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The Creative Act

By Daniel Hubbard | December 13, 2010

When people think of creativity they often limit themselves to art. Painting, literature, music and dance are the kinds of things that come easily to mind when one thinks of creativity.

Other activities come less often to mind when we think of creativity. For example, people often believe that science is not a creative endeavor, that it is almost the opposite. Of course in science there is creativity in the problem solving process but there is more to it than that. Scientists have a great respect for the elegance of a solution, the simplicity of an idea that has vast implications, and the beauty of an equation. A result that is  beautiful and shows the creative spark seems more complete. All of those concepts come from a creative impulse and creative acts beyond the solving of a problem.

Genealogy too can be a creative act. It requires creative solutions to problems but I think, just as with science, there is more to it than that.

Some would object that in genealogy, when properly done, there is no room for creativity beyond the creativity involved in the investigation. Genealogy is just too constrained.

It is true that no one can control who their ancestors were. No one can create a new great-grandfather that better suits their needs. Genealogy must rest upon evidence and logic not upon any creative urge. Though true, I think that misses the point.


Art itself is constrained. Creativity is not what occurs in the absence of constraint. Poetic forms produce sublime expression because the poet transforms the constraints into an artistic tool, a channel for creativity.

In music, It would be impossible to make an absolute judgment as to who was the greatest genius of all time. Bach would have to be one candidate. It would also be difficult to name the most constraining musical form but the fugue would have to be a candidate.  Yet Bach, the great genius, chose to write fugues. The rules of the fugue were constraining, yet the music soared.

Experimentation in art can produce results because it pushes against the constraints. Without them, there would be no experimentation. Pushing the envelope requires the talent to push the envelope and knowledge of how to push the envelope. It also requires the envelope.


Different artists have different ways of discussing their creativity. One statement that has always resonated with me is a quote from Michelangelo— “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Part of the creative act, according to Michelangelo is to sense what is already there just waiting to be found. Isn’t that the constraint with which every family historian is confronted? We must discover what is already there. The genealogist’s version of that quote might be—

Every pile of records has the story of a family inside it and it is the task of the genealogist to discover it.

Like a sculptor, once the genealogist recognizes what is there, the next task is to bring it forth in a way that pleases the creative mind. There are components of both activities that do not seem creative. The sculptor gets out his mallet and chisels. The genealogist loads a roll of microfilm. Both explore what is already there yet invisible to the uninitiated eye. Both are taking steps toward a creation.

A sculptor’s medium might be stone. In the same sense a genealogists medium may be records. Just as sculptors can and do work in more than one medium, I think that there is more than one medium for the genealogist. We work not in stone, wood or bronze but in time, in memory, in the threads that connect people to each other and to their era.

The thought of time and memory being foundations for creativity may seem odd but it is nothing new. The writer Marcel Proust, writing in the early 1900s, said that his topic was “that invisible substance called time” and the source of his inspiration was “involuntary memory.” Long before Proust, the ancient Greeks had a goddess of memory, Mnemosyne. She is not well known today but her daughters, the daughters of memory, were the famous Muses, the goddesses of creativity.

The Genealogical Muse

Curiosity is perhaps the genealogist’s most important creative tool. Beyond the names and dates and the parent-child relationships that are necessary to genealogy, there is so much to be curious about. What collection of reasons did this family have to migrate? Why did this man change occupation? How did these people know each other? Why did this couple change their religion? All of those questions can lead to creativity.

What is genealogical creativity? It can be the inspiration and imagination needed to really get to know people long since dead. It can be how one comes to understand a time and place long since gone. It might be a meaningful arrangement of pictures. A story. An insightful speculation. A historical connection not just discovered but researched and contemplated. An assembly of little facts, carefully chosen to spark a child’s imagination. A neighborhood brought to life. An explanation for an aging relative. A collage of the music and sounds an ancestor might have heard. A collection of recipes for foods an ancestor might have eaten. A carefully reconstructed life, filling in what joys and sorrows that can still be found in records and teased from inference.

When your database is overflowing and your filing cabinet is full, remember that they are your blocks of stone. It is up to you to discover the works of art waiting inside.

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