I can’t stand hearing people say they’re “not creative.”
That happened to me recently, after I sliced a finger and wound up in Urgent Care. When the doctor heard that my fiancé is a graphic designer, he launched into a well-rehearsed monologue:
“Oh, my mom is a graphic designer; she’s so creative! I do some design too, but only really as an outlet. I’m nowhere near as creative as she is. I just do it to relax. I mean, I can’t read medical texts all the time.”
Eventually, his rant became more uncomfortable than my still-bleeding pinkie.
I wanted to ask him if he truly thought medicine wasn’t creative.
Had he never encountered a problem he wasn’t explicitly trained to handle in medical school? Had he never improvised, or developed a different way of doing something?
If he really wanted to get better at graphic design, what was stopping him?
For generations, we’ve drawn a line between logic and emotion, creativity and structure: Spock and Kirk. Holmes and Watson. Sense and Sensibility.
And certainly, the distinction exists. Diagramming sentences is one thing … feeling moved to write an inspiring line of poetry, another.
But we’ve gone much further than classification.
Somehow, creativity and logic have attained a mythical status as two oppositional forces, pitted together in an eternal struggle for dominance. Not only is this myth wrong and unnecessary, it’s damaging.
If you believe creativity is something you’re born with, and that some kinds of tasks are creative while others are not, you’ll miss thousands of opportunities to improve.
Two selves, one writer
Maybe the reason this dichotomy bothers me so much is because I’ve always found myself somewhere between the two.
I’m the daughter of two self-professed “logical” people — my mother is a software developer, my father a medical imaging engineer.
But my dad built beautiful doll beds and full-size playhouses when I was a kid, and my mom loves interior design (though she’d never admit to being any good!).
When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to be like my mom and learn to code. By high school, I was enmeshed in the theater and choir programs and wanted to be a writer.
Let’s not comment on which of my earlier selves had a more prosperous career plan. 😉
I’ve carried both of these “selves” with me, and it’s become obvious that creativity and logic are part of every human endeavor. Every field needs processes, documentation, and structure, just like every field needs innovation, fresh ideas, and creative problem-solving.
Specifically, however, I’ve found that writing requires a particularly delicate balance of both skills.
Writing: a delicate balance
Unlike mathematicians or musicians, writers don’t have one clear stereotype.
On one hand, there’s logical grammar nerds and vocabulary junkies, and on the other there’s creative poets and imaginative novelists.
Writers dance the line between creativity and structure, often so seamlessly we don’t realize we do it. On some days, we find ourselves drawn to routines, processes, and research, while on others we are struck with inspiration and forget our routines exist.
It appears a great writer’s life is a contradiction.
But sometimes, I think the secret to being a great writer is knowing when to fall back on processes, and when to forge ahead with inspiration.
In the end, however, after a piece of writing has been published, it often just appears like the product of sheer creativity.
New writers, especially, fall prey to the “genius” myth. It looks so easy to put words on a page, it can be easy to forget the structure and experience that make a great writer’s words more poignant, more gripping.
Try it for yourself
The next time you’re stuck, go back to basics.
There’s always a reason for writer’s block, and usually it occurs because you need more raw material.
Go do your research: read a book about your topic, talk to your target audience, look at Google Trends for keyword data.
If you want to become a better writer, study the greats. Choose a few passages and copy them by hand, analyze their sentence structures. What does that writer do that you could steal for yourself?
If you want to improve your vocabulary, head to your bookshelf and pull down a few books by authors you admire. Then write down all the words you love, and define them. Keep going. You might not feel any different after you’ve defined 10 words, but after you’ve defined 200, you’ll be getting somewhere.
Inspiration may feel like it comes from nowhere, but it’s really just a part of your creative process that you build over time.
What did you do today to keep in “form?”
In 1972, in a note to herself, Susan Sontag wrote: “A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form?’”
Writing is a creative endeavor, yes. But it’s also a craft that can be learned.
You might be able to become a better writer by sheer force of will, but if you want to get better, faster, you’ll have to embrace the process.