Lots of people think they’re not creative. While it’s true we can’t all be Lady Gaga, we can all create. I recently read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in which historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harai breaks down the whole of human history (NBD). Homo sapiens, or sapiens as Harai calls us, grew up alongside Neanderthals. Our genetic makeup was nearly identical, but one thing he says differentiated sapiens and led to our eventual success as a species, is imagination.
“The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions [conveying vital facts], rather it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all,” says Harai. “As far as we know, only sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.”
In other words, every one of us has the capacity for creative thought. It’s in our DNA.
This ability to create and cooperate allowed sapiens to imagine collectively. Harai uses nations as an example of collective myth. Nations and their borders are human creations. They exist because we say they do. They function because we agree to accept this idea as reality. We believe we share common interests with other Americans and work together to advance those interests.
It’s the same with any story. It works (or doesn’t) because the audience agrees to go along for the ride. Without that unspoken contract, there’s no shared experience. That experience and the ideas that birthed it are a version of collective myth. This got me thinking about what, if anything, else about our creativity is predestined.
In The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about our creative DNA. “I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations,” she says. “These strands are as solidly imprinted in us as the genetic code that determines our height and eye color, except they govern our creative impulses. They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them.”
She suggests we all have presets, in particular our view. “I often think in terms of focal length, like that of a camera lens. All of us find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at arm’s length, or close-up. We don’t consciously make that choice. Our DNA does, and we generally don’t waver form it.”
I’d never thought about it but I’m a big-picture person. I find stories loaded with detail about the color and texture of someone’s wardrobe tedious. I sometimes skip whole paragraphs of description because I don’t care enough to retain it. I couldn’t get through One Hundred Years of Solitude, a masterwork, for exactly that reason.
Details are important to a story, it’s just not how I think. I want to know about the world around the wardrobe. I love seeing how things affect and change one another, the ripple effect of big ideas. I do delight in beautiful language, which is a type of detail. I revel in a perfectly chosen word or phrase, but I see those as elements that add to the overall feeling of a piece.
The thing is there’s value in both the long view and the close up. Here’s an exercise to help you recognize your creative DNA and then stretch yourself.
Get out and go somewhere. It doesn’t matter where. The only requirement is that you pay attention. No headphones. No mluti-tasking. Find a comfortable spot to observe.
First, take in what’s around you at a distance. What’s the 10,000-foot view? Take in the landscape, the overall feeling you get from this place. Now, focus in closer. Find the details in the way people act and interact. How do they move and talk? What do they look like? Take in every leaf, every wave, every cloud. Take a moment to reflect on what you see.
Tharp is into binaries. She thinks everyone is one thing or another. I disagree. She admits to black and white thinking, not caring much for the gray. For me, the gray is the best part. I love the messy bits, the stuff you can’t categorize or completely understand.
No matter which part of this exercise came easier to you, no matter your creative DNA, great stories require thinking big and small. Have confidence in your innate imagination. Use what comes naturally but don’t stop there. Move into the uncomfortable gray, where creativity and originality thrive.