How to Talk about Creativity

I encounter creative people through artist interviews, lifestyle columns, and business profiles. As I put together each story, I challenge myself to uncover the genius behind their work and relay their value to my audience.

Sometimes, the audience struggles to define creativity — substituting technical skill for creative ability, like when an artist sketches a perfectly lifelike representation of an object.

Creativity is a way of thinking.

Creativity is actually the ability to combine previously unrelated mental elements in a novel, useful way. For example, Einstein was creative because he could bring together ideas to create a new theory. Never mind his aesthetic.

Creativity is a way of thinking — a process — not a combination of technical skills.

Divergent Thinking

Creativity stems from divergent thinking, a process illustrated by both Wason’s 2-4-6 Task, and his Selection Task.

Peter Cathcart Wason was a cognitive psychologist who contributed to the early study of reasoning. His studies explore how the mind makes breakthroughs.

Two Ways of Thinking: Convergent and Divergent

His tasks provided some evidence for the idea that creative thinking isn’t based on IQ but rather a non-linear model of thinking.

The Wason Selection Task

In his task, an individual is presented with a set of four cards on top of a table. Each card has a number on one side and a colored box on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show:

The participant must answer the following question.

Which card(s) must you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?

The correct response is to turn over the 8 card and the brown card.

The rule was “If the card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red.” Only a card with both an even number on one face and something other than red on the other face can invalidate this rule.

In the original study, less than 10% of the participants guessed correctly. This result was replicated in 1993.

To successfully complete this task, a person must use inductive reasoning and divergent thinking. They must start with a question and use that stimulus to generate ideas.

The Wason 2-4-6 Task

Wason conducted another task, known as the 2-4-6 task, to further study divergent thinking.

The participant is presented with the 2-4-6 triple and instructed to discover a rule that governs this sequence of three numbers.

The answer is “three numbers in ascending order.” But the participant does not know.

Then, the participant is encouraged to generate additional triples, like 12-24-48, 1-2-3, or 10-20-30.

The experimenter tells the participant whether the new group of numbers fits the secret rule.

Interestingly, people tend to create a rule that is more specific than the real, secret rule. People who guess correctly are able to think more creatively about what the secret rule might be. (They also avoided confirmation bias in the process.)

This study shows the role of divergent thinking — the ability to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions — in problem-solving. Creative people think in a spontaneous, free-flowing, and “non-linear” manner.

This doesn’t come from how “smart” or skilled they are. Instead, it’s from a mindset that includes nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, and persistence.

Creativity involves a mental playfulness.

How to Talk About Creativity

When talking about creativity, the process triumphs over the end result. This is one of the deciding factors between people who “get” any free-thinking endeavor and those who turn up their noses at the end result of an exploratory project.

Mirke Jan Bialy discusses this distinction in “Why Some People Hate Abstract Art While Others Love It.”

Those who discredit abstract art tend to believe that a masterpiece is the product presented to the viewer, not the evidence of the journey to create it. Abstract art lacks linear representation of anything realistic. Critics of abstract paintings argue that a child could have produced the works that become famous. They argue that abstract expressionism undermines the technical training that many artists spend years pursuing and financing for the sake of their trade. The carefully trained eye and selective disciplinarian finds abstract art a savage abuse of the care and precision that go into other forms of painting.

However, those who appreciate abstract art understand the process of creativity. It’s the mindset surrounding the work that matters as much as the end result.

It’s quite possible that divergent thinkers are more likely to appreciate and recognize other divergent thinkers.

Whenever I write about creativity, I try to bridge that gap — bringing the convergent (logical) thinkers into a creative mindset.

Contextually

Bringing an audience into a creative mindset starts with providing context. I saw this in my recent interview with artist Phyllis Hart. Her paintings were vibrant, often closely cropped examinations of flora and fauna.

When I asked how she started exploring art, she talked about copying Gibson Girl sketches from catalogues as a young girl. She said, “If I see it, I can paint it.”

But, her adult paintings are not mere replications of what she sees. Even as she showed me flower paintings — side by side with the seed catalogue images that inspired them — her creative vision side-stepped technique.

She almost always substitutes the natural background for a single, clean color. This forces the eye toward the subject. Also, she choses a different alignment — rarely exactly centered like promotional images.

Artist Phyllis Hart spoke with me about her paintings for Life in the Ivy magazine.

Your eye is subconsciously drawn up to the upper half of each painting. It symbolically makes you “look to the sky” and consider the divine hand that Phyllis sees moving through the natural world.

Phyllis bemoaned declining level of detail (from age and arthritis) in her paintings as she walked me through a lifetime of floral studies. Technically, her dexterity had declined and you could use that to visually date her work. But, you can also see an escalation in meaning from the earliest to most recent.

Without context, you don’t appreciate the meaning of her art in relation to the span of her life.

Inclusively

If you look at creativity as something that builds over a lifetime, then, you will be more inclusive in the types of art you value.

In my interview with poet Aidan Claire Daniel for Talk That Talk, we discussed the impetus for art.

Excerpt from Artist Interview: Aidan Claire Daniel Lets The Birds Do the Talking

Danielle: You spoke about what got you started writing. What kicks you into writing gear?

Aidan: I was just talking to my mentor about this. I write things down if I am afraid I will forget them. 
Also, I write things down when I feel overwhelmed by detail. For example, I read a poem at the recent Listening Open Mic Event that focused on a bird – the “butcher bird.” 
It’s technically a shrike. The shrike is called a butcher bird because it takes small animals and it impales them on spikes or thorns to kill them. At first I thought, “Maybe that makes sense if they don’t have claws that can kill.” But, I realized that isn’t necessary. They have huge claws. I researched why they do it. 
I became more overwhelmed with that detail. 
I get kicked into writing a poem when I don’t know what to do with information. I figure things out by writing through them. Most of the time, it provides a sense of closure. 
I say to myself, “I’m satisfied with this information now.” 

D: It almost draws comparison to when a visual artist does a study and they must work through all the details as they sketch the parts. What they’re left with isn’t something you would ever frame. But, you’ve explored it. You’re doing that process with words. 

A: I like that. 

D: I did see you perform and I have to ask. What is going on with the birds? When did that start? You’re even wearing an embroidered bird on your collar right now. 

A: I’ve always loved birds. My dad was into ornithology and bird watching. He would always point out birds to me. I don’t remember the details of what he pointed out. 
But, I’ve always just liked birds. I like birds and flowers because they feel so innocent. They feel very pure. Untouched.
As I’ve explored birds more, I find details. 
I looked up this article about Zebra finches and their songs. All zebra finches learn their songs from their fathers. Only the males perform them. 
So, the son bird learns a song from his father. As he is trying to court a lady bird, she will compare that song to her own father’s song. It helps her evaluate him. 
Can he care for her? Is he a good match?
Birds have secrets. You can only find them by researching. And I want to tell people who have no interest in birds about the cool things they do. I want people to think about what it means for us, as people. 

D: That’s part of what fascinates me about birds. They’re symbolic creatures throughout art. Some of it’s accurate and some of it’s not. It’s what we’ve projected onto them. 

A: It’s subjective – the meaning we ascribe to things. 

D: You think of crows and ravens as these solemn figures— as dark omens. But, they’re really playful and noisy. 

A: They’re silly birds. They like shiny objects. I have so many thoughts about crows as well. Have you ever heard of crow funerals?

D: No. I am not familiar with crow funerals. 

A: I thought, on first hearing it, that people may be mourning crows. I thought, “Well, that is sad. I would throw a bird funeral.” 
Actually, crow funerals are when one of the birds finds another dead crow. It mourns. It gathers up other crows around the body to pay respect. 

D: They acknowledge their species. 

A: Corvidae are so intelligent. Comparing them to primates and whales, they’re so bright.

D: Aren’t they as smart as dolphins? 

A: I think so. Like a young child. 
See — I get so excited about this. And poetry gives me something to do with that energy and information.

In the end, Aidan will write a poem about these birds. It may or may not confer meaning to every person who reads her words.

If you understand the journey to the poem, the value of the finished product is higher.

Aidan Claire Daniel discussed her poetry in my article for Talk That Talk.

This is why we need to speak inclusively about creativity. It’s more than obtaining a level of skill from obtaining education, or even practicing to reach a technical mastery. Creativity is about those connections — the non-linear leaps from thought to thought.

Humbly

We can’t quantify the value of these non-linear leaps. It doesn’t always translate into a social media following, a profession, a contract, or an award. It may not product something “beautiful.”

If we approach creativity with humility, we see more and more creativity. We can talk about it more because we see more moments of creative value.

Images in Phyllis Hart’s home

This doesn’t leave room for snobbery. It forces you to open up your mind and think like someone else. You journey with a creator as they go on a creative journey.

Copiers vs. Creators

People see a life-like sketch, and say, “Wow! They’re so creative.”

But, that artist is just technically skilled. They took classes or practiced. Nothing in their mind took two completely unrelated things and pulled them together. They can’t innovate. They can’t reimagine. They have merely presented you with a copy.

You see this in every field of study. We often lavish praise more upon the copiers than the creators. Which is easy to do because they’re just honing a craft through practice. They aren’t putting mental energy into invention.

Talking about creativity means talking about a mindset —regardless of the an end result.


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Additional Reading

Sources

  • Vartanian, O., Martindale, C., & Kwiatkowski, J. (2003). Creativity and Inductive Reasoning: The Relationship between Divergent Thinking and Performance on Wasons 2—4—6 Task. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A56(4), 1–15. doi: 10.1080/02724980244000567

Published by Danielle

I'm a writer and artist in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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