Why the ‘Cult of Creativity’ is a Myth


I am a copywriter. I am not ‘creative.’

Let me explain.

If you were to, say, hand me an assortment of craft supplies, and, with no time limit, tell me to “make whatever I want,” I will make nothing. I might eat the glue.

But if you were to give me that same assortment of supplies, a 1-hour time limit, and tell me to “cradle an egg from a 1-story drop,” I will have drafted ten ideas, picked five, tested three, and decided on one with five minutes to spare.

Why is that?

Because ‘creativity’ in the so-called ‘traditional’ sense isn’t real.

Why the ‘Cult of Creativity’ is wrong.

I’m not a fan of John C. Maxwell.*

According to him, creativity is “the anticipation that a problem has a solution” or “the energy that empowers a creator to find an answer.” For Maxwell, limitless problems contain infinite solutions, and creativity is the expectation of an ultimate solution. In other words, Maxwell believes that the spark generated from finding an idea can power a project from concept to publication.

And if you’re having trouble following the above paragraph, you’re not alone. It took me over an hour to write it. Maxwell’s version of creativity is a bloated mess, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean anything. Not really. It’s that feel-goody nonsense your boss likes to copy/paste into the corporate mission statement. It’s dogma from the Cult of Creativity.

The ‘Cult of Creativity’ is the fanatic idea that something can come from nothing — it worships ‘the Muse,’ equates writer’s block to self-flaggelation,  and treats inspiration like some arcane, well-guarded secret. It’s the same mentality that insists ‘good work’ only happens in certain locations between specific hours of the day. In coffee shops. It’s utter nonsense.

It amazes me how many of my former colleagues drink the Kool-Aid. They teach unlimited, rule-less freedom; a few of them even let their students to pick their own paper topics and grade themselves. They approach creativity like a wide-open field. But it’s hard to build a house without raw materials.

Students don’t need a field. They need a forest.

They need materials and boundaries.

If ‘creativity’ doesn’t work, then what does?

The difference between free-thinking and thinking outside the box — is the box.

Take a look at the grid below. Using only three lines, can you connect all four dots? Give it a shot. I’ll wait.

Can you connect these four dots using three lines?

If you try to think within the dots, it’s impossible to connect them; however, if you consider the space beyond the dots, the solution becomes obvious: a triangle (Barry 14, 308).

True creativity — the kind that works — is critical thinking. It’s acknowledging the parameters of a problem and poking its boundaries until you find a solution.

It’s a process.

I particularly like Luke Sullivan’s approach to creativity:

Creativity happens in response to a problem… In my experience, the best strategies and the best work usually come from a place of conflict and tension: strategies built on top of — and powered by — tensions. (Sullivan 145–46)

For Sullivan, creativity isn’t an “energy”; it’s a method — a technique that finds real solutions to real-world problems.

It’s tests, failures, and adjustments.

How to think critically about your ad copy.

A lot of marketing coordinators treat ad copy as a means to an end. For them, ads are billboards that reword landing pages. Daily, I read recruiting ads that read as follows:

[Insert number] sign-on bonus! [Insert number] average pay! Apply now!

This text doesn’t solve, or even acknowledge, a problem. Instead, it bypasses the problem and jumps straight to the happy ending: “working for us makes money.”

Yay! But isn’t that the spiel for every job ever?

Benefits aren’t problems. They’re solutions. And solutions are boring. Remember, it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey, man.

Instead, find a point of tension, and figure out how sign-on bonuses and pay numbers solve those problems. Do some research: are the client’s sign-on bonuses greater than their competitions’? Do they pay more? Or, if the client’s bonuses and pay are average (or below average), take a look at their reviews on Facebook and Glassdoor. Do employees enjoy the atmosphere? Do they like their boss? Is the work stimulating? What separates the client from everybody else?

Try to see the ad through the audience’s eyes. Are sign-on bonuses and wages enough to convince me to click an ad? Probably not. But an ad that asks me whether I can afford Christmas presents for my kids is liable to stop my thumb on the page.

Draw the triangle that connects the dots. Find the problem, then pursue the solution.

This is true creative copy. It is neither arcane nor secret; it’s merely methodical critical thinking.

And I think you can do it, too.

Anywho, that’s me this week. What’s your definition of creativity? What do you think of the ‘Cult of Creativity’?

Let me know in the comments.


FYI, irrecolletions is now on Twitter. Follow along for insights and daily snippets.

Works cited

Barry, Pete. The Advertising Concept Book. Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2016.

Sullivan, Luke; Boches Edward. Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This. Wiley, 2016.

*My Maxwell quotes are not from any of his books. I was fortunate enough to attend a business retreat where he was the headlining speaker. I pulled those quotes from my notes.

Published by

6 thoughts on “Why the ‘Cult of Creativity’ is a Myth”

  1. Thought-provoking, thanks. I find the pedestalizing of writer’s block extremely irritating. Stravinsky said (and I paraphrase, since I could never find the quotation again after reading it) that creativity lies in the ability to limit oneself… It’s why he wrote his Symphony in C.

    1. Limitation is the best way to get creative. The more rules you set, the more framework you have.

      The kneejerk is that rules are inhibiting. But they’re more like building foundations. You can’t make a house on sand.

  2. One of the reasons I like responding to prompts with flash fiction is that it frees me from having to come up with new, creative ideas. Someone else has suggested a word or provided a topic or displayed a photo and off I go. I’m just filling in the blanks.

    1. I love doing this.

      Sometimes I like popping into /r/writingprompts on Reddit and finding short story ideas. Sometimes the prompts are a little too specific, but there’s a gold mine of good ideas there.

      Thanks for the shout out, Fandango. I always love hearing from you.

    1. Nope. Never. Nothing’s original under the sun. /s

      I love your writing. I look forward to your posts whenever I have time to look. Never stop keepin’ on.

      And thanks for stopping by!

Leave a Reply to Bruce Goodman Cancel reply