Essay by Øivind Halsøy
Illustration by Mari Kvale
Both academic and everyday thoughts on the subject of creativity are colored by the idea of the genius, or eminent creator: The creator is studied in isolation. The history of creativity is characterized by a separation between the creative and the uncreative, between art and science, and the everyday life, between art and crafts and folk music and symphonies. Historically there has been a strict separation between who is and who isn’t capable of true creative expression.
The creative process starts with a problem. Whether it’s coming up with a new symphony, designing a chair, writing a story or solving a puzzle, it tends to have a universal structure: There is a distance between where you are and where you want to be. After spending hours and hours on a problem, you reach a dead end. The more you try, the further away from the answer you get. But you also have a feeling that if you just work on it — if you just wrestle with it — you’ll find the answer. When we talk about creativity, we often speak of a moment of insight — a eureka moment — almost like a flash of lightning. You blame yourself for not seeing the obvious solution earlier. The irony of the story is that we often find the answers where we least expect them. After having wrestled for hours and hours, and almost given up, you find yourself going for a walk, or maybe you’re in the bathtub, and all the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fall into place. In this instant, you know that you have the right solution, and you are overwhelmed by a feeling of accomplishment.
One consistent finding is that successfully creative people are often less motivated by money, fame or people’s opinions about them. They often do their creative work because they couldn’t imagine not doing it. The traditional narrative of fully formed ideas just emerging effortlessly at the tip of the pen, or in Picasso’s case, at the tip of his brush, seems in need of a revision. In the film “The Mystery of Picasso” we see Picasso improvising in real time. In this dimly lit black and white film we see him painting in his studio. A dove transforms into a naked woman, images are reinterpreted, and a flow of associations is visible to us in real time.
When we tell the story of creativity, we often leave out the part where we are frustrated, to the point of nearly giving up. After the moment of insight, we need persistence.
The question remains: Why do we bother? Why do we keep banging our heads against the wall? When asked to choose what they enjoy the most from a list of descriptions of how people feel, the answer people most often give is “designing or discovering something new”. The recognizable notion of thrill, and enjoyment of discovery. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described this phenomenon. In an ambitious research project, Chickzentmihaly analyzed 91 in-depth interviews with creative people. The subjects were people who had made a difference in a major domain of culture — one of the sciences, the arts, business, government or human wellbeing in general —, was still active in the field, and at least 60 years old.
The respondents talked about a state of “being in the moment” when they created. By combining the similarities and the gist of their experience, Chickzentmihaly introduced the term “flow” to describe this state. Flow is when a person is so immersed in an activity, that there is a sense of time disappearing. The flow of one moment into the next, merging with a sharpened focus, gives a feeling of being in the moment. There is a seamless balance of the challenges and the person’s skills, words seem to flow from the tip of the pen, almost like it has a life of its own. Flow is a very satisfying feeling, there is an inner motivation and a sense of accomplishment.