I Can Do That! (Does Everyone Have the Creative Gene?)

Carol HIll sewing her quilt square by Sally Wiener Grotta“I just take hundreds of photos and then fix the best one in the computer,” the woman bragged.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard similar statements. But this particular occasion was during my gallery talk at one of my American Hands exhibit. The woman beamed with pride, identifying with my artistic endeavors and wanting to share something of her accomplishments with me.

One of my friends, a highly respected writer, has been known to answer these kinds of statements with the Infinite Monkey Theorem: “If an infinite number of monkeys bang on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite number of years, eventually they’ll produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Does that make those chimps genius playwrights?”

I have a very different attitude about these accidental artists. I’m delighted when people explore their creativity, and identify with me as a photographer or writer. When someone is inspired by my presentations, pictures or stories, it makes the effort I put into them so very worthwhile. As I explain in my American Hands mission statement, part of the purpose behind the project is “to energize and excite the public about human creative potential.”

However, I can also understand my friend’s frustration when her audience doesn’t recognize the difference between their close-your-eyes-and-aim shotgun creativity, and her sweat-of-the-brow, years-of-honing professionalism. I have devoted my life to two endeavors – writing and photography — that the majority of people I meet believe they can do, if not expertly, then pretty darn well.

The fact is that I believe them. I also believe (when I  bemoan the unreliable income of the creative life), that I could have become a darn good plumber.

The key, of course, is learning both the skills and trade, mastering the tools and techniques until solutions and ideas become instinctive, truly creative. (And yes, I do believe that an expert plumber is, by definition, a creative thinker.) And then to be able to repeat your successes over and over again, with reliable quality, proficiency and style.

I have faith in our innate need to be creative. It’s what has fueled our progress from the Stone Age to the Digital Age… and will shape our future. Without the vision to draw outside the lines, build new ideas out of old worn-out paths, use words and concepts in novel ways to communicate beyond the here and now, what will become of us as a species? Perhaps, evolution endowed us with a creativity gene to ensure our survival, so that we will continue to explore, reach beyond and thereby change and grow.

 I love it when I see my students tapping into their personal visions and being inspired to say, “I can do that!” But inspiration is only the beginning. Then our other innate survival skills have to get into gear, specifically discipline (or, perhaps stubbornness), curiosity so that we can continue to learn and just enough irrationality to see each wall that blocks our way, each mistake we make, as a stepping stone to discovering new heights.


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