Talking about creativity
First, a warning: we’re going to talk about creativity. Talking about creativity often starts out with a hope for clarity and ends with hopeless tail chasing. It’s impossible to talk about all facets at once, and the conversation tends to get lost in circles of distraction. We start with trying to understand it a bit better so we can go off and navigate the creative process more fluently and end up more confused than before.
But, I do want to talk about it. I want to talk about why it’s so hard to talk about. I want to talk about what it is, and why we can’t seem to agree on what it is. I want to talk about the stories we tell ourselves about it and what new stories we might want to start telling ourselves about it. And, eventually, I want to talk directly about how to actually practice it.
I assume that you have a reason to want to talk about creativity as well. You might be interested in an art, writing, or music practice but find yourself frequently getting stuck or unsure how to begin. You might be a business owner or employee looking for better ways to collaborate and grow your business. You might be an educator looking for ways to help others explore a creative practice. You might just be drawn in by the grand mystery of it all.
These reasons and more have motivated me to try to understand creativity better since the first time I tried to write a song in high school. I sat down at the piano with blank paper, a pencil, and a recorder. I was curious and hopeful, eager to see what might happen. I found that nothing much happened at all, at least on the paper. From the start, I had no idea what to do. I had no guidelines, strategy, or sense of how to go from nothing to something. It was the hardest thing I had ever tried to do. These became the questions that I've explored since that day:
- What is creativity?
- How does it work?
- How can I practice it?
I looked to my teachers, friends, and parents, and no one seemed to know a way to show me how to practice creativity itself. They had tips about the mechanics of song structure and lyrical patterns. They had suggestions for tools I could use and inspiration I could listen to. They encouraged me to keep trying as best they could. But direct advice on how to navigate creativity itself was rare and mysterious.
I read books about creativity, I watched interviews with musicians, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, cooks—anyone who might be able to give me a hint toward a way to learn—searching for clues. I listened carefully to what people around me said about creativity. The most frequent messages I would hear were along the lines of, “I’m a numbers person, I just wasn’t born with creative talent,” or “Go with the flow! Creativity can be whatever you want it to be.”
Over many years, I collected scraps of discoveries and tried them out, often feeling as though I had finally figured something out before getting stuck again. I noticed that advice from one source almost always directly contradicted advice from another, and many perspectives and beliefs I heard about creativity didn’t seem to match my own experience when I actually tried it. I tried everything that might provide a better understanding: music, writing, drawing and painting, web development, acting, cooking, tabletop roleplaying games, and everything in between. I sought jobs where I could practice creativity at work and teaching roles where I could learn along with my students as they navigated their own creative practice.
Creativity is still a deep mystery to me, and I’ve learned that’s part of what makes it as valuable, meaningful, and powerful as it is. However, in this epic search for secrets, I’ve found some helpful patterns and pathways through the confusion. I've slowly adjusted the story I tell myself and others about what creativity is, and developed a practical approach to actually practicing creativity itself. I’d like to share the understanding of creativity that has emerged from these hard-earned scraps, both to address common misconceptions that often block or discourage creative practice and to serve as a companion for those like my teenage self who are trying to figure it out in their own practice. So, let’s talk about the mysteries together. And then let’s go try it out.
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These are my draft notes on creativity—as a skill, a practice, and a mystery
About Practicing Creativity
These are my notes on creativity—as a skill, a practice, and a mystery. Everything you find here is in a perpetual draft state and much of it may not make sense. I hope these notes become clearer over time as I continue writing and updating them, although I hope they might be useful even in disarray.
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