Why does popular culture depict creativity as ‘chaotic’?

Sheila Chandra - Thursday, October 19, 2017

We’ve all seem the films and read the novels where the artist genius’ life is chaos. Perhaps they’re tortured by their vision of the world, perhaps they’re emotionally chaotic – but in any depiction where creativity itself is almost a main character, you’re almost sure to find visual and domestic chaos. Why is that?


Creativity as ‘chaotic’ is visual shorthand

I mean think about it. If you’re a director, or a photographer, you’ve got a real problem when depicting creativity. It happens in the artist’s head. So how on earth do you show it? How do you show that it’s part of their essence, not just an ‘event’ in their life? (Actually it is just an ‘event’ in their lives but let’s ignore that for a moment…) After all, who among us really understands what is happening when out of a void, comes the idea we’ve been searching for?

Creativity as ‘chaotic’ is convenient

There is no real way of depicting it – particularly to a viewing public who are, unconsciously I think, actually asking about how some people get to be so brilliantly creative while others are not. Ironically, novelists (and therefore screenplay writers and directors) have the answer, but all these categories of people don’t think to apply it to depictions of artistry. Why? Because the answer turns out to be just a little bit boring, and not the conflict-ridden ‘juice’ that their book, screenplay or film requires to make it successful.

Why are some people ‘creative’ and others not?

Well novelists tell us, that ‘character is destiny’. What a character thinks over and over, leads to what s/he does over and over, and those repeated actions, for good or bad, shape their life. Well, being ‘creative’ is just a tolerance for sitting with the ‘blank page’, and focusing the mind on the problem, until an idea comes. And if you do that over and over and over, it becomes ‘who you are’. Similarly, if you regularly potter about in your garden, in a few years, you’re going to be known as a ‘gardener’. And if you put some real effort into it, you’re likely to become a great gardener. Certainly more likely than if what you do is remain in your armchair… Similarly with being a brilliant creator. So, as the old joke says ‘The way to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice…’

So why do even creative people fall for the ‘creativity is chaotic’ myth?

It’s not comfortable sitting with that void. I hate it, to be honest. There’s no guarantee you’re going to come up with anything good. I’ve said that ‘being creative’ is a ‘tolerance’ for sitting with the void for a reason. Most creative people are a bit discomforted by it. And it’s only by building up a ‘tolerance’ for a discomforting experience that they get to earn the title ‘creator’.

Maybe it’s very infiniteness of possibility that’s the intimidating thing. After all, what could come out of our imaginations might not be convenient or good, but nightmarish. Every creator knows that. Maybe what popular culture is depicting in physical chaos around an artist (in novels and on stage and screen) is the fear we feel ourselves about the mystery of the whole process. And who can blame us?

Depicting creativity as ‘chaotic’ isn’t going to help

The problem is, that isn’t going to help young creators who are just finding their feet. It’s convenient enough for popular culture – not to say lazy – but it gives the wrong impression. Mess is not a mark of genius. Mess is not the inevitable result of having a good idea and being driven to realise it. Mess is not even that special. Every toddler creates it!

Let’s stop seeing creativity as ‘chaotic’ please?

Time to stop using this hackneyed old stereotype. Let’s acknowledge that the most successful artists with longevity are generally organized behind the scenes. They wouldn’t get paid properly if they weren’t. (And no, it’s not the resort of terminally ‘uncool’ artists. Have you thought about the kind of logistics Bowie had to have put in place before his death to get the ‘Blackstar’ album ready to roll in the same week?) Let’s divorce the visual shorthand from reality, the way we realise that a bunch of red roses in a film is shorthand for ‘romance’. Let’s give up-and-coming creators better role models to emulate.

If you’d like to know more about how to set up the career infrastructure you’ll need as a professional creator, download a free excerpt of ‘Organizing for Creative People’.

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