One of the most frustrating things I encounter consistently is the idea that creativity is a talent. Society seems to reinforce this mentality, which of course doesn’t help. “Some people are creative, and others are not”. While I do think some aspects of creativity can be tapped more easily by different minds, the entire concept of how creativity works in the minds of the general public is simply wrong.
Many would define creativity as the ability to pull good ideas from nowhere, or perhaps being able to invent completely original meanings in new contexts. If you’re not capable of thinking “outside the box”, you’re not creative. I would go so far as to say this is the exact opposite of what creativity truly is.
As a writer and improvisational actor, I’ve learned that creativity isn’t the ability to pull something out of nothing. Creativity is actually the learned ability of working around a set of previously defined constraints. “There’s no way that can be true,” you must be thinking. “What constraints were J. K. Rowling, or Van Gogh, or Leonardo DaVinci under when they created their masterpieces?”
As it turns out, quite a lot. Let me pose it this way. Creativity is controlled chaos. Perhaps a joke is lined up in such a way that its audience is led to believe Assumption A. But, since a joke is often meant to subvert conventions, the punchline turns out to be Line B. It’s amusing because it seems out of the blue. There’s no way you could have expected it, right? Not necessarily. If it truly came out of nowhere, perhaps the joke would have ended about some irrelevant line about how zebras can’t fly, or why you should never eat flowers that are pink. If it was really out of the blue, it wouldn’t be funny. So Line B is a way that is in line with what had already been said, but changed things in a way you simply didn’t expect, not in a way that was completely unimaginable.
J. K. Rowling was under the constraints all writers fall under: the limits of writing an interesting story. There are only eleven basic plots, and every story you read will fall under one of them. It’s the author’s job to make it sound like you’ve never heard that story before.
Van Gogh had the constraints of the canvas, limited colors, and his own perception of reality. Painting is always constrained by the real world. If random colors were thrown onto a canvas with no rhyme or rhythm, its resemblance to anything tangible would be flimsy at best, and no meaning could be drawn from it. So a painter, most often, must create something that resembles what is real, yet perhaps places it in a new light to evoke new emotions.
Inventors like DaVinci are, perhaps most unerringly under the constraints of reality. He can’t very well design something that doesn’t abide by the laws of physics. What would be the value in it? I can draw myself a spaceship that uses spray cheese as propulsion, but what good does it do? Inventions are creative because they are a combination of things that didn’t exist before, allowing something new to happen. They are a twist, a manipulation of reality, but reality has to be used as a foundation. Controlled chaos.
It’s the same thing with improvisation acting. I don’t teach how to be random and ridiculous. I teach how to operate under various rules. Here are a few examples of some games we play. Numbers: “Every time you speak your sentence must contain six words.” Ninety Second Alphabet: “Perform a scene in which each sentence starts with the next letter in the alphabet, and do it under the time limit.” Chain Murder Mystery: “Convey three different ideas using only pantomime and gibberish, no words, in the time limit.” Improv has restrictions, too. It seems like its purely a creative thing, but that really isn’t the hard part. And it isn’t just actors. Whenever I ask the audience for a suggestion, I always say “Can I get a location/occupation/relationship?” If you ask for any suggestion at all, such an open window leaves people speechless. You have to give parameters to operate under in order to produce results.
So when you’re struggling to be creative, you actually make it harder for yourself when you broaden your scopes and allow for more to happen. Try setting an extra rule, instead. Maybe your main character somehow loses the ability to speak. How is she going to convey that important message now? Maybe you don’t know what to draw. Give yourself the rule of only drawing straight lines. Or maybe only put pen to paper once per minute.
Humans are a creative species. You are just as creative as everyone else on the planet. All you have to do is learn how to give yourself the right obstacles to jump over. Make some chaos and learn how to control it. Creativity isn’t a magic muscle you’re born with. It’s simply something you have to learn. Get to it.