Illicit Creative Acts, Part I

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Soon after I first became aware that others were aware of me, that people would form opinions about me — whether I liked it or not — I wanted them to perceive me as creative.

That’s not why I’ve always loved to create, but I sensed that the approval of others would lend some legitimacy to my creating and enable me to do more of it. And that’s the foundation for the entire critical establishment, no?

My own status as “creative,” however — not to mention the idea that I needed such status — sometimes seemed less reliant on what I actually created and more on my style of thinking and working: I’m neat and organized by temperament, traits that the so-called “creative type” apparently scorned.

This realization created a kind of dissonance in my life — the very qualities that consistently helped me to succeed in school, including school plays, also made me anxious, even a little ashamed. I dreaded the possibility that, at any moment, I might be exposed as an impostor on the creative stage, betrayed by my (gasp!) well-ordered binder and tidy bedroom.

But What Does Organized Mean?

Looking back, I can make an educated guess as to why we tend to see creativity and organization as opposing forces. Society routinely punishes the disorganized as disobedient, willfully noncompliant. No incentive there to trumpet the virtues of organization.

History and literature both often (seem to) teach us to confuse organization with conformity and central control, whether the subject is the German military circa World War II or the planet Camazotz in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

The personal development movement, which began in the 1970s and continues today, emerged as a backlash against the relentless conformity of the ’50s and early ’60s. In her otherwise wonderfully insightful book Awakening the Spine, the Italian yoga “luminary” Vanda Scaravelli writes in a chapter titled “About Organization”:

Be careful, very careful about organizations. Yoga cannot be organized, must not be organized. Organizations kill work.”

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The book’s next page shows a picture of the Statue of Liberty enclosed by scaffolding — the caption seems to suggest that the scaffolding represents a “cage,” and it certainly looks like one here.

Except that we all know the true purpose of scaffolding. And in this same image, we find a fairly good metaphor for the relationship between organization and creativity.

Organization as a Creative Act

While living in Lebanon, I had the opportunity to interview many wonderful artists, including Nada Ghazal, a jewelry designer, and Zena el Khalil, who works in mixed media and is the author of the book, Beirut, I Love You.

Nada lifted a burden I hadn’t even realized I still carried when she told me the following:

I cannot concentrate if things are in a mess, and what I mean by a mess — I’m not just talking about a messy room, I’m talking about a messy mind.

Wait . . . so I could embrace my own need to straighten up as a prelude to creativity?

Zena’s words and work — in that instance, five large-scale collages — further suggested that organization can itself be a creative act and that creativity has an inherent organizational component.

In the following excerpt from our 2010 interview, she describes her process:

It starts off as a painting and then I transfer the painting onto a special canvas where I can pin things in . . .

It’s all pinned, and the reason for that is it goes back to our history in Lebanon. Nothing is set in stone, and everything is being recreated and reinterpreted every day, so . . . technically you could take down this painting and reassemble it in a totally different way if you wanted to . . . but it’s really part of the process of the work, because even sometimes I’ll put something on and then something insane will happen in the news, and it will really affect me, and then I’ll go back and maybe, like, change the painting around a little.

I think it’s important to keep that flexibility. Like I’m not dealing with paint, I’m dealing with fabrics, so . . . I can shift the fabrics around.

In speaking about the history of Lebanon, Zena’s also speaking, of course, about the history of the world. In focusing on her own process, she’s also shedding light on creativity at large.

What is organization if it isn’t pattern formation? And what is creativity if it isn’t the genesis of patterns by whatever means and, progressively, the choosing of some patterns over others because they achieve the specific, desired purpose?

Except that it’s not quite that easy. Language, after all, represents our best attempts to organize meaning, and it routinely falls short; words like “organized” and “messy” pose special challenges.

In next week’s entry of this two-part series, I’ll confront these challenges head on as I sort out how a self-confessed organization freak could give a presentation titled . . . “Creativity is Messy”.

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