The Difference Between Imagination and Creativity

We’re Born with Imagination. Creativity is Learned.

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Imagining Stories VS Telling Stories

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I remember the exact moment I discovered that imagination was a thing I could do, consciously, and not something that just happens. I was six or seven years old. Like all kids, I’d moved naturally in and out of a state of imaginative play for as long as I could remember, but this moment was different.

I’d just watched my favorite TV show, a rerun of the Adam West live action Batman series from the ’60s.

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Bam! Pow! What a great episode! As the end music swelled I was practically hyperventilating with superpowered kid excitement. I closed my eyes, and as clearly as if he was standing in front of me, I could see Batman. I knew I wasn’t seeing him with my physical eyes because they were closed. But I could still see him. I willed him to throw a punch, and he did. I called Cesar Romero’s pink-suited Joker onto the scene, and Kapow! Batman’s gloved fist sent him flying. I was thrilled. It was magic. This was a step beyond watching TV or even reading books. I was in control. I had the power to imagine anything I wanted, any time I wanted — on purpose!

A few years later, when I was ten, I announced to my family that I wanted to be a writer. My mother brought an old Underwood manual typewriter home from a yard sale, and with all the pomp I could muster I set it up in my room and scooted my chair in behind it. I imagined myself writing, just as I’d imagined Batman decking the Joker. I willed my fingers to fly confidently over the keys, envisioned Mom’s pride as she shared my first novel with her friends. I’d been building a story in my imagination for weeks about an astronaut whose space capsule gets knocked off course by a meteor. He wakes up aboard an alien spaceship and has a telepathic conversation with the physically terrifying but wise and kind Saturnian who rescued him. I could see it so clearly. All I had to do now was channel my story into the typewriter…

Nothing. No words would come. I could so vividly imagine the story, but I had no idea how to create it.

What Is Creativity?

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In The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius, Nancy C. Andreasen identifies three factors that must be present for imagination to rise to the level of creativity.

First, what is imagined must be original. Making Batman punch the Joker at seven was imaginative, but not creative. I was imagining something I’d seen on TV, copying rather than creating. My astronaut meeting a scary/kind alien was original. I’m sure I was inspired by TV and comic books, but the unique scene I’d cobbled together for my story was all mine.

Second, what is imagined must have utility. It must be of use to someone. Andreasen offers the example of imagining an automobile with no wheels. Yes, that would be an act of imagination. But since a car without wheels is of no use to anybody, imagining one wouldn’t be creative. Utility doesn’t have to be practical (utilitarian), but it does have to exist. The most common uses we have for the arts are entertainment, appreciation, and inspiration, all of which count as utility. My astronaut was destined to entertain, if nothing else. I had utility covered.

Finally, the creative process must result in a product that is separate from its creator, with which others can engage. A painting, a sculpture, a story, a song, a film, or even a scientific hypothesis (creativity extends way beyond the arts). I could vividly imagine my characters and plot, but at ten I lacked the writing skills necessary to make my story available to others. I was imaginative, but not yet creative.

How This Model of Creativity Helps

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According to Nancy C. Andreasen,

Creativity = imagination plus originality, utility, and the ability to mold our imaginings into independent forms capable of stirring the imagination of others.

The disappointment and frustration I felt that day at ten — my fingers poised over the keys, my mom in the next room listening for the clickety-clack to begin, then my shoulder-slumped surrender to the typewriter’s silence — could have been avoided had I understood this basic difference between imagination and creativity.

Andreasen’s model makes that difference clear.

I was not the ten year old “failed writer” I felt like. I was a kid with original and entertaining ideas aplenty, who had not yet learned the skills necessary to give my imaginings form.

These two things could not be more different. This is just as true for grownups.

If you struggle to bring your great ideas for stories, poems, paintings, pottery, sculptures, movies, songs, etc. to life, know this:


In your creative frustration, never ask

“What’s wrong with me?”

Ask instead what learnable skills would close your imagination-creativity gap, then go learn them. Take that class. Pursue that degree. Hire that tutor. Request that apprenticeship. Move to Hollywood, or that arts community, or that music scene.

Answer your adult frustration with the same good counsel you’d offer any ten year old aspiring writer, artist, filmmaker, or musician:

“We’re all born with imagination, kid, but creativity is learned. And you deserve your chance to learn it.”

That’s the right answer at any age. Don’t you think?

Thanks for reading!