Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The nature of creativity

What is creativity?

A couple of nights ago I got a wild urge to cook dinner.  Years ago I wouldn't have been able to do that without flipping through recipes to find ones that I liked and then preparing the food as the recipes I'd found demanded.  That was really all I could do; my knowledge of spices consisted of being able to read the names off of the sides of the shakers.  I could tell you for certain that pepper was black when it came out of its container while most of the other spices were green.  As I gradually became more familiar, I could even point out that rosemary looked like broken up sticks as it came out while most of the rest looked like broken up leaves.  But I learned to follow those recipes closely.  Once I recall preparing a dish whose recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon of cooking sherry, and I misread it and added 1/4 cup of cooking sherry.  I don't remember what we ate that night, but it sure wasn't my inedible creation.

Over the years, though, I've become much more familiar with cooking ingredients and techniques, and with that familiarity has come experimentation.  Last week when I cooked dinner, for example, there weren't any recipes.  I decided to try twice-baking red potatoes as well as combining fresh chives, thyme, and lime on the tilapia.  Both worked pretty well, though the red potatoes are a little dense inside and are thus harder to prepare that way.  Bottom line is that I enjoyed eating it, and my family did too. 

Was that an example of creativity?  I doubt anyone would say no.  Was my following a recipe years ago an example of creativity?  That one is a little greyer.  My good friends at Google define "creativity" thus: "The use of the imagination or original ideas, esp. in the production of an artistic work."  Original ideas...imagination...nope, not present in cooking by recipe.  Certainly, whoever wrote the recipe was engaging in creativity, but in mimicking that I don't think I was.

That said, it's interesting to look at where that word came from...specifically, its root, create.  To create, according to Merriam-Webster, is "to bring into existence."  Simple and direct, that.  No mention of originality or imagination.  When I take a loaf of bread and I cut it, I'm creating slices of bread.  When I follow a recipe, I'm creating.  "Creative" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "marked by the ability or power to create: given to creating" which certainly fits me in the throes of my bread slicing and my recipe following.  Thus, according to my expert linguistic sources, I'm creating, and I'm being creative, I'm just not using creativity.  Got it?

Nah, I don't either.  It's a funny language we speak.  Regardless, I'm perfectly happy going back into my bubble where creativity refers to original and imagination stuff and where I don't worry about why.  I am, however, left with another fine thread of grey area: my accidental experiment with cooking sherry.  Was that creativity?  It was certainly original, in that I created something that I'm hoping the author of the recipe never, ever intended.  It was also, though, accidental, and lacked the imagination piece.  It's similar in nature to a photo I once took while driving on Alaska's north slope in the winter (no, it's not always winter up there, but that's a fun myth).  I passed by a herd of musk oxen and snapped a photo out of the window.  Keeping, um, both hands firmly on the wheel, of course...my story, and I'm stickin' to it.  In any event, when I got the picture developed (back in the days when we got pictures developed) I was amazed that I'd also caught orange-painted construction equipment in the side view mirror, thus creating an interesting and visually poetic juxtaposition of old and modern.  Created, yes.  Creative, yes.  But accidental...so...creativity?  I don't know. 

All this, then, leads me back to the topic of the blog.  Certainly I've gotten a few of my ideas from other sources including Greek and Roman mythology, but the story line, the plot, the characters are all original and imaginative.  Thus, I doubt anyone would argue with my effort's characterization as an exercise of creativity.  The first author I ever met, though, was a boss I had a long time ago.  She was beautiful and witty and powerful, and...a published author.  I was smitten.  I asked her one day, probably in an awed voice, how she'd managed to (gasp) get published, and she explained that it was easy.  She'd written to Harlequin and inquired about writing a romance novel, and they'd returned...a recipe.  She didn't get too much into the details of the recipe, but she implied that to do so would've been boring anyway.  She followed the recipe, mixing together a hero and a heroine and a dark stormy night, baked it for 300 pages, and sent it in.

Creativity?  The process wasn't, but the characters and whatever dark and stormy stuff was in the book probably were from her imagination.  So...once again, I must close out a blog post with my most common saying:  I don't know.

Enjoy the day!

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