Imagination and Creativity


There are many aspects of creativity that I find fascinating–the relationship between creativity and innovation, the history of creativity, and the definition of creativity, just to name a few. In spite of all the acclaim that surrounds creativity, I believe that the concept of creativity would not be nearly as important if it didn’t connect with people in a meaningful and significant way. I believe this connection is the imagination.

Molly Andrews, a Professor of Political Psychology and the Co-director of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London, has this to say about imagination and creativity:

Imagination is in fact the life blood of one of the most fundamental human inclinations — that of storytelling. We tell stories all the time, about everything, to everyone, including ourselves. What we tell and why and how we tell it are strongly influenced by the contexts in which we as narrators operate. But one only needs to think for a moment of what it would mean to have no story to tell, or to have forgotten one’s story — as depicted in some of the wonderfully rich books by Oliver Sachs — to realize that we organize our relationship to those around us, to the world, and indeed to our very selves via narrative.

Narrative and imagination are integrally tied to one another; that they are so immediately clear to anyone who stops to think about stories — real and imagined, about the past or in a promised, or feared, future. Why and how this is so are questions that direct us to ruminate on what it means to be human. Narrative and imagination are combined, not only in our most elevated thoughts about the world as it might be, but also in the very minutiae of our daily lives. Although we do not often talk about the role of imagination in how we approach each day, carrying out and evading those responsibilities to which we have committed ourselves, and simply being ourselves in the world, negotiating our sometimes troubled paths between competing desires of our own and those of others, its importance cannot be overstated.  (Entire article)

I believe Andrews makes a very good point when she writes that “we organize our relationship to those around us, to the world, and indeed to our very selves via narrative.”  Simple put, we are a people of story. We tell stories. We listen to stories. We identity with or reject the stories in which we are a part of. And these stories are not independent or static–they are dynamic and intersect with other stories like an intricately woven tapestry. In many ways, we tell stories to identify with humanity: our own and others’. Yet the connection between imagination and creativity is not intrinsically clear.

In Mineko Honda’s book The Imaginative World of C.S. Lewis, he explains how Lewis saw the connection between imagination and creativity:

The imagination he thus sees in himself appears to be the same things as the ‘creativity’ that we expect of good writers and artists.  In fact, however, this ‘imagination’ means a lot more than mere creativity.  For Lewis, it is also a power of intuition into the metaphysical reality of this world and heaven, and a power of communication of that reality.  It perceives the meaning of the world, expresses that meaning, and enables us to participate in the metaphysical Reality (Pg. 1). 

Creativity is not the equivalent of imagination, yet the two are not completely separate of one another. Creation without imagination is just the creation of idols—representations of what is true, but themselves are not true.

So, if imagination leads to creativity, and the two are distinct yet cannot be separated from one another, where does that leave us with the question of how the two are connected? I believe the answer to that question lies in the word “metaphor.”

The use of metaphor employs the imagination to give an image to a truth that is difficult or impossible to understand in and of itself.  A word such as “love” is difficult to understand by itself, so artists use metaphors to explain that love is like “a red, red rose.”  Likewise, trying to understand the meaning of words like beauty, honor, and friendship is nearly impossible without using images that are attached to those words.

Words which we could scarcely grasp are expanded and burst into reality through metaphor. Elusive nouns such as “anger” and “joy” are connected to objects like the color red or sunflowers in a field; thus we can continue to communicate these abstract concepts with images.

Whether it is a story, a photograph, or a painting, a powerful image can communicate both meaning and value. In his book Imagination and the Arts in C.S. Lewis, Peter J. Schakel gives a concise explanation of Lewis on this matter:  “Images are seen through imagination, and the moral of the story must be embodied in the images” (Pg. 169). Lewis feels that the use of images and metaphor by the imagination is not only an exercise in critical assessment of a work of art but actually nurtures a person’s “moral imagination.”  The images are metaphors themselves of greater virtues such as loyalty, courage, good vs. evil, and the like.

To quote George Macdonald, “the Intellect must labour, workman-like, under the direction of the architect, Imagination” (“Imagination,” Pg. 11). Creativity is the natural outcome of a working imagination. Creativity that endures hundreds of years and thousands of miles is melded and fired from the metal of Reason and Imagination in the kiln of Diligence and Truth.

But imagination won’t be nailed down. It is like the wind, the rushing river water, and tiny grains of sand.  It manifests differently, and never looks the same way twice—but it does feel the same. It gives a feeling of smallness yet the hope of greatness.  It destroys self, but introduces that self into a world where he/she can grow into something much larger. Thus, creativity is a byproduct of the great architect Imagination.



Defining Creativity


Explaining creativity can be a daunting task. Defining a singular word is easy enough–even a hyper-charged word like creativity. The real challenge is sifting through all the preconceived notions of the word and arriving at some common ground. So, to begin,  I would like to define how I understand “creativity.”

In its essence, creativity is the trait or process by which we…wait for it…create. But how do we create? By what inspiration do we create? While the scope of this article is creativity, one must acknowledge the role of the Imagination before being apply to define and understand the role of creativity.

Imagination serves to form images in our mind–to help us move from abstraction to the concrete. If I asked you to explain Courage, your mind would take the abstraction of the word and generate or recall images to help you define courage. You would recall images from media, books, stories, art, and personal experiences that you have stored away in the part of your mind marked “Courage.” Our imaginations generate those images, while our reason or logic organize those images into coherent forms in our minds. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes this about the interaction between imagination and reason:

“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”

So in order for creativity to function properly, our minds need to be populated with a plethora of images, stories, and experiences that give us a breadth and depth of the complexity of life.

But more about this later. For now, let’s return to the task of defining creativity.

In the words of Rollo May, creativity is the:

“Process of bringing something new into being. Creativity requires passion and commitment. It brings to our awareness what was previously hidden and points to new life. The experience is one of heightened consciousness: ecstasy”  (The Courage to Create).

Linda Naiman, the founder of Creativity at Work, also defines creativity like this:

“Creativity is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Creativity is characterized by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate solutions. Creativity involves two processes: thinking, then producing. If you have ideas but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but not creative.”

You may notice that both authors use the word “process” to help define creativity. They explain creativity as a way of thinking or perceiving or being aware of the surrounding world. While they recognize that creativity is about “creating,” they start by defining creativity more passively. The end product of creativity is the “doing”, but the beginning of creativity is the “receiving”–it is populating the imagination.

If creativity is about creating something novel or unique, one must first understand what has already been created.

I believe people become debilitated when thinking about personal creativity because many of our modern definitions focus only the end product of creating, while overlooking the process of fine tuning our imaginations. We can become so obsessed with being novel or unique that we forget to first be inspired by others who have created something novel or unique. We should find comfort looking to those “creative” giants before use as a way to build our own imaginations and develop a microscopic awareness of the world.

Finding and imitating others’ creativity is an indispensable yet often neglected part of our own creative process.

Quotes about Creativity


A Brief History of Creativity


Imagination. Reason. Creativity. Innovation. All words that are lobbed around as effortlessly as if we had found them on the shoreline of some calm lakeside. We often just as easily sling these stones across the sparkling waters, admiring the skip, skip, skipping until they dribble down to a watery fate. We sense these words are consequential, but it’s easy to get muddled in their meanings and interconnection. While this series of posts will by no means be a comprehensive treatise on imagination and creativity (we can look to the masters for those articles), I will attempt to answer a question that have been niggling at me for the past few weeks: Who is creative? Do we all play a part in creativity? Can innovation inhibit the creative process?

Creativity is without a doubt one of the biggest buzz words of the last 30 years. You can Google questions like “What is creativity” and “Am I creative,” and you will receive hundreds of articles, scholarly and common, many of which are directly connected to business. In fact, much of the writing found on these Google queries often conflate “creativity” and “innovation” to the point that a singular message becomes clear: “Creativity can make you money!” Michael Mumford suggests that “Over the course of the last decade…we seem to have reached a general agreement that creativity involves the production of novel, useful products” (Mumford, 2003).

This understanding of creativity is distinctively different from the ancient view of creativity, especially before the Renaissance. Ancient cultures believed that only true creativity could come from a divine being, drawing heavily from the Judeo-Christian conception of God’s creation of the world. It was believed that humanity was only capable of “discovering” or “imitating” what had already been put in place by the divine. As Plato writes in The Republic, “Will we say, of a painter, that he makes something?”… “Certainly not, he merely imitates (Book X).”

This understanding of creativity dominated Western thought until after the Enlightenment, where creativity was seen less as a divine attribute and more as an attribute of genius. It was around this time that Humanism began to take root in Western thought.

By the late 19th century, creativity was being discussed as less of an imbued trait and more of a process of the human imagination and intellect. As the understanding of creativity shifted away from divine and more towards a personal process, many theories were “created” to distinguish between different aspects of creativity and differing methods to study those aspects.

And in the last 10-15 years, there has been much credence to the empirical study of the processes of creativity. Understandably, the interpretation of these results has led to several possible explanations of the sources and methods of creativity, but it has also lead to great confusion of how to define “creativity.”

So creativity started in the realm of the divine–only to be imitated by humanity–and has been formed into a personal process that has been quantified and subjected to empirical study. So how does this historical understanding help us answer the questions we have in the 21st century? I would suggest that the questions we are asking of creativity haven’t changed, but our definition and approach of creativity have shifted dramatically over the years.

With this mitigated history of creativity, I want to explore the implications of our current understanding of creativity and answer some of the questions which I posed at the beginning of this article. If you have any questions or comments, i would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.