Arts, Culture & Media

Was Truman Capote wrong about creativity?

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Fifty years ago, researchers at UC Berkeley invited artistic luminaries like Norman Mailer, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams to participate in a study on creativity. Investigators tried to get to the bottom of personal drive, creative process and where the tenacity of some of these out-of-the-box thinkers may have come from. 

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Some of the artists felt that no matter the results, the study was moot. “I think it’s impossible to instill any creative process into a person who isn’t naturally creative,” said Truman Capote, a participant in the study.

Carolyn Gregoire and Scott Barry Kaufman are returning to that question and tackling the origins of creativity in their new book, "Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind."

At first blush, Capote may have been right. The Berkeley study was full of paradoxes. Many of the subjects scored high on “mental well-being” and “ego-resiliency” while also scoring high on practically every measure of mental illness. 

“These creative people really went outside the mold, not only in their creative work but in their personalities,” says Kaufman. 

Unlike the Berkeley study, "Wired to Create" pulls from a range of sources — including neuroscience, psychology and history — to explore the origins of an individual’s creativity. 

One of the patterns identified? Messiness. 

Guernica, one of Picasso’s most famous works, is an excellent example of what Gregoire calls a “messy process.” Picasso created a series of sketches without any apparent linear path towards the final painting.

“There was no logical step-by-step process,” says Gregoire. “It seemed more like blind experimentation.”

Traits like daydreaming and solitude also appear to be crucial to the creative mind. Those a-ha moments that everyone seeks? They’re most likely to happen when our minds are preoccupied by something else. (A couple of glasses of wine, Kaufman says, can be another way of slipping into the creative state.) 

So, was Capote wrong? Can creativity be taught?

“I think nurtured is a better word than teach,” says Gregoire. “We’re pulling out something that’s already there.”