Putting Creatives in a Box

Left-brain, right-brain. Introvert, extrovert. Soloist, collaborator. The literature on creativity is rife with categories. Call me allergic to categorization, after spending the last quarter-century resisting that fate here in Washington, D.C., where it’s assumed everyone has some sort of label that defines you. (Sorry, I don’t.)

My goodness was it muggy when I passed through Charleston, South Carolina, in August of last year. Safe bets? Summer in the Low Country will be damp. We homo sapiens will categorize each other.

I interviewed several dozen creatives on a cross-country U.S. road trip last year, and have had lengthy discussions on the creative process with hundreds more in my professional life. Creatives, in my mind, defy categorization.

The creative process by definition defies categorization, because it thrives on unconventional thinking.

This mini-rant is inspired by a blog post I read recently, “There are 2 Types of Creatives (Which are You?)” by Keith Jennings. (The headline is brilliant; it encourages us to reflect on our favorite subject, ourselves.) The writer does make some effort to indicate his two categories are not black and white. And I mean no disrespect to him in my critique of his thesis. I disagree, however, that at their core creatives are either planners or improvisers.

This is hardly a new analysis, although the terms the writer uses — “causal creative” and “effectual creative” — are new to me. And there is no doubt that most creatives lean one way or the other when they begin a creative project.

I begin as a planner. I have spent the last two weeks working out a 17-page outline for a book I’m writing, and I’ve shared my somewhat anal predilection for white boards.

By contrast, earlier this year I took a class on memoir-writing and one of the students who wanted to write about her experience on a grand jury asked the instructor if it was okay to start writing without any idea what she was going to write. But you’ve already lived it! I thought. How can you not know how it’s going to end?

After an hour of rain, this was the parking lot that awaited me when I arrived at my motel. When I informed the woman at the registration desk that a lake had formed outside her front doors, she shrugged and said, “Welcome to the Low Country.”

Easy. For her, the creative process involves following her muse rather than an outline. The process of writing will help her discover what it is she really wants to say. If she boxes herself in now with a specific goal she fears she’ll fall short of what her heart and her muse can create. And she just might.

So far the blog-post writer seems to be on to something. I would take this quiz and be a “causal creative,” i.e., pursuing a CAUSE. And my former classmate would be an “effectual creative,” pursuing an EFFECT.


I may have just created a 17-page outline, but that is not a 350-page book. It is, instead, a security blanket. It allows me to sit down at the keyboard, look at the outline to my left, and know on a broad scale what I’m about to write in that session. But it does not keep me from following my muse wherever she may lead me. Just like the student I described above, I openly admit to not being sure exactly where my creative journey each day will take me. I am always open to creative possibility, and do not fear going “off-outline” if I see a vein of precious metal that veers away from the part of the mine I’ve already surveyed.

Here’s evidence of that: Back in March, three months before I began my MFA, I wrote a 15-page outline for this book. The learning and instruction and coaching I’ve enjoyed in the last few months in my MFA has opened my eyes to the possibility of a far better book than I had envisioned. As a result, I have completely overhauled my outline, with very little of the original remaining.

And as for that student focused on effect, not cause, that is a mischaracterization as well. She knows she wants to write a memoir. (CAUSE) She signed up for a memoir-writing class. (CAUSE) She’s inquiring as to possible approaches for writing the memoir. (CAUSE) And she has narrowed down the focus of her memoir to her months trapped in a grand jury room. (CAUSE)

I maintain that all creatives have some CAUSE in mind, even if it is quite broad, even if it is just an aspiration for creative success. And I maintain all creatives embrace EFFECT, welcome spontaneity, even if it just means letting their subconscious have a seat next to them at the keyboard or easel.

Am I nuts here? Does your creative process involve both CAUSE and EFFECT?

23 thoughts on “Putting Creatives in a Box

  1. Pingback: Putting Creatives in a Box | Spaces for Innovation | Scoop.it

  2. Definitely not nuts. And not alone.

    One of my favourite images from my first encounter with InterPlay involves comparing life to the drawers in our kitchen. It can be convenient to create order in our silverware drawer by separating the knives, forks, and spoons, but we still need a drawer for all the tools that don’t fit neatly into those categories. And life is like that: if we separate things into discrete categories, we usually end up with experiences that don’t fit.

    Also, my favorite food-groups joke. There are only two food groups: things that can be improved by adding garlic and things can be improved by adding chocolate. But, bread could be in both groups and I’m not sure where bacon fits.

    Not sure where all that leads, but those two images came up in response to your post.


    1. Your InterPlay anecdote makes a lot of sense. My problem is I have more than one drawer for those extra tools, meaning I can never find the one I’m looking for (like my garlic press).

      Yes, just about everything can be improved with garlic, and most likely with chocolate. Many people wiser than me maintain anything can be improved with bacon, and I would not argue with that assessment. (Although I’d leave poutine just the way it is.)


  3. Can it be boiled down to cause and effect? Is it too part of the polarity game? Well, I’m not really sure of all that. I am one of those you interviewed during your recent tour de USA. For me, it always starts with a thought, a musical thought or idea. Simple as that.

    Not necessarily planned actually, nor do I write 17 page outlines for my next 400 measure masterpiece. Rather, in pondering the thought, it, at one point moves me into action, that is, if the thought is worth pursuing. That’s sort of like putting together a 1976 Ford Mustang 302 Boss after you have taken it all apart and then in the process of putting it back together again you find it can be done in any number of ways as long as in the end it starts and runs smoothly.

    Somewhere along the way it might be said that the thought is the cause as you suggest here, in a fun read I might add. The action may be the effect too, who knows? In that way it would follow your idea Patrick. Maybe that is really all that simple too.

    …or maybe it is just as simple as the old saying “all roads lead to Rome”. Regardless of the preferred titles, isn’t creativity just a part of being, of being human? Well, let’s retract that one.

    Cool ideas. Gives one something new to ponder, cause and effect as related to creativity. Hmmmm…… I think I’ll take the chocolate! Besides, bacon fits in between the top and the bottom of the omelet and then in my stomach. I still like the chocolate thingy though!


    1. It is a lot to think about, isn’t it! (And I don’t just mean Kate’s exploration of magical foods.) Good to hear from you again, Don, and thank you for sharing your process. A lot of musicians I’ve spoken with describe a similar approach.

      I think my experience as a wire reporter influences my creative process. When you have to file a complete story no more than 45 minutes after an event, you go to the event with a basic story already crafted, even gather “reaction” quotes in advance. But sometimes the event doesn’t go as predicted, and a good reporter will note that and restructure their story on the fly. So a good wire reporter is pursuing cause but open to effect.


      1. I like “pursuing cause but open to effect.” I have been reading a lot of writers on writing recently who essentially use some form of that process.

        I think Don’s point that simply pursuing an idea as far as it takes you can serve as a different kind of cause than an outline. In fact, I think you could argue that the difference is the difference between Aristotle’s material cause and final cause. (Didn’t you like it better when I was talking about chocolate and bacon?)


  4. Great post, Patrick. I can feel your passion!

    I wish I could contribute something intelligent but I’ve worked way too hard already this week and haven’t had enough sleep. I’ve had to do a lot of things that involved being organized (which I’m good at) but I’ve also been thrilled to have bouts of writing take me over uncontrollably, even when I should have been doing something else. Not sure where that fits in the cause and effect universe . . . but it feels good. :~)

    Now I’m off to catch up on my sleep.

    ~ Milli


  5. Oh yes, absolutely. I joke that my brain is equally divided – I have my dad’s analytical thinking (though not his skill for math!) and my mom’s creative spirit. Meshing the two is sometimes incredibly difficult as I tend to over-analyze what I create. Ha!

    I also have discovered that different projects call for different processes. I’ve loosely outlined some novels. Others, I follow the muse.

    Great discussion. 🙂


    1. Let me just say, Melissa, that the artists I interviewed all balanced both sides of the brain. It didn’t surprise me, because I chose to interview them based on their compelling art, but I FOUND them because their analytical side had put them out there in cyberspace to be found. Keep meshing!


  6. I’m EXACTLY like you! Having been burned by trying to completely go it without an outline in the past, I know feel a certain security with an outline . . . but I’m always willing to stray from it too.


  7. Pingback: Are you constricting your team creativity? | whatisyourrealquestion

  8. Pingback: Is Journaling a Cure for Creative Blocks? « The Artist's Road

  9. Pingback: Creativity Tweets of the Week – 3/23/12 « The Artist's Road

  10. Pingback: Creativity and organizational culture need room breathe. | gwenkinsey

  11. Pingback: Mapping the Narrative Lines of Your Story | The Artist's Road

  12. Pingback: Putting Creatives in a Box | creative process o...

  13. Pingback: Putting Creatives in a Box | Stan Stewart's Blog

  14. Pingback: Putting Creatives in a Box | acerca superdotaci...

  15. Pingback: Putting Creatives in a Box | Innovation & C...

  16. Pingback: A Creativity Lesson from Albert Einstein | The Artist's Road

Chime in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s