What does it mean to be creative?

Creativity is often thought of as a means of problem-solving, of diverging and converging thinking. Where the creative mind presents an array of possible solutions to a problem and then selects the most appropriate option. People will often comment upon a person’s creative ability when finding solutions that are not always obvious. But creativity is also a problem-generating process. As creatives, we construct ourselves scenarios which demand us to find those creative solutions. In her book, The Creative Mind, Margret Boden describes the requirements of creativity as needing to be ‘new, surprising, and valuable’ and so, whenever we undertake a creative project we automatically generate the problem of needs to create something that meets these requirements.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Systems Model of Creativity (pictured below) describes the life cycle of the creative process. In our field of songwriting, the individual is the songwriter, the field is comprised of the other people spanning from the music industry to the audience, and the domain is the body of songs which the songwriter draws influence from. The cycle operates by the songwriter learning the tropes and habits of a genre by listening to music from the domain and using this to write a song that works within the genre. This song is then presented to the music industry (the field), such as bloggers, radio programmers, A&R staff, etc. if this is approved it is then released to the public. If the public approves of the song (as indicated by sales and engagement) then the song is included in the culture as part of the domain. (I must point out that this process is far more complex than what I am describing with so many contingencies and variables, I may make a video to explain this better. For now, read his book Creativity or watch his TED Talk).


Csikszentmihalyi's System's Model of Creativity (2013)

Csikszentmihalyi's System's Model of Creativity (2013)

Throughout this cycle, the song goes through filters and mechanisms through which to be approved. At the start, the songwriter filters out songs from the domain which are not part of her intended genre e.g. if you were writing a singer-songwriter love ballad, you probably won’t want to draw too much influence from Berlin Hard Trance. If you’re writing this love ballad for a particular artist, she may have a team (managers, publishers, A&R, etc.) who, along with herself, will have ideas of what the song should sound like; the lyrics, instrumentation, melodies, production, etc. As the song is presented to each person it may be re-evaluated and even rewritten. A publisher might not get a writing credit for suggesting the changing of a word but they will undoubtedly have an influence on the final song.  Likewise, if you are self-releasing a song you will most likely get feedback from family or friends, or from the reactions of a live audience. The point here is that the songwriting process is a social process, involving a number of people and groups that contribute to and influence the final song.

What we have come to as an idea of creativity is a balancing act between the determinism that is presented to us via the structures of the domain and the field, and the necessity of us to apply our freewill to create something that is new, surprising and valuable. What we ask of ourselves every time we sit down to write is ‘what does my potential audience expect from this song? And how far can I frustrate these expectations?’ Different audiences will have different expectations and different degrees of acceptance in how far they can be pushed. When writing I refer to this audience as the Imagined Audience, and the success of the song is in part based on how well we can construct an imagined audience who best resemble our actual audience. We ask ourselves ‘Would they like this? Would they expect this? And would they accept this?’ When we give them what they expect, we are operating within the structures of the domain and field. But when we frustrate their expectations, we are imposing our freewill to be creative (new, surprising and valuable).