DNA is necessary but not sufficient, a philosopher might say.

A week or two later, the splendid beech tree began its annual ritual of the exploding beech nuts--so loud when they first began their thing, exploding in the air and then hitting the ground that I thought it was hailing the first time I heard the extravaganza. Any day now it will shed its leaves and next spring, this grand old tree will recreate itself, fresh and new, born again, “the leaping greenly spirits of trees”, e.e.cummings called it. Not one new leaf has existed before, even though its forebears did, poking their way out of the same branch. Or what appears to be the same branch even though it is constantly changing. Older each year but born again newer. “How young the beech tree looks,” I wrote in my diary last May

I find myself complaining and being a victim: Why don’t humans get to be born again each spring? How come we witness their rebirth and renewal while they witness our decline and decay? It’s just not fair.

Perhaps I’m not open enough to see what is going on. Perhaps I can only see creation when it’s visible—leaves, fruit, flowers but not when it’s invisible, when it’s inner rebirth and renewal. When winter recedes, I respond to the sap rising within me by a flurry of spring cleaning, but I fail to see that I am in a continuous process of recreation and renewal--my cells replace themselves, I move and I change, my body responds to the changing light of the changing seasons, I meet new people and have new thoughts. By looking in the mirror and seeing only more gray hair, more wrinkles, more flab, I shut out the signs of rebirth that are trying to make themselves known to me. Perhaps we and the beech tree just have different ways of renewing ourselves.


So much for the trees, but what shall we do about animals? Are they creative? I can only speak for animals whom I know or have witnessed and I will declare, resoundingly, that I have no doubt that those animals are creative as they create relationships, subtle, wordless, complex, lasting bonds with each other and with us humans. A relationship with a horse, bird, dog, cat, fish is a creative act—it leaps to build a bridge where there was none before. A relationship is a creation just as a painting is. Compare it to the absence of a relationship if you are unconvinced. It’s the difference between nothing and something.

I don’t know if animals and insects are also being creative when they give birth or shed their skins or pupae or when they teach their young to fly or kill. By explaining such behavior as instinct or conditioning, we remove the animal as agent. We humans like to claim a unique and supreme position on the evolutionary scale. We like being at the top. We enjoy dominion. Animals and plants and trees are fine to own and earth is fine to occupy and many believe we are entitled to make life-and-death decisions about animals because they do not qualify for suffering nor do they have souls, they have no sense of humor and they are incapable of being creative. Those higher-order things, we insist, are the sole province of homo sapiens. We get to be their bosses of them.

I find it far more exciting to believe instead that the trees and the animals and we, the people, are continuous with each other. We talk about “nature” as if it is something distinct from us. Here am I and here are you and here are our children three. There, behind an invisible barrier, is nature. Nature is Other. Like animals and Nigerians and people in wheelchairs are Other.

But if we are not nature, then what are we? Unnatural? And what is nature? I’ve recently learned a monumental fact. If it’s already known to you, forgive my breathless astonishment while I tell you what it is. Our hemoglobin, the red blood that runs in our veins, is identical in structure to chlorophyll, the “blood” of leaves with the exception of one element. The only difference is that our red pigment is built around a single atom of iron while the green of the leaves is structured around a single atom of magnesium. With that one distinction, the trees and we have the same stuff coursing through our veins. With such compelling proof of continuity between the kingdoms of animal and plant, I wonder we’re not all brought to epiphany.

We are nature and nature is abuzz. I have slept in an Amazonian rainforest where the nights are so loud they make thought impossible; it’s the same sound these last days of October in the woods surrounding my house in Mattituck, not quite as loud maybe yet it is the same, the thick, impenetrable, insistent sound of creativity, everything being whatever it is, at the same time, just doing it. It would take a hundred years for me to be able to untangle those sounds and why should I want to? The sound is gone by dawn and then it begins all over again at dusk--cicadas, frogs, moth wings, birds, mushrooms, deer, acorns, sap—I don’t know. Perhaps the potted begonias listen and join in. It’s hard to tell.

All four seasons I can look out of my window and see nature recreating itself every moment. I witness reddening, withering, sprouting, shedding, curling, scrambling, decaying, birdsong. I want to place a sign in the woods that says: Quiet! Planet under construction! I look down at my hands on the keyboard of my laptop, also participating in the ongoing fest of creation. I walk around New York City and see office buildings and cineplexes, cars, newsstands, window boxes, sweaters, books and polyester bags too. Somebody made all these. Designers designed the Styrofoam deli takeout container and the metal body of the SUV. Reporters created articles for the tabloid newspaper. Hungarian women created sweaters that Ralph Lauren calls his own. People sit in meetings and create advertising campaigns and book jackets while others punch the clock to build cars on factory floors. Does it make sense to think of all these people as creators creating creations?

Nobody says creation is always a good thing nor that nature is only benign. We cannot deny creativity, spectacular creativity to cancer cells and the HIV virus—their appearance in new forms and places outwitting the most creative human attempts to destroy them. The list is enormous—parasites that destroy the eyes and intestines of African children, water hyacinths whose deadly beauty chokes the waterways of Southeast Asia, brand new creations such as SARS.

Sometimes, destruction is a deeply creative act. A phoenix rises out of the ashes, a marriage ends and two new lives emerge, an accident leaves a young woman paralyzed and a man writes an epic poem. “All changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born,” as Yeats wrote.

We are all creative, in one way or another, for good or for ill, for better or for worse.


But that makes the point. Pictures, music, cakes, peace, war. The choice we are presented with is what to do about this or that, what to do with that. Our creative spirit belongs to us. We can choose to neglect it, we can abuse it we can ignore it--and we do. And sometimes we are kind to it, that too. We can enlist our creativity to create for good or for evil, for health or for harm; we can create to make something that is more beautiful or helpful or we can create solely to maximize the return on investment. We can create welcoming places for other people’s children or we can create hand-propelled grenades to drive them from their homes.

Misdirected though the creative spirit often is, it nevertheless is yours, it belongs to you. It has nowhere else to go, it cannot skulk off in search of a more habitable person. That is not its nature. And so it stays on with you, waiting for better times. With encouragement or good luck or at the appearance of some inexplicable circumstance, a leaf falling onto a notebook perhaps, the creative spirit arises and, if you hear its invitation, you rise to meet it and something new is born.

If life is a series of moments, one following emptily after another, then each moment can be one thing or another, it can continue empty or it can hold something, it can pass without notice or it can be made into something.

We deny ourselves by believing that it is only poems and music and quilts, or maybe a perfect bowl of pasta too, that qualify for creativity. Creating is far more than the things a painter, poet or pianist do. Creativity is the choice one makes in how each moment is lived, how a visitor is welcomed, how a birthday gift is wrapped, how a message is left on an answering machine. In a fully realized life, I believe these are all ways of being creative, of living a creative life. A thank-you letter, the farewell at the railway station, the green apples in the yellow bowl, the folded, piled laundry, the composing of a shopping list, the socks that match the shirt, all are receptacles for creativity precisely because they don’t have to be, could just as well be unthinking, unconscious acts, cast off without intention or invention or intervention.

Sadly, this is not well known.

Regard these bits of daily life instead as a place to leave traces of yourself, a clearing in which to make your mark, and suddenly a conversation with a passing stranger becomes alive, a time to see what you can make of it while you stand there, to see how you really are. Without you, there would have been no conversation, it would have been left uncreated. Without you, the solution you created for the restless child or the unhappy rhododendron bush or the broken picture frame would not exist. But because you do exist, it does too. See this small place as a place of creation and, chances are, you’ll walk away expanded somehow, because creation renews, it will not deplete the creator. There is always plenty more where that came from. The more you create, the more you create.

How could you not think you are creative?

Creativity is risky. It may not work. It may be ugly or ragged or somebody else may already have thought of it. You may expose yourself and see a frightening new face in the mirror. You may look naive and you may be rejected. True. But still you must do it because otherwise you will deprive yourself of the exalted joy that can happen during creation. The sustained, focused process of creating transports the creating person into a world whose name I do not know. What I do know is that, like the athlete who runs in order to feel the burn, it’s the creating, the process, the act of it that is the real reason people go on creating. They want to be back again and again in that crucible where creativity flows and time stops. This is why I urge you to connect with your own personal creative spirit.

I am betting you will never look back.