by J.T. Ellison

A few months ago, my friend Tim Hallinan asked me to participate in a series he was doing on creativity. I loved the concept, and though a bit terrorized to be included in the company of Emmy and Oscar winners, I gamely tried my hand. The basic question he asked us to contemplate: What Is Creativity?

I thought it might be interesting to have that debate here at Murderati, so today's blog is an adaptation of the one I wrote for Tim. I'd love to hear what YOU think.

Defining creativity to me is akin to the
government’s views on obscenity – it’s something you recognize when you see it,
but no one knows exactly the moment art crosses the line into obscenity. How do you define creativity? What does it mean? Is there a good definition?

went back to the basics, and looked at what the word creativity means to the
official folks who write the dictionary. They’re smart, they’ll have a good
sense of it, right?

I loved the definition I found:

Creativity is “the ability
to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like,
and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.;
originality, progressiveness, or imagination.”

Transcendence. Now we’re

But it’s still not perfect.

There is a difference, I think, between creativity and the
creation of art. Creativity is simply a new way of doing things, a solution
addressing a need. Creativity is problem solving. Anyone, given the right tools
and motivation, can be creative. Art, on the other hand, is problem solving in
its most esoteric form. Art gives solutions to problems that no one knew
existed. Art creates problems to solve.

Look at it this way. You’re lost in a strange city. You
approach a friendly looking fellow and ask, “How do I get from point A to point

A normal person will tell you.

A creative person will give you a few routes and look at you
quizzically, as if to say, “why couldn’t you think of that yourself?”

An artist, though, will argue about why you have to go from
point A to point B. What about trying Point A to C instead, or, better yet, how
about forgoing the path altogether and seeking a route to X?

When faced with a problem, a creative person will find a
new, different way to solve it. An artist will find multiple solutions,
different paths that are laden with color, sound, scent, characters and plot,
try them all, figure out which ones work, then discard all of the solutions in
favor of the most treacherous, difficult path, the one where no one has traveled

Ah, the road less travelled. That’s what separates the
creative among us from the artists.

But you can’t get to the point of being an artist without
being creative. So we’re back to the same old conundrum: What is creativity?

Creativity, obviously, is creation. It’s as simple, and as
complex, as that.

Art, on the other hand, is something creative that transcends
conventional ideology to develop something new and original that speaks to the
audience. It is a contract between your mind and the rest of the world. Stephen
King calls it a psychic connection between the writer and reader; the same
could be said of a painter, or a musician, or an architect. Where there once
was nothing, now there is something, and the audience sees that. They experience
your thoughts through your medium. It’s overwhelming, if you think about it.
All of this psychic communication, there for the taking.

That said, you don’t need to have any kind of approval, or
recognition, to be creative. But it is the simple act of creating something new,
something no one else has before, that makes you an artist – be it a novel, a
poem, a screenplay, a painting, a ballet, a composition, a guitar lick, a new
angle on an architectural drawing – anything that is creative in its nature can
be art.  

I realized that I was tightrope-walking the thin line
between creativity and art early on, but had that budding insouciance nipped by
a decidedly non-creative teacher who told me I’d never be published. There is
nothing, nothing worse than fettering an artist. Some rise above the criticism,
become because of it. I,
unfortunately, did not. I walked away and spent fifteen soulless years looking
for something. I knew what I was doing wasn’t right, I knew I wasn’t happy, I
knew I was being stifled, but it never occurred to me to sit down and create my
way through it.

I found that voice again through reading. I was recovering from a surgery, had oodles of time on my hands, and I lost myself
in books. I read a lot during that year, everything I could get my hands on –
historical, mysteries, thrillers, literary fiction. The words on the page were
my lifeline back to a creative life.

It’s funny how the mind works. I wish I could say that I
planned to become a novelist, that I wanted to play with the form, to create a
literary thriller series that showcased my characters, my setting and my words.
But I wasn’t that prescient. I had an idea, a spark. A creative moment, if you
will, and my main character leapt into my head fully formed. She was tall, like
me, blond-haired, gray-eyed, spoke with a slow, smoky southern accent. She was
righteous, and good, and would be the protector of Nashville. Her name, of
course, was Taylor Jackson. My very own Athena.

And with the name came a storyline from a dream – twin girls
leading separate lives, one who would do anything to further her career, one
who was dissatisfied with the life she’d been striving to build. And suddenly
there was an antagonist, a man who was killing young girls. A backstory.

Before I knew it, I’d written an opening paragraph. In a
move so utterly subconscious that I can only look back on it and laugh, I wrote
about a murder on the steps of the Parthenon. The skies were sapphire blue, and
a squirrel toyed with an acorn.

I actually was moved to tears by that paragraph, not because
it was any good – it wasn’t – but because it was the first creative thing I’d
written in so very long. Suddenly, I had a story to tell, and I buckled down to
tell it. While I did, a strange thing happened. I began to feel lighter, and
freer. I became so incredibly happy. I didn’t really think about being
published, that came later. Instead, I reveled in the moment, the realization
that I needed to do research to make the story come alive, that I was building,
slowly, a rather large file of pages that moved me.

It was then that I started to wonder. If this story moved
me, might it move someone else?

And there it was. My moment of transcendent creativity. It
was a simple thought that broke me free, that allowed me to make the leap from just
being creative to becoming an artist. That moment, about halfway through the
manuscript, when I realized I wasn’t writing just for me.

I was writing for you.

Wine of the Week: Morellino Di Scansano Rinaldone dell'Osa

13 thoughts on “Genesis

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    The best explanation I know for creativity is Aristotle’s definition of artists as “productive philosophers”. Because all those wild thoughts are nothing but a dream or an especially good drug trip unless a product comes out of them.

    And it’s the product that’s most satisfying to me. The creating part can be a bitch and a half.

  2. Jude Hardin

    I think mastery of craft has to be a consideration. Anyone can sling some paint on a canvas (or some words on a page).

    While I believe “good” is altogether subjective, I think folks who aspire to create should achieve a certain level of competency in their chosen media before calling themselves artists.

  3. J.B. Thompson

    |”I realized I wasn’t writing just for me. I was writing for you.”|

    And we’re so very glad you did!

    To me, creativity is digging down into the deepest part of your soul and turning it inside out, so that what comes out is the most unique part of yourself. After that, it’s your choice whether to share it with the world.

  4. pari

    What a beautiful post, J.T.

    You’re tackling some heady issues today and have given me much to think about.

    I do wonder about value judgments vis a vis creativity and art . . .

    Most everyone I know has the urge to create, to make something new. This can manifest in the “arts” or in other areas such as parenting, gardening, cooking, teaching.

    Mastery of craft as a baseline of validity of the art disturbs me though I think I understand what Jude is saying and I DON’T want to be lumped in with people who haven’t worked at their craft.

    But the idea of creativity and art/artist, to me, needs to be broad and as unfettered as the acts themselves.

  5. Louise Ure

    I like the notion of a creative person solving a problem that no one knew existed.

    But I must say that for me, one of the most satisfying parts of becoming a writer was the fact that I had something concrete to show for my effort. Something that would not have existed except for me.

    That’s a feeling I never got in any other career.

  6. J.T. Ellison

    Sorry I’m late, all. Had a phoner this morning.

    Alex – I love the “productive philosophers.” A perfect description of what I was going for today.

    Jude, certainly. I don’t disagree. But since the value of art is so subjective, who determines the mastery of the craft? I’m not a painter, but I’ve seen paintings that are just a swipe of color on the canvas that sell for thousands of dollars. It’s something I could do with my eyes closed, but if I did it, it would be deemed a swipe of color, juvenile and inexperienced, while in the hands of a “master,” it’s deemed priceless. I’ve read books that reviewers hate that I love, and vice versa. So who, and what, determines mastery?

    JB, I love that concept. That’s why you can give five writers a picture and they’ll write five different stories – we’re such individualists that it’s our personal touch that makes it sing.

  7. J.T. Ellison

    Pari, exactly. Art can be seen in a bonsai bush just as clearly as on a bookshelf or a wall. I wonder, seeing as we’re all artists here, if we take for granted the skill behind the creativity? And I mean readers as well as writers there.

    Louise, your comment surprised me. You spent so many years “creating,” with tangible results, before you became a sole practitioner writer. I do understand the ownership feeling though, so maybe I’m not as surprised as I thought.

  8. Gayle Carline

    Wonderful post, with an interesting topic. What is creativity, and what is the difference between people who can craft beautiful things out of ordinary items, and people who can make ordinary items mean more than their basic definition?

    I do disagree a little bit, about an artist finding many solutions to a problem and choosing the most difficult. Some artists use their medium as a mirror, holding it up to society to show them what is lacking, or what is good. There is no solution in Picasso’s Guernica, only the mad truth of war.

    My first book, Freezer Burn, is no literary tome. It’s a yarn, hopefully a fun romp for readers. Likewise, my weekly column for the Placentia News-Times is a humor essay about what’s going on with my family and my life in Placentia. I’m not solving any problems, or highlighting society’s ills. People see themselves in my column and feel less alone. Hopefully they’ll be entertained by my book. But am I being truly creative, or just a craftsman?

    Gayle Carline

  9. Allison Brennan

    This is far too deep a subject for me to ponder. I’ve never thought about creativity. I’ve always thought creativity was the result of having a well-developed imagination.

    I can’t arrange flowers. I can’t draw. My stick-figures don’t even look like stick-figures. I played the piano for eight years and I could technically play pretty well, but it wasn’t music. It was playing the notes as they were written with no passion behind the sound. I have worked in graphic design, but I produce technically nice pieces of marketing material, but no art. Unlike my web designer who has the gift to turn a nice visual product into art.

    But stories? I’ve always been writing, that’s the only outlet that my imagination is suited for to be creative.

    My 13 year old daughter is an artist. Very talented. She started by copying, now she creates her own fairies and whatever strikes her fancy.

    My son, nearly 8, is extremely creative. He plays video games, but when he’s not playing he’ll take the video game characters and role play. Last summer, it was power rangers. He went on his own adventures. Now, he’s Indiana Jones. Next year I can’t wait to see who he becomes, but with each character he adds value–he is something *more* than the character. For his harvest day project at school, he had to come what he wanted to be when he grew up and give a presentation. He wants to design video games. He created a storyboard for his favorite video game (PIKMIN) but this was for Pikmin 3, so there were a bunch of new additions to the world that he created (there is no Pikmin 3 yet!)

    Now, my 6 year old daughter . . . she has no imagination. I hate to say it. But where all my other kids loved picture books and sillies and Dr. Seuss and eight-footed ducks, my daughter would say with a straight face, “But eggs aren’t green.” She can’t even enjoy books where animals talk because, well, animals don’t talk.

    However, I’m hoping we’ve broken her of this because now she is enthralled with the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. But still, she takes everything literally.

    Anyway, great post. And that teacher is an idiot. I hate when people in power quash dreams, be them called teachers, parents, or friends.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Great post! Creativity is something you can’t beat out of some people with a stick.

    But Gayle, what’s wrong with being a craftsman? That’s how Jeff Deaver describes himself as a writer. He’s one of my literary heroes, so if it’s good enough for him … ;-]

  11. J.T. Ellison

    Allison – I envy you your children. Such wildly different personalities. I bet your 6 yr old cures cancer.

    Zoe, thanks. Stephen King’s ON WRITING talks specifically about how every good writer has their toolbox, their elemental craft, and that’s the basis for all art. I don’t disagree…

  12. Bonnie Williams

    I’ve been lurking for a while (Hi, Alex!) and will no doubt quietly continue to do so, but feel compelled to comment on this.

    First of all, Allison, your youngest doesn’t lack imagination. I think it takes huge stores of both imagination and creativity to reject the ideas put forth by others in favour of something different. She is creating logic, a feat I find daunting and impressive and somehow magical, in spite of its lack of whimsy.

    I think all of us are naturally creative; that is, able to create something. A story, a song, a picture, a smile or tears or a cake.

    But to be an artist is different. An artist is someone who creates not just something that satisfies their own need for expression, but something that resonates with and touches others. I really do think the definition of artistry is that elegantly simple.

    Some artists seem to do this almost inadvertently, by touch or feel or instinct. Others do it as the result of studying their craft and perfecting their technique. But if the result is art, it is a thing that evokes some universal emotion. In others.


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