Creativity Unbound: The Power of the Imaginative Spirit

Illustration by Olivia Wise

We all know how the creative process looks in movies. A painter attacks the canvas as music swells. A writer punches keys furiously, his novel pouring out of his fingers as time and space recede around him. A wild haired mad scientist shrieks to the heavens, "Life, do you hear me! Give my creation LIFE!"

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t always happen quite as dramatically as it did in Young Frankenstein. But is there a pattern in the creative process? And, are there similarities in the process that crosses disciplines — from business to the arts to education, science and more? Can the journey be tracked and measured? And what role does Saint Mary’s play in giving that process a chance to succeed?

Creativity: From point A to point Z?

Many experts find it absurd to even try to map the creative process. With so many variables from person to person, from culture to culture, how could a sequence of steps be identified? Still the idea of understanding, deconstructing and replicating the process is so appealing that over the years, a brave few have tackled the task of theorizing a model.

One of the first was Graham Wallas, whose four-step model proposed in 1926 was elegant in its simplicity: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, Verification. Joseph Rossman’s 1931 study, The Psychology of the Inventor, extracted results from surveys completed by 710 inventors and expanded the Wallas model from four steps to seven. Many others would follow, but they all reflected a shared assumption — that the mystery of creativity can’t be completely broken down into basic sequencing. What became clear, however, is that a balance of analysis and imagination is usually at play.

Putting it into words, Saint Mary’s style. While researchers in disciplines from neuroscience to psychology have studied creativity, Saint Mary’s faculty and alumni have uncovered some of the secrets through their own paths to creative expression.

Associate Professor Peter Freund chairs Art and Art History at the College and is a practicing new media artist as well. Defining his creative process begins with what art is and what it can be.

"The creative process is a way for me to get out of my head, out of my clichés and into the material world of expressive means," says Freund. "I think of art as a special and sometimes peculiar form of experimental research into expressive means, the limits of the rote and the emergence of the impossible. In this way, if you like, art can become a form of spiritual practice."

His creative steps are launched by content. "Typically, I start from an ethical impulse, from some vague but nagging sense of urgency about a subject," he says. "Then I begin exploring how this subject is commonly expressed, depicted or explained through language, images, sound, movement, space and time."

Next he identifies what appears to be missing from that expression, and that’s when he takes action. "My goal is arriving at a new form, one that embodies the defining blind spot inside the existing expression."

Camille Rose, who earned her B.S. in business administration at Saint Mary’s, has started six businesses and learned from each one of them. She’s the founder of Pink Purse, a company offering venture services, seminars and start-up grants for women. When it comes time for Rose to get creative, it’s all about going off the deep end. "When I’m inventing a new business, I become a crazed lunatic," she says. "I’ve wondered at times if Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet and countless others experienced the same state when painting their masterpieces."

While "going mad" is a starting point, there’s much more to it than that for Rose. "I use  linking’ a lot," she continues. "As soon as I have an idea, I quickly think of several things that can be associated with that idea, and then I associate things with those things, and so on. I don’t write down much in this state because I’m a little too manic. My mind is racing." While Rose knows the path well, finding the destination is more of a mystery and a miracle. "Intuitively, I know when I’ve found what I’m looking for," she says. "When I do those deep dives into creativity and I go a little insane, it’s in a good way. In the end, I’m thinking something into reality."

Teaching creativity and creatively teaching

At an institution like Saint Mary’s, where teaching is front and center for faculty, there’s a passion for thinking creatively about teaching itself.

Freund has a practical approach when it comes to stimulating the creativity of his students. "Creative freedom, generally speaking, springs from stipulated structure," he says. "I like to give assignments that call for my students to be at the same time conceptually rigorous and creatively adventurous. I present a concept or pull a concept from a reading and then ask my students to apply or transform it in an unpredicted way. One of the great lessons of life is how to express oneself freely through an adopted structure."

Sometimes a teacher needs to rethink the approach to a subject in order to get students engaged and ready to spark new ideas. Case in point: Saint Mary’s Associate Professor of Economics Kara Boatman, who developed her 2011
Jan Term course, "Introduction to Economics Through Sports."
"I’ve always told my students that coaches are among the best practicing economists anywhere," says Boatman. "Substituting players, preparing for opposing teams, changing strategy — those ideas are at the core of economic theory. I figured I might be able to encourage sports fans, who might be intimidated by economics, to try it out. I really wanted to demonstrate that the decisions people make every day are based in sound economic principles."

Eureka! Now what?

Once an idea has taken hold, that’s just the beginning. After all, without the "tush-in-chair" discipline, the best story idea will never turn into the next great American novel. There’s work to be done if a finished product of any kind is ever to be achieved.

Saint Mary’s Professor of Finance Tom Cleveland spent more than 17 years as partner and CPA with Deloitte & Touche. This Jan Term, he’s teaching "How Entrepreneurs Succeed with a New Venture." The class description? Helping students understand the "best practices of 'rethinking, reliving and remaking’ innovations" in business.

"A creative idea gets you 75 percent of the way there," he says. "But there’s a whole process to execute, that last 25 percent required in order to make that idea a reality and a success. You need quiet time to think about your idea. Usually you come up with four or five ideas and need to choose which one to pursue. Once you have it up and running, how do you maintain it? In the end, if you’re spending all your time planning and not doing, you won’t be successful. The point of this course is figuring out how to get to that finish line."

Dan Del Grande established Bison Brewing in 1997, but it was after he earned his MBA at Saint Mary’s in 2006 that the business really took off. "When I started at Saint Mary’s, I just had the idea that I was an organic brewer," says Del Grande. "What the school did for me is help me focus and refine my approach to the idea and the business as a whole. I scaled my idea to become 'beyond organic’ as a business and brand."

And business is good. Bison is now distributing to 15 states and Del Grande is developing more effective ways to stay committed to sustainable and ecologically sound brewing practices.