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.

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17 thoughts on “Creativity: Light and Dark

  1. Your post reminded me of one of my favorite poems about the darker side of creativity, by Jack Gilbert.
    In Dispraise of Poetry
    When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
    He gave him a beautiful white elephant.
    The miracle beast deserved such ritual
    That to care for him properly meant ruin.
    Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
    It appears the gift could not be refused.

  2. It’s “tough when your culture values individuality only if it fits in with what already exists.” Ah, sweet understanding music to my ears . . . you got it in one! Sandra Dovey and I will both be featuring a link right back to this post Quinn.
    Yes Quinn, the dream is all about you, not a nightmare about things past. I wonder what he symbolises for you? Have you come up against another ‘succesful’ charlatan? You’ll work it out . . . a BFO will hit when you least expect it. 🙂

    • Dreams are important ways to understand what your mind hides or refuses to work with during the day. I treat my dreams as important information and ways to handle problems and difficulties. Including, the repetition of ideas and problems that keep coming up. They will repeat until I learn the lesson.

  3. By the way, you wouldn’t have Grizzly Adams’ email would you? I want to find out how to get freelance jobs where you can choose your own deadlines. It reminds me of the time I was in Macau, on the trail of a notorious assassin who only used specially made golden bullets…I finally caught up with him in his mansion, where he had a mannequin of me set up for target practice. I took the place of the mannequin and…er, yeah, you might have heard this one; I sold the movie rights to some guy named after a vegetable. Now Hollywood, there’s a REAL jungle. Just like that other time…

  4. Business, in the general sense, is not really on the side of creativity, also in the general sense. The occasional business arises because of a creative idea, but if it becomes successful then it becomes resistant to changing that idea or replacing it. That’s the “innovator’s dilemma”: you get really good at something, maybe better than anybody, but to get to the NEXT thing you have to give up on the first thing. Your next idea might disrupt everything, but “everything” might just include you, too.

    Innovation — any new idea — has a cost as well as a benefit. I might think about innovating in my own life, abandoning suburban living for, say, a mobile lifestyle, but I also have an over-20-year-old dog who wouldn’t take kindly to that (she loves having her own room; we haven’t told her it’s a closet). Or I might want to become more efficient at entering text on a keyboard (which is, when it comes down to it, nearly all I do) but if I learn the Dvorak keyboard layout will I still be able to sit down at any computer and type just as easily?

    For every time a company like Apple destroys its (iPod) business with a new (iPhone) product and succeeds, there are at least dozens of cases like Osborne Computer, which went bankrupt when customers stopped buying the Osborne 1 to wait for the Osborne 2. I’ve worked on many innovative products that were never shipped, often because they might “cannibalize” sales of an existing product.

    I’m not at all sure ideas themselves are the point. It seems to me creativity and ideas are simply a kind of natural resource and effectively limitless. An idea isn’t ever good or bad any more than creativity is good or bad — it’s how everything including the idea fits together that’s important. For example, I personally worked on four different “tablet computers” that preceded the iPad by up to 15 years. They all worked, three of them shipped and people found them useful — but only the iPad was the right set of ideas in the right time and the right place to look like a “good idea” to virtually everybody.

    • There is a lot of risk to a new idea. And yes, I’ve personally experienced having the right idea at the wrong time. That’s what so interesting–and not quantifiable.

      • I am a walking history of ideas at the wrong time.
        – multiuser online games…when hardly anybody was online
        – operating system with user interface 100% in HTML — a decade prior to PalmOS, 15 years before ChromeOS. (whether this is a good idea at all is still unclear)
        – natural language parser like Google Now or Siri — on an 8-bit computer that could figure out what you meant….by sometime next week
        – a working (well, “working” is closer) von Neumann computer — when all I could afford to build it out of was wood (really, it wasn’t even electrical. Seventh grade project made out of scraps from the basement.)

        I think everybody working in technology has a list of these, though.

  5. I’m wondering why this guy reappears in your life almost exactly a year apart for three years. Are you supposed to be remembering the lesson more clearly or letting it go? You certainly have clarity on the person and the events. Your previous descriptions made me remember his presence like he was here with me yesterday.

    • You are right, this is an update of an earlier blog. I don’t know why he suddenly appears in my dreams, I would assume I still have “stuff” to learn from the experience. Since I’m going through some similar problems with another client–defining acceptable creativity in the business world, I would think that has something to do with it, too. And I’m pleased you have such an excellent memory of blog content–after 1,700 blog posts, I need your indexing skills!

  6. Hi Quinn, Thank you for sharing this experience. I have a similar situation at work and, although I am sorry you had to endure this person who sounds like a bit of a bully, it is nice to know I am not alone. If you figure a way to let him go please let me know. Ironically, just before I read your post I was reading about a book called The Forgiving Life: A Pathway to Overcoming Resentment and Creating a Legacy of Love by Robert Enright, a UW Madison. Professor of Educational Psychology. After 8 years of coping with this person I am still not sure I can go down the forgiveness path, but I am very tired of this person depleting my energy, so I am now pondering the possibility. Keep writing. You are wonderful and real! Warm Regards, Cris

    • For me, the fact that he shows up in dreams from time to time indicates I still have unfinished business with myself, more than him. It’s an aspect of him in m that I am most likely struggling with, and until I have it nailed, I’ll keep repeating the experience. I’ve forgiven him a long time ago, in the sense that I accept I cannot change him or the past. I don’t have to love him or think he’s a wonderful guy–or that the way he treated me was OK–to forgive him. I’m more interested in the contrasting aspects of creativity.

  7. Relate strongly to this bit: ‘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.’

    Especially the last sentence – and would like to quote you on my blog – is that ok?

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