Talking about creativity
First, a warning: we’re going to talk about creativity. When “creativity” is mentioned in a room, an unstoppable force emerges. Some people look nervous and run as far from the word as they can. “Ah, I’m not a creative person, I’m more of a numbers person.” Others get a wistful and romantic look in their eye. “Ah, creativity! How wonderful to be an artist and to live so freely. If only I could do that.” And others, the people who are deep in what might be called “creative work” every day, become guarded and suspicious. They know most of all that creativity is difficult to talk about. That the conversation often starts with a hope for clarity and answers, and ends with hopeless tail chasing and even more confusion. They’ve learned long ago that it’s often better to just get on with it than to talk about it.
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 each other about it and what new stories we might want to start telling ourselves about it. And I want to talk about how to actually practice it.
My 9th grade English teacher firmly held the “wistful and romantic” view of creativity. She provided many opportunities for assignments that I would say fit into the “arts and crafts” category of school work (in other words, the classroom contained significantly more glitter than the typical high school English classroom). I actively resisted these assignments. Maybe I thought they felt they were more suitable for elementary or middle school. Maybe dealing with glue and glitter sounded both boring and annoying to me. But looking back, I think I was actually terrified. My teacher was asking us to be “creative,” at least in her understanding of creativity—to come up with our own ideas, to explore open ended possibilities without clear requirements, to make new things real rather than fill in boxes on worksheets and deliver predetermined answers. And I hated it. All of that sounded like I’d have to actually put some thought, effort, and exploration in to my work, and that I’d probably end up with sticky fingers from glue sticks.
So, I rolled my eyes. I complained to my parents and friends. I touched my assignments with a ten foot pole and refused to go near the glitter. And then, for the final assignment of the year, I saw a new type of assignment in a list of options we could choose from to wrap up our Shakespeare unit: write a song. My mind froze. For the first time that year, I read a prompt for an assignment, and my internal response was, “I want to do that.”
I went home that day and went right to the piano. I was excited to see what might happen, what kind of song I might write. And, very quickly, “I want to do that” became “wait… how do I do that?” I had no idea how to start, how to make progress, or what process to follow. I knew how to play the piano, but nothing I knew about how to play a song seemed relevant for figuring out how to write one. I struggled with the music and with myself, as though I was learning how to walk for the first time. It was the hardest thing I had ever tried to do.
Several frustrating and challenging days later, I managed to complete a song and turn it in for the assignment. But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know why it was so hard. I wanted to know if it was always that hard, or if it was possible to get better at it. I became obsessed with “figuring it out.” I read interviews and books about songwriting, but tips about songwriting craft didn’t seem to explain what I found so difficult. I wasn’t getting stuck on the musical skills involved in songwriting, I was getting stuck on the creative skills. How do you come up with ideas? How do you decide which ideas are good? How do you get started? How do you know when to stop? How do you go from nothing to something real?
So I expanded my search. I looked to my teachers, friends, and parents for ideas about how to practice creativity itself. I searched for clues in interviews with musicians, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, chefs—anyone who might be able to give me a hint toward a way to learn. 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 contradicted advice from another, and many perspectives I heard about creativity didn’t always match my own experience when I actually tried it.
In my quest to understand creativity, I explored beyond songwriting. I tried anything that might provide a better understanding: music, writing, painting, programming, 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. Of course, I'm sure this is what my wise, thoughtful, and caring English teacher had in mind all along, and knew I would need to discover from the beginning despite my teenage eye rolling: creativity is something you have to experience for yourself, but not alone.
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 a lifelong search for the secrets of creativity, I’ve found helpful patterns and pathways through the confusion. I've slowly and carefully refined my understanding of what creativity is, and developed a practical approach to actually practicing creativity itself. It hasn't gotten any easier, but I’d like to share the understanding of creativity that has emerged from these hard-earned scraps, both to address common misconceptions that often discourage people from practicing creativity and to serve as a companion for those like my teenage self who are trying to figure it out on their own. 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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