The Truth About Creativity Part 1

Do you ever look at a beautiful piece of art with awe and think “How did the artist DO that?” I sure do! Believe me, I’ve spent years searching for that magic pill that flips the creativity switch ON, or that coveted book that unlocks the secret to being brilliant.

As far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist.

For me, creativity comes in waves of inspiration and mad flurries of sleepless nights followed by long dry spells, wishing I could muster enough motivation to do anything except clean my house and binge watch Glee. (By the way, why is called Glee if it just makes me cry???)
One of the most popular books out there about creativity is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne. I’ve read it a couple of times and there is some good stuff in there, however there is something that makes me take pause- do I really want to think of making art as a war? There’s enough of that in the world as it is. Besides, the emotional highs and lows of being an artist mean I already have more inner angst than a preteen heavy metal garage band.

So, why make it harder than it needs to be?

Instead of being at war with our art, how about being kind to it? Take your art out for dinner and drinks. Pamper it with a spa day. If you are really invested in your art, you’re probably going to be spending a good amount of time with it, so make that time as pleasant as possible.
I’ve created my own set of guidelines for creativity. It’s still a work in progress- and probably will be as long as I’m creating stuff. (So, basically the rest of my life.) The things I’ve learned are a hodgepodge of philosophies from books, advice from mentors, and my own experience.

I’d like to share a couple of those things with you.

It’s the Little Things.

Many artists don’t like to talk about the grunt work. If they do, they use a more glamorous word like “process.” And who can blame them? After all, it is the job of the artist to make it look easy.

My grandma was a phenomenal artist in several mediums and her subject was always horses. I remember her most for her beautiful soapstone sculptures.

She and my grandpa had five kids. The eldest, my aunt, told me a story about when they were kids.  Grandma would put all five of them down for naps at the same time every afternoon and quietly work on her sculpture while they slept. When my aunt got too old for naps, she would just lay awake and listen to the “chink chink chink” of the chisel for an hour. After nap time was over, she would look at the sculpture and see how it changed. Little by little. One hour at a time, one day at a time, the horse revealed itself….so lifelike it could have emerged right out the Ozark Mountains. The house they lived in is now chock full of her work. I have no idea how many pieces there are- probably hundreds!

It’s easy to forget how a little bit of work at a time can add up to big results.


Art credit: Duende by Erin Nichole Boyt

Visualize Failure.

Ok, I realize that this is a completely unconventional way to look at things, but stick with me here. I’m all about goal-setting. Write down your goals. Visualize yourself accomplishing them. Meditate on them. Draw yourself living your dreams. By all means, manifest the hell out of your deepest desires! But take a few minutes to visualize failure, too.

Here’s why.

You know that old adage about how naming your demons makes them less scary? Apply that same concept to failure, and BAM- you’ve just liberated yourself.

A couple of years ago, I produced a show called Standing in the Storm. It was a new piece inspired by the phases of a storm.  (The old-fashioned Midwest thunder and lightning kind of storms, not the sprinkles we have here in Seattle.) It was turning into a good dance, but I was so terrified to do something new that I became creatively paralyzed. I tried to remedy this by spending plenty of time visualizing a successful performance. I imagined the audience clapping and I may or may not have written down what I hoped reviews might say. But the more I meditated on it, the more I became a nervous ball of stress. I was putting extremely high expectations on myself and the dancers. Worse, I was shoving my creativity into a pressure cooker.

So I decided to do the opposite.

Yep, that’s right- I visualized failure instead. Did I want to fail? No, of course not! Don’t be silly. But I knew that if I was ever going to be successful, I had to be okay with failure. I began meditating instead on what failure would look like. What would a bad review say? I didn’t dwell on this or obsess over it, but I spent some time thinking and writing about it. Then I actually laughed at myself! If that’s the worst thing that can happen, it’s really not that bad.

I was free! If I was already okay with failure, what did I have to lose? I didn’t have to hold back anymore. The pressure was off and I could now focus 100% of my energy into finishing the piece.

Guess what? It turned out great! Was it the best thing I’ve ever done? Nope. But it certainly wasn’t the worst, either.

I’m going to leave you with this video by Ira Glass, host of This American Life:

He gives us some excellent reminders about the journey of creative process. I’ve certainly learned a lot by listening to his advice and I hope it will inspire you, too!