WHAT IS IT AND WHERE DOES IT COME FROM
What, exactly, is creativity? Where does creativity come from? These two questions are much debated but seldom answered. Some say creativity comes from God. Some say it comes from someplace deep within all of us. Wherever it comes from, most of us have it to some measurable degree. From cooks to gardeners, from carpenters to stone masons, from scientists to engineers, we have all been, at times, amazed by what transpires through the work of those around us and, yes, sometimes even by our own efforts.
Many highly creative people are multi-talented. Thomas Jefferson was a gifted writer, orator and architect. He not only penned America’s Declaration of Independence, he also designed the University of Virginia campus and the urban plan for Washington D.C. Michelangelo was both painter and sculptor. Leonardo da Vinci was painter, sculptor, author and inventor. Who knows, all of these might also have been fantastic chefs and gardeners.
For the purpose of my own understanding, I have broken creativity into three components: Talent, inspiration and craft.
Many believe talent is hereditary. We all know artists, musicians and actors whose family members possess similar talents. We could debate whether these similarities are hereditary or environmental but, for me, it doesn’t really matter. Talent without inspiration and craft does not represent true creativity.
However, there is some credibility to the belief that talent is hereditary. My maternal grandfather was both an artist and a musician. In our family album is an old black and white photo of him playing a solo acoustical guitar in a large concert hall, I know not where, perhaps Stockholm, perhaps New York, and the walls in our daughter’s bedroom are adorned with his artwork.
My grandfather immigrated to America from Sweden, as did my grandmother. They met each other in New York City. They earned their U.S. citizenship when my grandfather volunteered to join the army during WWI, where, in the trenches in France, he became a casualty of mustard gas. He later died in Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C. My mother was only three years old so her talents did not spring from her childhood environment.
My mother was an artist and played the violin but, during my childhood, she had no time for such things. Both her and my father worked for the U.S. Department of Defense during WWII and throughout the Cold War. I still have her violin in its case and her artwork is scattered throughout our home. Her violin playing was before I was born and her artwork was both before I was born and after I left home. So, whatever talent I might possess did not come from my childhood environment.
I was sketching things with a pencil and coloring with crayons from my earliest memories. My older brother never bothered with such things. I won an art contest when I was in the third grade and managed to maintain good grades all around. I transferred schools in the forth grade and fell under the tyrannical eye of Mrs. Norman.
I have a very clear memory of an event in her classroom where I was listening to her discussion of the State of California. We were studying California government and geography at the time. She was talking about Sacramento, the state capital, while I was drawing a very detailed sketch of a beaver gnawing on a branch while sitting on a stump by a lake. Something heavy smacked into the side of my head and white powder followed the chalkboard eraser onto the floor.
“Tommy Holladay,” she barked, “What’s the capitol of California?”
“Sacramento, Mrs. Norman.” After all, she’d just been talking about it.
“You get up here right now.”
I knew what was coming and went up to the blackboard behind her desk.
“Draw a circle on the blackboard.”
I sighed and drew a small circle. I knew exactly where.
“Put your nose in it.”
I poked my nose against the blackboard and listened to her tirade, telling the class I would never amount to anything if I didn’t learn to listen in class. This would continue until recess with me thinking, how can I listen any better standing here with my nose in this stupid circle?
I remember bits and pieces of many such incidents, usually standing there with my nose stuck to the blackboard. There were other times when she would have me make a dunce hat out of craft paper, write STUPID on it and sit me down on a stool in the corner while lecturing the class about my dismal future prospects.
Having always listened to her in class and having an extreme sense for justice, her actions sent me on a course of rebellion for which my poor 5th and 6th grade teachers suffered the consequences. I did not, however, discontinue my artwork. I continued to draw. I continued to get better and better. For my 11th birthday, I got a drafting table and designed a home for our family. It was a variation of the house we lived in, of course.
As fate would have it, I was again assigned to the dreadful Mrs. Norman. My feet never crossed the threshold into her 7th grade classroom. She grabbed my hand and yanked me down to the principle’s office, sat me down in the waiting room and went into the principle’s office for a private meeting. Only a couple of minutes later, she came out, took my hand and dragged me down to a small building for slow learners, saying, “Tommy Holladay, I’m going to put an end to your artistic notions once and for all. The life of an artist is no life for a young man in this day and age.”
Well, there I was, away from all of my classmates, away from all of my friends, and stuck in a class with people who were either mentally challenged or who deliberately refused instruction. I knew, behind my back, many of my former friends were whispering that I was retarded. Most of them either chose to ignore me or openly rejected me and I was forced to form a group of completely different friendships. I then decided to abandon my artistic drive and focus strictly on academics.
After being in that class for two weeks, the teacher asked why I had been placed there, saying I didn’t belong there. I remember telling her Mrs. Norman thought I needed to concentrate on my schoolwork; that I was drawing too much in class.
It was years later that my mother told me of an encounter she’d had with Mrs. Norman at a PTA meeting. Mrs. Norman had asked if she was my mother. Upon hearing that she was, Mrs. Norman said, “Oh, your Tommy drives me crazy. He never listens in class. He’s always drawing pictures and never looking up. But, whenever I ask him a question, he always answers me correctly. It just makes me crazy.”
Years later, while attending the College of Architecture at Arizona State University, I went home for Christmas and ran into Mrs. Norman in a grocery store. She was very pleasant and asked what I was doing with my life. I told her I was studying architecture at Arizona State. She smiled and asked, “Oh? How is that going?”
“Well, I’m straight ‘A’s in my major and on the Dean’s List for Academic Excellence.”
She literally beamed with personal pride, like what she’d done to me was the reason for any success I might be having.
Not trying to be mean, merely stating a fact, I said, “But, I’m having a great deal of difficulty artistically.”
It was like I had slapped the smile from her face, a sudden realization that perhaps she had been mistaken, that perhaps the life of an artist would be a good life for a man in “. . . this day and age.”
I did not then, nor do I now feel any animosity toward Mrs. Norman. What she did was, to the best of her ability, intended for my benefit. I guess she never knew that some of us are capable of doing more than one thing at a time; i.e., listening and drawing pictures.
And, here’s the real bottom line of all of this: Mrs. Norman never seemed to realize that creative people are NOT creative because they want to be. They are creative because they have to be. Something larger than themselves is driving them. Whether this something comes from deep within or from God is not in question. We must push ourselves whenever we are pushed. We must strive for an excellence we can only see small pieces of. We must knit them together until they form some reality of purpose.
As I mentioned earlier, many creative people have talents in more than one area. I personally believe that talent and inspiration both come from God. Craft, on the other hand, is something we learn through hard work.
During my junior year in high school I made friends with a guy from out of town. Growing up on a navy base, this happened often. Naval personnel are transferred on a periodic basis. He taught me to play guitar and I worked at it until my fingers screamed in pain. Over time, we became proficient enough to actually get paid for playing and singing folk songs. The Kingston Trio was our primary source for music.
I studied architecture at Arizona State and spent a career designing and building mostly custom residential properties. When building a custom staircase on a project in Miami’s Coconut Grove, I cut off two fingers on my left hand and my guitar playing days were over. That project was later featured in a cover article for Tropic Magazine. In California’s Ojai Valley, another of my projects was published in the Ventura County Star.
I have done very many things in my life, a life filled with exciting adventures, trials, mishaps and blessings. I have never allowed the creative process to completely dominate my life. Perhaps I can thank Mrs. Norman for this. I played varsity football in high school, was a competitive swimmer, a lifeguard, a water safety instructor, a tutor of geometry, a guitar player and singer, and I was still an artist; all of this while still in high school.
I went on to letter in varsity water polo in college. I am a former U.S. Marine. I was a Miami Beach lifeguard and competed in the first international lifeguard competition in Fort Lauderdale. I was a professional firefighter and was shift cook on whichever shift I happened to be assigned. I’ve been a designer and general building contractor in Florida and in California. I love surfing, sailing, diving and deep sea fishing. I’ve been a bit actor and screenwriter in Hollywood where many of my original concepts and movie moments have appeared in numerous motion pictures and on television. I studied creative writing and film at the prestigious American Film Institute and I now write novels.
Both in my architecture and in writing novels, I often pray for inspiration. If and when it comes, it comes like a flood, leaving little doubt in my mind that both talent and inspiration come from God.
Many very creative people do not believe this, I know. It is essential for each of us to follow wherever our talents and inspiration lead us. Let others try to control and channel it. It’s our job to keep it flowing. In my experience, not to do so can lead to a kind of insanity, a psychic void, a mental paralysis, or a loss of purpose. Whatever you call it, it’s not a very good place to be. Following your talent and inspiration leads to an inner peace, with or without financial success.
If you have talent, if the inspiration is flowing, work hard to improve your craft. Success will most likely follow.
Some advice for those who design: The client is not only king; the client is King Kong!
Some advice for those who write: Find a good agent.
In future posts I will discuss craft; secrets of mystery, horror, historical, adventure and romance fiction, introduce some great recipes, critique some novels by other authors and introduce some of my own. We will also take some peeks into the fascinating worlds of film and architecture.