The Origins of First We Imagine: 22 Creative South Dakotans

Speak on the Subject of Creativity

by John E. Miller


            For some time now, creativity is a subject I have taken a great deal of interest in, as a historian, as a reader, and simply as a person going about my everyday activities. I began to seriously think about putting together a book consisting of interviews with especially creative people I knew or got introduced to who displayed exceptional creativity, having them talk about their ideas on the subject. When the writer Kathleen Norris traveled to South Dakota State University during the spring of 2013 to receive an honorary doctorate degree and deliver the commencement address at spring graduation, I jumped at the chance to interview her and focused our taped conversation on creativity. The experience was so satisfying and inspiring that I soon began lining up other interviews and within a less than a year I had accumulated twenty-two of them.

            From the start, I intended to transcribe these interviews and put them together in a book that could be sold to the public. With South Dakota’s Quasquicentennial coming up in 2014, I wanted to have the book ready in time for that and to make it a central part of the celebration, along with all of the other events, dinners, picnics, parades, fireworks, programs, and seminars that would naturally be staged. This book would have lasting significance and become a permanent reminder of our state’s history as well as an inspiring model and clarion call for more creativity as the state’s citizenry undertook to step into the future.

            I told everybody I interviewed that I was seeking a publisher for the volume, but that if that didn’t pan out, I would publish the book myself under my own personal imprint. After pitching the idea unsuccessfully to several organizations that did publish books, one afternoon I found myself sitting in on a discussion at the monthly board meeting of the Brookings Arts Council, which I serve on as secretary. We were talking about the precariousness of our organization’s finances and brainstorming ways of trying to raise money that would allow us to finance our programs and, frankly, stay in business. After several ideas had been bruited about, on an impulse, I decided to tell them about the interview book I was working on and suggested that maybe the organization would want to take on the project as a fundraiser. I felt confident that we could sell enough copies to at least break even on the printing costs and that if enough people realized the manifold virtues of it, we might actually raise a few thousand dollars to help keep the BAC in the black. To my delight, the suggestion was met with general approval and the message was, let’s go ahead and do it.

Of course, not many of the board members had thought through all the details of pursuing such a project. These can be quite a bit more involved in a thing like this than most people realize. I had been involved a number of times in publishing books and had a pretty good idea of what was involved, but I had such a passionate commitment to the idea of this particular book that I envisioned working with the BAC as a wonderful way to get the book out to as many readers as possible.

            I have been urging people to buy the book for themselves to read but also to buy it in quantities (we have a discount for individuals or groups who buy ten copies or more at a time) and give it to friends, neighbors, children, grandkids, and even entire high school graduation classes. The proceeds from all of the sales will go into the coffers of the BAC, and with a small author’s royalty on the copies that are sold, I might eventually obtain enough from it to begin to pay for some of the out-of-pocket expenses that I have accumulated in the process of traveling around to do the interviews, give talks, purchase paper and pens and computer materials, etc. Psychologists might conclude that the entire process has involved a considerable amount of projection on my part, since I have projected my own keen interest in the subject and what little personal creativity I possess into the whole thing. Honestly, this has been a true labor of love on my part and I have loved doing it every minute. In my interview with Tom Dempster, he mentioned more than once Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift and how that has inspired him in much of his work, his art, and his life. Creativity, as First We Imagine clearly demonstrates, is many things, but one element of major proportions in it is the gifting by one person to another of one’s vision, hopes, dreams, imagination, good intentions, and optimism. Call it “paying it forward,” call it “creativity,” call it what you will: as one line in the book goes, “There can never be too much of it.”