What is creativity?
Well, I’m not going to answer that. Not with words or any sort of definition, anyway. In a panel discussion this summer with Saeed Arida and Edith Ackermann at the MIT Media Lab, George Stiney pointed out that the very act of pinning creativity down in words limits our understanding of it:
Every time we latch on to a taxonomy, we limit ourselves… As soon as we substitute a word for a thing, we miss a chance for seeing.
– George Stiney at the MIT Media Lab
And it’s not just with creativity, Stiney’s line of thinking was suggesting, but with words in general. Stiney’s work in the realm of understanding creativity has its own language of geometry and shapes to communicate its ideas. He joyfully pushed the conversation into fascinating places and he enjoyed the “dramatically anti-nominalist wave” that the conversation was riding. And as someone who is prone to fixating on words and their definitions sometimes, I enjoyed it too.
Grasping creativity around the edges
So if we can’t pin it down with words, maybe we can understand something about creativity by noticing the word’s habits and the language we use around creativity to describe it:
- Sometimes we say that creativity starts with a “spark.”
- Sometimes we say that creativity needs inspiration.
- Even in the presence of external inspiration, we still think of creativity as coming from within.
- Creativity‘s sibling is its verb form, to create. Artistry — which sometimes gets lumped in with creativity — is only a distant cousin.
- In his book “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Stephen Johnson points out that the best way to foster creativity (on any scale — biological, cultural, technological, etc) is to nurture it in community.
A (dangerous?) comparison
Yes, I’m using words — sorry, George! — but I’m doing my best to avoid hard definitions. The point I want to make is not about what creativity is, but instead about how we think about creativity and how we interact with it. And here’s why:
I’m wondering if we might interact with the thing Quakers call the Inner Light in a similar way.
I won’t try to define it — just like with creativity, trying define the Inner Light with words only serves to miss the point and limit our understanding of it — but the way we interact with the Inner Light is strikingly similar:
- The metaphor of Light suggests ideas of sustaining warmth and of literally being able to see the path before us. A spark is a concentrated burst of heat and light — and even if it is just a coincidence, the similarities of the metaphors are striking.
- The Inner Light is considered a procreative, generative force; without it, things wither.
- The Light is something that comes from within… but often needs inspiration to be drawn out.
- The Inner Light, too, is best nurtured in community.
A way of thinking, a way of teaching
Although this comparison doesn’t get me any closer to understanding what creativity is (or what the Inner Light is, for that matter), drawing a clear connection between the two makes defining them irrelevant.
Each time a student expresses their creativity in my classroom, I have a chance to interact with them — and the glimmering beacon of creativity they are letting shine — in that moment. My goal is to interact with their creativity in the same way I try to interact with the Inner Light I see in them.
When I do, students notice. When I treat their creativity with the same joyful reverence with which I treat their Inner Light, the relationship transforms. The foundation for the rest of the things I value as a teacher solidifies.
“Consecration of the common”
Beyond offering a useful way to frame one aspect of my teaching philosophy, I think this comparison speaks to the essence of how I understand Quakerism and in fact how I see the world. When every-day creativity has equal footing with the Inner Light, the line between secular and sacred begins to blur. When creativity — a capacity that is so deeply human — is treated not just with the same metaphors but with the same respect we treat the divine, a real statement about my worldview comes into focus.
Can I articulate that worldview? Not yet. But I’m working on it. And as I work on articulating it, I wonder if the only way to articulate it is with words.
From Kinship, a poem by Angela Morgan:
I am aware of the splendor that ties
All the things of the earth with the things of the
Here in my body the heavenly heat
Here in my flesh the melodious beat
Of the planets that circle Divinity’s feet
As I sit silently here in my chair,
I am aware.
This poem made it to me by way of a sermon that is older than I am, which I encountered when Margaret started blogging recordings of her father’s sermons. You can listen to the sermon, Of Bells and Bowls and Pots, read about how it influenced Margaret’s approach to her career when she first heard it, and see how it has influenced her teaching twenty-eight years later.