How to Nourish and Flourish Your Own Creative Style
Posted 10/1/04 | Updated 7/5/20
If you've ever taken a class in drawing, painting or pottery, and despite your best effort, couldn't make the final result look anything like the model shown, you may have thought, "I don't have a creative bone in my body."
According to scientists, who for the past 20 years have put the elusive subject of creativity through the rigors of research, you'd be wrong. Da Vinci you may never be, but when it comes to creativity, we all possess the tools necessary to expand our creative horizons. It's learning to use them, and then applying them in everything you do, that counts.
"Even if we don't have the good fortune to discover a new chemical element or write a great story, the love of the creative process for its own sake is available to all," says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention.
The realm of creativity has often been awarded to those perceived to have special talent. We look upon these "creative geniuses," as we often call them, with awe and a bit of envy. Their gifts, we assume, are bestowed by good genes, or, as if in Greek mythology, from some kind of divine inspiration.
There is no argument that the world is full of highly talented and creative people. They are masters of their trades and stand heads-and-shoulders above their peers, forging new pathways for others to follow, and providing greater context and understanding of our world. It could be said that without creativity humanity would not evolve.
But like a professional baseball player who hones his skill through years of almost obsessive diligence, foregoing other activities for his one true love, people who move from their creative center work hard to cultivate their natural talents.
After studying 91 creative and influential people, including novelists, playwrights, composers, musicians, scientists, Nobel prize winners, stage and film actors, humanitarians, economists and philosophers, Csikszentmihalyi concludes that true creativity, in any realm, requires the same skill set: dedication, hard work, actively seeking new challenges, boldness, and the willingness to follow your creative endeavor to the very end, wherever that may be. And these are skills we all can master.
"Each person has, potentially, all the psychic energy he or she needs to live a creative life," Csikszentmihalyi says.
Genetics certainly plays a role in the development of the creative mind — giving one person a predisposition to, say, engineering, another the acumen to blend colors — but there are other things that have helped them along their path. Environment, nurture, exposure to a particular skill at an early age, and a healthy dash of luck and timing — all play important parts in how easily someone accesses and utilizes their creativity, experts say.
If, for example, you were fortunate enough to have parents who fostered your creativity with lessons in art, music and dance, if they encouraged you to cultivate your imagination, pursue your interests and express your thoughts, as an adult you probably feel more comfortable than most people expressing yourself in creative ways.
On the other hand, for many creative people, not fitting in was the difficult pathway that led them to explore the inner world where creativity resides.
Scientists have identified specific creativity traits. Creative people take risks. They break rules. They create without fear of failure. They are comfortable with solitude. They are curious about the world. They don't view their creations as work.
"I'm one of those people who never feels the need to 'get away' from my work, because it doesn't feel like work to me. It's simply a part of who I am," says Chris Dunmire, an Illinois-based graphic designer and the host of the Creativity Portal Web site (www.creativity-portal.com). A full-time job doing print and Web site design, marketing and writing doesn't deter Dunmire from putting in at least 20 hours a week on her hobby: providing a cyber salon to connect with others who are exploring their creativity.
In 1999 Dunmire went back to school to study graphic design in an attempt to recapture the unselfconscious creative freedom she felt as a child. "It wasn't long before I realized a gushing well of creativity within me once again," she says. "This time, my creativity excited me and motivated me to explore, experiment and express to no end. It became a solid part of who I was; so I embraced it fully and continue to let it nourish me ... through my work and my never-ending projects."
"What allows certain individuals to make memorable contributions to the culture is a personal resolution to shape their lives to suit their own goals instead of letting external rules force their destiny," Csikszentmihalyi says. "Indeed, it could be said that the most obvious achievement of [creative] people is that they created their own lives."
Shaping your life just as you want it may be the ultimate creative achievement. Who hasn't dreamed of writing a novel, opening his or her own business or inventing something unique and useful? Most of us long to make our mark in the world somehow, even if it is only felt by a few. But often we dismiss a creative idea as being beyond our reach.
Twyla Tharp, the award-winning and highly creative choreographer, demystifies the notion of a "creative soul" in The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. "The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightening bolt of inspiration, maybe more," she writes.
Highly functioning creative people, Tharp says, are able to create because they adhere to routines that nurture and inspire their original ideas. She cites the examples of the writer who arises before dawn to write while the world sleeps; the dancer who follows a strict diet and exercise regimen to keep her body in tip-top form; the business executive who does daily yoga before he starts his day; the painter who blasts techno music to block out internal "noise" while she paints.
"In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative," Tharp says.
Begin the process of tuning into your creative voice with these tips gleaned from the lives of creative people:
When it comes to creativity, the notion of an artist haven is not far off. A space where you can commune openly with your muse is key to opening the flow of creative expression. What this place looks like will be different for each person. Some may need an open loft, filled with color and light, with the noise of the city drifting in through the window. Others require the peace and quiet of a nature retreat.
"Make it easy on yourself," says Tharpe. "Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn't scare you, doesn't shut you down. It should make you want to be there."
When something is of interest, follow it. "The first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interest," says Csikszentmihalyi. Try something you've never done before. Go to a park or coffee house and people watch, observing their actions, movements and style. Be curious about the world and it will begin to reveal itself to you in new and inspiring ways.
One of the most frightening moments for anyone about to embark on a creative endeavor is that moment of solitude when you have to begin. Get used to solitude now, and build your tolerance. It will serve you well when you sit down to start your creative project.
Tharpe explains that all creative endeavors are threatened by fear—the fear of failure, of not having an idea, or of not being able to produce are all common. Whatever your particular fears are, face them head on, she says. Write them down, and then, as if you were talking to a friend, go through them one by one. Once out of the closet, fears lose much of their power.
If creativity means bringing something new into being, then it is imperative to break old patterns and allow yourself to see the world with fresh eyes. Take a week off from clutter and distraction, advises Tharpe. Don't look in the mirror. Avoid television, newspapers and clocks. Like someone who is visually or hearing impaired, altering the way you experience the world will allow you to develop your other senses.
"If all art is metaphor, then all art begins with memory," says Tharpe. Look at pictures from your childhood and welcome the memories: the smells, sounds and impressions. Unlock the memory chamber and you'll unleash a flood of subtle, unedited impressions that are rich fodder for creative ideas.
"Too many people assume that most of the world is off-limits to them," says Csikszentmihalyi. "Some consider art beyond the realm of possibility, [for] others, [it's] sports or music. Or dancing, science, philosophy—the list of things that are 'not for me' can be endless."
To find your creative talent, try as many domains as possible, Csikszentmihalyi suggests. Start with things you know you like, and move to related areas.
"I always had many, many interests," says Willow Gibbons, 27, who has been an artist, musician and free-lance clothing designer in Brooklyn, New York. "So many things excited me. I had to go through a process of demystification, so that I could find the reality of what these different things meant to me.
Now Gibbons is focusing on one of her passions, writing and playing music. "I think I decided that if I ever wanted to be exceptional at something, in my own eyes, that I would have to make a choice." The choice was not to stop having all my interests, but to dedicate myself to one medium that would challenge me the most spiritually and artistically."
Even the most creative minds run out of ideas. The secret to keeping the flow going? A collection of inspirational nuggets stored away for such a dearth. Tharpe makes a cardboard filing box for every project she begins. From the first musings for a dance, perhaps written on an index card, she builds the idea through found objects, notes, pictures, music—all kept in the box. When her flow is blocked, she opens the box and peers inside, looking for the thread of inspiration to move her forward. Others keep a notebook of impressions or story ideas. It is this kind of preparation that allows creative people to tap their muse again and again.
"After creative energy is awakened, it is necessary to protect it. We must erect barriers against distractions, dig channels so that energy can flow more freely, find ways to escape outside temptations and interruptions," says Csikszentmihalyi.
Take charge of your schedule, he advises. Make time for reflection and relaxation. Shape your space. Discover what you like and dislike, and do more of the former and less of the latter. Surround yourself with people who inspire and delight you. Avoid contact with those who drain your creative energy. Seek out sources of inspiration. Make creativity a priority in your life.
Most of us won't build towers that shape the skyline, or write novels that capture the pathos of our time. But we are all capable of original contributions and of making our lives more colorful. You may not change the way future generations experience the world, says Csikszentmihalyi, but you will change the way you experience it.
"Exploring and expressing my creativity on a daily basis has made a huge impact on my life and how I view the world," says Dunmire. "The act of creating for myself and for others brings me joy, and has opened many doors to exciting projects and opportunities. It's led the way to new thinking patterns and understanding others, and it's helped me to connect with tons of other people who nourish my muse."
So if one art class doesn't get you there, take three, or five, suggest those who have found their muse. Try a different medium and see how it feels. Create only for yourself and let go of your need to be good. Be willing to fail, and learn from the process. Then start again, and again, and again. That's the creative spirit at work.
"If creativity with a capital C is largely beyond our control, living a creative personal life is not," says Csikszentmihalyi. "And in terms of ultimate fulfillment, the latter may be the most important accomplishment."
Kelle Walsh is a journalist based in Santa Cruz, California. This article is reprinted with permission from Imagine Magazine (Fall, 2004). Sources: The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, by Twyla Tharp (Simon & Schuster, 2004); "A great way to spark creativity," Inc.com., May 2001.
To be creative means to bring something new into being. You have to step outside of your comfort zone to see the world through fresh, creative eyes, and to allow yourself to play a bit. You may be surprised by what inspires your inner child. Here are some fun ways to limber up your right brain and step onto a creative path.
1. Buy toys for yourself.
Not the grown-up kind that require directions and warranties, but real toys, like the ones you loved as a kid. Keep them on hand to play with at will.
2. Pick a new name.
Why did you choose that name? Think about what you would want your name to say about you.
For at least 15 minutes, noticing every thing they do. Make up stories about their lives.
4. Act out a verb.
5. Jot it down.
Start carrying a notebook and write (or draw) anything that inspires you, whether it be song lyrics, names for a not-yet-planned-for child, a design for a pair of totally impractical shoes, your dream dinner-party guest list.
6. Cloud gaze.
See how many objects you can identify in three minutes looking at the clouds.
7. Play 20 Questions with yourself.
Write down 20 questions about any topic you want to know about, and then begin the process of answering them.
8. Draw upside-down.
Write with your non-dominate hand for 20 minutes, or draw something upside down.
9. Play with color.
Wear a color that's outside your usual palette, or a style that you never wear. Try a new hat, for example, or a flamboyant scarf. Let yourself express this new persona.
10. Picture it.
Look at a photo of yourself when you were young. Try to remember what you were feeling, thinking and doing at the time. What were your plans for your life back then? Who were your friends? See you if you can recapture the feelings and impressions of a time past.