Cycle 1.1: What is creativity, anyway?

Wizard_altar_4_weblogColumn by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow

A creativity craze is sweeping the country. Creativity in 21st century America has become a possession everyone wants.

Creativity is not a possession. It’s a birthright in service to something larger than ourselves. But you have to the work; you have to earn your creative life.

When I describe my life with its multiple projects in writing, performing, and the visual arts, folks sigh, and say, wistfully, “Ah, but you’re sooooo creative. I wish that I could be as creative as you are.”

What is creativity anyway? Here are a few things it’s not:

  • It’s not always big fun.
  • It’s not just a game we play with ourselves about something we’re going to do, someday, or something we talk about at a party to play the role of the suffering artist or to pump up our self worth. It’s not posing or playing a role.
  • It’s not just being whimsical…or erratically playful like taking a different route to work to vary your routine.
  • It’s not just a weekend workshop. Don’t be fooled by superficial formulas of how to become more creative. That’s selling it way too cheap. It’s what happens in-between these workshops that matter.
  • It’s not flightly and not just entertainment. A life filled with creative practice is sustained over time.
  • It doesn’t draw attention to itself.
  • It doesn’t take itself too seriously.

All of the above are types of pretend creativity, like a dog dressed up in a frilly dress. Practical creativity wears overalls, garden gloves, carries a tool belt, and knows how to use the tools.

Practical creativity is  something we do everyday. First, let’s separate creativity into two types. To start off there’s the ordinary creativity we do in everyday as we cook, put together our outfits, and solve the problems that come our way.

Second, there’s the practical creativity of the Sciences and the Arts—creativity directed towards larger problem solving for our culture and the world.

My simple definition of creativity is this: “Uniting heart, hands, and head to make or do something of value to yourself and quite, possibly the wider world.”

My complete definition of creativity is: “Nurturing and directing the raw life force within us in a channel to do or make something that matters to you and the wider world. Showing up consistently to do the work.”

We all contain the first part of my complete definition—that raw life force that runs inside us. Or, as Dylan Thomas so eloquently put it in a well-known 1933 poem: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower /Drives my green age” and, less famously, “The force that drives the water through the rocks /Drives my red blood.”

Are we creative just for containing this life force? No. This green fuse force is placed inside us to enrich our lives. We all have it. We can choose to tap into it or not.

Part of the work of creativity—before we can tap into this life force—is learning how to nurture and channel this force. You have to do the work on yourself and learn you own creative process. This is being in service to the force, to pledge your life in service to the products produced through your creative gift and process.

Being in tune with our process and knowing how to create—to set up the pre-conditions to make our art (in whatever media) is an art unto itself. But doing this by itself still does not qualify as being fully creative. Nor, does working only as a result of inspiration. Accept the gift of inspiration gratefully when it comes and don’t waste it, knowing that this is only one of the means you have available to you to shape your creative force into products that will gift the world.

What really separates the dabblers from those seriously pursuing any creative path in the Arts, Sciences or everyday living is quite simply this: work—disciplined pursuit followed by physical products of that pursuit.

Work with your creative force. You have to do the work. That’s the thing. This is, incidentally, why sustained creation of physical products is known as “a body of work.” It’s a physical act going out into a physical world.

This work of channeling your life force  to create tangible products of that work qualifies you for a creative merit badge. I’m looking forward to pinning it right on you with crowds cheering and marching bands playing.

So, join the Creative Catalyst parade with me. Bring your tuba.

I’ll be fielding questions about practical creativity—ones that emerges over time through practice. You can pose your questions via comments on this post, or directly to me. You’ll find my contact email at

13 responses to “Cycle 1.1: What is creativity, anyway?

  1. Janet, I love, love, LOVE your discussion of practical creativity, particularly the notion that creativity is a physical act of releasing a physical product into a physical world: “This work of channeling your life force to create tangible products.”
    Intuitively, I know and understand that creativity, especially productive creativity, is not a fly-by-night thing. But it’s so easy to get caught in that trap of wanting a quick fix to a creative lull. So I’m excited to read more of your Creative Catalyst!

  2. Dear Becca,
    Yes, this perspective of physicality of our creative life as writers comes from my experience as a visual artist working in clay and largescale banners on cloth…my time as an onstage performer as a storyteller and actress…and playing the violin since I was 8. Also, I witnessed my father, a maual blue-collar laborer, fold his creative life as writer, musician, and whittler of small animals into his life as someone who could fix and do anything physical. And, my mother’s prodigous pursuit of gardens, quilt-making,cooking table-laden meals and painting landscapes into her life as a teacher, homemaker and mother.
    My most influential teacher, Clive Matson, author of “Let the Crazy Child Write” tells us that the writing bubbles up from the cells of our body through our arm onto the page and screen. Writing is a visceral process. We lose that sense at our peril.
    Janet Riehl

  3. Bring your tuba–I LOVE it! Comes on a morning when I’m waking up to a new America and feeling like celebrating, feeling the creative juices surge. Thanks for your post.

  4. Thank you, Susan. Yes, the tuba just slipped out and then I saw that it was perfect. I used to play bass violin in the band so that I could march with the zylophone during marching season.
    The tuba has a comic aura about it, is heavy to carry, and takes lots of lung power to play. It’s not for the faint-hearted. So, we know that the tuba is the heavy-lifting of music making.
    Yes, there was a feeling last night at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis of being part of a celebratory parade…filled with tuba players of distinction down through the ages of American history.
    Thanks for enjoying the reference.
    Janet Riehl

  5. Perfect! Your definitions of creativity are thought provoking and, I think, right on. Especially the idea of value, of making something that matters to one’s self, and the outside world. You have given me a lot to think about, as well as a push to get myself more organized and “serious” about my creativity!

  6. Janet, sign me up for the Creative Catalyst parade! I’m in!! ALL THE WAY !!!
    This is a fantastic post. So much to ponder here… so much to take to heart. And for the record, I just loved, loved, loved your definition of creativity …
    “Uniting heart, hands, and head to make or do something of value to yourself and quite, possibly the wider world.”
    Can’t wait for the next installment!

  7. Dear Lee and Khadijah, Thank you both for fully receiving the contents of this post. It’s one I worked on really hard to make accessible and comprehensive at the same time.
    I’d love it if you’d keep me posted on your creative work and pose any topics of questions you’d like for me to cover in future posts.
    I didn’t do any additional externall research for the post, simply pumped myself for information and then worked hard to organize and clarify what had emerged.
    All my best to you both.
    Janet Riehl

  8. Janet,
    “This green fuse force is placed inside us to enrich our lives. We all have it. We can choose to tap into it or not.”
    You are so right about this. I get so tired of hearing others say, “Oh, I’m not crea..tive,like you.” I always feel, no make that..know, that’s just an excuse. They are choosing not to use their creative force and that’s sad.
    Great piece. Thanks for giving me the heads up about it.
    Susan GT

  9. Emad Abdul-Aziz

    Thank you for all this effort, but I need specific definition of literary creativiy.Please, help me.I’m in a dire need of ot.

  10. Emad Abdul-Aziz

    What you wrote is very helpful.
    I need a specific definition of literary creativity.
    Please send it to my e-mail address
    It’s very important to me.

  11. Emad Abdul-Aziz

    What you wrote is very helpful.
    I need a specific definition of literary creativity.
    Please send it to my e-mail address
    It’s very important to me.
    My e-mail is

  12. Dear Emad,
    Literary creativity is focused towards creating a piece or body of work that in some way illuminates the meaning of the human experience.
    What is your project? What is your creative crisis?
    Janet Riehl

  13. Pingback: Taking the Creative Pledge: “I’ll show up to do the work.” | Telling HerStories: The Broad View

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