Exploring the Creative Person
by Raeshma ben Hassarh
Why do some people seem to be more creative than others? What is creativity and how does it happen? Why do some artists seem only to imitate, while others’ work grabs us by our soul and holds us spellbound? Is there such a thing as a “creative personality?”
Creativity seems to hinge on producing something new, but can also be evident in the re-working of something that already exists. Webster tells us that creativity and creative imagination involve both originality of thought and expression, as well as the ability of reproducing or recombining images or experiences in the creation of new images directed at a specific goal or aiding in the solution of problems. It also involves the faculty of producing ideal images which are consistent with reality. One could say that a creative person is able to create either an original product, or one that recombines an existing product in an unusual or novel manner in a way that is understandable, addresses an issue, or solves a problem, while simultaneously being refreshing or surprising.
Gardner, Phelps, and Wolf (“The Roots of Adult Creativity in Children’s Symbolic Products,” in Higher States of Human Development, edited by C. Alexander and E. Langer, 1990), have directed their research toward understanding the complexities of creative people. They have identified the following characteristics often found in creative individuals:
1. The adult creative process is one that contains expert knowledge and mastery of relevant skill and material.
2. Great flexibility is displayed in how the creative person accesses relevant information. He or she is able to perceive, willing to countenance, and able to play with unusual connections, juxtapositions and patterns among a wide and apparently disparate set of facts. Conventional wisdom is resisted.
3. There is a clear agenda, a sense and intensity of purpose, a more pervasive goal by which the creative individual is guided, even defined.
4. In order to achieve these ends, creative individuals tend to deliberately engage in many activities and a large number of projects which to an outsider may exhibit only a loose connection to one another.
5. New methods and skills are acquired as needed and drawn upon flexibly to solve problems that arise in the course of the larger mission.
6. Other characteristics that are found in creative individuals include easy access to the details in an area of expertise, the use of various organizing metaphors or images of wide scope, and a genuine passion for the materials with which the individual is working.
To simplify a very complex subject, some of the key words from the above include:
– Mastery of skills and material
– Flexibility in accessing information
– Resistance to conventional wisdom
– Intensity of over-all purpose
– Numerous activities
– Acquisition of new skills
– Easy access to information
– Use of organizing metaphors
– Passion for working materials
These words are familiar, even personal to dance artists, teachers and choreographers. How many would rather dance or create than do anything else? We all know of dancers who, through their intensity and passion for the dance, have abandoned the American lifestyle of acquisition to become masters, dance geniuses. They may not even own a car, but the dance world recognizes them for their brilliance. This is not to say that one must desert life and live as a pauper to have access to creativity.
The notion that creativity involves a broad scope of activities, knowledge and skills is not new to long-time dancers. H.E. Gruber, who studied Charles Darwin’s notebooks, realized that “the biologist’s creative activity entails the pursuit of a whole series of projects — a network of enterprise – over a long period of time.” (Gardner, Phelps & Wolf, 1990). He concluded that the creative person will become involved in many activities that may seem unconnected to the casual observer, but which are guided by an overall sense of purpose. Additionally, he found that the creative person tends to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge as needed, and will draw upon that new material to solve problems in the context of his or her purpose. How many of us, in the absence of resident master teachers, have learned how to organize seminars, to conduct an advertising and public relations campaign, to do accounting and bookkeeping, and maybe even become organizers of non-profit groups so that we can continue to study and learn? Many of us have become proficient at learning through videotape, which also requires some knowledge of electronics. And how many of us have developed skills in sales, marketing, and communications, so that we can develop ways to bring our dance to the public! These seemingly unrelated activities very much affect our ability to learn, grow and perform as dancers, and to satisfy the creative urge that keeps us going.
How do we learn to be creative? Are children more creative than adults, and do we therefore lose the ability to be creative as we grow older? It is a common belief that the creative adult is one who is able to retain childhood experiences. However, Gardner, et. al. suggest that instead the creative adult is one who is able to access the child’s way of knowing, rather than the content of knowing. Children use waves of symbolization in order to make sense of the various symbolic and expressive systems in their suroundings. Children experience the world in a more primitive, less culture-bound way.
As we grow through childhood, at each developmental stage there are clear resemblances between the way we perceive things, and the process of formation of adult creativity. This development does not take place in a straight line, however: the child is likely to move back and forth between the stages, especially when he or she is in transition from one stage to another. This ability to use the perspective of a previous developmental stage is learned in the context of transition between stages, and can be used later by the adult to access earlier, more creative stages.
Ideally, the adult is freed of convention’s dictates, and can revert to earlier forms of expression, including those once favored in childhood. The experiences of the first years of life are special, a form of sense making that perhaps all of us can (at least partially) access following childhood: creative individuals seem to specialize in returning to and exploiting this access, presumably because of their intense immersion in their subject, and perhaps by virtue of a special talent at retaining access to more primitive ways of knowing. (Gardner, et. al., 1990)
To make an abstraction more concrete, look at the model of creative development proposed by Gardner, et. al.:
1. Young child is not bound by convention, is unaware of structure or form in any discipline (for example, singing, dancing or painting), is able to see unique combinations of elements of that form that are not influenced by cultural imperative, is totally egocentric regarding who the product of the form appeals to. Small children do not care if society might not understand their drawings: they do, and they like them. In this stage, children show a steady growth in complexity, and towards the end of this stage (pre-adolescence) begin to show faithfulness to cultural expectations.
2. Middle child is conventional. They are aware of societal convention, and seek structure and form. They seek approval from peers and superiors regarding the product of their creativity, and decide to accept their work based largely upon what kind of feedback they get. They are involved with acquiring skills, and there is a flowering of symbolic activity during this adolescent stage.
3. Post adolescent is keenly aware of the culture’s notion of what counts as a product, but is willing to suspend culture’s constaints to experiment once again in terms of his or her own values, beliefs and standards. This stage is self-critical, and personal and emotional characteristics are the central components of creative activity.
Many of us have drawn upon the more primitive ways of knowing of childhood as we create unusual choreographies and dances, or take a well-developed tradition a step farther, not based upon what the dance community wants or expects, but based upon the expression of our inner selves. And many of us continue to express our creativity, our links with our child-creator, as we create our lives around us, realizing that creativity is not the sole prerogative of a few professionals, or confined to what society might consider an artistic endeavor, but is within each of us. As we create our dance, and every aspect of our lives, we come to realize that “…A first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting, and that, generally, cooking or parenthood or making a home could be creative, while poetry need not be.” (A. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, 1968)
Peg Hazard (Raeshma ben Hassarh) has been studying Raqs Sharqi and Baladi dance for 11 years, and teaching for four. Her original teacher, Taia, came from the Salimpour school. She has been most strongly influenced by Shareen el Safy and Horacio Cifuentes. She founded the Middle Eastern Dance Artists of Hawaii, and is the President of H.A.M.E.A., an organization dedicated to public education of Middle Eastern dance, art and music through video, performance and festival. She is the director and choreographer for the Arabesque Dancers, a troupe that performs annually at the Royal Hawaiian, the Mayor’s Office of Culture and Arts, the Arabic Cultural Festival, and for First Night Honolulu. She is currently a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Forest Institute of Professional Psychology.