Holding creativity up to the light

“How the fuck do you write so many books?” George RR Martin asks Stephen King in this interview. At a mundane level, there’s an obvious explanation for the difference between these authors: King writes daily and dutifully churns out 30+ pages per week; if GRRM finishes a chapter, he considers it an unusually productive couple of months. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a mystery here. Some might even call it the mystery, as far as writers are concerned.

If King creates more than GRRM, does that make him more creative? (“No!” you yell into a computer screen deaf to your anguish, ruing the moment you chose this post to distract you from the blank Google doc sulking in your taskbar.) The verb certainly seems to go with the adjective, doesn’t it? And yet, intuitively it seems not quite right, like something needs to be added before “creating” can be transformed into “creative”, or else we’d have to start calling people like Nora Roberts creative geniuses.

So perhaps you also need to bake in “originality” or “imagination” or something in order to have a fully-fledged definition of creativity. But then you may wonder why these concepts would come to complicate our clean little definition from before, rather than keeping to their own adjectives. And in fact, there’s a very good reason, which I will illustrate with the following convoluted analogy.

The scavenger hunt

If you want to get from point A, one corner of an empty room, to point B, the opposite corner, it’s a pretty straightforward operation. We can make it a bit harder by hiding B in the next room over, forcing you to use more time and more steps to get there, but you’re almost sure to make it anyway.

Now point A is a room inside a vast mansion with point Bs scattered throughout. I’ve already run this game with many friends in your place before, so I’m all set with security cameras to watch your every movement. Of course I’m not surprised when you get the obvious Bs close to your starting point, just as most of the people before you have. Naturally, those are worth less. In fact, the Bs are all worth more or less as a function of how often they were found.

You want to win, so you figure you’ll just scour the whole place, right? Wrong! I’ve been counting your steps as I watch you from my secret lair, and once you hit a certain pre-specified number, thwip goes the tranquilizer dart into your neck, and my goons drag you back to square one.

“It’s not fair,” you might whine, “You gave Susie 100 steps and I only got 50!” To which I reply shut up, do you know how many veterinarians I had to bribe to get the good stuff? Don’t look a gift horse tranquilizer in the mouth. But maybe I take pity on you, and I reveal some secret trap doors and dumbwaiters behind paintings and bookcases and so on, shortcuts to spots other people had to trudge to on their own two feet.

In the end you come away with a score based on how many different Bs you’d found, and how many Bs you’d found that other people hadn’t. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve done one of those divergent thinking tests that rewards you for coming up with words that other players miss (ie Boggle), or more generally because it’s approximately how we allocate the title of “creative” in the real world.

If you’ll notice, your score doesn’t reflect how you got there. All it reflects is your ability to get from point A to some desired point B, and that’s primarily what “creative” means too. It’s a word designed for consumers, not the backend, a term denoting “a person who can make stuff that I want”. And as an investor, who would you be funding if not “people who can make stuff that other people want”?

The scavengers’ craft

Unfortunately, that leaves those of us that want to talk about process with a senseless morass of conflated concepts. Sure you got to point B, but how? Am I doomed if I don’t have that many steps in me? What if I can’t find any trap doors? And how can I ask any of these questions if I don’t have the words for them? (The “insecure artist” is a popular caricature, but how do you think you would fare if you had no coherent way of communicating about your professional obstacles?)

So in the interest of clearer discussion, I propose the following facets: generativeness, and divergence.

Generativeness, in figurative terms, is how many steps you’re allowed before I tranquilize you. It could be expressed at a high level–how much you talk in conversation, how many words you’ve written, how much stuff you’ve created–or a low level–how many ideas occur to you, how far you run with them, etc. It’s a sort of measure of “raw power”, and it has little to do with content.

Divergence describes how weird your path is–when everyone else looked right or left, you looked up; when everyone else was searching for stairs, you checked out a neglected corner and fell down a mine shaft.

Though they may seem like strange bedfellows to inhabit one word, you’ll find they can indeed accomplish similar ends. A generative person can brute force their way to the less popular prizes by simply walking the well-trod path farther than others do, while a divergent person stumbles upon them by way of lesser-known routes. However, depending on how the game is set up, they can end up finding many of the same prizes, or entirely different sets, which in the real world means that these talents can’t substitute for each other in many types of tasks.

Worse, no standard set of “creativity boosting” advice will affect both traits in the same way. King may use cigarettes and booze to keep his juices flowing, but would any of us really be that excited if Martin delivered a scotch-soaked draft of Winds of Winter? (The answer is: yes, obviously, but not for the right reasons.) It’s no accident that every writer who ever lived had a bunch of idiosyncratic little habits that didn’t work for a substantial chunk of the people who tried them.

Hopefully someday, instead of telling everyone that real writers write for 3 hours each day or drink a pot of black coffee at 4pm or pat their head and rub their stomach before sitting down to work, writing advice will come with a disclaimer about the sort of strengths it plays to, and the sort it doesn’t. The first step on that path, of course, is for people to start figuring out what strengths they do have.