Is Creativity Dying?

by Pari

I love a good conversation, the kind that’s broad and blends seemingly unrelated subjects with ease. That’s one reason Murderati is so satisfying!

Last Saturday, our LCC 2011 core committee met for the last time. We ate lunch together at the Range in Bernalillo. The business portion ended quickly. That’s when the fun began.

The discussion veered from literacy to No Child Left Behind:

“It’s no less than a conspiracy to dumb down America through a systematic homogenization of thought.”

“It’s encouraging a situation where creativity, in the form of instruction and content, is being sacrificed in the name of ‘basic skills.’”

“It’s discouraging intellectual curiosity, the joy in learning for learning’s sake.”

From there the conversation wandered to what’s happening to our children in a society where we’re scared to let them roam free.

“They’re losing the opportunity to cultivate essential skills in independence.”

“If they wander in groups, merchants and policemen likely assume they’re up to no good.”

“But if you can’t spend hours finding ways to amuse yourself – outside and away from electronic gadgets – how can your imagination soar?”

“Who’s to say your imagination can’t take flight in designing a really beautiful stand of code?”

From there we jumped to U.S. cultural values:

“Creativity is dying even though we have more products and means of self expression than ever before.”

“Our culture doesn’t value innovation unless it’s tied to making money.”

“If money were the only factor, literary fiction wouldn’t win so many prizes.”

“Artists need to be paid for their efforts, not just the results.”

On and on we went:

“People in the U.S. are so passive now they just want the same pabulum repackaged again and again.”

“There are too many choices – in books, music, stories, art – with the internet. We’re hitting information overload.”

“We need gatekeepers otherwise we’ll all be overwhelmed with the incredible amount of crap out there.”

“Are you telling me you want agents and marketers – the very people who only want sure things –to be the arbiters of creativity in our society?”

At the end of three and a half hours, we didn’t have any answers. But then answers are overrated. Once you have them it’s easy to stop thinking and assume you know.

I certainly don’t.

And yet, it was a fascinating conversation and I wanted more.

So today’s questions are
1. Is creativity dying or one breath away from life support?

2. Are gatekeepers essential to keep us from drowning in a sea of sub-par products?

3. Are we benefiting from more choices than ever before or is everything starting to look the same – even when it isn’t?


I can’t wait to read what you’ve got to say.


34 thoughts on “Is Creativity Dying?

  1. Reine

    I think outliers are the creative ones, therefore gatekeepers and choices are irrelevant.

  2. Grace

    Creativity never dies and never will. The mediocre and less than mediocre will always be and it's up to the discerning (or maybe not so discerning) public to sift and sort until they find what appeals to them. The questions are a philisophical conumdrum and there are as many answers as there are individual tastes. With that said, however, I believe the good will never be buried, truth outs in the end. My opinion only!

  3. epbaddour

    In response to #1, even with social media (such innovative tools), the tree of creativity quits branching as each author gets branded. Artists must continue creating what people are buying, thus, their niche is made and creativity stifled. It makes me wonder what Picasso (or whoever else) could've accomplished had the masses NOT connected with what he was producing at an early age.

  4. Rob Browne

    1. Is creativity dying or one breath away from life support?

    No. A ridiculous notion. Creativity can't die. In fact, advances in technology have put the power into the hands of the artist and allowed more and more people to express their creativity without having to get "permission" to do it.

    2. Are gatekeepers essential to keep us from drowning in a sea of sub-par products?

    Apparently not. Ever listen to the Top 40?

    3. Are we benefiting from more choices than ever before or is everything starting to look the same – even when it isn’t?

    Having more choices is ALWAYS a good thing. It forces people to be even MORE creative and innovative in order to stand out from the crowd.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    I like that image very much. If I'm understanding the comment correctly, the creatives aren't even rotating in the same universe . . .

    Your optimism is where I rest my boots most of the time. Occasionally, though, that optimism is shaken by the popularity and celebration of mediocrity over what I consider to be far more creative.

    Philosophical? Yes indeed.

  6. pari noskin taichert

    It's sad, but I think you're right. I know I've been writing more creatively now that I've sort of dropped out of the loop. No one is urging me to write a particular thing and I'm having a wonderful time discovering and creating.

    I'm thinking of people like Katy Perry who I really liked years ago. Her music and lyrics were so fresh and interesting. Now, IMHO, she's nothing but fluff — totally handled and created to be a brand rather than a creative soul.

    There are probably thousands of other examples too.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    Okay. I'll buy #1 and #2.
    But I'm not so sure about #3. I don't think that quantity necessarily forces people to be more creative or innovative. And infinite choices don't always equal creativity to me. It gets back to the toothpaste aisle in the supermarket: ninety kinds with the differences mainly centering on packaging rather than content.

    Yes, you could argue that all of those different packages are creative in their own way. My response is qualitative: nothing new within — it's not creative where it matters . . .

    I've been working with the department of psychiatry at our local university. We had a lecturer who presented about the history of the field. He said that for decades pharmaceutical companies have been marketing basically the same drugs — or ones that act pretty much in the same way — but they've given these drugs various names and pushed up public awareness about some of them so that we have the impression there are all kinds of options.

    That's creative marketing, but it's not substantive creativity.

    Yes! I'm being judgmental here. But this is a conversation and that's part of the pleasure of it.

  8. Gayle Carline

    If you ever think creativity is dying, check out either Smashwords or Scribd. There are some VERY out-of-the-box thinkers out there. Do we need the gatekeepers to tell us whether it's good or not? Maybe not "gatekeepers" in the way that publishers/editors pick and choose what will appeal to the masses. I think readers are becoming the gatekeepers. If they tell each other that X was worth buying, but Y was not, we'll see the trend.

    And I think, no matter who the gatekeeper is, once a writer is popular for a particular genre or series, their readers want them to stay there. It's our nature to want more of what we already like, until we get sick of it.

  9. Eve Kotyk

    I worry that the imaginations of our children are becoming under-developed, partly because they have so much stuff. Stuff that doesn't easily allow your imagination to diverge and extrapolate. This is necessary for creativity. Sorry, Rob, I beg to differ regarding choices. Having more choices is not always good. In a not so long ago Scientific American article it was noted that people become very stressed if they have more than two choices. Furthermore, there often seems little difference between the multitude of choices. For some, I believe, the stress is so significant that they can't chose at all. And when you can't choose, you let others choose for you. A dicey prospect in my opinion. 😉

  10. David Corbett

    Oh what the hell. Some scattered (very) thoughts.

    I think young folks are incredibly creative, maybe more so than ever, but they've not been taught the skills to follow through. Ideas bubble up nonstop. Finished works of art? The patience to develop the skill to be not just clever but productive?

    As this applies to education: When I studied math, my professors made it clear that to be truly creative one needed to master technique. (Yes, mathematics is creative.) Musicians have to play scales, writers have to craft and re-craft stories, etc. What we're seeing in schools with NCLB is a devotion to the skills of test-taking with no application of how to apply those techniques to problem solving. The means has become the end.

    One hopes such training will occur in the workplace. Emphasis on: hope. (One reason ex-newspaper people make such good fiction writers is they have to sit down and write a good story every single day. With the demise of newspapers, where will that training come from?)

    High concept is the triumph of the creative idea over everything else — especially execution. Good writers get pulled into projects as writers-for-hire for clever "idea guys" who need somebody who can swing the hammer. Guess who ends up with the credit?

    Then there's the James Patterson effect: He taught NY that you can sell a boatload of books to people who don't normally read. This has become the model for genre fiction in particular.

    And last: Commerce is to creativity what a buzzsaw is to flesh.

    I'm done now.

    Pari, how daring of you to open Pandora's Box. My advice: stand back.

  11. pari noskin taichert

    You're right, I should hang out on those sites a bit more . . . and will. And word of mouth is always going to be the best "gatekeeper" of all. As to writers writing what readers want, I wonder . . .does that encourage/discourage creativity?
    The answer is probably not that clear cut.

    I think I fall more into your argument re: choices. And I also think you're spot on about kids today. I can even tell when my kids have watched a lot of television in a day or when they've spent a similar amount of time reading. In the former case, they tend to be more rude and have less ability to focus on what I'm saying. In the latter, why . . . they're perfect angels (not quite, but I do see a difference).

  12. pari noskin taichert

    Did I mention I'm writing a book that deals with some of Pandora's actions?

    I think you've hit a crucial idea — the follow-through for creativity. Perhaps that's part of what I'm responding to. And the idea of becoming proficient at taking tests as opposed to thinking (my words) is spot on as well. That's one of the reasons I despise NCLB. We're paupering ourselves to put our kids through private school in part because of the destruction I've seen resulting from this ill-conceived — though possibly well intentioned — program.

    I'm not sure I follow the James Patterson concept — would you expand on that one? Though I do get the buzz saw/commerce imagery and agree.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    David is really right when he says the creativity is there in this new generation but the discipline that builds a skill set just doesn't seem to be what it used to be. Of course it doesn't help that arts programs that used to cultivate that kind of intensive discipline are being cut right and left.

  14. David Corbett


    James Patterson emphasized high concept with a style devoted to simple short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters — a brisk easy read that encourages page-turning at the expense of complexity, contrast, depth. It was more a marketing concept than an artistic one, but it was incredibly insightful (re: luring otherwise reluctant readers) and wildly successful. And it has bred an army of imitators — and an expectation on the parts of some publishers to either get with the program or go away.

    Although neither Ken Bruen nor Don Winslow are anything like Patterson, nor were influenced by him in any way, they too developed a very rapid, jump-cut style — but one that also strove for a kind of poetry, an almost word-by-word and line-by-line intensity and momentum. I think their success has been at least partially due to an understanding of how ADD readers have become, and accommodating themselves to that without sacrificing their stories or their style. It may be Ken's background as a poet and Don's as a playwright that brought them to their distinctive styles, but whatever the source, it's served them well, and readers have embraced it.

    I'm sure there are dozens of other authors who could be mentioned in this vein. I'm just picking these two because they spring to mind.

    Unless you want to be the heir of David Foster Wallace, I think this is a trend you ignore at your peril. (I speak, sadly, from experience.)


  15. Cornelia Read

    1. No.
    2. I don't know, some kind of editorial oversight is helpful. Even for creative types who are my favorite people in a variety of genres, media…
    3. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

  16. Reine

    Hi Pari,

    Yes, that's what I meant, because creatives will create without reward.

    I've gone to every type and level of school imaginable, in college from a tin shack on the ass end of the local high school to Harvard, and the only one that encouraged my creativity was Harvard. And that is pathetic, don't you think?

  17. Catherine

    I think creativity is so central to our being that no it's not on life support.

    It's funny but when you mentioned gatekeepers my first thought wasn't marketing and agents. I thought more of the people that function to help us access creativity. The curators of museums, and galleries, ground swell support for creative people who find each other through whatever means is meaningful to them…and librarians.

    Ok maybe my world view is being greatly influenced by doing a Masters in Library Science, and I know a few curators, and artists, and writers et al but truly this is one the prime reasons I'm muddling my way through this. I do recognise that we have an enormous amount of information out there. I see people struggle to get to what they want whether it's to access some external creative product or to bring forth their own. It's frustrating for a lot of people who feel time poor to not be able to access what they need. I realise that agents and marketing do filter creativity in different streams however there are people out there willing to help people in a relatively unbiased way navigate those streams.

    As for does everything start to seem the same? For me well no but then I seek out the different most of the time. Maybe attitude has a lot to do with this. For myself sometimes sameness is a balm when everything else seems a little mad. Other times I'm out there actively searching for new ways people have to express themselves.

  18. pari noskin taichert

    You're right about arts programs!

    Thanks for elaborating.
    Pari . . .too dense.

    Are you from the Patterson school of answers? <g> Look at David's second response.

    Got it. And I agree. I wish creativity were valued as an end in itself much more than it is right now.

    I like that you went to that other place. I hadn't even considered it. But now that you've got me thinking about it, what incredible potential and help librarians and other information resource people will be in helping the rest of us sort out this unending stream.

    I'm going to have to think more about your comments though . . . don't want to give a knee jerk answer due to lack of time.

  19. Eve Kotyk

    Pari, I'm sorry, I've been hanging out on Facebook too much. If you like someone's comment as I do David's you can click a button that says LIKE. What I was saying in a very oblique way is that I agree with much of what David had to say. I like it.

  20. PD Martin

    I don't think creativity is dying, but like a few others have said, the follow through and commitment isn't there. Of course, if we look at our creative field (writing) there have always been people who've aspired to write, started their great novel, but haven't finished it. Not sure how the follow-through will affect this – maybe there'll be more people starting novels but not pursuing writing or maybe the coming generations won't even try to write a full novel.

    In terms of gatekeepers this is a tricky one. It's getting harder and harder to get published these days, and many good books and good writers are getting rejection letters. So self-publishing is a good option. Having said that, I've also read some self-published novels that really shouldn't be in print – at least not without some major editing. I think the problem is, if authors who've never been published are self-publishing, they don't have an understanding or appreciation of the editing process. And sometimes they don't even have a grasp on grammar or point of view. I read a book recently and within the first two pages I was turning back to the front matter to work out who had published a novel that had major POV problems in the first two pages. The answer: It was self-published. So it's a tricky one – obviously the readers will be the gatekeepers but some of these books and writers COULD be good, if they let a good editor loose. And it's a shame they don't understand the importance of getting their manuscripts reviewed and then edited.

    Choices…I'm am the world's worst decision-maker! Or at least one of the worst. But I think choice is one of those strange things – we can complain about too many choices, but take them away and we'll be outraged!

  21. pari noskin taichert

    Thanks, Eve. I feel like a dope.

    PD —
    I think there's a gentle consensus here about creativity and it's health. Perhaps it just needs some cross-country training for the long haul.

    And the gatekeepers question is one that I've really been struggling with since I've decided to self-publish (if I just sit down and do it!). You're right though. A lot of these self-pubbed books do need major editing. I'm wondering how much though. I still dream of working with a fabulous editor who believes in my work and wants to "take me to the next level" in my writing — but so far my experience hasn't been that. I did have one wonderful editor, but she left the publisher early in my career and I never had anyone close. Alas.

    And choices? Well, I like having some. I bet I'd be screaming if I didn't have them. But I would much prefer fewer choices with real differences between products than mere bells and whistles. Substantive differences between this tooth whitener and that one . . .

  22. Rob Browne

    Pari, quantity may not force people to be creative, but competition does. And the more competition you have, the more creative and innovative you have to be.

  23. Allison Brennan

    I don't think creativity is dying. I don't think it ever will. Stories, music and art have been around since the dawn of man. Maybe not as we have them today, but they existed. Humans are naturally creative creatures, and you nothing can change that.

    Gatekeepers aren't just agents or editors. Gatekeepers are readers as well. There are always going to be gatekeepers of varying power. That's neither good nor bad nor all-inclusive. Some people jump over the gate.

    Yes and no. I agree with Rob that quantity forces people to be competitive and that competition is a good thing–it keeps people creative and growing as artists. I do think that with too many choices (particularly if they are unorganized choices) that consumers will generally gravitate toward what they're comfortable with. But it's fluid and changing, and there will come a natural order among the mass of offerings. The gatekeepers (publishers AND readers) will create order, and it'll be different than what we have now in some ways, and the same in some ways.

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    You raise too many amazing points for my befuddled brain to cope with – too much choice ;-]

    I recently had the honour of being one of the judges for a young writers' competition for prose, poetry or monologue. There was some incredible creativity, but also the shadow of teachers' hands behind some of the entries, trying to shove them into a uniformity that was so disappointing. There was also the problem of do you value a great idea that's badly executed over a simple idea that's well executed? With some editing, we would have had a much harder time picking a winner.

    But, generally speaking, it's not so much the creativity that seems to be missing in the next generation, as a sense of wonder. So much of the time, they don't look up from their games consoles or their mobile phones long enough to notice the world around them.

  25. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    When our kids were growing up their friends seemed to have an overabundancs of organized activities. We always felt that too much organization would squelch their creative opportunities. As a consequence ours were sometimes thought to be "unsupervised." When we were adopting, a neighbor actually filed a complaint to that effect, with the adoption services. Fortunately the caseworker thought otherwise, and we adopted our youngest two. I think activities are great. I loved sports and all sorts of things like riding and sailing, myself. It just seems there is a lot of pressure to organize children and to keep them entertained — too much.

  26. pari noskin taichert

    Competition might force you to be clever, but I wonder about the creative aspect. I just don't know. Not looking for a fight here.

    Reine, I think that's a valid question. And between your comment, Rob's and mine, we get into the nut of what is creativity really? I'm not sure.

    I'm going to roll around in your optimism for a while. Thanks.

  27. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, man, Zoë,
    Talk about amazing points! The sense of wonder. Holy cow. That's a whole other discussion that deserves several blogs at least. Can you cultivate a sense of wonder if everything is given to you — in thought, imagined staging, product etc?

    I was in the store the other day and a mother was talking about all the classes her little girl — couldn't have been more than 6 years old — was taking: gymnastics 3x/wk, t-ball 2 nights a week, dance, etc etc. She spoke about this in a harried and prideful way — like she was such a fabulous mother. Her choice.
    Not mine. I don't want to have my kids running from one activity to the next w/o time to breathe or look at a blossoming iris.

  28. David Corbett

    Rob, your point that the more competitive a field becomes, the more creative you have to be, doesn't strike me as true. The more competitive a field becomes, the more you need to get attention, and creativity can or cannot serve that purpose. Some artists thrive in the gladiatorial arena. Some don't.

    Times of great social upheaval generally don't produce great art — there are exceptions, like Athens during the Peloponnesian War — but it's generally during times of relative calm that art flourishes.

    Art requires a certain repose, so the imagination can delve into the unknown. When the racket of competition is constantly rattling the creative cage, I think one gets showier art, some of which can be incredibly creative. But the time it takes to probe deeply into anything gets swamped by the demands of competition to produce.

    And yet, that stirs the juices of a lot of creative people. My point, I guess, is that it all depends on the artist.


  29. Eve

    Reine, Creativity and productivity are not at all the same though they walk in tandem. As a painting student at university we were encouraged to focus more on process than product. My professors were right, but not completely. Process (creativity) is what builds you, informs you, pushes you to engage in the next step, but in the end you are working toward producing something. Now here is the rub. You can be immensely creative, produce something very fine and you may get no press, no sale, no nothing. Then again, some day your turn may come. 😉

  30. Eve

    Pari, don't feel bad about not know my allusion to 'like'. I only just learned these things myself.

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