Out of Thin Air

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

It’s easy to think of creativity as an act of creating something out of thin air. A novel, a painting, a sculpture; these are all tangible products that didn’t exist until they were created.

We shouldn’t believe that creativity is always about making something up, however. Sometimes, it’s about detective work, stripping away all the noise until a truth that always existed is now plain to us.

Billowing smoke from incense
There’s a lot more to creativity than simply creating work out of thin air

In a recent column in The New Yorker, historian Robert Caro describes the two key elements of his research process. The first is a reliance on primary sources, whether people or physical documents. “I don’t know why raw files affect me that way. In part, perhaps, it’s because they are closer to reality, to genuineness – not filtered, cleaned up, through press releases or, years later, in books.” For The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, his phenomenal 1974 biography of Robert Moses, Caro conducted 522 interviews. Seven of those were with Moses himself.

The second element is a relentless diligence. Caro cites advice from a managing editor early in his career that still guides him today: “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.”

If you aren’t convinced that the nature of Caro’s work is creative, just read The Power Broker, or his four-volume (so far) series The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Like a novelist, Caro’s creative work leads to a book that didn’t exist previously, but he’s not making anything up. The information he reports was always out there, just waiting for someone to compile it and report it in a strong narrative.

Mary Beard, in her 2008 book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, writes about another aspect of creativity, the challenges archaeologists face in interpreting evidence. For example, why were garden implements found in what appeared to be a dining room in a house amid the Pompeii ruins? “If, for example, a pile of gardening tools comes to light in what appears to be a rich dining room, it may be that – surprising as it may seem to us – that was where they were regularly kept. It may also be that in the flurry of departure, as possessions were gathered together and choices were made about what to take and what not, this is where the shovel, hoe and barrow happened to end up.” Later in the book, Beard writes about the changing socioeconomic nature of Pompeii some years before Vesuvius erupted; she speculates that “nouveau riche” homeowners may have been less tidy with their belongings than families with old money, and maybe that explains the awkward placing of garden implements.

Another example of “non-fiction” creative work is the development of a new technical process, performing an existing activity in a new way, or the design of a new device. We shouldn’t doubt the creativity of the pioneers of an artificial pancreas or the individuals who confront excessive pharmaceutical costs by designing their own medications.

Maybe all creative endeavor is distilling exploration down to a set of truths, literal or artistic. As Hemingway said about the craft of writing, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” The nature of that exploration might vary – creating a painting, or interpreting archaeological findings. And the “truth” might take different forms –  a verifiable fact in a work of journalism, or commitment to story and character in a novel.

The message in this is that you can be creative anywhere, in any field. If you feel you’re stuck in a boring job or you face a dull task, look for new ways to approach it. Deconstruct repetitive actions and look for ways to improve them. Expand your thinking to imagine new possibilities for your life, options you hadn’t previously considered to achieve your dreams.

Creativity isn’t limited to just a few professions and is much more than just creating out of thin air; it’s a mindset that is always available to us.

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