A Remarkable Journey Towards Creativity
My Journey Toward Creativity
I am the oldest of eight children and early on I assumed the role of responsible, steady, orderly and anxious to please. I am quite sure that no one would have ever thought to described me as creative. In fact, looking back, I think I was more of a sponge than anything.
My family moved just as I was starting junior high and I dealt with being an outsider by retreating to the library during lunch. I sat on the floor of the library – if I close my eyes I can still feel the stiff nylon carpet scratching at my legs. Sitting with my back to a random row of books I ate my daily creamsicle, my nose in a book, any book, and read my way through the hour.
When I found a book I couldn’t put down I would check it out and read through the rest of my classes. I read my way through the classics without knowing it. I developed taste as I read through hundreds of books.
Looking back, I believe I was remarkably generous, and gave each book a fighting chance to claim my attention – ten pages was my cut off point. It either had me or lost me by the tenth page.
I can’t imagine a librarian looking at me and being able to see past the creamsicle but they never stopped me from invading their territory.
I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Island of the Blue Dolphins, I met Holden Caulfield and Jane Eyre, Pip and Sam, a boy that lived on his side of the mountain. I shivered reading books by Russian authors and dreamed of hammocks and the sound of surf. I experienced filthy French prisons and wandered the seas with pirates and vagabonds. It was my true education and has remained with me while algebra and new math have been crowded out of my brain by more important matters.
I continued the practice of reading through lunch during high school and then college and many times found myself so starved for books that I would read through even the poorly written ones. The best books I could read over and over.
I found later, that I had learned as much from the poorly written books as I did from the best authors! I developed taste. Without consciously knowing what was happening to me, I grew to appreciate great story-tellers.
I don’t remember a time when I was not in love with books. Not just the covers and binding and paper, although a beautifully presented book caused my heart to beat a little faster when I picked it up. No, I was not in love with just the physical aspects of books – the paper, artwork and fonts – but also the characters, troubles and triumphs of the characters. No one who has read the Harry Potter books, for instance, doubt that Harry and the other characters in the books really and truly exist. They are as real as the people who live on our street although we know Harry and Hagrid better than some of our own family.
I was married at 22 and went from having vast amounts of time to sharing my days with my husband and then regularly arriving children. Creating a family became my passion and I entered into a great period of growth.
I was just playing house, loving every minute, until our oldest son, Dale, died at age two. It was then that sorrow taught me life’s greatest lessons. Lessons about heights and depths, wisdom and finally, creativity.
I don’t tell his story lightly because it is the darkest part of the essential ‘me’ but it has everything to do with who I have become and so I will share it with you.
Dale was our first child and I was shocked at how fiercely I loved him. Our daughter Jody was born 18 months later.
He wore blue jeans and white t-shirts and he called me Ann instead of mom. He adored his little sister and regularly checked in on her during the day.
A week before he died my parents had a BBQ at their home, kids running everywhere, dads at the grill, moms putting out food and talking. My husband was measuring and cutting some carpet in a room overlooking the pool. He was kneeling at the window and something told him to look up. He did and saw a little pack of toddlers running around the pool, Dale right in the middle of them. Uneasy, Dana left the carpet and took the kids away from the pool and played a game of two-year old football.
Dale surprised us that last week. He begged to go and get ice cream and then pizza. He spent time with his ill grandfather and his aunt and uncles, he was ecstatic about getting some new shoes but not about getting caught up with all his vaccinations. He was saying goodbye.
Monday morning came, he played with his friends and when I tried to get him to take a nap he would have nothing to do with it so finally I set him free. I sat on a yellow love seat, holding Jody and reading the scriptures, while Dale brought me treasures from the window wells, including dead spiders, dried out worms and a couple of frogs. Finally, he came in and jabbered at me, telling me he was going to look for the frog that lived in the pool. But I didn’t understand a word he was saying. Jody was drowsy and when he went out the front door I waited for her to fall asleep.
It wasn’t more than a minute or two before I heard a distinct voice in my head saying, ‘Go and get Dale.’ So urgent was the message that I put a sleeping baby on the floor and ran. Even from a distance I could tell that something was in the pool and I knew it was our little son. I pulled him out and must have screamed for help because Dana came from the office where he was laying that carpet. No whisper to look up this time. He started CPR and my father called 911.
To make a long story short, he was taken to an emergency room that had been trained for a week by an expert in children’s drownings. The visiting expert was waiting at the curb for a taxi to take him to the airport when we pulled up. He stayed to help, missed his flight and worked on our little boy, never sent us a bill and we never thought to ask his name. We waited patiently, hopefully, but Dale never coughed or sputtered or woke up.
How careful and kind the Lord was when He took our son, I couldn’t feel like a bad mother because every detail of his death happened with such meticulous care.
What did I learn from losing our child? I learned to treasure every moment, the sweet times as well as the hard times. I learned that all of God’s children are certified miracles. As I look back it is obvious that his death is what shaped me into anything good I have become.
Becoming family can be the ultimate act of creation. For parents to take a newborn baby, a demanding, noisy, hungry, bundle of potential and then find a way to love and teach that child through 2 or, if you are lucky, 20 years is a dedicated, long term labor of creation. One day you wake up to find that a fully functional human being has appeared. It is one of the grandest miracles and can be considered, perhaps, the greatest of all creative arts.
In that act of creation it is not just a child that emerges, when a family is formed a parent is created as well as a child. When God creates parents, he creates something remarkably close to what He is. And as we look at the world around us, the world of nature, we find that God is, above all, a creator.
The fact is, I learned about the creative process from my children and I learned about perspective and passion from the loss of our son.
I am now the mother of 10.
Somehow I managed to invest an hour or so each week keeping a journal for the children, although the youngest three only have the barest summary of their lives written down. Over the years I wrote their sayings and stories and told them how much I loved them. And then read over what I had written. Through this tedious, important task I gradually learned what was interesting, what was dull and lifeless, what was effective. Again, I was developing taste and learning to use language to communicate facts, emotion to touch hearts and to tell a great story.
As I look back, the innate desire, the push to create had been feeding itself on the edges of my crazy life from the beginning.
Mozart wrote of the ideal and said, “When I am completely myself, entirely alone or during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how these ideas come I know not nor can I force them.”
And someone named Rollo May wrote, “In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.”
Fear of being alone? I have never feared solitude, rather I craved it. I grew up as the oldest of a huge family and was the mother of one as well. I was never alone, even in the darkest night there were people breathing all around me, rustling under covers and talking in their sleep. Sometimes I found my husband or one of the boys up pacing and muttering to themselves. I. was. never. alone. ever!
Somehow, the gifts that lay dormant within me managed to survive the chaos and noise of my life with a large family of strong willed children. They came to our family as little bundles of creativity. They inspired me and I learned, from their lives, some fundamental truths that have become as a bedrock to my understanding of creativity.
We are all gifted, all creative. Those gifts take on different forms but all of us share in the universal pool of intelligence and creativity.
Each one of my children are creative geniuses, original creations themselves. That reality has enabled me to trust that I too am creative. That force is in each of us and longs – you might even say fights – for expression and is best used to bless and lift others.
The word passion, as used today, is understood to be what excites or moves us. Something that puts the sparkle in our lives.
Modern dictionaries define the word passion as:
- A strong and barely controllable emotion
- A state or outburst of emotion
- An intense feeling of love
- An intense desire or enthusiasm for something
But this modern interpretation is different from the original meaning of the word. The origins of the word passion have become lost, but, long ago religious scholars used the word passion when speaking of suffering.
How is it possible that our definition of passion evolved from a word meaning suffering?
In a book titled, Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose Through the Power of Words, Kevin Hall writes that both ‘passion’ and ‘path’ have similar roots: the word ‘path’ is a suffix that means suffering from.
There is a link between suffering, or passion, and sacrifice. ‘The word sacrifice comes from the Latin sacra, which means sacred, and fice, which means to perform. To sacrifice is to perform the sacred.’
‘At its essence, passion is sacred suffering.’
It has become common to define passion as wild, romantic love, but the real meaning is being willing to suffer for what you love. When we discover what we are willing to suffer for, we will ultimately figure out what our mission or purpose in life is.
If passion is simply doing or loving what makes us happy, most of us would quit when it becomes difficult when we are ignored or ridiculed.
Our true passion is what we willing to do even if it kills us.
What we stick with even when it is painful. When it’s risky.
It is the things we do because we know they are right. Because we know they will make a difference in the world.
It is the ideas that inhabit the deepest part of our soul, far deeper than what might sound fun or exciting.
If we can figure out what it is we would be willing to suffer for, it will reveal our true passion.
Suffering and Creativity
Highly creative people in every field – writers, artists, actors, singers – tend to have a reputation for being unstable. When you look at all the creative artists of the last century, how they lived and how they died, it is clear that many of them died young and too many of them die by their own hands. The reality is that some of our most highly creative people end up being deeply disturbed by their passions.
Norman Mailer said, just before he died, that,”Every one of my books has killed me a little more.”
It is clear that, in our society, creativity and suffering are joined and that creativity too often produces anguish instead of joy.
In a deeply moving speech about creativity, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Live, Pray, Love’ shared her insight into creativity and she begins with ancient Greek and Roman culture.
These civilization understood creativity in a completely different way than we do. They believed that the creative spirit did not come from the individual but instead originated from a spirit, outside of the artist. The spirit of creativity came ‘from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons’.
The Greeks called the divine gift ‘daemons.’ The Romans believed in a very similar idea, but they called their creative spirit ‘genius.’ They believed that a genius literally lived in the walls of the artist’s workshop and would assist the artist as they worked.
“The brilliant idea here is in the distance this idea provided for the artist, that distance essentially protected the artist from the results of their work. So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism or too much criticism. If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work was terrible it was not entirely your fault. Everyone knew your genius was lame. This is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.”
When the Renaissance dawned everything changed. It was no longer some force outside the artist that created but the individual gained a new status in the center of the universe. People began to believe that creativity came from the artist. For the first time, people referred to the artist as being a genius.
This was a huge shift in understanding and it placed enormous pressure on artists to be creative. “Being the ‘source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery just might be a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance.”
I don’t think it is possible to do a u-turn now, to steer our entire civilization back to an understanding that creativity comes to us rather than from us. Creation can be capricious and maddening process. A process which cannot be rationally explained, can sometimes feel ‘downright paranormal.’ But somehow if each artist can make a change in how they view their artistic talents, individually, they can approach their art in a healthy way. A way that will give them some perspective on their work.
Keeping A Healthy Distance
Elizabeth Gilbert tells a fantastic story about a poet she interviewed, Ruth Stone, now in her 90s. Ruth says that she has been a poet her entire life. She talked “about growing up in rural Virginia, working in the fields she sometimes would feel a poem coming at her from over the landscape. She said it was ‘like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.” And then there were these times — this is the piece I never forgot — she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.’
An incredible creative process, the words coming at her instead of from her. Her burden, her responsibility was to capture them.
Most artists would not describe their work happening in this way. Most of us have to sweat and grind the words out. Imagine and dream them up and then capture them on paper. A more hesitant, stumbling process that is more editing than writing. But, there are times when the words come at us and we just have to type like heck to keep up. That is magic and it is easy to acknowledge that it is a gift. Is it possible to relate to that type of experience and still keep our minds?”
Elizabeth Gilbert spoke of a contemporary example of this creative process spoken of by the musician Tom Waits. She says, “Tom is the embodiment of the tormented artist, trying to control and manage and dominate these sort of uncontrollable creative impulses.
But as he got older, he got calmer, ‘and one day he was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles, and this is when it all changed for him. And he’s speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, it’s gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it. He doesn’t have a piece of paper, or a pencil, or a tape recorder.
So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him like, “I’m going to lose this thing, and I’ll be be haunted by this song forever. I’m not good enough, and I can’t do it.” And instead of panicking, he just stopped. He just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel. He just looked up at the sky, and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”’
And his whole work process changed after that. The process, and the heavy anxiety around it was released when he took the genie, the genius out of him where it was causing nothing but trouble, and released it back where it came from, and realized that this didn’t have to be this internalized, tormented thing. It could be this peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration, kind of conversation between Tom and the strange, external thing that was not quite Tom.
When I heard that story, it started to shift a little bit the way that I worked too, and this idea already saved me once. It saved me when I was in the middle of writing “Eat, Pray, Love,” and I fell into one of those sort of pits of despair that we all fall into when we’re working on something and it’s not coming and you start to think this is going to be a disaster, the worst book ever written. Not just bad, but the worst book ever written. And I started to think I should just dump this project. But then I remembered Tom talking to the open air and I tried it. So I just lifted my face up from the manuscript and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room. And I said aloud, “Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, I don’t have any more than this. If you want it to be better, you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal. But if you don’t do that, you know what, the hell with it. I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”
Most of us have experienced a performance or read a book or studied a painting that seemed to stretch the artist beyond their own innate ability. It could be said that the artist had aligned with something outside of themselves. The creative force shone through them and lit his work, shedding a portion of that light, as well, on those who viewed the painting or dance or performance or book. The work is on fire with divinity. The artist and the viewer are left with a bright glimpse of the spirit of creativity.
Isn’t it a relief to believe that the gift of creativity is just on loan to you from some ‘unimaginable source, for some exquisite portion of your life. To be passed along when you’re finished to somebody else. And, you know, if we think about it this way, it starts to change everything.’
Ms. Gilbert’s heartfelt advice is this: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then “Olé!” And if not, do your dance anyhow.” I believe this. Artist’s must somehow develop “the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up” as they work through the creative process.
The Benefits of Failure
One of the best contemporary story tellers, the creator of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling spoke to Harvard graduates in 2008. She chose to talk to them about failure. A heavy subject and one that I ultimately placed as a foundational principle in my understanding of life and the pursuit of creativity. Here is what she said.
“What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.
It was 1990. My then boyfriend and I had decided to move up to Manchester together. After a weekend’s flat-hunting, I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.
I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one.
I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.
Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). I began to write ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book….
I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. I was the biggest failure I knew.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”
Late Blooming Creativity
And then there is me. A fifty year old mother of an enormous family. We live in a beautiful old home that is in a constant state of construction – of upheaval. Raising nine children means I am on call night and day, year after year after year. Each child needs a mother for so much of their security and happiness and relentless physical needs and I re-committed to serve them each time I had a new baby.
I remember once trying to type a letter in our office. They each only needed me two or three times in the hour it should have taken me to do the deed, but all of their simple demands added up to twenty or thirty interruptions. Legitimate needs, mind you! And the baby was drooling on my shoulder, sleeping soundly while I typed. It was and is demanding.
I decided to read the Old Testament, to fill myself up by reading the foundational book of my faith. I had read it as a child when my father offered us fifty dollars to read it through but hadn’t tackled reading it from front to back since. This time I read it at the computer instead of sitting on the couch and it turned into an amazing experience as I was able to follow the footnotes and links between scriptures easily and so gained an understanding of what I was reading in a whole new way.
There were certain scriptures that seemed puzzling to me and so I would google the phrases and the world would weigh in on the word of God. One of these phrases was ‘the throne of david’. It was almost as if whenever I read those words strung together they were highlighted somehow. Printed in bold font or all caps. So, with no particular sense of trepidation or drums rolling to highlight the importance of the occasion, I typed ‘the throne of david’ into the search bar and pushed enter.
What came up was astounding, a roiling, current, controversy was out there in the world and it seemed that everyone but me knew about it already. I read eagerly about all the opinions and theories. It took me the better part of a week to sift through the documents – remember, I still had 7 children at home and the youngest was Karen who was five or six years old.
I went to bed one night with the thought that ‘someone should write a book about this!’ and somehow before morning that thought had morphed into ‘I am going to figure out how to write a book about this!’
I don’t know what gave me the audacity to think that I could do justice to the topic, but I began laboring over it. Spending weeks imagining a scene in my mind and then stumbling around, trying to put what I was imagining into a picture using language as my palate. Our computers were unreliable and so I regularly emailed the document to myself and then switched to google docs, so just in case the worst happened I wouldn’t lose my book.
Slowly, I staggered through writing the book. I knew vaguely, what I wanted to have happen in the end. The beginning I struggled with and ended up writing four or five beginnings. The middle had to have certain bits of information revealed – the truth was already out there I just had to package it into a fictionalized form. My job was to make it interesting and carry people along.
I couldn’t figure out how to write in the summer when everyone was home. Then, in August when the girls were off to college and the little ones and middle ones were back at school – besides the two I was homeschooling (I almost forgot about them) – I had to figure out how to start the juices all up again.
I found that if I would just start reading through a section of what I had already written I could tell what was gold and what was dross and editing was way more fun, easier, than creating something brand new. So, I would begin by editing and then start into the actual writing. I lumbered along. Getting up at 4, writing for an hour or so and then going back to sleep. Getting up at 6 and starting breakfast, I still had children that needed a mother so I kept up all the cooking and cleaning and listening and laughing. It is a miracle anything made it into the slowly growing book.
When I was close to done my son Peter asked if he could read it and when he didn’t want to go to bed that night, still reading, I began to relax. He told me he loved it and had some suggestions for improvement. He was 14. Then Samuel read it, he was 12. I had Jody read it (she is all grown up) when I was finished and it had gone through a couple of revisions. She got down to the nitty gritty and asked some really hard questions. When I could answer them I found that it made the motivations and reactions of the characters better and better. She suggested sentences and new vocabulary and while I didn’t use every one of her suggestions, they all helped me to see the flaws and weaknesses in the story.
I then followed conventional wisdom and let it sit, let it simmer without lifting the lid, and when I got back to it, read it again, I changed some more details and decided it was ready.
I sent it to two places, one was Dan Brown’s agent and the other was a medium sized publisher that accepted manuscripts without agents. It was August and I was immediately caught up in the back to school, back to college madness and forgot all about it. I figured I would get back to submitting it to more places when things settled down around my house. Well, things really don’t ever, truly settle down with that many kids. So, I am fortunate that I had submitted well.
It was the week before Thanksgiving, I think it was a Saturday afternoon, that I got an email from Cedar Fort Publishing, telling me that they were reading the book and seriously considering publishing it, telling me not to sign with anyone else because they were interested. Butterflies immediately took up residence in my lower abdomen and stayed there for three or four days.
Just as I was thinking that they weren’t really interested at all I got another email the Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving with a contract and a letter filled with ‘we love your book and want to publish it’ type of language.
I think what I am trying to say is that if I can find a way to nurture the creativity that always lay within me, then anyone can.
The world needs your gifts and you will find out who you are as you work to unearth them, shine them up and send them out into the world. Think of creativity like you would think about the weeds that spring up in your lawn, you can ignore them, starve them or try to root them out but they are resilient and spring back once they get the simplest bit of care. Try caring for your innate creativity and see what springs up in your heart and how your gifts will change the world.
Faith and Creativity
Julia Cameron, an artist and writer, teaches how best to nurture our latent creativity and she has some specific suggestions I follow religiously. I don’t have a clue as to why her system works but since I began following her suggested writing schedule I have seen a significant improvement in the quality of my writing.
Ms. Cameron believes, as I do, that creativity comes from God, not from within the individual. She also teaches that “procrastination is not laziness. It is fear. Call it by its right name, and forgive yourself.” And, “Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite — getting something down.”
Going further, she says that “creativity requires faith. Faith requires that we relinquish control. You do not need to work to become spiritual. You are spiritual; you need only to remember that fact. Spirit is within you. God is within you.”
“Most of us are not raised to actively encounter our destiny. We may not know that we have one. As children, we are seldom told we have a place in life that is uniquely ours alone. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that our life should somehow fulfill the expectations of others, that we will (or should) find our satisfactions as they have found theirs. Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others. We are, in effect, trained to listen to others’ versions of ourselves. We are brought up in our life as told to us by someone else! When we survey our lives, seeking to fulfill our creativity, we often see we had a dream that went glimmering because we believed, and those around us believed, that the dream was beyond our reach. Many of us would have been, or at least might have been, done, tried something, if…
If we had known who we really were.”
Who needs to use the tools Julia Gilbert teaches? “Injured or still emerging artists painters, poets, potters, writers, filmmakers, actors, and, well anyone who wants to enjoy more creativity in their lives.” And I would add engineers, computer programmers, chefs, dancers and parents.
“We should all be practicing art or practicing the art of living creatively and when we do start on that creative path we will find a spiritual electricity or energy. We will find that creativity is our true nature.”
“Blood is a fact of our physical bodies and nothing we had a hand in inventing, creativity is a fact of our spiritual bodies and nothing that we can or must invent.”
In her book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron explores the thought that “the two most important tools in creativity recovery are the morning pages and the artist date. The first is an apparently pointless process called the morning pages – a way to encourage brain drain. There is no wrong way to do morning pages and yet they are the primary tool of creative recovery.
The second tool is the artist date, a commitment you keep to your developing creativity. A way to spend time feeding your soul – nourishing it with beauty, peace and art.”
Every morning I sit as our kitchen table, before anyone else is up, and write three pages of meaningless drivel, mumbo jumbo, even my ‘to do’ list for the day. It doesn’t matter what you write but it is essential to write.
I have committed to writing three pages a day.
The artist’s date is something I have committed to do once a week. It can be anything. A visit to a concert or a museum. A walk along the river or a run through the neighborhood. A visit to the zoo. It is only important that it is a solitary experience and that we are in the presence of beauty, of artistry.
This concept was hard for me to commit to because of the solitude part of the experience. So, I decided to take walks. I don’t always get to go alone but if I take my children I caution them to let me walk in silence and they are now old enough to remember and help me. If I can’t take a walk I spend time in our family room looking out at the flowers or snow, the storms or sunset. I think I have memorized the beautiful bark on our cherry tree and I have gotten to know a few of the squirrels that run along our fence. I have learned that there is beauty all around me and most of it goes unnoticed until I make a conscious effort to pay attention.
No matter what your age or your life path, whether making art is your career or your hobby or your dream, it is not too late to work on your creativity.
Why Does It Have To Be Such A Struggle?
“I tell you: one must still have chaos in oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.”
–Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
David DiSalvo said this about creativity: “Anyone who says “I don’t have a creative bone in my body” is seriously underestimating their skeleton. More to the point, they are drastically undervaluing their brain.” And who are we to discount the seeds of divinity within us?
I submit that creativity is an essential part of being human, and to deny its expression is like denying the existence of other crucial human elements that we’d be miserable without. How about a life without love? Or humor? Creativity is no less a part of who and what we are.
Mr. DiSalvo has given us 10 significant reasons why we struggle to get into a creative state of mind. And suggestions about how we can overcome the struggle.
- Your brain is always putting out fires.
Cognitive science research tells us that our brains are equipped with sensitive threat-alert systems and these systems are older than we are, evolutionarily speaking. In our brains, the limbic system–home of the well-known fight or flight response–is ready to click on with a micro second’s notice. That’s a good thing. The problem is that it’s ready to click on with a micro second’s notice. As with many paradoxes within our brains, the good is also the bad depending on context. Because we are so neurobiologically predisposed to looking for the next fire, it’s challenging to carve out a “safe space” for creativity.
- Chunks of time are hard to come by.
Even when we can outwit our brain’s threat-alert system, it’s still difficult to find what the late, great management philosopher Peter Drucker advised we must find to be effective in any capacity: “chunks of time.” Spurts of time riddled with interruptions aren’t conducive to creativity because each time our focus is wrecked, we struggle to get back to the point we’d reached in our creative “flow” (a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Creativity isn’t like restarting a blu ray disk and picking up exactly where we left off. A great deal of energy went into getting to that place, and we must expend more energy to get into it again.
We must set firm, impenetrable parameters for being creative. If you think you’ll need two solid hours to get there, then make those two hours non-negotiable.
- The “self-efficacy” problem.
Pioneering psychologist Albert Bandura devoted a large part of his expansive career to figuring out how people can develop a necessary sense of self-efficacy–the outcome when accomplishment yields compounding confidence in one’s abilities. The irony that Bandura uncovered is that we only get there when we’ve experienced enough failure to demonstrate the difficulty of our eventual accomplishment. Another way to say that is — if it were easy, none of us would have a problem. But creativity isn’t easy, and we’re going to stomach failure–probably more than we think–before achieving something that starts depositing confidence in our cerebral bank accounts.
The thing to remember is that confidence compounds with time, and most people give up before they start earning a return on their investment.
- The “governing scenes” problem.
Two more great psychologists, Silvan S. Tomkins and Gershen Kaufman, devoted much of their careers to figuring out why shame wields so much power in our mental lives. Tomkins (who is the father of “Affect Theory” and “Script Theory”) coined the term “governing scripts,” and Kaufman built on his work, later coining the term “governing scenes,” which are the mental images of past experience that our brains conjure when we come across a “trigger” for that experience.
The tricky part is that our brains conjure governing scenes automatically–they arise from the unconscious. So when we experience a creative failure, our brains toss out vivid images–not just vague memories, but “scenes”–of past failures. Kaufman saw this as the pivotal dynamic that makes shame such a potent emotion — it’s not just an externally triggered feeling, but also an internal saboteur.
What can we do about that? Look to Albert Bandura’s discoveries (#3 above) and get back to the hard work of overcoming, and overcoming, and, oh yeah, overcoming. In other words, don’t quit, because in all likelihood you are giving up far too early.
- The functionary temptation.
“So, what are you going to do with that?” Tough question to answer for anyone trying to be creative, because there probably isn’t an answer. What we seem to have a hard time getting our arms around is the fact that there also doesn’t need to be an answer. What would a world driven by purely functionary concerns look like? Is that a world you’d want to live in?
The answer to this one is self-evident: stop asking the functionary question about everything in your life, or others’ lives. The question itself is designed to drain creativity from your bones.
- Fear of disruption.
Getting into creative flow can disrupt your life. Henry Miller referred to this disruption in Sexus with the pregnant term “primal flux.” It’s a hard fact to handle, but the truth is that creativity isn’t all sweetness and light — it’s a volatile, disruptive force that can shatter presumptions, undermine expectations, and dismantle unquestioned standards. That’s part of what makes it a frightening prospect for our threat-sensitive brains (see #1).
What can we do about that? Decide how much creativity your life can handle — more precisely, how much you are willing to handle.
- Misunderstanding the “background noise” dimension of creativity.
For some reason we think that to be creative means constantly creating something tangible, but that’s not how creativity works. Much of the creative process goes on in the background of your conscious mind space and emerges in conscious flurries. As discussed in #2, we need chunks of time to create something tangible, but leading up to those chunks of time is an enormous amount of background processing. This is also why #8 that follows is so important.
- Opportunities slip through the cracks.
You know the old story about how writers keep a notebook by their beds in case they have an idea in the middle of the night? There’s only two things untrue about that story — it’s not just writers who do it (or at least it’s not just writers who should do it) and it’s not just in the middle of the night that a notebook or something to scribble on is invaluable to capture rapidly evaporating thoughts. Those thoughts are creative opportunities, any one of which can open doors to new thoughts, fresh ideas, and untapped creative energy.
Easy fix for this one: get a notebook and a pen, and get ready.
- It’s easier to get numb.
Irony of ironies, the same incredible organ in our heads that allows us to be creative is also perilously prone to brain-numbing distractions. Sure, those can be chemical distractions–drugs, alcohol, etc–but in this case I mean just the regular old “plug-in drugs” like TV (using the term coined by author Marie Winn). The problem with TV, of course, isn’t TV, it’s the hours upon hours that it draws us in. At the very least, at that level it’s a time sink that makes finding those essential chunks of time even harder. At worst, it’s a brain backwater–a complacency refuge from the challenge of creativity.
What to do? Regulate time. Distractions aren’t the problem; it’s our unregulated devotion to them that doesn’t allow creativity to spark.
- Limited exposure to the creativity of others.
I’m a firm believer that creative inspiration isn’t all about originality; it’s more about being driven by the creative achievements of others. After reading a great novel, creative energy swirls in the brain like a newly spawned tornado. After watching an incredible movie, mental wormholes open to challenging ideas and possibilities. Same goes for museums and galleries and concerts and even electronics shows. It doesn’t matter where the ideas originate — it matters where they take you. To the extent that we limit our exposure to an array of creative ideas (and focus instead on just one source; TV, for example), we limit our creative potential.
Remarkable Thoughts About Creativity
I want to leave you with some profound thoughts written by people who have tapped into the spirit of creativity and done the work required to share this creative spark with others. Here are some of my favorite quotes about creativity.
“Creativity happens when we connect things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
Wired, February, 1996
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
“You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
“Creativity is a gift. It doesn’t come through if the air is cluttered.”
“I had forgotten that I hadn’t learned to write books, that I will never learn to write them. A book must be a life that lives all of itself.”
To Sum It All Up
What have I learned about creativity? Most of what I have discovered is simple and some of it you are already aware of in your own life.
First of all, we never use up creativity. The more we tap into the creative process the more creativity will be available to us. An artist is someone who is willing to give birth to a new creation.
Secondly, it is important to remember that God is an artist. So are we. Our creative dreams and longings come from a divine source. Understanding this can help foster the most creative part of our spirit, brain and heart. Shifting perspective to include this truth can give us the courage to develop and share our divine gifts. Combat your fears with faith. Trust that you have creative gifts and work with humility to bring your gift to others.
Third, try to remember that writers block, or artists block, is not a block at all but rather an emptiness. Fill yourself up and the inability to write or create will dissipate.
Fourth, understand that we are our own worst critics, so it is important to try and be gentle with your inner artist. Give your gifts time and try not to smother the fledgling beginnings of passion, either with fear or contempt.
Fifth, realize that the artists we love the most are great storytellers and they express things that matter, things that uplift instead of debase. Beautiful expression can only go so far – for the work to make a place in my heart it has to tell an unforgettable story.
Last of all, as artists, we need the buoyant influence of faith, for without faith in a divine power it would be impossible to have faith in ourselves. As creative beings it is imperative to feel the synergy of faith that surrounds us. Critics do not create well, neither do skeptics or cynics. Faith is what impels us and gives us the power to create truth and beauty. It is impossible to develop our full potential without a steady conviction that our lives are important, eternally significant and that our work is a small part of a big plan.
Now is the perfect time to start dreaming and creating! I wish you well as you search for your passion and begin the act of creation.