The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Defining Terms – Creativity

Defining Terms – Creativity

The Underlying Reality of Life

I’ve made a significant shift in my work of the past few years. Tap dance, yes, still happening – quite a lot actually – but in a different kind of place. The dance is not the central focus of what I think about every day. When once I used to go to bed at night thinking about how a particular aspect of tap dancing worked, a way to embody a dancer I admired, or how best to teach a particular technique, my focus has changed. I now catch myself in contemplation of love, forgiveness, grief, people, and God.

Through my own profound experience encountering the person I had become – read: burnout – I’ve found the area of exploration known as spiritual formation to be incredibly illuminating. If you’re new here, the names Dallas Willard and Jesus Christ come up. The former giving me a way of thinking about the propositions of the latter that were grounded in reality and immediately applicable to my life. This is the stuff of real life.

As I continue this shift, thinking about people, the inner stuff – I’m discovering a need to define terms. If we are going to have a conversation, it is good to be able to agree on what we are talking about. This means flushing out words that have been used in numerous ways in different contexts for different reasons. For the next few weeks, I’m going to endeavor to define some terms that I find myself relying upon often. My hope is that these definitions will make the conversation move more smoothly as we go. It’s also a way of me checking myself. Do I really mean what I think I mean when I use a particular word?

This episode we’re going to talk about creativity. As with many complex ideas I will use a few different methods to get at a definition. I will try to answer what creativity is, what it isn’t, and how it grows. As I’ve thought of these definitions I’ve also given myself a few parameters. I want definitions that work across levels of skill, areas of life, and people. A definition of creativity – our present example – must be applicable to children and highly trained artists alike. It must be true for the accountant, engineer, athlete, student, farmer, and painter, for example. It must be relevant to people of various cultures and experiences of life. After all, what we are – and will be – talking about are the things of life. And a life is something we all have in common.

I’m starting the series with Creativity because the term comes up in my life probably more than any other term – and frankly, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with it. I don’t consider myself creative in the way many might – I’m not bringing things that don’t exist to life like a magician of sorts. Rather I consider myself a seeker – looking, listening, feeling for something that already does exist – if only in my mind – and bringing that to life as I uncover it. I might be splitting hairs here, but the position of the seeker and the position of the creator end up to be quite different.

So here we are, attempting to define a word, as complex as the process it means to describe. Buckle up.


One of the questions that led to the project What We Leave Behind was, “What would a post-racial United States of America look like, and how might we get there?” For me, that question prompted another one. Namely, “How did we get the world we have today?” That led me to the following idea upon which the entire project was built:

What if the world we live in today is the product of the accumulated choices of every living person that has come before us?

Moment by moment, day by day, people have made choices to act in particular ways, and towards particular ends. Some of these choices have been so pervasive they have come be known as “just the way things are.” We’ve joined together to act in certain ways and call it culture. Some ways have been elevated in prominence and calcified in law or ethical standards. Some have just become the personal habits of a particular group of people or family.

This regularity sets the stage upon which much of creativity happens today. We may think of the person who thinks outside of the box, whose self is expressed outside the norms of expression, or who chooses to direct their lives in ways counter to the larger society around them. In this way, creativity is measured in its diversion from the norm (whatever the norm in any given moment may be). This is key. Consider a norm in which chaos is pervasive. Measured this way, the most creative act in such a norm might be to make order.

However, creativity need not be measured relative to some norm to be true. Human beings understand our experience of life in the contexts of time and space. We understand our reality through interaction with our senses. We understand, in many instances, the idea of cause and effect. It is within this context and understanding that we make choices. However we may think about the idea of free will, or how choices are made, we still do understand the idea of choice. I think this is true because we understand that for any given moment there are many possibilities. That there are many possibilities for any given moment is the true context of creativity. It is what can lead to writer’s block – when confronted with a blank page, the beginning of a project, the requirement to produce ideas – the sheer number of possibilities can lead to a kind of paralysis (of course, other things can as well).

In measuring creativity then, I propose that the basic unit of measurement is the choice. It is the consideration of, and acting in, a moment towards a particular end. This consideration and action creates a moment that would not have been there otherwise. Of course, another moment would have been there. But the consideration and intention behind a conscious choice, begets a creative moment – even casualty. This is not to say that everything we set an intention behind comes to pass, but it is also true that things without any intention set behind them will more likely never come to pass.

So we all, everyone of us, lives in a creative world, creating moments, and being part of created moments. The only question then is how engaged are we in the act of creation.

But I’m Not Creative

The professionalization of creativity and the high level of skill developed towards specific applications of creativity (say, in the arts), has caused a minimization of the creative power of choice in every human being. There are people who believe that only professional dancers can (or should) explore creative movement; that only highly skilled visual artists should be drawing or painting or sculpting; and that only the best wordsmiths should be writing. Of course, there is awe and wonder and honor to be given to those who are predisposed for such creative expressions, for those who work towards amplifying those skills, and for those who share those skills in loving ways with others. I’m not trying to minimize the top of the ladder here. But how we think about ourselves can have a profound effect on how we see our life. I’m trying to set a vision for how low the first rung on the ladder actually is. It’s low enough for a baby to grab a hold of – and never let go.

Limits of Creativity

There are limits to human creativity that even in this short of an exploration must be noted. First and foremost, human beings do not create out of nothing. We create from what we are given. We already have a context in which we work. By the time we are conscious and aware of our own choice making abilities, we have thoughts that come to us, we have ways of seeing and hearing and moving, and we have ways of interpreting and reinterpreting the world around us, we have an environment and materials that we work with. We create from that. Our canvas is not a void. When we make a choice it comes at the intersection of our personality, habits of thoughts and action, conscious intention, and social context, among many other factors. This is anything but a void.

To land this, we could say something like, “The moment that we make a choice doesn’t make the moment. The moment was going to be there anyway. By showing up in a particular way, we are part of making the moment what it was.”

We don’t have limitless creativity. Alongside creativity often comes a conversation about freedom (which we’ll get to in a later episode). I’ve heard so many artists say, “I just do whatever I want.” While there are things that have significantly expanded our ability to do more of whatever we wanted, human beings are still (and thankfully) severely limited creatures. Our creativity is limited by our physical nature and the scope of our effective will, at least. Our physical nature limits our own doing. If we can’t do the thing, maybe someone else will do it for us, or maybe technology can amplify our ability. If someone else is willing to do what we want, they are within the scope of our effective will and our creativity is delegated to them so that the choice can come to life. Same with technology.

Physical nature, scope of will, resources, all limit our abilities in what we can bring to life. But that all refers to the distance between the creative idea and the action to bring it to life – aspects of the creative process, but not creativity itself. Remember, we are saying that the choice is the basic unit of creation. If you have the ability to consider the difference between two (or more) things and choose between them, then you have all the capacity you need to create. The what, and where you start on the process, may all change, but that’s not what we are talking about.

We are not talking about the scale of creative action, or the quality of creativity relative to a particular norm of life. We are talking about creativity as the underlying reality of life. Moments are being made all the time. Creativity then is a function of our own engagement in the process of creation that is already happening. We feel engaged by becoming conscious of the choices we are making. We become conscious of the choices we are making by opening our eyes to other possibilities.

We all are already creative beings, playing a role (whether active or passive) in the lives we have and the lives of those we encounter. The only question regarding our own creativity is how engaged we are in the process.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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