And All That Jazz

A creativity researcher's take on the highs and lows of pop culture and the arts.

From Creative Writing to Studying Creativity

My journey from a creative writer to a creativity researcher

A few weeks ago, I discovered a huge box filled with older papers and personal belongings. It was found as part of the packing process -- we are moving to Connecticut over the summer -- and I saw things I hadn't seen for many years. For the first two decades of my life, I wanted to be a creative writer. I wanted this more than anything in the world. In looking through the boxes of papers I recently found, I was astounded at the sheer quantity of stories, plays, poems, essays, and brief snippets, lines, or ideas for future stories. Every notebook, address book, or day planner I had was covered with my chicken scrawl of ideas and plans.

One thought that struck me was that I would write nearly anything (and then submit it for publication in some obscure zine). I found my "humorous" poetry, crammed eight to a page in a zine that must have been stapled in someone's basement. I found some more oddball humor (a baseball team made up of psycho killers) in Half-Truth, a free Los Angeles underground magazine (where I was published directly opposite a new piece by Charles Bukowski). I found my horror stories, in mags with names like Wicked Mystic and Aberrations. There were poems, mostly unpublished, some written for class. And there were the stories -- dozens and dozens of short-shorts, most never published. Four-page quick punches, with a plot twist or insight waiting at the end. Most of the stories had insight from my main writing professor (who was literary legend T. Coraghessan Boyle). I was struck by his amazing generosity -- I knew he'd read much of my fiction, but I'd forgotten just how many pages I had dumped in his lap over the course of four years. I found the sports sections of the local papers that I'd worked for -- mildewed articles on water polo and high school football. There were the editorial columns I wrote for my college paper. I also found the plays and musical librettos, which came later in grad school, as well as the baseball research I'd done with my father, Alan.

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Perhaps the predominant memory was that there was so damn much of it, and that I would try anything. It got me thinking about how my creative writing influenced my psychology career. Some of the influence is obvious. My first master’s thesis, later one of my first published papers (Kaufman, 2002a), was an overview of past research on writers. My dissertation (Kaufman, 2002b) examined the differences in thinking styles and personality between creative writers and journalists. One of my first large research projects was a historiometric investigation of eminent writers and mental illness (Kaufman, 2001). I've continued to study creative writers, right up to my recent edited book with Scott Barry Kaufman, The Psychology of Creative Writing.

Beyond the obvious connection, the insights and ideas from my pursuit of creative writing have continued to play into my research career. Indeed, I think it underlies two of my theories of creativity. When I actively wrote, as I've mentioned, I would write nearly anything. Nonetheless, I tended to stick to the larger domain of writing. I showed virtually no aptitude for music or art. Could I have been successful if I had tried a radically different domain as a creative outlet?

This question taps into a hot topic about whether there is a general creativity factor. If creativity is one thing, then a Lady Gaga would have become a creative superstar in what area she ended up pursuing. If she hadn't become a pop singer, she might have developed exciting new computer software or become a brilliant historian. If there is not a general creativity factor – if creativity is domain specific – then the same abilities and predispositions that led to Gaga to being a success in the music world would not necessarily translate to other fields. Similarly, in my days as a young creative writer, I was able to move fairly quickly from short stories to poetry to brief humor pieces to plays. Yet as a psychologist, it is a different story. I have a hard enough time shifting from a journal article to a blog. In addition, my primary subject matter is creativity. I may expand a little (sometimes I write about related constructs, such as motivation or personality), but most of my papers are about the same topic. Why?

A theory I developed with John Baer is the Amusement Park Theoretical Model of Creativity. I have gone into detail of this theory many times before and will do so many times again; for now, suffice to say that there are broad general thematic areas (art, science, performance, etc) that can lead to domains (poetry writing) that can then lead to microdomains (Haikus). It is easier to shift between different microdomains under the same domain (studying cognitive psychology and social psychology) than it is to shift between microdomains under different domains (studying cognitive psychology and writing Haikus). Yet other factors may help further explain my comparative sloth today compared to my anything goes approach of years past.

My Four C Model of Creativity, which I developed with Ron Beghetto, looks at creativity from a developmental perspective. Mini-c, the novel and personally meaningful insights and interpretations inherent in the learning process, can eventually become little-c, the everyday creativity inherent in the daily activities and experiences in which the average person may participate. Little-c can grow to Pro-c, expert-level creativity produced by professionals, or even Big-C, the legendary creativity from geniuses.

When I was a creative writer, I was shifting from the mini-c to the little-c level. I was trying out new styles and techniques and genres. I was still learning. As a result, it was easier for me to shift gears. Why? As creativity increases on the spectrum of accomplishment and experience, domain specificity increases; I've written about this idea with colleagues. One reason for this is that creativity requires a vast amount of background knowledge within a domain. If I had pursued creative writing and received my MFA, I would have been working my way up toward Pro-c, and it may have become harder to shift genres.

When I was a junior in college, I decided to apply for graduate school. I sent away for application packages from both Psychology Ph.D programs and Creative Writing MFA programs. One of the MFA packages said, in essence, that if you could do anything else but write, then you should do that thing. They graduated this number of creative writing MFAs each year, and there were barely enough jobs just for their graduates (let alone all of the MFAs). I had enough creative metacognition to realize that although I had seen some early success as a writer, I could succeed elsewhere. I applied my passion in creativity to the psychological realm, where I would like to think I have had a larger impact than if I were still working on my stories and plays.

 

Note: This is an adaption of a blog from my website. I will be more likely to respond to comments that are left on the original blog (and there are bunches more blogs there, some of which will find their way here).

You can also follow me on twitter or on Facebook.

James C. Kaufman is a creativity researcher and Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University of San Bernardino.

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