November 19, 2007

Good day, team,

I am especially pleased to offer this week’s challenge because it’s been written by my colleague Colleen Sullivan. Colleen is a writer and editor who lives here in Portland. She’s been my editor for the past few years and has given me much sage advice about my writing. Many thanks, Colleen!

Here’s her challenge about creativity:

In the spirit of holiday giving, this week’s challenge offers you encouraging insights from experts on a subject that makes many people sweat: Creativity.

Whether you are frustrated by a problem to which your usual solutions have proved ineffective, or you have a heartfelt thank-you or sympathy note to write, or you’ve been invited to a brainstorm to help other people with their creative challenge, you may be experiencing that combination of dread and panic that confronts most people when they feel pressed to come up with something original.

You first consolation comes from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 1: “There is nothing new under the sun.” It is certainly reassuring to note, for example, that if you want to write a love song about a break-up, there’s probably room for one more, given how many already exist and how many new ones become popular each year.

But if we compare, say, Joe Cocker’s “I Cried a River for You” with 10 cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” although the situation is the same, the interpretation is new. Joe Cocker’s lament is forthright and abject; 10 cc’s is defensive and denying, but moving in its own way.

As we strive for originality, the what may be the same, but the who and the how are different. Just as each of has a unique personality, we each have potential to create a new interpretation of experience, based in our individual authenticity and passion.

Some version of the claim “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” has been variously attributed to Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and T.S. Eliot. Thousands of books of art criticism trace the lifting of motifs, images and turns of phrase by one generation from the art works of its predecessors. If even professionals in creativity recognize the value of reusing and recycling what already exists, we too can allow ourselves boosts of inspiration—not to mention outright quotations, as long as they’re attributed—from those who came before us.

An earlier challenge referred to Einstein’s quote “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Science, too, is a process of questioning, rebuilding and then destroying what is known, and Einstein’s modesty acknowledges the debt of his genius to the thoughts of previous physicists.

All these experts recognize the threat to our ego that lurks under any attempt to make something up: the risk involved, and fear of failure.

For encouragement to take that risk, we can turn to the advice of cartoonist Scott Adams, who draws “Dilbert”: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Your portfolio, resume, business plan or final draft is a record of the keepers, but don’t forget your debt of gratitude to your doodling pad, the balled up pieces of paper in the wastebasket, or—best of all, from a writer’s point of view—the cut and paste functions of your word processor.

Have a great week!


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