The Dark Side of Creativity

The guy looked like Grizzly Adams without the smile, but complete with suspenders and wild beard and hair. I worked in a very conservative company as the marketing writing manager, and he was a freelancer, hired for his creativity.

Sometimes creativiy discovers new worlds, sometimes creativity discovers empty galaxies. Photo credit: JimKSter

Getting to the point, I hated him. He delivered nothing on time and made fun of me for wanting to stick to a schedule. He told huge tales (none of them verifiable) of amazing deeds in the service of his country,  impling shadowy connections to black helicopters and secret missions. He had scars to show, both physical and psychological. Frankly, to me, the scar looked like a Sunday morning bagel cut. He insisted it was from hand-to-hand combat is a dangerous country where even the air was deadly.

He got a lot of attention for being “creative.” His bad behavior and poor social skills didn’t matter because he saved my boss from daily tedium. For my boss, relief  balanced the havoc wreaked on every project he touched. My boss didn’t care that I had to re-write everything he handed in because it was not suitable for our clients. My working deep into the hours of the night  was a small price for my boss to pay in exchange for bragging rights to claiming that the creative genius slept, as he claimed, on the floor with a knife under his pillow. War scars, you know.

My boss adored him and constantly suggested I was jealous of his creativity and resentful of his success. Maybe. They paid him a lot more than they paid me. In more than one case I said, “Please let me hire someone who is not quite as creative, not quite as brilliant, but a lot more reliable.” It never happened. No doubt he was smart, but he was also impossible to work with. He gave creativity a bad name. He’s long out of my life, but the incident reminded me: there is a dark side of creativity.

Creativity is often thought of as a light, cheerful gift. Not always.  Mondo Guerra (Season 8 of Project Runway) nailed it when he publicly  said “I feel like this gift and talent is a curse to me sometimes.” In a corporate setting, creativity can easily be considered a mental aberration by a supervisor. Soon the creative feels like an outcast.  The process of coming up with something innovative is only creative when it generates ideas that are money-makers or practical. If it falls short, it’s just weird and different. Occasionally it’s also called Not playing nicely with others, a bad attitude or “not suitable for corporate vision leadership.”

Creativity has deep roots in unhappiness with the status quo. With willingness to go against the grain. With certainty of purpose. With the idea that the creative ideas are better than what exists now. That’s tough when your culture values individuality only if it fits in with what already exists. (Before you doubt that we are a culture that turns the different into outcasts, consider how we judge people of color, those with uncomfortable handicaps, those who don’t speak English well, those who are fat, or those who want to marry people of the same sex.)

Creativity has roots in “other-ness.” There’s a lot of responsibility attached to it. Creativity isn’t re-arranging the fruit plate, it’s overturning the apple cart. While risking reputation for an uncertain result, the creative has to explain how the result is useful and why the risk is worthwhile. And, of course, sometimes the creative is wrong, and the risk causes damage.

Creativity is absolutely how change comes into the world, but it is not the preternaturally cheery, holy, shamanic gift it’s painted to be. It has a dark, difficult, mean side, and that needs to be recognized, too. It’s not for everyone or every place. When you choose the light, you choose the dark. One does not exist without the other. In fact, it’s how we know it’s light. Because we know the dark as well.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. Her book, Raw Art Journaling, will be out in July of 2011.

Photo credit: JimKSter through Creative Commons.