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.

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16 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Creativity

  1. Hmmm … I think every organisation or group has someone who acts up in a way that – in any other context – would result in a punch to the head. You know – the ones they say “Such-and-such – ah – it’s just the way he/she is” about. Because it is easier to just go along with someone’s ‘little ways’ than challenge them. No matter how rude and anti-social. (Or worse if you look at some current child-abuse scandals in the UK).

    And then when such behaviour is excused on the grounds of CREATIVITY … no, no, just no.

    • I had to look up all the science fiction writers to understand the story. I have no idea why it would cause a publishing problem, particularly compared to, say, Grand Theft Auto.

  2. I love this post, Quinn. I’ve tried exploring some dark corners of my mind in writing, but scared myself away. Would love to accept it and embrace it as one of the many parts of my creativity. There are some great lines to quote in your last two paragraphs. And Project Runway season 8 just finished on Dutch tv and I totally cried over the episode with Mondo’s “confession”.

    • There is a shadow side in all of us, and it struck me that creativity often comes from not wanting to do what is the norm, the excepted thing. While the guy in the example was an extreme case, he was also very creative. My point (I hoped, anyway) was that it is hard to be creative in business because the very nature of creativity gives you an uphill battle.

  3. So this is why when some of us travel on the dark side, we can often bring things into the light – poetry, dance, emotion, pretty things, not so pretty things, evidence of lessons, etc. When we let the light in, or out as the case may be, there are often interesting things to see.

    It is too bad that the creatives of the world have to explain and lobby for an expanded way of thinking about something or looking at something.

    And it is really too bad that there are some of us who spend more time being the ‘not that’ of the structured, left-brain dominant culture like the man you describe.

    • Creatives–like everyone else–has that shadow side. We certainly do choose what to bring into the light. Often circumstances twist us, and make it hard to stay in the light. Creatives have it tough, because they start brilliance by hating the status quo–which is often not a great way to climb the corporate ladder.

  4. Pingback: Guest Post « Collidescopes Blog

  5. Been looking at your posts, but somehow the days do not have enough hours. I have met folks like this, too. (and they never shower, either). I am doing a lightning study in using water soluble pencils for a plein air event I rashly entered (August). I was trying for too much detail. I need to loosen up and just sketch

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