Creative Living 4: JT Ellison

January 23rd, 2009

JT Ellison has scared the pants off me. In print, I mean; in person, she’s delightful. Ellison is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series, including All The Pretty Girls, 14, Judas Kiss and Edge Of Black. She was recently named “Best Mystery/Thriller Writer of 2008” by the Nashville Scene. A short story, “Prodigal Me” was featured in the anthology Killer Year: Stories to Die For, edited by Lee Child. A graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, JT received her master’s degree from George Washington University. She was a presidential appointee and worked in The White House and the Department of Commerce before moving into the private sector. As a financial analyst and marketing director, she worked for several defense and aerospace contractors. After moving to Nashville, Ellison began research on a passion: forensics and crime. She has worked with the Metro Nashville Police Department, the FBI, and various other law enforcement organizations to research her books. In addition to writing full-time, she is the Friday columnist at the Anthony Award nominated blog Murderati and is a founding member of Killer Year, an organization dedicated to raising awareness for the debut novelists of 2007. JT Ellison lives in Nashville and can be found at

Transcendence, or What is Creativity?

When Tim asked me to participate in this fascinating series, I must admit I was a bit terrorized. Creativity to me is akin to the government’s views on obscenity – it’s something you recognize when you see it, but no one knows exactly the moment art crosses the line into obscenity. So I went back to basics, and looked at what the word creativity means to the official folks who write the dictionary. They’re smart, they’ll have a good sense of it, right?

I loved the definition I found: Creativity is “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.” Transcendence. Now we’re talking.

But it’s still not perfect.

There is a difference, I think, between creativity and the creation of art. Creativity is simply a new way of doing things, a solution addressing a need. Creativity is problem solving. Anyone, given the right tools and motivation, can be creative. Art, on the other hand, is problem solving in its most esoteric form. Art gives solutions to problems that no one knew existed. Art creates problems to solve.

Look at it this way. You’re lost in a strange city. You approach a friendly looking fellow and ask, “How do I get from point A to point B?”

A normal person will tell you.

A creative person will give you a few routes and look at you quizzically, as if to say, “why couldn’t you think of that yourself?”

An artist, though, will argue about why you have to go from point A to point B. What about trying Point A to C instead, or, better yet, how about forgoing the path altogether and seeking a route to X?

When faced with a problem, a creative person will find a new, different way to solve it. An artist will find multiple solutions, different paths that are laden with color, sound, scent, characters and plot, try them all, figure out which ones work, then discard all of the solutions in favor of the most treacherous, difficult path, the one where no one has traveled before.

Ah, the road less traveled. That’s what separates the creative among us from the artists.

But you can’t get to the point of being an artist without being creative. So we’re back to the same old conundrum: What is creativity?

Creativity, obviously, is creation. It’s as simple, and as complex, as that.

Art is something creative that transcends conventional ideology to develop something new and original that speaks to the audience. It is a contract between your mind and the rest of the world. Stephen King calls it a psychic connection between the writer and reader; the same could be said of a painter, or a musician, or an architect. Where there once was nothing, now there is something, and the audience sees that. They experience your thoughts through your medium. It’s overwhelming, if you think about it. All of this psychic communication, there for the taking.

That said, you don’t need to have any kind of approval, or recognition, to be creative. But it is the simple act of creating something new, something no one else has before, that makes you an artist – be it a novel, a poem, a screenplay, a painting, a ballet, a composition, a guitar lick, a new angle on an architectural drawing – anything that is creative in its nature can be art.

I realized that I was tightrope-walking the thin line between creativity and art early on, but had that budding insouciance nipped by a decidedly non-creative teacher who told me I’d never be published. There is nothing, nothing worse than fettering an artist. Some rise above the criticism, become because of it. I, unfortunately, did not. I walked away and spent fifteen soulless years looking for something. I knew what I was doing wasn’t right, I knew I wasn’t happy, I knew I was being stifled, but it never occurred to me to sit down and create my way through it.

I found that voice again through reading. I was down, recovering from a surgery, with oodles of time on my hands, and I lost myself in books. I read a lot during that year, everything I could get my hands on – historical, mysteries, thrillers, literary fiction. The words on the page were my lifeline back to a creative life.

It’s funny how the mind works. I wish I could say that I planned to become a novelist, that I wanted to play with the form, to create a literary thriller series that showcased my characters, my setting and my words. But I wasn’t that prescient. I had an idea, a spark. A creative moment, if you will, and my main character leapt into my head fully formed. She was tall, like me, blond haired, gray eyed, spoke with a slow, smoky southern accent. She was righteous, and good, and would be the protector of Nashville. Her name, of course, was Taylor Jackson. My very own Athena.

And with the name came a storyline from a dream – twin girls leading separate lives, one who would do anything to further her career, one who was dissatisfied with the life she’d been striving to build. And suddenly there was an antagonist, a man who was killing young girls. A backstory.

Before I knew it, I’d written an opening paragraph. In a move so utterly subconscious that I can only look back on it and laugh, I wrote about a murder on the steps of the Parthenon. The skies were sapphire blue, and a squirrel toyed with an acorn.

I actually was moved to tears by that paragraph, not because it was any good – it wasn’t – but because it was the first creative thing I’d written in so very long. Suddenly, I had a story to tell, and I buckled down to tell it. While I did, a strange thing happened. I began to feel lighter, and freer. I became so incredibly happy. I didn’t really think about being published, that came later. Instead, I reveled in the moment, the realization that I needed to do research to make the story come alive, that I was building, slowly, a rather large file of pages that moved me.

It was then that I started to wonder. If this story moved me, might it move someone else?

And there it was. My moment of transcendent creativity. It was a simple thought that broke me free, that allowed me to make the leap from just being creative to becoming an artist. That moment, about halfway through the manuscript, when I realized I wasn’t writing just for me.

I was writing for you.

Writing Tips:

-Writer’s block is your story’s way of telling you you’re going in the wrong direction. Listen to your story.

12 Responses to “Creative Living 4: JT Ellison”

  1. Jen Forbus Says:

    Tim, thanks for releasing this one early!

    J.T., this is fantastic! Thanks for sharing. I think you definitely have that psychic connection going on. I could feel your excitement just reading this.

  2. Thomas Says:


    Thank you for a great post. What I found especially appealing was how you rediscovered that the act of being creative – of creating something from scratch – can in itself be the reward. Not seeing the book in print or signing autographs, but actually creating it. It reminded me of an old poem that says something to the effect that it is not the destination that makes the journey worthwhile, it’s the journey that makes it worthwhile. I think this is especially valuable for us rookies out there, who don’t write for a living but for the sheer pleasure of it. I can imagine that the worst thing that can happen to a professional writer is that the joy of it disappears, that the creative process itself loses its value. Just look at a small child building a sandcastle. She doesn’t worry about the finished product. It’s the building that brings joy. That feeling of being in control of the sand, to discover and imagine as she goes along. How many of us have built a sandcastle lately, just for the joy of it?

    My firm belief is that if a writer is moved by his work, chances are good someone else will be too.


  3. L.J. Sellers Says:

    I knew early on that I wanted to be a writer, and I have made a living (mostly) as a journalist/editor. It was only when I tried to give up writing novels (aka, storytelling) that I realized that was the only kind of writing I couldn’t live without.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I also love what JT has to say, especially the act of overcoming a creative block by actually doing something creative. This is just about the only method that works for me.

    And how much harm has been done by suppressive, negative teachers. I had the great privilege of being friends with Chuck Jones, the creator of the Roadrunner and the Coyote, and the co-creator of Bugs Bunny, who was one of the three best and most complete people I’ve ever known. When Chuck was in third grade, he was told by his teacher that he couldn’t draw. So he didn’t, even though drawing was the thing he loved best in the world. Not until he got to college did he have the courage to take a drawing course. I personally know two other very good writers who were mute for years, even decades, because some classroom dragon told them they lacked talent.

    Like it’s not hard enough already, without that.

  5. Suzanna Says:

    Thanks JT for sharing your own pathway to a fruitful creative life. Very inspirational.

    And Tim this series is just a knockout. Thank you!

  6. JT Ellison Says:

    Sorry I’m late – I’ve been at a library all afternoon talking about – yes, you guessed it – psychic connections.

    Jen, thanks so much. I’m an enthusiastic creature at heart, glass always half full, mostly because when I finally landed back in writing, I knew, just knew, that I’d found my place at last. We spend so much time in our lives searching, and to find my path early definitely made me happy.

    Thomas, you’re absolutely right. Creation for creation’s sake is bliss. Established authors always tell newbies enjoy your debut year, because it all changes. It does change, no doubt about it, but I liken a writing career to a good marriage – it’s always exciting, but mellows, deepens and settles with time. Your writing needs to be your best friend on the planet, simply because you spend the bulk of your mind energy in an alternate world. And like a best friend, sometimes you fight, but you always end up back together.

    LJ, Murderati was my first foray into non-fiction. I get tired of blogging sometimes, but when I skip a few weeks, I miss it. It’s helped me understand my process, and it’s been fun to watch how much I’ve changed as a writer over the past three years.

    Tim, what an incredible story. I have to say, my professor ultimately did me a favor, because my writing is so much stronger now that I have some “experience” behind it. I wonder if Chuck Jones ever felt that way?

    Thanks so much for having me!

  7. Larissa Says:

    Couple of things. First off, negative teachers astound me. It seems so counter intuitive to take a job that is supposed to be about the enrichment of others and turn it into a inflation and protection of your own ego because you can’t handle being around other talented, smart individuals.

    Random anecdote: I had that guy my Freshman year of college. He used to ask me how much extra my parents had to pay the school to let me in because I was the farthest thing from talented he’d ever seen. A few years later I entered a juried art contest in New Mexico-guess who the juror was…yep. Same dude. I got in the show (my first juried show ever) and got an honorable mention prize or something. I just had to laugh because it seemed so full circle appropriate.

    Secondly-creativity and art as transcendence makes very real sense to me. I know that when I’m at the end of my patience with real life I usually turn to my artwork processes to get out of the muck. Which, I think brings me to an interesting throwback to a previous writing in this series. Perhaps the silver lining to the point Tim made to me about being afraid of success. I agree that I have a lock and chain that I need to confront at some point in my life to be truly successful-however-the other side of that is that I am a process oriented person. In every sense. Very rarely does it matter what I do so long as I enjoy the process of doing it. I’m sure this has a lot to do with why I’m always bouncing from thing to thing to thing. It’s not the thing in the end that matters, it’s the processes involved in that thing. For example: I love research. I don’t care if I’m looking up recipes, or ancient history or data for a technical manual-I like to dig through research and figure stuff out.

    I love to do. Almost anything.

    Would I feel a bit more grounded if I had that one thing that really spoke to me and said this is where you belong? Of course. But at the same time I enjoy having options.

    So, Tim-this is truly a great series and I look forward to coming here every week to see what’s new. JT-Thank you so much for such a fresh voice on the art of creating and the beauty of the process. Sometimes it really is enough all by itself.

    And Thomas-I totally built a sandcastle like six months ago and it was awesome! (c:

  8. JT Ellison Says:

    Larissa, thank you! I hope that you find the way off the cliff – sometimes jumping without planning is the key to breaking through. I’ve tried it once or twice myself, and now I’m hooked.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    This has been a fascinating discussion, and thanks to JT for kicking it off and guiding it here and there with her responses.

    Lsrissa, I agree that creativity is its own transcendence. I’m never as happy as I am when I’m writing and the world is emerging persuasively. (And I’m never as miserable as I am when it looks like a budget Nativity scene with unpersuasive animals.) The only reason I ever raised the fear of success issue is that I thought you were expressing a kind of regret and placing a premium on completion. Creativity is process that need never to result in product — not for me, but for several people I know. Or perhaps the product is expressed differently, in the way these people deal with their own lives. I know that writing has transformed the way I react to things — with more perspective and, I think, greater faith that most situations are more pliable than they might at first seem to be. One thing that writing has taught me is that there are rarely situations in which the only possible responses are yes and no. There’s usually a spectrum of possible reactions.

  10. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    I loved this discussion! I have been expending so much energy not writing and feeling miserably lost (but enjoying my sparkling pristine oven, steam-cleaned grout and organized button box.

    My focus has been on what my story might be, should be, almost is and what is so hopelessly isn’t that it’s easier to wallow than to pick it up and write again.

    I don’t know why I am able to allow myself to enjoy making a cake from scratch…selecting and measuring ingredients, mixing 350 strokes by hand, pouring the batter into a prepared pan, popping it into the oven and waiting for it to cook without yelling at it, poking it, and resenting it for not being a cake yet. I don’t hate the batter for what it hasn’t yet become. I don’t feel like a failure while it’s baking. I have perfect trust that the sludgy mess will become a cake.

    I think I need to go back to my desk and open a new document and just let go of the mess I’ve made of the current chapter. I need to write all around it and see where it takes me. I need to trust that this mess will become a story.

  11. Larissa Says:

    Tim-I think I waffle back and forth on any given day between saying creativity is it’s own being and that just doing it is enough and doing exactly as you say, placing regret and focus on completion. I need to be reminded every once in a while that it’s ok just to transcend out of the real world for a while-even if that’s only as far as you get.

    I think, too, that I tend to place more weight on finishing when it has to do with my writing attempts than with my visual artwork. I’ve made my peace with not always having the “right” answer to finish a painting or a silk piece but I’m not there yet with writing.

    I know one thing, right now I could use my universe to expand and for things to be more pliable than they seem.

    I’m looking forward to Sunday!

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    These last two comments, from Cynthia and Larissa are both really illuminating to me. I love the cake metaphor, not hating the batter for not yet being what it will eventually become, and I think that Larissa is absolutely right in saying that it’s okay to experience transcendence through being creative, even if we never finish the project, or at least never finish it to our satisfaction.

    I think that one thing we need to remember is that the act of creating something can be a great joy, something that brings out the best in us, something that can linger enough to give resonance to the so-called non-creative aspects of our lives. As difficult as writing is for me at times, I can’t imagine my life without it.

    Years ago there was a cartoon in the New Yorker, a bare little planet with a black sky, a broken park bench, and a bunch of empty tin cans on the ground. The caption was, “Life without Mozart.” That’s not a bad image of what my life would feel like if I couldn’t lose myself regularly in herding these daydreams into whatever they turn in to. Creative activity can be its own reward.

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