Creativity: Light and Dark

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  VP of writing, and he was a freelancer, hired for his creativity by my boss, who found the non-corporate look exotic on an outsider.

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

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

Getting to the point, I loathed him. He sent in assignments on his own time schedule, often handing work directly to my boss, so I didn’t know it had arrived.  He  made fun of me for sticking to a schedule. He told huge tales (none of them verifiable) of amazing deeds in the service of his country,  implying 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 cutting accident. 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–an the clean-up was my job. All-nighters to create salvageable content  meant little to my boss, who waved to me as she went home at 5 p.m. With wide eyes, she re-told stories of how 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 slyly suggested I was jealous. 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 eccentric and a lot more reliable.” It never happened. 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. And it’s not always bad or weird.

Creativity is often describes 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. Creatives can feel like outcasts in an environment where creativity is directly related to ROI.

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.

Creativity has roots in “other-ness.” There’s a lot of responsibility attached to it.  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 taken can make the job vanish.

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 honored, 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, knowing dark is how we recognize light.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. Last night she had a dream about the Grizzly Adams guy. She’s still not over the experience.

Photo credit: JimKSter through Creative Commons.