The composer Antonio Salieri, in the play "Amadeus," considers himself the patron saint of mediocrity. Salieri believed his rival Mozart to be a true creative genius, a man who wrote as though touched by the hand of God.
Hogwash, says choreographer Twyla Tharp. There are no natural geniuses. Wolfgang Mozart's father was a composer and violin virtuoso who taught his son everything about music. Wolfgang was a passionate, fierce and focused musician and composer.
Creativity is made, not born, Tharp wrote in her book, "The Creative Habit." To be creative, you need a disciplined routine. "Creativity is not just for artists," Tharp wrote. "It's for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it's for engineers trying to solve a problem; it's for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way."
It also could be for politicians who want creative ideas. When Terry Sanford was governor of North Carolina in the early 1960s, he thought he needed someone to spark new thinking. His act of discipline was to hire novelist John Ehle.
Ehle, a long-time Winston-Salem resident who died Saturday at 92 , had perhaps the most unusual job in the history of North Carolina state government. His job from his office on the second floor of the Capitol was to pitch ideas to the governor.
Sanford's move was brilliant. As with most creative flourishes, it didn't come easily. Ehle was teaching in Chapel Hill and writing a novel when Sanford recruited him. He had little interest in politics and turned Sanford down twice. But eventually he agreed to join Sanford's team. For 18 months, he brainstormed.
Ehle had the vision for what became the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. He thought North Carolina needed a residential school to train young artists. Sanford bought in and the legislature created the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1963. It became part of the UNC system in 1972 and changed to its current name in 2008.
Ehle also worked toward the creation of the North Carolina Governors School, a summer program for bright high school students; the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham; the North Carolina Film Commission; and the North Carolina Institute of Outdoor Drama.
Ehle, who eventually wrote 11 novels and six nonfiction books, was known as Sanford's idea man, a one-man think tank. Sanford later wrote, “If I were to write a guidebook for new governors, one of my main suggestions would be to find a novelist and put him on his staff.”
"The result was a burst of creative energy that North Carolina state government had not seen before," News & Observer political columnist Rob Christensen once wrote of Ehle.
Christensen said Ehle also was instrumental in creating the N.C. Fund, a pioneering anti-poverty effort that experimented with different approaches to helping people improve their lives; the program, which was funded mostly with foundation money, was the model for the War on Poverty, VISTA and the Peace Corps.
"He had so many great ideas," said Leslie Banner of Chapel Hill, who wrote a book about the School of the Arts in which Ehle is the protagonist. "He had that energy that geniuses have. I think sometimes genius is having more energy than the rest of us. He was like a light bulb that you couldn't turn off."
Ehle once told the Winston-Salem Journal how his background as a novelist helped him in state government. A novelist moves by intuition, he said, and learns how to identify with the people involved in an event. In state government, he said, experts approach a problem armed with facts but often without intuition.
Ehle's people-focused approach led him toward fresh ideas that changed North Carolina. He should be remembered for his vision —and Sanford deserves credit for his fearless leadership style that encouraged innovation.