When we think of creative people — writers, artists, inventors and the like — we often think of a lone individual working furiously away in a dreary attic or studio, burning the midnight candle down to a stubby little nub. The solo inventor, the lone maverick, the mad genius. You get the picture because that image permeates our collective imagination through movies, paintings, books, and even the stories we tell ourselves about creativity.
Edward Clapp’s 2017 book, Participatory Creativity: Introducing Access and Equity to the Creative Classroom bursts that imagined bubble by revealing how creativity is a collaborative and collective activity. Based on extensive research in the field of creativity, Clapp proposes a new way for us to think about the nature of invention.
The Biography of an Inventor
One of the key arguments Clapp makes has to do with biography. Have you ever read a biography of a famous scientist, inventor or artist? As Clapp points out, we like to engage in dissecting the lives of famous creative people to figure out what makes them tick. What was actually happening in Einstein’s brain? Where did Miles Davis get all of his ideas from? How did Oprah Winfrey create a media empire for herself?
The Biography of an Idea
We ask ourselves these questions and we read biographies of these luminaries, but Clapp wants us to think about the biography of the idea, not the person. The biography of an idea? You might be thinking: what’s that? In the same way we can trace the major events and incidents of a person’s life, an idea’s biography traces all of the people and influences that idea came into contact with, and how that resulted in either a new idea, or a new product.
Take for instance Einstein’s theories about special relativity. By studying a 1993 biography of Albert Einstein in Howard Gardner’s book, Creating Minds, Clapp shows us how Einstein built on the ideas of numerous scientists and thinkers, including James Clerk Maxwell, Jules-Henri Poincaré, Henrik A. Lorentz and others. Einstein also had engaging and intellectual conversations with friends such as Michelangelo Besso. (And you can read some imaginative conversations between the two friends in Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel, Einstein’s Dreams.)
The Support of a Loved One
Einstein was also intellectually (and otherwise) supported by his wife, Mileva Maric who is sometimes overlooked for her possible contributions to her then-husband’s theories. What role did these people play in the path that led to discoveries about the fabric of space and time? Or what about technologies available to the scientist?
For instance, a compass Einstein received from his father early in life was a possible instigator of the young Albert’s curiosity. Can a compass be part of an idea’s biography? Clapp argues yes, and as this example demonstrates, readers can clearly begin to see how the network of associations, the collective contributions made by each of these individuals, artifacts and/or experiences comes to shape not only a person, but especially an idea. It’s as if the idea was there, existing somewhere in the universe (pardon the pun), and ends up being carried and furthered along by all of the people, including Albert Einstein, who helped bring it to its fruition.
Is an Idea Independent of its Creator?
An idea exists all along? Independent of its creator? Again, Clapp answers yes, and that’s another important point of the book. Clapp points to a famous article by French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who argued that our understanding of an “author” is a little problematic. Foucault wrote that even without a particular individual, the idea would eventually emerge, maybe not in exactly the same way, or with the same effects, but it will surface because of the kinds of thinking, language, and ideas already circulating within our society.
I’ve personally spent a lot of time reading and analyzing Foucault’s work, so I find the use of this idea in Clapp’s book really helpful and important. Think of it this way: if Martin Luther King Jr. had never existed, weren’t there others in the Civil Rights Movement who would have stepped up to lead the fight for civil rights? You already know the answer: of course they would have. Perhaps not as eloquently and powerfully as Dr. King did, but they would have done it nonetheless.
Creativity as a Social Process
When we start to think about ideas in this way, as having biographies, we begin to see how creativity isn’t necessarily “possessed” by one individual. It’s not as if creativity is Gollum’s “my precious”, the ring everyone is chasing after in The Lord of the Rings. Instead, the biography of an idea shows us how creativity is really all about a very social process that we can all participate in. Ask yourself: have you ever said something to someone, and later they come back to you and say how that conversation gave them a great idea? That’s participating in creativity!
Participatory creativity is also about the kinds of roles people play in the process of creating. In other words, creativity doesn’t happen as a single, static moment in time. Instead, it’s an evolving process. And when people participate in creativity, they can take on different roles.
For instance, if a group of school children are involved in working on a project, one student might sometimes be a leader of the group, or at other times a social negotiator, someone who’s trying to keep the glue of the group together. Another person might be a connector, bringing ideas together, while someone else is an ideator, generating new ideas. This kind of thinking reminds me of the Creative Problem Solving process, or CPS, where all people are understood as creative, but they express their creativity styles as clarifiers, ideators, developers, or implementers. You can read more about that in Roger Firestien’s Create in a Flash.
Creativity Belongs to All of Us
A third and final point about participatory creativity is that by dispelling the myth of the lone “genius”, we learn that we’re all creative. In other words, participatory creativity is accessible, available to everyone. This is significant because creativity has often been roped off, particularly in schools, for those who “qualify” as talented or “special” enough to enter the hallowed halls of creativity. (Am I the only one who’s thinking of the character Neo in The Matrix? Who are the “chosen ones”?)
Creativity doesn’t have to be locked up in a secret cave or chamber for only the “best” or “most” creative individuals. It’s not a question of taking the red or blue pill to find your true calling. Creativity belongs to all of us. All you have to do is participate. Show up. Share your talents, your thoughts, your skills. Get involved. Be curious. Find what interests you. Talk to others. Ask questions. Engage. Laugh. Look at the world from new perspectives. And get out of that garret!
Renée Sgroi (she/her) holds a PhD in Education from the University of Toronto and is a professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Centennial College in Toronto, Canada. Both a poet and academic, she is currently on sabbatical completing studies in the Creativity and Change Leadership Program at SUNY Buffalo State. A member of the League of Canadian Poets, The Writers Union of Canada, the Canadian Authors Association, and a contributing editor for Arc Poetry, she has published academic articles on reality TV, book reviews for Carousel Magazine and the League of Canadian Poets, as well as one book of poetry, life print, in points (erbacce-press, 2020) with a second forthcoming in 2024. You can find her online at: https://www.reneemsgroi.com