Outside of the Box

How might Shakespeare have benefited from a bit of creative coaching? Does the inspiration that drove Picasso towards Cubism have anything in common with Steve Jobs’s decision to launch the iPod? A panel of Open University academics got together to give their take on creativity.

Chaired by writer Sophie Radice

1. What is creativity?

FD: Creativity has to do with thinking laterally, making connections that haven’t been made before, and bringing together aspects of areas that might not naturally fit together so the juxtaposition of ideas or images can produce something new, something different.

DN: Creativity is about play as much as anything else, allowing yourself to perceive anew, so it is about perceptions. It is allowing yourself to dream during the day, to be ostensibly unproductive and to live in uncertainty and mystery. It’s also to do with images and with handling the traffic of those images. If you dream or entertain daydreams then you get a lot of those images and you have to decide which are the ones that you want to stick with. These can often go on to become much bigger than the original thought.

JH: Creativity is about something new but also something apt. The newness doesn’t have to be original but it could be new to that person. In fact, most of what we think of as new builds heavily on what has gone on before. It does include something that is appropriate to the situation and not just any old idea – aptness implies quality in creativity.

DM: Creativity is often about synthesis, so the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate ideas is a rich vein, and the involvement of a range of folk with diverse backgrounds will also help. It is about richness of experience and recognition of emergent patterns. Creativity is also about having a ‘yes, and…’ mentality.

2.  Describe the process of creativity 

JH: The process of creativity can be to do with mental flexibility, because that offers one way of coming up with new ideas. It can be play, but there are some people who are creative through very logical routes, so there are different ways of getting there. Motivation is important too, in terms of the process, as it is much easier to be creative with things you care about, because that gives you the persistence to stand against the norm.

FD: I do think that material conditions are important. Virginia Woolf described it as ‘a room of one’s own’ and I think the material conditions quite often get forgotten when we think of genius, imagination and inspiration. We forget about all those years that people spend in the wilderness pursuing their idée fixe. The compulsion to create is important, but so is having the material resources such as access to libraries, the leisure to visit art galleries, time to write, a dedicated space and being able to create a creative rhythm for yourself.

DN: You look at the psychological models of creativity and process and all of them have common features. There is a research and preparation period, there is a period of cognition prior to consciousness when you can’t articulate the idea – you can’t express it to the world yet – and then there is an incubation period, which is a period of deeper gestation. This is typified by the cliché of the scientist who wakes up with the answer the next morning.

DM: I’d like to emphasise the collective, even serendipitous, nature of creativity. Bouncing ideas around with others… misconstruing them… combining them… polishing them… refining them… always in pursuit of something better. Think about rock ’n’ roll – many bands break up citing ‘creative differences’, yet very few ever achieve the same level of creative success in their subsequent solo careers.

3.  Is creativity the same in every discipline?

JH: I think there are parallels that show up when you look at the work on creativity in different fields. People associate the creative process with the new idea, the dramatic breakthrough.

Yet when we look at studies where people have nominated creative individuals in their field – be it science, business or arts – these people don’t suddenly come up with a bright idea. They spend more time asking the important questions. Fleming looked at thousands of Petri dishes in order to recognise the one that was so significant. He had a sophisticated map of this area in his brain. For exceptional creativity, experience in the area is very important.

DN: There is a danger in talking about creativity as a process, because if you talk about it in this way then it automatically feels repeatable. The more writers you look at, the more you find that their process is not repeatable from writer to writer, or repeatable even by the same writer.

DM: Interestingly, each discipline will likely have its own conventional wisdom regarding the creative process, and yet creativity is often about breaking the rules. Many writers distinguish between ideas within the dominant paradigm and paradigm-disrupting innovation. Pressure is another interesting factor – too much can be unhelpful, but too little is also problematic.

4.   Creativity can come out of suppression and oppression though, can’t it?

FD: There are always people who create under pressure and people who look for outlets – we think of Solzhenitsyn. There is a creative backwards and forwards between freedom and constraints, but if those constraints are too much then that diminishes people’s potential for creativity. You also need a certain flexibility, freedom, licence and permission in playful terms to exercise the creative capacity. For each individual it is not going to be on the same point on that spectrum.

DN: The thing about oppressive regimes is that if individuals are to survive as individuals then they must be creative. Think about Les Enfants du Paradis – a three-hour fi lm made in the middle of the war in occupied Paris. In that film, there’s a silent theatre where speech is not allowed and it is a highly symbolic reference to the German occupation of Paris at the time. And yet they managed, even in those extremely oppressive circumstances, to make the film.

5.   Is there a creative personality type?

JH: Steve Jobs with iPadTraditionally, people thought that only a few people were creative and so companies would try and assess creative ability. The personality type normally associated with creativity is an open non-conformist. They are often interested in the big picture so they spend a lot of time gathering different ideas and that is why they are able to reframe and see things differently. These people may be less good with detail.

Nowadays though, incremental creativity that builds on others’ work is recognised as well.

DM: The idea of the lone creative, surrounded by acolytes, is passé. It takes all sorts, with the big-picture ideas person great at the outset, but tending to lose interest in the later stages. Learning to think outside the box is an asset, but so is exploring the inside of the box; both can lead to creativity.

6.  Can you teach creativity?

DN: Within writing there is a commonly made distinction between art and craft. Art is perhaps that aspect of creativity that comes from a personal sensibility and consciousness, and the craft is to do with moulding the work. It is generally believed that craft can be taught, but can art? Some would say those starting points are impossible to teach. But you can create the conditions that allow a person to reach for them.

FD: I wouldn’t be able to teach creative writing if I didn’t think that what I had to offer in the class would at least facilitate the student’s acquisition of writing skills. If we think about other types of writing – for instance, academic writing or journalistic writing – we are not born knowing how to write like this or how to write a novel.

JH: I don’t think you can teach creativity per se, but you can facilitate different aspects of it. You can help people find their creative direction and dare to follow it. You can teach creative thinking and problem solving, which helps people find their creativity and work with others. An environment where they can actually do that helps, as do processes where you encourage people to look at things different.


This is an edited extract from the creativity roundtable discussion held at the OU with additional input from David Mayle. See OpenMinds for more information

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