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Creativity

Posted by Robin Abrahams  October 19, 2012 09:02 AM

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Every year, observant Jews read through the entire Torah, a section a week. This past Saturday we started again with Genesis, and to honor the new cycle, I've decided to post my thoughts here whenever the week's Torah portion ("parsha") contains some wisdom or relevance to the intersection of art, science, and everyday life. 

This week's parsha very much does. It's about God creating the world. It's a parsha I love and hate. I hate it, obviously, for what has been done to it: one of the world's most extraordinary works of literature reduced to gimcrack "science" by the know-nothings. It's not the Torah's fault. What I love about this parsha is what it says about the act of creation itself. I studied creativity in graduate school, and you could structure an entire course around the topic based on Genesis 1-6. 

Let's explore a bit. What does Genesis teach us about the act of making something, whether that "something" is a novel, a casserole, or a universe? 

1. Separation, organization, evaluation. The first thing you learn studying creativity is that it involves a lot of words ending in -tion. Before you can create, you have to understand the component parts of what you are creating with. You don't necessarily need a plan in advance. God doesn't seem to have one, interestingly. He's making this up as He goes along. But He separates and organizes, and examines His raw material: 

When God began to create heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water -- God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. 

Have you ever seen a kid with a new box of Crayons? They don't just grab one and start drawing. You have to enjoy the array, see what you've got there, relish the smell as well as the color. You have to connect with your ingredients, name them, organize them. 

2. The creation will begin to organize itself. Or "develop emergent properties," as I learned to call it in grad school. Blue and yellow become green. Gluten forms in the dough. Colors and shapes and tones and themes combine and become more than the sum of their parts. 

God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky." God blessed them, saying, "Be fertile and increase, fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth." 

3. The creation can surprise the creator. Have you ever written fiction? Have you ever had a character do something that you weren't expecting? Or realized that with a simple tweak a recipe could be changed from sweet to savory? Just because you make something doesn't mean you can predict its every move. One of the greatest moments in creativity is when the thing you are making takes off and begins to generate its own steam. 

And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. 

God doesn't know what Adam is going to call the animals! That kills me every time. Like a parent giving a clever child a toy, God presents Adam with the animal kingdom for the sheer pleasure of seeing what he will do with it. 

5. Not all parts of your creation may get along. When you are making something complex-producing a play, for example--you can't have everything you love. Maybe two actors are perfect for the lead, and you have to choose one. Maybe that first chapter of your novel, that you love so much, doesn't actually work with the rest of it and needs to be cut. Maybe your two best friends are at each others' throats and don't want to do the Kickstarter project anymore. It hurts. We love all the parts of what we make. But if we try to make something complex, we might have to sacrifice something that we are very attached to. Like this: 

And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.  The Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" Then He said, "What have you done? Hark, your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground!" 

I can never read that without feeling so sorry for God. 

6. Creations need editing. There's no such thing as a perfect first draft. Not even if you're God. After the seven days of creation, God makes some fairly significant revisions to Universe 1.0, kicking Adam and Eve out of Eden and shortening the human lifespan: 

The Lord said, "My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years." 

No matter how great a creator you are, how exhaustive your raw materials, you're not going to get everything down pat on the first go. Rest for a bit, and then edit as necessary. Of course, this editing is one of the most frustrating parts of creation. Who likes to go through proofs? No one. 

And it's not uncommon for young artists to become overwhelmed by the distance between their vision and what they actually made, and to chuck it all and become discouraged with trying to make anything worthwhile in the first place. 

That's next week. That's Noah.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
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Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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