Illicit Creative Acts, Part II

Landed here? Go to part one of this two-part series.


In November, 2010, I presented at Pecha Kucha Beirut on the topic “Creativity is Messy.” Pecha Kucha is a global forum for design, structured by a format that permits each speaker 20 seconds of talking time for each of 20 slides: the limitiation keeps presentations enjoyably concise and helps presenters to organize their thoughts.

“Messy,” in this case, both is and isn’t a synonym for disorganized. I proposed the topic because I wanted to address another misconception about creativity, one signified by the ancient Greek myth about Athena’s birth. She’s said to have sprung fully formed from the skull of her father Zeus.


It’s an appealing image: a genius sits down (or stands, as is the fashion) at his desk and writes a master opus from first word to last, buoyed by one long, glorious burst of inspiration. It’s also an image that bears very little resemblance to the labor of most creative work.

I wanted to encourage listeners who felt like giving up when their first attempts weren’t brilliant. When I said that creativity was messy, I meant only that we all fail many times on the way to success and that our failures directly inform our eventual success.

At least, that’s all I meant at the time.

But Here’s What Else I Meant

As my dad and I discovered while writing our book, if you question conventional wisdom on any topic, you’ll confront unexpected obstacles in the form of the words at hand. These everyday building block words are anchored to the very meanings that you’re trying to undermine.

For instance, people commonly associate the word “story” with fiction, even though nonfiction writers have always relied upon anecdotes (read: nonfiction story) and the memoir genre seems to become more popular every day.

When we decided to write a book for “storytellers,” we meant writers of fiction and nonfiction, playwrights and screenwriters, filmmakers, innovators, and anyone who would like to tell better stories in their everyday life. Not everyone, mind you, but a good-sized group.

Few would contest our own broad definition as a legitimate use of the word, and yet it requires an extra second of thought.

We knew we wouldn’t necessarily be able to redefine “storyteller” in a general sense. But if we hoped to plant our particular meaning in the reader’s mind — during that limited period of time in which we had their full attention — we could only turn to one organization-related means: consistency.

Finding the Trajectory

“Messy” and “organized” are two other words that possess multiple, sometimes self-contradictory meanings.

The bridge between my presentation and this letter to you, dear reader, lies in the discovery that while it’s certainly possible to define the two words as clashing opposites, they also represent equally necessary points on a continuum.

As I went on to write in my profile of jeweler Nada Ghazal, published in Creative Lives:

In the disorder of nature, she finds a mirror for the mysteries of creativity, but not the firm foundation of method and discipline that it requires.

In his book The Art of Learning, martial arts (and former chess) champion Josh Waitzkin makes a similar observation:

I’ve never been a neat guy by nature, and I furthered my messiness for years by consciously leaving my living area chaotic so I could practice organizing things mentally and being mellow in the madness.

There’s an essential tension, then, between the mess of the initial material, the idea that cries out for cultivation, and the acts we undertake to work creative transformations, acts that are mundane in their most basic elements: for instance, every painter picks up the paint brush, mixes the paints, and so on.

If we resist an establishment mentality and approach the act of organization as flexible and fluid, then it becomes a vital creative tool — how you “pick up your paint brushes” and “mix your paints” counts to the extent that you find your way to a variation that works for you.

Ultimately, organization is all we do when we create, because that’s what separates us from the gods, so to speak: we can combine and edit, but we cannot create anything wholly new.

Let me be clear: I’m not trying to present myself as a better model for the “creative type.”

Josh Waitzkin and I, for instance, have admittedly different temperaments. Yet we’ve arrived at a similar conclusion by different routes. Though it sometimes seems otherwise — there’s nothing illicit about that.