What Is Creativity?

Throughout human history there has been a wide range of ideas about what it means to create. Is it making something out of absolutely nothing, like bringing about an entire universe ex nihilo? Is it following strict rules to fashion something of pre-defined beauty? Is it throwing globs of paint at a canvas or arbitrarily hitting piano keys and seeing what patterns you come up with? Maybe all of the above.

Mankind has had the need, or at very least the irresistible desire, to create for as long as we have walked this earth. A visit to any antiquities collection will show the creative essence of earliest humanity, whether in the form of religious relics, ancient architecture, cave paintings, or primitive hunting tools. From works of high art commissioned by empires with endless resources and enough leisure time to appreciate the finer things, to spears constructed by hungry hands under firelight, the evidence of human creativity is everywhere.

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines the word “create” as:

  1. To bring into being; to form out of nothing; to cause to exist.
  2. To effect by the agency, and under the laws, of causation; to be the occasion of; to cause; to produce; to form or fashion; to renew.
  3. To invest with a new form, office, or character; to constitute; to appoint; to make; as, to create one a peer.

A favorite online etymology source says this: “‘To make, bring forth, produce, beget,’ related to crescere ‘arise, grow’ (see crescent).” Here’s where it gets really interesting—the related “crescent” (like the shape of the moon) has its origins in a word which means, “come forth, spring up, grow, thrive, swell, increase in numbers or strength.” The moon was called a crescent because it was crescendoing.

The same could be said for creativity—as we add our works to the volumes of human creation, the whole collection is building up into this great crescendo of thought, beauty, inspiration, empathy. We don’t start from scratch; we stand on the shoulders of those who went before us and propel ourselves even further into the diverse realms of possibility.

What serious musician doesn’t study the works of great musicians past? What painter doesn’t learn the principles of color, light, and perspective? What poet doesn’t begin with a known language? Even the most unique expression is taken from what is in essence a commonality, the most abstract work a reflection of something real—tension, calm, sadness, mystique . . . every sound, color, texture, or shape drawing from a very real human experience or emotion.

So creating is not just about starting with nothing and ending up with something (though it very well can be that). And it’s not just about causing something to be or happen. Creating is also about growing. We are building a human portfolio, a catalog or symphony of our lives and times and what it was like to be a part of this world.

Art is built upon the ideas of those who came before us. We tell old stories in fresh ways. We remember the past and carry it with us into the future. Sometimes we leave it looking on from the doorway while we try something in a different way. This pushing and pulling, this remembering and forgetting and remembering again, injecting an age-old conversation with our own thoughts and feelings—this is creativity.

But creativity is every bit as much about the individual as the collective. There would be no furthering of the story, no growing or adding, without your take on it. As a music professor once said, “It’s all been done before, but now it’s your turn.” Every part of the human story was once “now,” just as our time will soon pass and be yet another one of the pages that people look back on and borrow from. So get out there and tell your own story. Share your own experiences. Express your own feelings, in a way only you can do. Exercise your creativity!

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