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Meditation: Please be creative; but don't try to be original

By John Terauds on January 20, 2014


I had several memorable experiences at the Banff Centre last August. There, like in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China an Castro’s Cuba, flat surfaces everywhere exhort residents and visitors alike. In this instance, all is meant to be Inspiring Creativity.

Oh gosh, worried I as I came face to face with another deer feeding on the landscape gardeners’ handiwork, Am I being creative enough?

What inspires me?

Am I truly original, or just another hack?

Was that giant, still magpie lording it over the CEO’s lawn silently mocking me — or was it waiting for the next beetle to make the fatal mistake of wandering by?

Magpie. It’s such a prosaic-sounding name, with a fun history — born in Shakespeare, as the muses would have it. These birds have one of the most fun scientific names in all of Nature: pica pica. Its sound is ready for song and dance and plenty of smiles. All for a big, black-and-white bird that does what birds do: survive and reproduce.

Our world is as prosaic or as poetic as we want it to be. It depends on where and when we were born, who we were born to, and which side of the bed we got up on this morning.

But along come the sloganeers to muddy the waters in a little game that is as old as snake oil.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans divided speech into that which is spoken in earnest and that which is rhetoric: the art of manipulating language for personal or political or legal benefit.

A couple of millennia later, we call it spin or marketing. And there’s nothing like a catch-all buzzword to help the marketing merry-go-round along for a few more giddy spins. The big word of the week (metaphorically speaking) is Creativity.

I bring this up because the arts rely on imaginative people to sustain it — as creators, re-creators, interpreters and, we mustn’t forget, audacious audiences. To say that we all need to be creative and that we all can be creative masks the fact that fashioning something from nothing, imagining something entirely new, or taking a chance on someone else’s wacky idea do not come from the same mind, the same impulse, or the same process.

And they do not yield the same result.

This is all a game of semantics, of course. The marketers and the white panel vans at the Banff Centre and Richard Florida’s office and countless other places have desecrated and are in the process of rendering utterly meaningless the word Creativity for this generation.

So what is the real word we are reaching for when we say Creativity? My guess is Originality.

There is a special thrill in beholding that which we’ve never seen or tasted or smelled or touched or heard before. Some of it — usually very little — will be so special that our personal and collective worlds will rock, and this new something will be written into the history books as a seminal moment, destined to be treasured for centuries.

The music of Bach and Beethoven is the obvious example for our purposes here.

And herein lies one of the many ironies that define human existence. (Aristotle aptly distinguished humans from other animal life because we are capable of reason. I would suggest, given the unreasonableness of some people, that we should consider ourselves special animals because we are capable of irony.)

Bach and Beethoven didn’t have an easy time of it, nor has anyone else who has tried to create something that’s truly new or original.

It’s no different today, as we bow in deep homage to Creativity and pray in our group workshops that she may shower us with her blessings so that we may emerge reborn and re-energised into our fluorescent-lit workplace cubicles.

We speak creativity and in many cases crave originality, but the unfamiliar also makes us uncomfortable, as it always has. We repeat the mantra that we can all be creative, as if this will somehow make us better and more fulfilled. But the truths of millennia tell us that the crowd of the creatively elect, of the truly original thinkers, is a small one indeed.

So, instead of making life a misery for these very few, very special people, why don’t we concede that most of us will never have an original thought in our lives (I resigned myself to this midway through university) and instead do everything in our power to make life easier for the misfit and the visionary — should we ever be fortunate enough to spot one.

(To be fair, this is part of what places like the Banff Centre try to do, even if they overdo it with the sloganeering.)

What more might Beethoven have done if he had been supported by permanently generous patrons, better doctors and eager audiences?

John Terauds

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