thoughts on reclaiming creativity

By bonnie, 19 February, 2011

I recently caught this great article because someone left a copy of Oprah magazine on the lunch table:

How to Unleash Your Creativity
Peggy Orenstein, From the February 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine

It’s excellent and I highly recommend you go read the entire thing. (It’s available online, click the title link.)

A more appropriate title would actually be “How to Reclaim Creativity” because the following passage was the secretly the takeaway from this article.  It deals with the notion that you don’t need to discover or unleash creativity, it’s a part of you already that you rightfully possess and should explore more and seek to understand.  This is the passage that I most deeply connected with and in my opinion, an instrumental point to be made in why outlining “steps” to discover your own creativity is even necessary:

For years I’ve kept a dog-eared copy of an old Lynda Barry comic taped to a wall in my office. The first panel shows one of the artist’s iconic, primitively penned women hunched over her desk with a cup of coffee, pencil poised in midstroke. Two thought bubbles hover over her head: “Is this good?” and “Does this suck?” “I’m not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work,” Barry writes beneath the image. “I just know I’d stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it.”

As the strip unfolds, Barry describes the easy pleasure she took as a child in drawing and storytelling (“Look out! It’s Dracula! What’s that smell? He’s pooping! And the mummy is pooping back! But it’s lava!”). It didn’t seem special, she recalls: “Every kid I knew could do it.”

That’s because children are naturally driven to understand their world. They live by that incessant, creativity-inspiring “why?” Why does the grass grow? Why is the sky blue? Why can’t I fly? And to answer these questions, they experiment, imagine, and explore. Their minds are free to wander and to wonder.

Then, usually around the time they enter school, that loopiness disappears. They begin to compare their work to others’. Will they be judged as better (“Is this good?”) or worse (“Does this suck?”)? Suddenly there are right and wrong answers. Expressing their own tentative understanding of an idea becomes less important than figuring out what the teacher makes of it. Beghetto, who studies the ways in which early experience influences creativity later in life, found that by first or second grade, students realize that “the game of school requires replacing the question ‘Why?’ with ‘What do you want me to do and how do you want me to do it?'”

In his work with teachers and older students, Beghetto found that most had vivid memories (from both inside and outside the classroom) of what he called creative mortification, a term so evocative I will carry it with me to my grave. “They were moments when people were developing their experience in something—music, sports, science—and were having a personally meaningful insight, which is the catalyst of creativity,” he told me. “But when they shared that insight, they received a too-harsh evaluation. And once they’d experienced that moment of shame, they often stopped doing what they’d loved.”

Creative. Mortification.

Right?  How true is that? It’s not just the discouragement of creativity, it’s the locking up and inhibiting it.

In my experience, I was not actually discouraged from making art. I was a dreamy, bookish child who enjoyed making messes and telling stories. I got labeled as a creative person fairly quickly, usually at the expensive of being logical or analytical.  Which is also a disgusting fallacy perpetrated on children, isn’t it?  If you are a girl or a certain type of girl anyway, you aren’t expected to “get” math or technical things… no no, you’re more “creative”. Now go draw some pretty pictures of rainbows and unicorns.

I should note that my day job is handling I.T. at a library.  I fix computers, run the server, install hardware and software and train staff to use them – all day long.

I spent years of my life believing I just was hard-wired to not understand certain topics and systems or skills.  In other words, my creativity was not something that could be applied to real problem solving or mechanics.  It was not something to be explored or utilized in a multitude of ways.  It was to allow very specific outlets and at the end of the day most of them hobbies not practical applications.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I had a very hard time thinking of my art, which I’ve always just practiced as a part of my life, as something that I could do to make a living.  I have a really hard time calling myself an artist even as people are buying my art.  I have a difficult time feeling like I am worthy of seeing what I make as part of what I do to make a living.

It’s silly.  I look at other artists and just like Orenstein describes in this article, having been repeatedly told she was “wasn’t a creative person”, I wonder what signals and messages in my head tell me what they do is ART and what I do is a nice hobby?

I’ve been told it’s just a confidence or esteem issue, but I think it’s something more.  I think it’s about how we are actively discouraged from exploring questions of what qualifies as artistic or creative pursuits in the “real world” and with using what creativity we are capable of in every facet of our own work – whatever that work may be.

In the article, Orenstein goes on to say this:

But let’s be clear: The response to creative mortification should not be to reject criticism altogether, or to overpraise middling work. Rather, for both children and adults, experts advocate shifting our idea of critique from evaluation to exploration: asking questions about process, identifying what works, wondering what can be improved.

I am and always have been obsessed with process.  I find observing and discussing the processes of other artists and writers incredibly useful and inspiring in shaping my own.  I think that this idea of a well-shaped critique really nails it.  It’s because in looking at how other people do it, I’m never thinking “I’m doing it wrong.” I am however, often thinking, “I’ve never considering doing it that way before… should I try that? Could it work for me? How could that be adapted into my process and what kind of results would I expect?….” And the questions roll on and on.  All those questions lead to action.  It’s a simple case of good exercise.  Other artists encourage me to explore.

I think the point I’m getting to is admitting that I – and I consider myself a “creative type” who actually is fairly motivated and working on a lot of artistic projects and endeavors right now- even I need to remind myself to reclaim creativity in an active way.

The “type” I was always labeled is not what  succeeds in defining me or allowing me to do my best work, the exploring is what does that.

It’s in the questions.  It’s in the process.

SIDENOTE:  I’d just like to back-up to the beginning of that first quote up there and mention that Lynda Barry fucking rocks and I was very pleased to see her small part in this article.  My good friend Joe gave me a book of her comics for my last birthday and it’s amazing.  She has a lot to say, both in her work and just as a person, that is worth listening to.  She is a very honest artist that I admire greatly.

What do you think?

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