“At this time, I can’t think of anything more meaningful than taking meaning apart.” Meyer Vaisman

I teach a class called “Consciousness, Creativity and Identity” at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. I think this is very funny. My students seem to think I know what I am talking about. However, you can’t really teach someone to be creative. We are all simply creativity in action.

My academic background is in sociology. I love sociology. My students, well, they put up with sociology but what they truly love is stories. So, I do my best to weave together stories and sociological definitions. Sometimes, I am very successful, sometimes not so much but we have fun muddling along together and occasionally we share an “aha” moment that leaves us all quiet for a moment reveling in the joy of finding something in this crazy, mixed up world that makes sense.

I generally start each semester with a brief synopsis of Berger and Luckman’s classic work, The Social Construction of Reality. Berger and Luckman stress that human knowledge of the world is socially constructed. In other words, we apprehend our understanding of the world through our social situations and our interactions with other people. Every time you interact with your mom, your role as daughter or son is confirmed and confirmed again. Our shared routines, customs and social processes define the knowledge we have about the world around us. Of course, if this is true we must recognize that our view of the world is partial at best. Our understanding is limited by our own evolving perspective.

I ask my students to start to think about why they believe what they believe about themselves, their families and their communities. Pretty quickly everyone begins to acknowledge that we have all learned what it means to be human – in all of its contexts – through past interactions and social context. When you stop to think about it nothing really has meaning in itself, it is the relationships of concepts to one another that generate meaning.

Sometimes this same week I toss in a little Michel Foucault. Michel Foucault was a famous French philosopher who argued pretty persuasively that society has systems in place that encourage us to self regulate without the active threat of punishment. He believed that individuals internalized the “managerial” gaze that watches over us. Using the metaphor of a panopticon – a circular building with an observation tower in the center of an open space surrounded by outer walls (think old fashioned prison) – Foucault argues that an individual who is aware that he lives in a field of visibility assumes responsibility for the constraints of power imposed against him. Think Big Brother — why do you stop at that stop sign on a dark night in the middle of an empty parking lot?

You may be wondering at this point, what does any of this have to do with my own subjective everyday life experiences. Well, here is where the story telling comes in . . .

What is the first thing you do in the morning? Brush your teeth? Wash your face? Go to the bathroom? Check your phone? In addition, to the basic necessities of everyday living, I want you to imagine that you also put on a full body Velcro suit and an imaginary electric fence dog collar. (The Velcro suit is a metaphor for Berger and Luckman. The very tightly fitting electric fence dog collar relates to Foucault.) Not only are you collecting a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t naturally belong to you but you are also getting shocked in the neck every time you cross an imaginary boundary. By the end of every day you come home with a whole lot of expectations, ideologies and generally just crazy ideas about what it means to be successful, what it means to be happy and what it means to be human. And, certainly, you will have neck burns if you happen to visit the airport, reveal your political leanings to the wrong audience or accidentally wear your jeans to the country club.

Perhaps, this would not have been such a big issue if you worked in a factory in 1935. Hypothetically, you would go to work where you would engage in specific tasks and you would come home to very rigid expectations. “I am Dad. I am breadwinner. I am worker. I know who I am!” But, for most of us, this is not reflective of our day to day reality in 2012.

In the post modern age — or as some like to say the post post modern age — we have become splinted selves — fragmented aspects of the whole and very very few of us only play one or two roles anymore. In addition, I think it is fair to say that very few roles are so narrowly defined anymore. And, this my friends, is where the stress comes in — we are all changing our hats all day and night while simultaneously being bombarded by the visual landscape, noise and a dizzying array of cultural expectations.

And, finally, what does this have to do with creativity?

Here’s what I want to tell you about creativity: at your very essence you are creativity in action and I mean that very literally – the core basis of who you are is your creative spirit. I want you to think about this for a moment: think of planting tulip bulbs. You plant them in the fall and you do not go outside, dig them up and check on them in January. You do not water them or talk to them (Shouting GROW Tulip GROW!!) or fertilize them. They just seem to know what to do. Or a newborn baby — silly, how he starts to grow all on his own without any interference from you. That is how creativity works. It flows if you let it. The question is: how in the crazy mixed up world that we live in do we tap into this beautiful flow of ideas?

Do you remember being a child? The ideas would just come – game after game of inventive play. It is the world that gets in our way – or at least the way in which we interpret the world and let the world interpret us. It’s that Velcro suit and dog collar we all slip into at the age of seven – they don’t call it the age of reason for nothing. And this is a very real problem.

I use the analogy of cleaning out the garage with my students. What is the first thing you do when you clean the garage? You take everything out. Now, obviously, identity is important – we need to recognize each other — but peeling back the layers of yourself helps you to become aware of what is really you and what is falsely you. This process will go a long way toward reintroducing yourself to your Self. Think of yourself as an artichoke – we all long to get to the heart!

The search for creativity ends when we accept that creativity is not outside of ourselves, rather it is inside of ourselves. In other words, we are that very creativity we are constantly searching for. We just need to get out of our own way!

Think about it:  What’s been stuck to your velcro suit lately?


If I Were King by A. A. Milne

I often wish I were a King,
And then I could do anything.

If only I were King of Spain,
I’d take my hat off in the rain.

If only I were King of France,
I wouldn’t brush my hair for aunts.

I think, if I were King of Greece,
I’d push things off the mantelpiece.

If I were King of Babylon,
I’d leave my button gloves undone.

If I were King of Timbuctoo,
I’d think of lovely things to do.

If I were King of anything,
I’d tell the soldiers, “I’m the King!”