This week I had the privilege of attending the International Boys’ Schools Coalition annual conference. The topic of the conference was the arts. How can we engage boys in the arts and integrate the arts meaningfully into our students’ experiences to help them succeed personally, academically, socially, and emotionally? It was an inspiring few days that filled me with ideas to bring back to my own school, and it got me thinking about the difference between creativity and originality.
Several times I heard presenters offer the disclaimer that what they were presenting “wasn’t original.” Some said that they were offering ideas they have adapted from other sources. Others explained that they had done something in their classes that felt very creative, and then they learned lots of other teachers do similar things. They seemed to think that this diminished their “originality,” even though they were combining ideas in a new way or came up with an idea with no knowledge that others shared it. Further, they seemed to feel that this perceived lack of originality diminished their personal creativity.
The first session where I heard a presenter make a self-deprecating remark about his lack of originality was a session about how we can teach students to think creatively. The presenter demonstrated an exercise he does with his classes and then explained that after doing this activity for several years, he learned about a famous art teacher who had been something very similar back in the 1960s. The presenter implied that, because someone else had had this idea before him, he wasn’t being original. Maybe he wasn’t, although he didn’t even know about this other teacher from the 1960s, but that fact seemed totally beside the point to me. Whether or not he was original, he was undoubtedly creative.
Originality is not the same thing as creativity.
We could debate whether it is even possible for anything to be original. To conflate being creative with being original is to make creative thought impossible for most mere mortals, and so, I humbly suggest, that we don’t make that mistake.
Creative thinking requires that we take what we know — things we have learned through experience, through reading and study, through witnessing the lives of those around us — and apply our own unique perspective to those things to produce something that makes our individual way of seeing understandable to others.
Being creative is not inventing new ideas out of thin air. None of us exists in a vacuum. We live in a rich social context that informs our thoughts. We are shaped by the world around us. Sometimes we are conscious of this shaping, and sometimes we are not. Even if you were raised by wolves with no human contact, this would be true.
Thus, being creative is seeing old ideas new ways or combining two or more existing ideas in ways that are unexpected, surprising, and interesting.
Take, for example, Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. It is a stunning work of creative genius. In it, Vonnegut combines his first-hand experience in war, anti-war satire, and science fiction in the form of both space aliens and time travel. There are many war stories, but how many have aliens? There are many science fiction books, but how many are satires? There are many books with time travel, but how many also comment on the author’s lived experience? What makes Slaughterhouse-Five unique is a combination of familiar genres. He created something unique and exciting by mixing ingredients that are not usually paired together, much like a chef creating a new dish. This is the genius of his creativity.
The structure of the novel is incredibly complex and, at a quick glance, it seems unlike anything else I’ve ever read. But on closer inspection, I see that it is a frame story, a structure at least as old as 1001 Nights, which dates back to the ninth century. Vonnegut took an existing structure and used it creatively, with the first and final chapters narrated in the first person by Vonnegut himself, speaking directly to the reader, and the interior chapters narrated primarily from the third person point-of-view describing the life of Billy Pilgrim, a character who is “unstuck in time.” Because of Billy’s strange experience of time, the novel is told out of sequence, jumping from present to past and, at one point, to the future. As creative as Vonnegut is in conveying Billy’s “unstuck” nature through a story divorced from linear narrative (I could go on and on about the patterns he employs in what at first seems like a random smattering of events), this is hardly the only story ever written where the events are conveyed out of chronological order. It’s not that Vonnegut has done something totally original, but rather that he has executed a concept with such skill that we feel as if we’re experiencing something brand new.
Lest you misunderstand, my comments are not meant as a criticism of Vonnegut. Not in the least. Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my favorite novels of all time (not something an English teacher can say lightly). It’s one of few books that becomes more interesting with each rereading, not because it’s original, but because it is creative.
And isn’t that good news for the rest of us creative-types? If the standard for being creative is originality, we can’t possibly begin to measure up. We can’t learn or teach originality. Originality requires divine intervention.
But if the standard of creativity is finding new angles and new combinations, we can practice ways of seeing and we can look at the world with curiosity and wonder, always seeking to connect the dots between disparate areas of our experience and knowledge. To be creative is to be interested in everything, to be hungry for information, to be willing to try new things. Being creative is not just about spending hours in an art studio or at your computer. Being creative is a way of life.