CREATIVITY (9-21-15)

Milnor Wolf


This past week PBS aired a new two-part American Experience episode on the life and work of Walt Disney. Disney was one of the top creative geniuses of the modern era. What stood out to me, however, was the intensity of his determination to turn his inspirations into reality. His earliest animation projects required massive investments in time and effort, as they were based on sketches of thousands of thousands of cartoon characters. When he began his longer projects, especially Snow White, he faced a much more daunting task of producing tens of thousands of drawings, all of them requiring a level of quality and sophistication that seem staggering when we consider that they had to be done by hand. Considering this, I concur with Edison’s famous statement that genius is “one percent inspiration and ninety-eight percent perspiration.” Of course, Disney employed a small army of artists to do the perspiring. But without his enormously intensive creative drive, none of his great film works would have seen the light of the movie projector.

I can imagine a variety of sources of inspiration for creative thoughts, depending on the individuals doing the thinking and their life situations. My own creative thoughts tend to center around a depth analysis of phenomena, such as contemplating what geological and biological structures might lie beneath a landscape scene, or what muscles and bones work together to produce the elongations in the neck of a pelican that I am photographing on a still pond near sunset. I want to know what is underneath what I am seeing.

The most meaningful—or at least practical—aspect of creativity must be, I think, the determination to make the inspiration into a real product. Currently I am working in an archive, where I am preparing and cataloging and scanning historical images from my town. This takes a lot of work. The project stems from a creative impulse, and at times it seems as if the work has little real connection with creativity. But it is work that has to be done. It is like a bridge that has to be built in order for the parade to cross over and be seen by the public. The measurement of the creative impulse, in the final analysis, will be whether it has sufficient power to propel the building of that bridge—and perhaps many other bridges—so that the tangible created product is finally delivered.


Tina Seelig’s TedX presentation on creativity is excellent. I watched it once, then while driving early Monday morning, I listened to another (slightly longer) version that was posted at Vimeo. Seelig’s main idea is that the product or solution that we get is bound up closely to the type of questions that we ask and procedures that we use to obtain that product or solution. “The question you ask,” she says, “is the frame into which the answers will fall. And if you don’t ask a question in a thoughtful way, you are not going to get really interesting answers.”

Creativity is inhibited when we assume that we must follow a certain formula or recipe, perhaps imitating someone else whom we believe to be successful. Seelig identifies six facets of creativity, all of which are bound together: attitude, knowledge and imagination form the inner part of creativity, and culture, resources and habitat form the outside environment.

Seelig’s talk is a good reminder that creativity is not one specific ingredient that we either possess or lack in a certain fixed amount. Rather it is something that exists within an ecosystem with inner and outer influences. Knowledge, she says, is “the toolbox for the imagination” and not an end in itself. This is a helpful reminder that merely stacking up piles of information is not a terribly productive way of becoming skilled or educated.

Furthermore, Seelig emphasizes that the creative process is not like a jigsaw puzzle that requires one to have all the right pieces. Rather, it is like making a quilt, where varied and irregular pieces can be fitted together to create something unique and original. This is a very helpful metaphor for our documentary making process.

With the quilt metaphor in mind, I will propose some answers to some specific questions related to this semester’s documentary project. The bulleted questions were posed:

  • Who is the intended audience?

The film will be directed to a general audience, primarily those who either live in the Red River Valley or have some knowledge of it.   It will, however, not require special knowledge to understand.

  • Purpose of the film?

The film will share basic facts about the Red River Valley and its environmental history in a way that will increase people’s awareness of the natural systems and processes that have shaped and continue to shape the place they live.

  • Has any media been produced on this subject?

There are books on the subject. I imagine there are also video documentaries on the subject (or closely related) that ought to be looked up.

  • What kind of visual style will be used?

I anticipate that landscape scenes will provide the predominant visual style.

  • What kind of music will be used?

Definitely we should employ some rendition of the great song “Red River Valley.”

  • Historical context and background of the story?

I have a book—one that is dated but reviewed positively by Tom Isern, entitled Red River Runs North! that I plan to read. I’ll be looking for some direction from our class expert in terms of what to read and research.

  • Who, what, where, when, how, why?

All good questions. For now, I will be reminded to be thinking of them.


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