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When the Creativity Researcher Goes Back to Being Creative

Going from scholar back to lyricist and playwright

I’m a creativity researcher. This has elicited everything from fascination to confusion to contempt to pity. I’ve been studying creativity for over 15 years and have reached a certain modicum of success – I’ve published lots of books and articles (nothing you’ve read). And I love what I do.

Years ago, I was on a different path: I wanted to be a creative writer. First, I wanted to write fiction, and I was lucky enough to get to study for four years with the great T. Coraghessan Boyle. At a certain point, I realized I wasn’t good enough. There was no traumatic event – my friend and fellow creativity researcher Ron Beghetto talks about “creative mortification” and how receiving harsh feedback can kill your creativity, but any genuinely negative comments I heard about my work were my own. I decided to try playwriting, and fell in love with the form.

I debated getting my MFA in Creative Writing, but I still remember writing to one school for information and being told that every year they graduated 20 MFAs and every year there were a total of 25 jobs in the country for MFAs. If you can do anything but write, they said, do that. So I thought. My parents were psychologists, and I had the oddly good fortune of being mentored by John Horn, a brilliant and generous professor of psychology. I became a double major in creative writing and psychology, and ended up deciding to get my Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology at Yale with Robert Sternberg. He would turn out to be an amazing mentor.

In the meantime, though, as I stumbled through my Ph.D., I still wrote. I wrote all sorts of plays – ten minute plays, one acts, the occasional full length, and a musical. This was the early days of the internet and I put all of my plays on-line, and they were produced a number of times at tiny theatres and colleges and high schools around the country. The musical, Discovering Magenta, was my baby. I teamed up with composer Michael Bitterman and he taught me all about how to write lyrics and structure a song. We recorded a demo CD, submitted it, and waited. Right away, we had interest – and two potential productions fall through. Then I got my Ph.D. And I started full-time work. And I met the woman who would become my wife. And I got distracted.

James C. Kaufman
Source: James C. Kaufman

I don’t know why I stopped writing plays. I had much less time (and once the kids joined our family, infinitesimally less time). A lot of my plays revolved around people looking for love or their way in life. Now that I was feeling more certain of my own place in the world, I felt a little stuck at what I wanted to express. But I also wonder if there was more than that. Writing a play represented a risk. I could invest time and energy into a play and there was no guarantee that anything would come of it. But any article or book about creativity I get published pretty easily. I get complimented for it. I sometimes even get a little bit of money. In psychology, there is a lot of talk about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic is doing something because you love it, and extrinsic is doing something for other reasons – money, praise, rewards, etc. I felt intrinsic motivation to write plays and doing psychology, but I was only getting the extrinsic rewards for psychology. As much as I teach and write about the importance of intrinsic motivation (especially for creativity), it’s kind of nice to have your work seen by people. There’s no shame in praise or money.

This spring, my composer Michael told me he submitted our musical to the Thespis Festival in NYC and it was accepted. This wasn’t the “rich and famous” contract that the Muppets signed; we’d have to produce the show, and it would only be for three performances, and there is every likely chance that there isn’t a producer waiting in the wings. But – it means life for the show. It means that maybe another theatre (anywhere) might pick it up or be interested. It means a chance.
So we are getting to go up in early September, with the amazing Valeria Cossu as our director (see our website, or like us on Facebook for more info – or just e-mail me). My parents, sister, and niece are flying out from across the country to see it, and lots of other family are congregating to the city for those days to see the show.

I was able to Skype in to the first table read, and I finally pinpointed my emotion as the reading went on: acute embarrassment, like dozens of people were watching me go to the bathroom. The play has (some) sex, (some) violence, a good amount of weird stuff, some (attempted) humor, and lots of bits and pieces from my own life. As much as I talk about creativity (and I talk about it a lot), it’s only been in the last year that I’ve realized just how much guts it takes to be creative. I’d started having one of my classes actually do something creative and then present it. Last Spring’s class gave so many honest, open presentations – of projects rooted in art, stories, or personal growth – that the bravery knocked me over. And now I’m feeling it from the other end – not feeling like I’m brave, but rather feeling absolutely terrified. I remember at one evening of my plays (years ago) walking out and hearing someone say, “Wow, that playwright has issues.” I’m bracing myself for that – or worse. I worry no one will come. I worry people will come and hate it. I worry none of the “right” people come and no one in theatre comes. I worry that these three performances are it, and that this production is no different than if I’d taken my money and hired six people to carry me on their shoulders for five days – an odd experience that is no reflection on any talent or ability I may have.

So I’m stuck in approach-avoidance land. For half of me, this is a dream come true. I’m revisiting my musical and reworking the script with my director Valeria and rewriting some songs with my composer Michael. I’m seeing a team of talented and excited professionals – the music director, orchestrator, stage manager, set designer, and of course the actors – work at bringing this show to life, this thing that was once half an idea in my mind. Getting to revisit the absolutely gorgeous melodies that Michael has written and hearing them sung anew is a thrill. Hearing Valeria’s insights and ideas about how to stage it or how a scene might be trimmed to make it more urgent is beyond exciting. The other half of me is feeling impostor syndrome for the first time since grad school – what the hell am I doing? New ideas for plays are starting to bounce into my head – what do I do with that?

I think about how creativity fits into our lives. I’m lucky enough to use my creativity at work – as I think of studies or write my books or teach my classes. Many of us aren’t able to do so. But my playwriting creativity is a different beast – a different feeling, something rougher and scary and thrilling. I have no illusions that I could ever be a fulltime playwright (and I have no particular desire). This creativity is for evenings and weekends. It’s what I fall asleep thinking about and what pops into my head while driving to work. I used to only want to do something if I could be the best at it, or at least “Pro-c” (an expert creator). Now I don’t mind not being great – but at the same time, I also know I couldn’t get back into playwriting if my work would never get produced. We don’t study “hobby” creativity much – we tend to focus on creativity at work or school, or everyday creativity or genius creativity. What drives people to be creative in their spare time? What do they want from it? I’m slowly starting to find out.

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If you're in NYC and want to see the show (Sep 1, 5, and 6), you can get tickets here or at the door.

If you're involved in a theatre and might be interested in the show, drop me an e-mail for more information!

This blog originally appeared on my homepage.

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