The Secret to Supercharged Creativity
Almost four months ago, I embarked on a little creative journey.
Along the way, I stumbled upon some secrets about what fuels creativity, and what kills it.
“10 Ways to Become the Next Van Gogh!” … nope, this is not that post. (“Number one: try counseling. Number two: remove all knives from the house…”)
First off, let’s dispel some myths about creativity. I love it when people say, “Oh, I’m not creative.”
What people usually mean when they say this is that they are not particularly interested or talented in traditionally-held “creative” areas: painting, singing, dancing, writing operas, making elaborate sculptures out of duct tape, etc. The problem is, this is about the narrowest (and incorrect) definition of creativity ever.
I could hold court with my own, eminently superior definition here, but let’s just let the kids do the talking, shall we?
Several years ago, when I was a teacher, I was thinking a lot about creativity, for myself and for my students. I was teaching a creative writing elective in addition to my core classes, and the format was rather loose and totally up to me. I decided to not just DO creative writing with my students, but also talk ABOUT creativity — what it is, when and where we’re more creative. I polled the kids (11-13 years old at the time). They had very interesting things to say on the subject (you can read that original post here). Some themes that emerged:
Expressing your true self
Uniqueness, a unique expression or contribution
Making something, or as one student said, “All your ideas packed into a bomb and BANG! All of it splatters into reality.”
Some interesting themes also emerged as to WHEN and WHERE they were most creative:
Listening to music
Freedom - less structure, fewer rules
When active (skiing, soccer, riding, etc)
The truth is, we aren't creative so we can make a pretty painting now and then. Creativity is finding the unique expression of us, the gifts we have to give to the world, the ways we can touch others. It is about making or building something that is uniquely “us” that impacts others. Creativity doesn't live in the land of “shoulds” and rules and conformity. It lives in the wild of the unknown, the space between all our to-dos. It’s like a quiet deer that only comes out for a drink when we remove all the noise. It lives in our bodies (less in our intellects) when we run, swim, dance, or hike. It reverberates in us from the magnitude of nature, the boundless sky and trees and plants and places that take our breath away.
But lest you doubt the wisdom of the 11-year-olds, let's look at what the researchers have to say about creativity. Brené Brown, a grounded theory researcher (meaning her work doesn’t start with a theory that is then supported/disproved by her research; the research informs what emerges), psychologist, and best-selling author (and one of my personal favorites for life-changing reading), has some very profound things to say about creativity too:
“I’m not very creative” doesn’t work. There’s no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t. Unused creativity isn't benign. It lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear.
The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.
If we want to make meaning, we need to make art. Cook, write, draw, doodle, paint, scrapbook, take pictures, collage, knit, rebuild an engine, sculpt, dance, decorate, act, sing – it doesn’t matter. As long as we’re creating, we’re cultivating meaning.
(Here’s the link to this post of hers.)
Sometimes we need to reframe decades of programming that told us, “You’re not creative.”
Sometimes we need to go on a journey to discover what our unique brand of making, creating, or playing is.
Sometimes we need to clear space for the creativity to flow through.
But let’s return for a moment to my own creative journey over the past several months, and the recipe for creativity I discovered for myself.
I started something called the 100 Day Project, a world-wide, grass-roots creative endeavor shared by thousands, where you pick a creative project of your choosing (anything at all), commit to doing a little bit of it every day for 100 days, and share about it.
If you’ve been reading Kindred Seekers for a while, you’ll recall that I occasionally dabbled in writing poetry, inspired by a piece of art/color.
I love doing this, merely because it’s delightful. I love words, I love art, I love color.
So I decided that I would write a poem every day for 100 days, based on a piece of art.
That seemed a little daunting, but hey… I accepted the fact that some days I might not feel inspiration, and some days it might suck. I just had a sense of exploration about it, and I chose it simply because it felt fun.
What emerged was a body of work that I am quite proud of, as well as some very clear realizations about what fuels my creativity, and what stifles it.
1. Joy and delight
We are conditioned to believe in our culture that fun is something you reserve for weekends or vacations, or maybe a few irresponsible minutes every month. Joy sounds nice, but after a little while we better get back to the serious business of living. Delight is something that we possibly haven’t allowed ourselves to feel in years, either because of guilt, busyness, or because we’ve gotten so far from ourselves that we don’t know what the hell delights us at all.
But I’ve come to believe that joy and delight are profound feelings, not to be relegated to the “nice to have once and a while” category, but crucial for our growth, whether that be personal, spiritual, or professional. A state of joy feels like this to me:
Joy feels profound. We don’t always have to be having rip-roaring fun to feel joy. Joy feels deeper. Joy to me feels like up and out in my body. It is also space from which our unique creativity zings out into the world.
If I have a day full of activity and people and doing, I basically can’t write. Maybe, if the winds are blowing exactly the right way, something good comes through in the midst of all that, but in general, no. I need to be alone. I need space and quiet. I need the removal of go-go-go and the noise of multitasking. Only then will the magic that flows through start to percolate. It’s just irrefutably and reliably true for me.
Additionally, if I am over-tired, over-hungry, or emotionally overwhelmed, zero creativity can happen for me. I mean, at that point, I can barely execute the most basic of tasks, so it should come as no surprise that my creativity shuts down too.
This is a huge one for me. It is such a dramatic difference, in fact, that it’s almost like a magic pill. If I go outside into nature — by myself (this is key) — and just spend time being present, being quiet, maybe with some inspiring music in my ear, it is like surefire medicine for not only recalibrating when I feel down or off or yucky, it is also like a shot in the arm for my creativity. Stuff flows. Sometimes even on street corners, standing there scribbling things into a note in my phone.
Nature to me is like a massive reflecting mirror — all that magnitude and majesty, the marvel of little lizards and the colors of flowers and the way the clouds dance a whole ballet in the sky at sunset — it’s as though it is asking us to remember that we are made from that too. We are as wide and deep and breathtaking as the ocean and trees and sky. It connects me to something greater, a sense of oneness… which is where the creativity is really flowing from, through us, in the first place, isn’t it?
4. Showing up
This was a great lesson for me from the 100 Day Project. Sure, I missed a day writing here and there, but there was something profound, not just in realization but also in output, in showing up for the work every day.
Great writers will say that really the first key to being a writer is to begin, and keep writing. You’re a writer once you write, and keep writing, and keep on writing. Whether anyone is reading is almost secondary. You don’t get a perfect studio and endless time and a book contract and an advance and THEN you show up to become a writer. You show up first. Every day (or most days).
Of course the same goes for any endeavor of making. I’m also learning this lesson applies to lots of other things in life, like our relationship with love or money or happiness. You don’t wish for the perfect external things and THEN you feel the feeling or satisfaction. My sneaking suspicion is that it is ALL an inside-out job.
I can get into a rut of not doing the things that feed my body, soul, and creativity, simply because I get busy or lazy or I just have a bad case of inertia. But this season of making has shown me just how profoundly both my internal and external realities shift when I continually cultivate joy, silence, time in nature, and a commitment to the work.
As @virgietovar said on the 100 Day Project podcast, “That’s what’s so amazing about creative work of any kind: it is deeply spiritual. It forces us to connect to the most vulnerable parts of ourselves.”
In the end, creativity is finding our own perfect way to let God/the universe/creative intelligence/source flow through us. Which is joyful, spiritual, and - side benefit - the cleanest, clearest way for us to send our gifts out into the world to touch others. Why would we want to live any other way?