Creative Pitfalls

Posted by on November 9, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments

Generally people who read my blog, and people I am in contact with on a daily basis are interested primarily in facts; Repeatable, falsifiable and empirical facts. These are incredibly important concerns when we are dealing with the workings of ourselves and the universe, for without them we are unable to make a true judgement on what decisions to make in any given situation. If our decisions are based on “gut feelings” or our personal wants and desires, then the decisions themselves are liable to be clouded in selfish and unrealistic expectations.

Having said that, I think it is important that people don’t discount the value of creativity and imagination in our lives. All technological advances, all discoveries, all great works of art, literature, architecture, our commerce, our food and our clothing, all these started with an idea somewhere in the mind of a person. Many aspects of creativity are spurred on by a challenge, and require a different kind of thinking than pure data-juggling or recording of observations. Some kind of inner spark, an inner dialogue, or the connection of unrelated facts and situations, then analysed, have been the beginnings of some of the greatest advances in humanity. Without these, our species would have never advanced past (or even to) the stage of development that chimpanzees find themselves. Innovation and imagination in the sciences have delivered us to the moon and Mars, and are well on the way to discovering ways to alleviate human suffering and disease.

Another aspect of imagination that we all hold dear is the ability to create scenarios, as fantastic as Lord Of the Rings, or exciting as The Sopranos, where were are immersed in a world that doesn’t exist, but which we could fathom to exist elsewhere. The ability of a child to play-act out situations and scenarios is amazing to watch, and the creativity shown by children is astounding to watch. I can recall as a child how “real” these scenarios felt at the time; My friends and I playing war among the wreckage of an old milk-cart that used to sit in the back yard; pretending to be in scenes from the film ET while riding our bikes around the streets of our suburb, all seemed at the time to be as “real” as anything else in our lives. It was fun, and it was “real” while it was happening, but of course, when I was “shot” by my friend with a “gun” (which was actually a stick or plastic replica), my injuries would magically disappear, and we’d continue playing. We knew at the time what death meant; the end of life, from which you never return. And we had learned from our experiences and what we had seen on TV and in films, what war seemed to be about. As real as any situation we experience, when in those moments, the war we were in, the action and the drama, these were real situations. Of course they were all only real in our heads.

This was about as far from real war as you can get. We were happy kids, all well looked after by our parents (some better than others though, I might add), and when my friend’s mum would call across the way that it was dinner time, the war would dissolve into memories and good times had. The only “danger” we faced in our play-acting was the possibility of a scratch or bruise, or possibly a splinter. I did stand on a plank with a nail protruding from it once, which proceeded to puncture the ball of my foot though my cheap running shoes, but all that was required in that case was a quick trip to a GP and a tetanus shot.

The other odd thing about these “make-believe” playtime scenarios is just how quickly we can remove ourselves from them and return to the mundane aspects of everyday life. A child doesn’t walk away from a playtime scenario and then proclaim that the games are real, at least not often, and if they do, from my limited experience it’s easy enough to explain to the child the difference between make-believe and reality.

Imagine, if you will, a time where true knowledge was sparse, where explaining the universe was a difficult task, and where the explanations available were lacking in almost every aspect. These times existed, only thousands of years ago, yet for many the desire to know and learn was just as strong as it is now for me. If it weren’t for imagination, for wondering what the answers were to the questions that surround us, we may have never asked them. Funnily enough, it seems to me that those who ask the least amount of questions, those who are content with the initial (and usually wrong) explanations of the universe are those who are the most convinced they are right.

Take the example of any religion. Though the books, doctrines and tenets of the religion claim that the words and ideas came from a divine being, it is much more likely that these ideas came from within the imaginative brain, seeking answers and settling on the best they could fathom at the time. Given the sum of knowledge of people alive two to three thousand years ago, and the levels of basic education, its no wonder that many settled on the only answer given to them. Likewise those who claim to seek truth, yet are to busy or lazy to seek further, will take whatever “creative” idea their parents give them and go with that as if it were indisputable.

At the time the religious texts were written, many saw the “answers” these texts gave as the best answers available. Of course we know there were better answers, but these were not only difficult to understand, but many of these were destroyed in events like the great library fire in Alexandria, or in the Mongol sacking of Rome. When these visionary ideas coming from brilliant people of the time became nothing but obscure memories to most, the people who were looking for answers seemed content to grasp at anything seemingly to look anything like an answer. I find it amazing that these ideas are still venerated in any way, when the answers we know and seek for are far more interesting and useful.

When Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon out of a hat (an invisible book that would destroy itself if anyone else saw it), Smith was using his creative mind to do so. As far as anyone can tell no such book existed. The concoction that he spun (that the lost tribes of Israel being the ancestors of the Native American people, that Jesus came to America after he died but before he ascended to heaven, and that God lived on another planet called Kolob), all came from the mind of a man who was known for his lying and deceitful nature. It’s nothing but a story he invented, yet for some reason many like to believe that it is an actual truth. (It has been suggested that the reason Mormonism has been so popular is that it puts America into a western historical context, one where the fiercely nationalistic can relate to the importance of their homeland rather than having to imagine the relatively sterile and alien grounds of the Middle East.)

Likewise, when L. Ron Hubbard wrote the books of Scientology, it came from the mind of a science-fiction writer. The word “fiction” should give the game away from the beginning, and yet so many hang onto his writings and ideas as “truth”. Creative as they were, these ideas hold no basis in reality as we know it.

The creative mind is incredibly useful and sometimes a lot of fun. Creative answers to complex problems can give rise to amazing advances, but we have to be wary of the uninformed creative answer. Often what seems like a simple answer, i.e. “God did it” actually opens the door for many questions that can only be answered eventually by the self-same question. While it may seem that the answer “God did it” is on the surface a creative answer, it is in fact a lazy answer, that never asks the question beyond the question. (For instance, if god created the universe, where did god come from? God must have also been created by a more complex creature, etc. etc.) Biblical answers are not creative because the people who wrote or said were particularly creative, they are creative because the people who wrote or said them were intellectually incapable to pursue the avenue of rigorous questioning we subject our ideas to in this day and age. (It’s easy to find the right answer these days, but imagine living in the deserts of Egypt 3000 years ago. No Wikipedia back then!)

Every act of creation is first first an act of destruction. – Pablo Picasso

The Pablo Picasso quote above is an interesting one, and while it is true that some of the most amazing advances in history have been created by first “thinking outside the box”, the initial creative idea is not the one we should always go with. For Picasso himself, the act of destruction was more an act of analysis; breaking down the idea at hand into its fundamental characteristics, and arriving at an answer (whether it used the fundamentals or disregards them knowingly) which takes into account these aspects of the question at hand. Brilliantly creative people have never been so in the vacuum of an individual mind. For Picasso, creativity was a deep analysis of what he knew, and a willful disregarding of this in order to create something new. This is great for making paintings or literature, but if we disregard what we know when it comes to out lives and the universe we can wind up walking down the wrong path, jumping to conclusions, or just being plain wrong.

As children we quickly learn the difference between creativity and simply “making stuff up”. Inventing answers for lack of a better idea in our own brains can lead to lies, and it’s always a good idea to research answers before jumping to conclusions or simply plucking a fanciful notion from out of the ether. We are all guilty of getting things wrong, but society is much more advanced in real understanding than it was historically, and we should be taking advantage of this. Intellectual laziness, or believing something because it appeals to the “nice idea” in our own heads is not truth; It’s lazy. As Fox Mulder said in The X Files, “The truth is out there”. We should have the intellectual fortitude to find it before believing the “creative” answers of our histories.

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  1. Great post Marty! Sometimes we focus so much on the technical, the factual, and sometimes “dry” machinations of the world around us, it is easy to forget the creative component that can be so inspirational and equally important.  I especially liked your childhood reminiscence and how both imagination and reality are non competitive forces at that age.  It also brought up an memory of my own at that age – I used to make a fighter jet fort from my couch cushions whilst watching Battlestar Gallactica.  Good times! SymoneinOz

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  2. Facts and fancy. Objectivity and creativity. Truth and whimsy. All summed up in the (in my not so humble opinion) best book ever written, “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster, a magical children’s tale about life being a quest for Rhyme and Reason (yes, both words with a capital “R”).

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