Skip to main content
No. 724:
Creativity and Context

Today, creative people learn from talking to one another. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1978, 31 creative scholars were called to Sigtuna, Sweden, for an odd semimar. The aim was to learn how inventive minds worked. They talked and wrote personally and self-revealingly. They free-associated. The seminar organizers, and they themselves, looked for commonality in the way they worked. Finally, they listed five stages in the creative process:

First, the arrival of a new idea.

Second, sharing the idea.

Exposing it to criticism by trusted friends.

Third, the hard work of analysis.

Fleshing out and testing the idea.

Fourth, creating a language of exposition.

Learning to teach the idea to others.

Fifth, going public with the developed idea.

Notice how we move back and forth from public to private -- from solitary to social. The people all wrote, sometimes poignantly, about the tension between needs for intellectual companionship and for isolation.

Most had a lot to say about places. They all spoke of walks and neighborhoods -- of cafes, libraries, and bookstores. Everyone craved creative solitude -- some special place of quiet.

Often that place was a personal office. Often it was a place occupied by other people. One geographer said,

Although I am a loner, I do not like to be alone. [I further my creative dream-like thinking] by being alone in big peaceful crowds. I like to mix with people moving on the main streets ... looking at things ... seeing faces.

The place changed with the creative stage. In Stage One, these people reached for a dream state -- a mood of reverie. Ideas arrived in a peculiar loneliness fed by beauty of one sort or another. Sometimes it was the beauty of remote nature. Sometimes it was the beauty of the presence of other people.

But their new ideas immediately needed community nurture. In Stage Two you call on those you trust to help you breathe life into your idea. Without human contact, it'll probably die.

Stage Three, the analytical stage, is lonely once again. Now the place has to be a familiar and comfortable workplace. It is a place where thought is uninterrupted. But the analyzed and tested idea that comes out of it isn't complete yet.

Stages Four and Five deal with preparing, then delivering, the idea to a wider, less comfortable, public. And I stand reminded of the myth of the lonely intellectual. Creativity, with all its need for retreat and isolation, is not a lonely act.

In the end these people treasured community. One said it best. He told of an elderly woman who ran a bookstore. "She let me stay for hours," he said. Then one day she was gone. So was the human face of an important place. And it was a terrible loss.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Buttimer, A., Creativity and Context. CWK Gleerup: The Royal University of Lund, Dept. of Geography, 1983.