More on Creativity (With Thanks to Kate Elliott for the Inspiration)

Building on Kate Elliott’s wonderful post about creativity (2/18/09)….

I’m an author by profession, but I believe that creativity plays far greater role in my life than my writing career can encompass.  I’m a photographer as well.  I’ve had my own exhibit, I have work hanging in a local gallery, I’ve sold work to magazines, and I’ll be the featured artist at an event near where I live later this spring.  I take my photography quite seriously, in part because I find that creating a visual image is so different from telling stories.  I can’t lay the groundwork for a photograph, I can’t weave backstory and establish motive (or motif!).  With a photo I have one scintilla of a second to capture an image, and either that image tells a tale, or not; either it captures a viewer’s imagination, or not.  And yet at the same time, I also believe that photography informs my writing by making me more observant, by forcing me to look both at the big picture and at minute details.  I think my descriptive passages have become better since I began taking my photography more seriously.  They’ve become leaner, more directed; they tie in better to my storytelling than they used to.  And I think that my storytelling has made me a better photographer, by forcing me to think of image in terms of narrative rather than something more static.  A picture should tell a story, it should convey something to the viewer beyond, “Oooooh, pretty!”

I’m also a musician.  I play guitar and sing, I’ve even written a song or two.  I play when I need a break from my work.  I’ll take time off in the middle of a day of writing to noodle around on the guitar or belt out a song in my empty house.  But music is more than a break from writing.  Music has taught me a great deal about pacing, about dynamics, about rhythm.  A good book, I believe, needs all of these things to work.  It needs to breathe in and exhale.  At times a story needs to maintain tension, like a musical note that refuses to resolve.  And at times, even in the middle of a story, readers need that sense of resolution, even if it’s ephemeral.  Sometimes we need to write frenetic scenes, and sometimes we need softer passages, to give our readers a chance to catch their collective breath.  Writing is musical; books are like symphonies.

I love to cook:  another creative act.  I find that writing a book and cooking a vat of chili are similar acts of creation.  I start with a recipe, and I follow it loosely.  But I also improvise, adding peppers here, a dash of wine there, and letting it simmer a good long time so that the flavors blend and complement one another.  I don’t really need to explain the analogy, do I?

Let’s try another one.  I think my most creative endeavor on a day to day basis is parenting.  I have two daughters, one is almost 14, the other is closing in on 10.  They are similar to each other in some ways, but quite different in others.  And with each new day they face new challenges in their lives and present me with new challenges in mine.  Shepherding them through their childhoods and adolescences is one of the great joys and great challenges in my life.  In the same way, I find myself managing characters everyday, refereeing their interactions, trying to keep one from taking over the story of another.  Every book is different, each new story is filled with new personalities.  And yet, I know them all so well.  I have to be willing to let them grow; I have to nurture their individuality.

Creativity comes in so many shades, tones, flavors, guises.  We live and breathe it.  It informs every aspect of our lives.  My wife is a scientist, and doesn’t think of herself as being especially “creative.”  Yet, I’m amazed every day by the innovation she brings to the classroom, and I know that I could never come up with the ideas that form the basis of her research.  Creation, I believe is hardwired into the human mind.  And I would argue that every act of creativity is linked to every other one.  Learning to improvise on my guitar has made me a better cook.  Taking pictures has made me conceive of my writing in a different way.  And I think that writing has made me a better parent.  Writing stories, creating characters — these are exercises in empathy.  We have to understand people’s motivations and emotions.  We have to step outside of ourselves and assume the perspectives of others.  What could be a more valuable skill for the parent of a teenager? 

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  1. 1. Adam Heine

    Wow. Good post. I totally agree (especially about the creativity required in parenting).

    In a past life, I was a computer programmer. I think non-programmers wouldn’t generally consider this a creative job, but it very much is. And the ways I’ve had to be creative in programming very much inform the paths I follow in writing.

    Programming is essentially logical problem solving. What is the most efficient, elegant solution to the problem at hand? It’s similar when I write. I have to make up the problem myself, but once I do that, I find myself thinking, “What’s the most elegant, interesting way they can get themselves out of this?”

    (For more connections between programming and writing, that are too large to explore in this comment, try The Myst Reader).

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, Adam, and also for the link. Programming, like my wife’s work in biology, is a terrific example of creative thinking in places we don’t usually look to for traditional definitions of creativity. Robert Frost said, “An idea is a feat of association.” That, I think, applies to creativity as well. In our creative lives we are constantly finding new connections, playing on the interdependence of things that on the surface don’t seem connected at all. That works in programming, writing, biology, photography, and, yes, parenting.

  3. 3. Kate Elliott

    Heck, being a parent made me a better writer.

    I think we are born working and thinking creatively and that, if anything, growing up in some cases–depending on surroundings and upbringing–can stifle creativity if a person is continually beaten down or told not to think outside the box. Because I think our default IS the creative; I see that in children all the time (except, again, in ones whose avenues of creative thought are continually being closed down–which may be a factor of them being told to avoid “new connections”).

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    My daughter had a teacher a few years back who had the kids draw animals for an activity. One of the kids, a problem kid actually, who had all sorts of behavior issues, drew a blue giraffe with big red spots. It was a great giraffe — drawing happened to be one thing this kid enjoyed and did really well. The teacher told him it was “wrong” and made him draw it over using the “proper” colors. Unbelievable.

  5. 5. Jana Oliver

    Your daughter’s teacher reminds me of my kindergarten teacher. She put on my record card that I had an “overactive imagination”. Like it was a bad thing. I’m quite happy to live in my own little world where the sky is any color I want it. That’s why I’m an author.

    Perhaps the “problem” kid has his own little world in his head and if that teacher had any sense she’d have let him express it. How does she know what a giraffe really looks like to him? Maybe they really are blue with big red spots. How can she be so sure just because most of us believe they look different?

    Sheesh….

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    This teacher taught kindergarten, too! I think administrators look for disciplinarians for that year. Hence the rigidity.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment, Jana.

  7. 7. Alan Kellogg

    Kids do require a lot of effort to keep them engaged and occupied. Understanding is also very important, and remembering what intrigued you at that age helps a lot. Adapting what you remember to their circumstances is when creativity enters the field.

    BTW, your nine year old is an adolescent. Girls start early, menstruation actually doesn’t start until halfway through the process. And if you think she’s a handful now, wait until her pre-frontal lobes come on line. :)

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    Yeah, the older one is a girl, too. I’m quite familiar with the prefrontal assault, as it were….

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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