Imagination Is Not Creativity
Christopher Alexander died a week ago today. He was one of my last heroes. I won’t name the others.
He had a unique impact on me in the way his work not only spanned, but continuously integrated, the physics of complexity, the implications for its practical application, and prose that read like poetry, something with a higher purpose.
In The Timeless Way of Building he develops a concept he refers to as The Quality Without a Name. In working to induce in us, the reader, an aha moment about the quality, he offers that while there is sweetness to the quality, it also has a bitter aspect. It reminds us of the passing of our lives. Somehow, it communicates eternity in the moment — the transitory nature of all things we come to know in this world.
Rest In Peace, Christopher.
Along with many other insights he gifted me, was something about creativity, what it is and what it is not. In our popular consciousness, we tend to associate creativity with imagination, where imagination is essentially the ability to mentally picture things that are not actualized. We imagine (heh) the creative individual, dreaming up the master plan out of the blue, and then imposing it onto the world in the creative act.
The first thing we can notice here is that it would be difficult to call someone creative who does not act on the world, one who merely imagines. We must emphasize that creativity is first and foremost about creating. Surely imagination per se is not sufficient.
In the spirit of Alexander, I offer the following: not only is imagination not sufficient for creativity, it can indeed hamper it.
Imagination operates over a limited internal bandwidth — reality does not. When viewed properly, this is an optimistic statement: humans can generate things that are beyond the scope of imagination. We can do more than we can imagine, literally.
This is because creativity is not like imagination, something held inside of the individual, but a kind of process and practice. Imagination can be leveraged in that process, but it can’t drive it. Individuals and groups can engage in creative practice, but they can’t be “internally creative”, it would be incoherent to say so.
Alexander referred to this process as an unfolding. In a proper unfolding, we don’t know exactly how everything will evolve. The thing reveals itself through a series of iterative steps in which wholeness is continuously enhanced, and tensions are progressively resolved.
If as a thing unfolds we hold fast to what we imagined, we will stifle it. We will prevent the flower from bloom. Our tools must serve us, we should not serve out tools.
I am neither the most creative nor the most imaginative person, but my experience leads me to believe that insofar as my imagination is honed as a tool for creation, it depends on the repetition and iteration of the creative process such that I can anticipate the future unfolding in a slightly more useful way. Other times my imagination serves as a total blocker: analysis paralysis around all the unfolding I can’t yet see. I should shut my mind up and get to it in those instances.
The creative process is unleashed by developing a sensitivity of perception, not of imagination. We must allow the thing to seep into our bones and tell us what it wants next. We are shepherds of the unfolding.