Thoughts On Creativity

To be creative, Chinese philosophy teaches us to abandon ‘originality’

Julianne Chung, writing for Psyche:

The Zhuangzi (莊子), a classical Chinese philosophical and literary text, provides a different perspective. On one interpretation, creativity isn’t conceived as aiming at novelty or originality, but rather integration. Instead of aiming at something new, it aims at something that combines well with the situation of which it’s a part.

The story of Wheelwright Pian, from a chapter of the Zhuangzi known as the Tian Dao (天道), meaning ‘Heaven’s Way’ or ‘The Way of Heaven’, effectively illustrates this perspective on creativity as it pertains to artists or artisans. In this short vignette, a wheelwright known as Pian (扁) tells a duke that the book of sages’ advice he’s reading is nothing but ‘chaff and dregs’. Angered, the duke demands an explanation. The wheelwright responds that, at least concerning his craft, he can create what he does only because he’s developed a ‘knack’ for it that can’t be wholly conveyed in words. If the blows of his mallet are too gentle, his chisel slides and won’t take hold. If they’re too hard, it bites in and won’t budge. ‘Not too gentle, not too hard – you can get it in your hand and feel it in your mind,’ he says. ‘So, I’ve gone along for 70 years and at my age I’m still chiselling wheels. When the men of old died, they took with them the things that couldn’t be handed down. So, what you are reading there must be nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old.’

Although he’s a ‘lowly’ craftsperson, the wheelwright has something important to teach the duke. He’s been creating wheels by hand for many years and has developed an ability to act and to execute his craft in an integrated manner that can’t be fully captured through an algorithmic list of instructions. He responds to precise particularities in the wood, his tools and his body to create what he wants – something he doesn’t accomplish by imposing a plan.

The sages’ advice for living well is therefore mere ‘dregs’ if it’s interpreted as instructions that one can simply read and then complete. Living well in general involves much more than this; namely, a spontaneous integration between contrasting types such as the hard and the soft, as well as the learned and the spontaneous, the active and the passive, and even the unproductive and the productive – all of which apply in the case of carving wheels, as well as elsewhere. In other words, living well involves creativity.

In the past, I’ve often beaten myself up over a perceived lack of creativity due to my lack of skill with physical art media, handwriting, and drawing what I see in my head.

Reading this article, it occurs to me that I’ve developed a lot of creative talent in other areas over the years. A couple that spring to mind:

  • Being able to optimize digital artwork for print by reducing complexity.
  • Creating presets and shortcuts to speed up my workflow.
  • The various blogs and other online writing outlets I’ve had over the last three decades.

I would add that, for the most part, I’ve developed these skills without much in the way of tuition or guidance — I just got stuck in and learned as I went along.

So, I’m a lot more creative than I’d previously imagined. 🙂

I have bought some self-help books, but I realize that most of those have ended up unread. I should go through all of them, note down anything useful, then give them away to one of the charity shops in town.

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