I have spent my entire career working as a professional creative. Because of this, the one thing which has always intrigued me is the question: what does it mean to work creatively? Ironically, it’s a really difficult question for me simply because being creative is something I understand at a visceral level. I experience all thinking as creative thinking. Creativity isn’t something that is switched on and off like a tap. It is always on, an ever-present aspect of who I am and how I interact with the world. And perhaps because I identify so completely as a creative person, it seems odd to me the vast majority of people claim quite firmly they are not creative when presented with anything related to the arts.
For many years I viewed the world as split into two very distinctive camps, creatives and everyone else. If you self-identify as a creative you’ll understand this. Creatives are a very definite tribe. My identify as a creative has always been the strongest part of who I am. Being a creative is more central to how I see myself than nationality, class, gender, sexuality or race. I think this is also true for many other creatives and part of the reason for my belief is that in any social activity creatives will find each other, bond quickly and then effortlessly step into the “creative space.” By the creative space I mean a form of conversation I only have with other creatives.
It’s really important to understand what I mean by the creative space. The creative space is what happens when two or more compatible creatives start talking about projects. This is very different from what happens when you discuss a project with a “regular” person. Regular people listen and may even express interest or praise or encouragement. They may ask questions. But, that is as far as the conversation goes. Regular people listen to creatives talking about creativity in exactly the same way they listen to someone talking about their holidays. There is a world of difference between this kind of conversation and what happens between two creatives. If I describe one of my projects to another artist my ideas will automatically act as a springboard for a conversation which goes either “that reminds me of the work of X, who did this incredible thing” or “that reminds me of something I’ve been working on” or “have you read this book by X which talks about Y.” The creative space is a conversation where the norm is to share how the idea being discussed links up with other cool cultural stuff and ideas. In other words, a single concept, sets off a chain reaction of different ideas, perspectives and concepts. This is such a common part of the day-to-day experience of being a creative we often forget how unusual it is. It is, however, at the very heart of what it means to be creative.
Although I still experience the world as split into natural creatives and regular people, in recent years I have come to the conclusion that anyone could tap into the creative process if they wanted to. The first step in that process would be to give up the idea that creativity is making things up using only the power of your imagination. The idea of natural creative genius is both hollow and idiotic at the same time. If you go back far enough in the life of any artist, writer or musician you’ll discover an abundant imitation of previous people’s work. Creatives universally start from what already exists, only to develop and evolve from that point as they grow. Creativity never comes from nothing, it is always a response to what already exists. Just in the same way that creative conversations are a series of linked ideas and explorations of concepts, the life of a creative is exactly the same thing. Where regular people go wrong is trying to think like an experienced creative, who has already made thousands of conceptual links, rather than starting at the beginning… and, the beginning is always imitation.
The other thing that creative people understand about creativity, which regular people don’t, is the sheer volume of ideas/projects/creations which never see the light of day. Professional creatives learn that for every decent idea, the one worth developing, they will need to generate at least twenty bad ideas. The creative process is a process of generation and selection, of experimentation and rejection. This doesn’t just apply to ideas. It also applies to the work. As a writer, I will routinely delete 70% of what I write. This sentence, the one you’re reading right now, was something else entirely a minute ago. For someone looking at the creative world from the outside, where only the good stuff is displayed, it would be easy to see creatives as superhuman. However, the reality is all the naff stuff gets thrown into the wastepaper basket.
Creativity isn’t a mystical, magical quality which sets creatives apart from mere mortals. What makes a creative different is their ability to explore ideas, to form links and find new perspectives. Creatives understand that the journey starts from imitation and grows from there. And, ultimately, we aren’t plucking one idea out of thin air, instead, we gather as many ideas as we can, explore any that seem interesting, only to let the public see the stuff that comes out OK.