I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes creativity work. On the one hand, I seem to be a fairly creative person who has original ideas. On the other hand, I’ve met very few people who think as rigidly as me. Actually, I only have one friend (who I know of) who is as spatially rigid as me–she’s the only other person who doesn’t think it’s OK to put the cinnamon back somewhere vaguely in the vicinity of where it came from instead of just putting it back in exactly the same spot where it was before. She does amazing drawings, which has gotten me thinking about how creativity and rigidity mesh.
I’ve always known that I’m spatially very rigid. Everything has to be in it’s place. And if some people decide to put the paprika where the cinnamon goes, they are going to end up with some seriously weird oatmeal. I’ve gotten a little better at reading labels now that I live with people who think the whole shelf (and possibly the entire cupboard) is fair game, but it bugs the heck out of me. It feels horribly inefficient to paw through a bunch of bottles instead of just reaching for the spot and trusting you’ll get what should be there. And I don’t really understand how it would even occur to put a bottle back in the spot it didn’t come from. So first question: is putting bottles back in a different spot something that takes creativity? Or is something else going on there?
I’ve also noticed that I’m very rigid in new domains in the context in which there are rules. But that doesn’t happen in domains in which I’m comfortable. I was a little shocked to find that in my JKD class I feel like I have to rigidly follow anything presented remotely like a rule. I can be creative when my Sifu explicitly makes the space for it in defining a scenario. In an academic context I’m very comfortable mouthing off, disagreeing, and generally engaging in the sort of behavior that I would consider creative. I’m guessing it’s because I’ve never really been remotely athletic so creative athletic situations are very new to me.
I think what’s going on with spatial rigidity and rule-following rigidity is completely different. With rule-following, it is probably old childhood desire not to get into horrible trouble that has to be trained out of me in new domains. In comfortable domains like academia, music making, and cooking, that’s been done years ago. But it’s clearly a process I have to go through in new domains. I’ve been doing JKD for a year now and I’m not comfortable being creative without explicit permission. And I’m not sure if I’ll train the rule following out of myself before I train my Sifu to always present scenarios in a way that invites creative thinking.
I think my spatial rigidity comes from another place: I think with my hands. I type faster than I talk. I type well-formed, reasonable sentences much faster than I consciously think. I’m scarily good at spatial games and I describe them as “non-thinky games” (to the annoyance of people who don’t think with their hands). I rely on things being reliably distributed in space so that my hands can do their thinking without having to rely on slower, conscious processes. Maybe thinking of putting the cinnamon someplace different isn’t creativity, but is simply a side effect of thinking more often in a non-spatial modality.
Creativity never actually feels like creativity to me. Sometimes I actually have trouble recognizing it. I can make guesses, but I can really only identify creativity in myself based on other people’s reactions. Usually it just feels like a 2+2=4 kind of process. So here’s a recipe for marzipan danish that I made up last winter and how I got to it. It feels completely straightforward. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything anyone else wouldn’t find obvious. But people keep telling me it’s really abnormal to just wing it with baking. Even people who think it’s normal to improvise while cooking tell me it’s weird to improvise while baking. So I take that as evidence that creativity might have been involved in the process. I also take it as evidence that people who might experiment perfectly well when baking feel like they don’t have permission to do so, so they hold themselves back.
I started with a recipe for scallion pancakes:
- 2 cups chopped scallions (of course, i never measure this, so I have no idea what the real amount is.)
- a bunch of toasted sesame oil. I never measure this either; if you don’t have at least a cup on hand you risk running out, but you might be able to get by on half a cup or so.
- 3 cups white flour + flour for rolling
- 1.5 cups water
- 1 tsp salt + salt for rolling
- 1 tbs baking powder
Mix up the flour, 1 tsp salt, and baking powder, then add water and mix that up. Split the dough into 8ths. For each section, roll it out flat (with a rolling pin) and thin (maybe 1/8 inch). Spread oil over the surface, sprinkle on green onions and a bit of salt. Then roll it into a cylinder (with your hands, like a cinnamon roll). Then twist the cylinder around like a snail. Then roll that flat (with a rolling pin again) but less thin than before (maybe 1/4-1/2 inch). Fry it in an oiled pan.
So I don’t understand how there’s a difference between this and a danish. It seems completely, exactly, 100% the same thing. I just substitute butter for toasted sesame oil and marzipan for scallions and change the form factor:
- Marzipan (equal parts blanched almond & powdered sugar, by weight, ground up finely with a splash of rose water and maybe a spot of amaretto). How much? I’m not sure? maybe a cup or two? Be generous because you can always make little marzipan candies with the leftovers but it would be tragically sad not to have enough to fill the danishes with.
- about half a stick of butter, melted
- 3 cups of white flour + extra for rolling
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbs baking powder
Preheat the oven to 350-400 degrees F (I never actually keep track of that part). Mix the dry ingredients then add the water and mix into dry ingredients to make a dough. Split the dough into 4ths. For each section, roll it out flat (with a rolling pin) and thin (maybe 1/8 inch). Spread butter over the surface. Fold in from both sides in thirds so you end up with a long, narrow piece. Spread that with butter. Fold the long ends into the middle in 3rds so you end up with a square. Roll the square out so it’s pretty thin (maybe 1/8, maybe a bit thicker). Cut that into quarters in a plus (+) shape. Put a tablespoon or two of marzipan squooshed into a flatish round/oblong shape into the middle of each quarter and shape the dough around it in a shape that looks cool. I just pulled in 2 edges around an oblong marzipan chunk and twisted them together. Bake for 10-15 minute until they start to look a little golden.
I’m not sure what this tells me about creativity. I think the fact that I can’t recognize it in myself means it’s not something I can force. But hopefully by reflecting on what makes me creative will let me put myself in situations where it just naturally happens. First, I need to distinguish rigidity that is simply a reflection of my mental processes (a thing I can exploit) from rigidity that is arises from some kind of unconscious lack of permission to shake things up. If I think I’ve got an unconscious lack of permission interfering with creativity, I need to find a way to get permission, either by giving it to myself or convincing other people in my environment to endorse experimentation so I can feel comfortable experimenting. Finally, creativity happens when I’m in my comfort zone doing things that aren’t apparently creative to me.
Things just look creative to other people when I’ve carved out a comfortable place for doing mundane things in spaces where most people haven’t given themselves permission to experiment. Maybe that’s all there is to it. Does this mesh with your creative experience? Or are your intuitions completely different?