You Can’t Use Up Creativity. The More You Use, The More You Have

Maya Angelou? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

angelou03Dear Quote Investigator: Recently on Pinterest and Twitter I have seen the following quotation attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

However, I thought these were the words of the acclaimed poet and memoirist Maya Angelou. Would you please resolve this conflict?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde made this remark. It is not listed in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”, an extensive collection compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a periodical in 1982 which was initiating a series of articles: 2

With this edition, Bell Telephone Magazine begins a series to profile those people whose attitudes and approaches to problems and challenges bear the mark of creativity — of courage, of talent, of innovative problem solving.

Maya Angelou was the first subject of the series, and her wide accomplishments as a writer, singer, dancer, actress, and teacher were discussed. Angelou commented on the inexhaustibility of creativity. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

“You can’t use up creativity,” she stresses. “The more you use, the more you have. It is our shame and our loss when we discourage people from being creative. We set apart those people who should not be set apart, people whom we assume don’t have a so-called artistic temperament, and that is stupid.

“Too often creativity is smothered rather than nurtured. There has to be a climate in which new ways of thinking, perceiving, questioning are encouraged. People also have to feel they are needed.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1970 a book titled “Creative Imagination” offered a counterpoint perspective based on a popular television show that featured rapid-fire delivery of jokes: 4

I think TV’s “Laugh In” gives an idea of how fast creativity can be used up today. That show uses 200 to 300 sight and sound gags per week–enough to keep a Gallagher and Shean going for 27 years.

Yet, finding additional jokes simply required more intensive efforts to cultivate creativity.

In 1982 Maya Angelou spoke the quotation in an interview as noted previously. In 1989 a collection of interviews titled “Conversations with Maya Angelou” edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot was released. The introduction by Elliot included the words ascribed to Angelou, and a footnote indicated that the source was the article in “Bell Telephone Magazine”. 5

In 2001 a newspaper article discussed the newly opened site of the “DuPage Children’s Museum” in Naperville, Illinois. The reporter noted the existence of “quotations on signs throughout the museum revealing the thoughts of famous artists and authors”: 6

According to the museum staff, it’s all meant to add to the experience, to inspire and encourage young visitors. Like a quotation by poet and author Maya Angelou on a screen that shows different colors and patterns:

“You can’t use up creativity,” it reads. “The more you use, the more you have.”

On November 16, 2013 a tweet attributed the saying to Oscar Wilde. The tweet also included a link to a Pinterest board that displayed the same quote and ascription: 7

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” -Oscar Wilde

On March 3, 2014 QI performed a simple analysis using the social trends website “Topsy”. The quotation has been connected to Oscar Wilde in 37 tweets in the last 28 days. However, the saying has been connected to Maya Angelou in 1,491 tweets in the past 23 days. Thus, the ascription to Angelou still dominates in the twittersphere.

In conclusion, this quotation should be credited to Maya Angelou. She spoke it during an interview in “Bell Telephone Magazine” in 1982.

Image Notes: Maya Angelou image by National Park Service employee. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons. Three panel strip on creativity from OpenClips on Pixabay.

Update History: On March 29, 2014 the 1970 citation was added to the article.

(Special thanks to Laurelyn Collins who pointed out the dual attribution and unlikely assignment to Wilde. This caused QI to formulate the question above and perform an exploration. Great thanks to Charles Doyle for accessing the 1982 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1982, Bell Telephone Magazine, Volume 61, Number 1, Creativity: It’s the Thought that Counts by Mary Ardito, Start Page 32, Quote Page 32, Published by American Telephone and Telegraph Company, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia, Athens library system)
  3. 1982, Bell Telephone Magazine, Volume 61, Number 1, Creativity: It’s the Thought that Counts by Mary Ardito, Start Page 32, Quote Page 33, Published by American Telephone and Telegraph Company, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia, Athens library system)
  4. 1970, Creative Imagination, Edited by Newell G. Meyer (The Journal Company), Second Edition, Quote Page iv (roman numeral), A Publication of INPA: International Newspaper Promotion Association, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1989, Conversations with Maya Angelou, Edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot, Literary Conversations Series, (Interviews with Maya Angelou), Section: Introduction, Start Page vii, Quote Page x, Published by University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified with scans)
  6. 2001 May 20, Daily Herald, Tempting kids to mess with exhibits by Kari Hartman (Daily Herald Staff Writer), Quote Page 12, Arlington Heights, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)
  7. Tweet, From: Dieter Vander Velpen ‏@dietervdv, Time: 2:25 PM, Date: November 16, 2013, Text: “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” -Oscar Wilde- http://www.pinterest.com/pin/45739752439254019/ … via @pinterest. (Accessed on March 3, 2014)