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Understanding Creativity

elaine faith / Flickr / Creative Commons

Creativity is another one of those words that we throw around as if we know what we're talking about.

But we're fundamentally conflicted about creativity-- perhaps because, in practice, it's somewhat mysterious.

We'd all agree that creativity is about bringing new things into the world: new products, new ideas, new perspectives. We sometimes use "creativity” synonymously with words like “innovation” and “originality.”

These are all characteristics revered in the Western world, but then there's this alarming paradox: despite our avowed love of the creative, new ideas and creative people are often not treated very well. Creative types like artists and writers are often viewed as impractical and generally unable to shift for themselves. Arts and creative writing offerings are usually the first to be cut from the stressed budgets of public schools. State and federally funded arts programs are often seen as being improper things for taxpayer money to support, and studies showing the efficacy of these programs and their economic benefits don't seem to convince their critics.

And as much as it's a cliché, the image of the misunderstood artist contains an essential truth: those creative people over there sure are weird.

At the heart of this paradox may be the numerous failed attempts to systematize creativity and make it predictable. No matter how we study it, there remains some mystery about how creativity works. And it's hard for highly structured business and educational models to accept the idea that maybe those weird people just need to be weird and do weird things in order to do great work.

Clearly, we talk a big game when it comes to creativity. But what new ways of doing things will we need to practice in order to truly embrace it?

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.