After two years of writing the Tapping into Creativity newsletter (this is issue 24!), I have come to a fork in the road. I’ve had less and less time to write each month, and it’s finally become time to close this door in order to follow other opportunities.
Thanks to each one of you for your support – those who have only joined recently, as well as my longstanding subscribers, who have been here from the early days. I hope that your journey with me has been as rewarding and enriching as mine has been.
Departing Thoughts On Creativity
I have loved writing these newsletters; they have given me the opportunity to focus deeply on the nature of creativity universally – not just as it applies to me. I have always believed that we are all innately creative beings. What I have learnt is that while we think of creativity as an individual expression, there are fundamental basics and truths we can all use to find that which is unique to us. And that doing so is both a daunting commitment and an extremely exciting journey of discovery.
I’d like to leave you with some words that have been influential in my life for some years:
“We each have an infinite supply of love and happiness within us. We have been accustomed to thinking that we have to get something from outside us in order to be happy, but in truth it works the other way: we must learn to contact our inner source of happiness and satisfaction and flow it outward to share with others – not because it is virtuous to do so, but because it feels really good! Once we tune into it we just naturally want to share it because that is the essential nature of love, and we are all loving beings.” – Shakti Gawain, “Creative Visualization”
When we get our creative juices flowing, they nourish not only our inner worlds, but our interactions with the rest of the world as well. Discovering, using and experiencing our creativity – through words, images, music, cooking, dancing or whatever expression comes naturally – is a step towards a richer lives for ourselves. By increasing our inner wealth, we naturally have more to share, and our outer worlds become richer, too.
Taking ownership of our challenges and opportunities, and knowing that we can face them creatively, turns our lives into what I think of as an interactive game. Knowing that we have choices, and that allowing ourselves to fail also allows us to grow, gives us the freedom we need to experiment with life. And a sense of humour is a great defense against all the things we just don’t have control over J
Wishing you all experimental, entertaining and enriching lives, and the ability to spot open doors when they appear!
September is Spring in the southern hemisphere, a time when we celebrate life in all its richness. Since my best friend also announced her pregnancy recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cycles of creation in life.
Oh, Spring! I want to go out and feel you and get inspiration. My old things seem dead. I want fresh contacts, more vital searching – Emily Carr
It’s important to do the work that leads to our renewal, clarity and inspiration and then remember to taste it, experience it and let it flow – Linda Saccoccio
Spring And The Art Of Creativity
Spring is nature’s ultimate expression of creativity, and nature’s cycle from seed to flower holds powerful lessons for our own creative process.
Seed – The incubating period
New ideas are precious and need to be protected and nurtured gently in order to be able to grow. While you’re still gaining clarity on an idea, don’t undermine its chances of success by exposing it too soon. You do want to plant it in rich soil though, and feed it vital nutrients for gestation. You don’t need to fuss over it too much – just know that it’s there and keep coming back to check on it. Instead, nurture your idea by nourishing yourself – indulge in your favourite activities, follow your curiosity and intuitions, and leave lots of quiet reflective time for the idea to grow.
Seedling – Giving your idea form
Once an idea has taken root, it’s still in a very sensitive phase. It needs lots of attention with regular watering. Strengthen it with research and experimentation, feeding it ‘titbits’ from a variety of influences to spark off new possibilities. It’s vital to avoid all criticism at this point – this is the stage where one harsh word will destroy any chance of survival. Rather try out a variety of forms and expressions without expectation, to see where they lead you.
Flower – Taking on a life of its own
All that gentle attention pays off in this phase, as your idea becomes more robust, able to accommodate the unexpected, and where it starts to incorporate input from the rest of the world. As artists we are often surprised at the way our ideas turn out, expressing the sentiment ‘It wasn’t really me, I just let it happen”. This experience of creativity is one of the most powerful we can have. Your creations now have a life of their own, shaped by others’ input, unexpected influences, and even strengthened by criticism.
They are still yours though, and you have every right to be proud of the precious new addition you have brought into the world for all to share.
May your creations have the time and attention to become beautiful, strong and independent.
Capture the magic of Spring in your own life, by focusing on what is new or budding in your life, and bringing nature’s cycles into your creative process.
Seed stage: Take time to reflect and get in touch with yourself, delve into new interests, pursue your passions, and soak up new influences.
Seedling: Have fun experimenting with variety – if you’re decorating, start by swatching; for painting, give your idea form with style and colour; and find rich synonyms for your written ideas.
Flower: Put on the finishing touches, display your artwork for others to see – even if it’s just in your kitchen; record and play back your music, print and bind your own book, or even publish your work online.
Appreciate and respect the feedback you receive, and then move on to planning your next creative project… in tune with your own creative cycle.
Since my fabulous holiday project last month, I’ve been thrown into the deep end of a late project, with long hours and stressful deadlines, which has unfortunately also eaten into my personal time. Although I love my ‘daily grind’, it’s easy to forget how valuable creative exercise is in refreshing and revitalizing us.
I quite enjoy the email signature of one of my colleagues: “One of the signs of work addiction is believing that everything you do is important”. At some point we need to be able to break off and get back into our groove – and this is before a project wears you to the bone :-)
Whatever work we do, when our thoughts are consumed by the demands of tasks, processes and planning, it’s easy to switch off to our inner needs, and leave them for ‘later, when I’m less busy’. However, our creativity is actually one of our most effective tools for regenerating depleted energy reserves, and can be a lot more effective than a nap or vegging in front of the telly / YouTube. When we spend time focusing on a ‘creative outlet’, we slip into a space where we can hear our own thoughts again.
When you find your mind stuck on a work-related issue, getting started on a the technical aspects of a creative exercise can quickly shift your focus.
Here are some ideas for simple creative exercises, as well of a couple of my favourite ‘quick’n’effective’ ways to get in touch with Me…
- Drawing exercises – even if it’s just the couch, or what’s outside the window
- Rewrite a communication in rhyming meter
- Make up a song – silly or serious
- Create a pebble mandala or draw in the sand (arranging stones in a balanced pattern always soothes my mind)
- Singing at the top of my voice (very effective when I’m sitting in traffic :-))
- Any craft activity – beading, decoupage, model-building, etc.
- Cooking – trying out a new recipe, or adding a new ingredient to a recipe
In these newsletters I usually discuss different ways to explore creativity, but since I’ve recently completed a focused creative project, I thought I’d take a more experiential approach and share some of the things I learnt from the process. I’ve also attached a photo of the finished work, for the curious among you :-)
I find working with glass meditative, almost therapeutic. I can leave the world behind, and focus… The simplicity of form, the drama of rich, intense colour, the joy of challenge, and the challenge of endurance… The piece, when it is over, is not what is made, but how it is made – Andrew Kuntz
I know what I’m doing with my work, and that’s really a nice feeling, that I’ve created something that wasn’t there before, that’s mine – Tracey Emin
Although I’m now in a desk job, metalwork art – and specifically the modern aspects of blacksmithing – remains one of my abiding passions. Every now and again I indulge in a trip to a local studio with a project in mind. After a two year break, I was beginning to feel a bit bored and restless at work, and took leave to get back into my groove.
Part of being out of the creative loop is the lack of project occupying my imagination. I can think of many things I could make, but none has instilled a burning desire to get going. That was resolved one morning looking out of my (quite suburban) windows, and wishing I had a bay ‘window box’ to sit snuggled up at the window – a literary fantasy I’ve always nurtured. Then it struck me that a bench under the window would provide the same effect, and that making one would be an excellent studio project. Enter all-consuming desire…
I soon had a design drawn up for a set of matching benches to go under each window. A bit more planning (sourcing material, confirming available studio space, and taking leave) saw me back in the studio with a somewhat ambitious plan for four days. But again, a burning desire to complete it drove me along.
The first couple of days were less than spectacular. I cursed myself for: ● not being as fit as once I’d been; ● not ‘keeping my eye in’ as the stock I’d bought seemed too heavy; ● trying to do too much in too little time; ● feeling out of control with some of the heavier work.
Strangely, these negative thoughts seemed utterly familiar – even when I’d been smithing full time, these doubts were a constant companion. Since I didn’t have time to give in to worry, I just had to keep pushing through. Fortunately I was working with a group of highly experienced and helpful people who saved me hours of work by showing me some useful alternatives.
By the end of day three I felt okay, thinking all the individual pieces were complete and ready to weld together, but on the last morning I realised I’d left off a piece. And another. And I’d changed the design ‘on the fly’, which hadn’t worked, so had to redo the backrest. This all felt like a blow to the stomach, but… I wanted my benches.
Recut and now ready to assemble, finally the magic started to kick in – the pieces fell nicely into place and the last afternoon passed in a glorious zone as I watched the benches come to life.
I had overestimated the task – cleaning and sealing required another full day that I had to go back for a week later, and being out of practice, I’d forgotten to accommodate the cushion height so they’ll need adjusting. Nevertheless, by the end of a four-day week I was sitting (and bouncing) on my very own pair of elegant window benches.
• It’s easy to be too ambitious – in fact, you’re likely to be, so make sure you have a back-up time plan.
• Work with supportive people who know more than you do – access to knowledge and experience is invaluable.
• Those negative thoughts will probably be there forever. Learn to ignore them instead of succumbing. Each time you succeed at your plans, they become a little less convincing.
• Sometimes your materials will be wrong, and there will be design changes along the way, but there are always alternative plans to be made, so being flexible about it helps.
• A burning desire to get something done is a huge contributing factor for success. Also doing things that others don’t expect of you is immensely satisfying – and gives you more fuel to counter that negative voice in your head.
• Immersing yourself in a creative endeavour does wonders for your sense of self. Hearing only your own thoughts, and avoiding email and cell communication for a few days can be wonderfully liberating, knowing the world will be there when you get back.
• It’s true that a change is as good as a holiday. Four days of hard labour might not sound like a rest, but the refreshed feeling with which I returned to my desk job could not have been greater if I’d spent a week sipping cocktails in a beach cabana.
Some more general observations:
• Sometimes ‘creating’ feels more like ‘making’ – creative endeavours are still just projects, with start and end times, tasks for planning and executing, and constraints that help to shape the outcome. Without demystifying the creative process, knowing this helps to gain some control over an otherwise elusive process.
• Technical experience is one of the cornerstones of the creative process. If you don’t have a lot of experience, instead of letting this be another negative message to repeat at yourself, book yourself on a course. This way you’ll have access to the knowledge you need, be surrounded by supportive people, and be able to immerse yourself in a pre-organised space. You can let go of the details and focus solely on learning and creating.
• We learn about ourselves in everything we do. Different arts have different ‘outcomes’ or products, but whatever you do will leave a lasting ‘memento’ of the whole experiences, both in the work produced and the deeper, less tangible personal discoveries you make, which will be with you forever.
Wishing you the opportunity to delve into your own world of making and creating.
Creativity is one of the areas where criticism affects us most. Many people believe criticism is necessary to the creative process, yet no matter how strong we are feeling, or how many compliments we receive about our work, a single word of criticism can completely derail us. As creative people, it helps to be able to understand the context, and know how to respond when our worst fears are realised.
Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud – Alexander Osborn
Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots – Frank A. Clark
Dealing with Criticism
There are two kinds of criticism – the kind that helps and the kind that harms. Helpful criticism affirms our ability while opening up new avenues. We very rarely receive this kind of input, and when we do, we seldom call it criticism :-) Usually what we receive in the guise of “constructive criticism” might be well-meant, but is really harmful.
We might be told flat out “I just don’t like it” or “it’s rubbish” by someone who believes that their ‘honest’, ‘candid’ approach is the best route – note, they don’t say ‘helpful’ or ‘supportive’. Alternately we might receive criticism that stems from our friends / colleagues / mentors’ own fear of failure or rejection – we hear this as a reference to “what others may think” – too risqué, too busy, too subtle, too obscure – fill in your own adjective here.
This input can be very persuasive, but hold on to your direction – how are you going to learn how to be you if you don’t follow exactly your own instincts? It helps to remember that there is no single group of “others” out there – audiences shape themselves around the authentic output of people they resonate with. If your work doesn’t resonate immediately with your family’s sensibilities, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to add value to someone else’s life – or indeed, your own.
This kind of input needs to be understood as rooted in someone else’s fear – we can thank these well-meaning advisors for their concern, and even respect their feelings without taking them on (since we have enough of our own fears to deal with :) ).
Sonia Simone, author of the marketing blog Remarkable Communication, wrote a brilliant post on this earlier this month, and I encourage everyone to read the original – Sonia is a compelling writer and handles this topic with humour, empathy and a great deal of wisdom. In summary, here is my take on her five points:
- “Keep a testimonial file”
Where our creativity is concerned, we find it hard enough to believe compliments, let alone remember them. When you receive a compliment, keep a record of it somewhere easy to find, to have on hand whenever you need to remind yourself that you are okay, really. If you haven’t got one, trawl through your email (if you’re like me it can go back for years) looking for positive messages from friends and family.
- “Resist the temptation to kick yourself for getting upset”
You don’t have to be strong in the face of adversity. When you acknowledge the hurt and give yourself permission to feel it (or “wallow in it”, as Sonia puts it), it stops lurking in the back of your mind, ready to attack the next time you’re feeling low. And once you’ve done this, you’ll find you can look at the information you’ve received objectively.
- “Control your outward reaction”
Responding with bitterness and further insults is often satisfying at the time, but eventually leaves us cold, and carrying both the pain of the criticism and the harsh words we’ve let into the universe. Walking away is okay here; as is saying “Thanks for the input” if you’re at all able to. Chances are that down the line you’ll be able to pick out the positives you aren’t feeling right now – but it’s okay if you wait til then to feel grateful :)
- “Don’t over-correct”
As above, your creative exploration is taking you somewhere. Don’t change your course based on someone else’s criticism – they may have something of value to add, but rather let that work itself into your work naturally and slowly, than swing over to ‘their way of seeing things’.
- “Congratulations! You’re succeeding”
Yes, you have produced work, and it has produced a reaction. It really is worth a celebration, and while this is not the same as drowning your sorrows, it’s probably okay to do both at once :)
One thing I’d add is to learn how to give truly helpful criticism yourself (see the post below). This way you’ll know it when you hear it, and even be able to assist others in giving useful criticism.
Wishing you the courage to remain authentic and positive in the face of any challenge.
In the post above we discuss dealing with criticism. This exercise follows a process for giving others positive, affirmative feedback…
Take an objective piece of work (a photo from a magazine, a song, a new fashion, etc.) and pretend it was made by a friend.
- List what you like about it, and what has been done well – the colours / range of sounds / emotiveness / daring / etc. Say as much as you can here. We tend to forget that while we’re talking about particulars, others can’t hear the context of the rest of the thoughts in our head. On the whole I think we should spend more time praising each other’s efforts, as it really does foster creative energy.
- Think about the objectives that the work sets out to achieve, as far as you can see. Ask yourself how well you think it meets them, and how it does that.
- List what you don’t like about it, what jars or disturbs you, and what you would do differently. Ask yourself whether this is a difference in personal symbols, or if you genuinely think it hasn’t been handled well. Personal tastes are a big influence – if you don’t like rap music, you probably aren’t in a position to evaluate its merits If your tastes differ, say so while acknowledging the good.
- Then ask what you really think could be improved, and how that will change your experience of the work. I firmly believe that “weaknesses” are areas of opportunity for us – once we know what we do well, we can choose areas we’d like to improve on for ourselves – but it’s a whole lot easier if we receive this input in a friendly fashion.
- Respect the fact that the recipient can take or leave your feedback as they choose – which will allow you to do the same…
When we’re able to give truly constructive ‘criticism’, we also become able to evaluate feedback others give us. Over time, this exercise will not only strengthen our hit-taking muscles, but also influence our own work as we learn more about our own preferences, interests and strengths.
In most of our ‘everyday’ projects we are forced to work within constraints of time, materials, skills and budgets, as well as a range of highly specific client needs, giving very little room for experimentation – the focus is on delivery. When we’re experimenting creatively we don’t need to be anywhere near as rigid, but working within constraints is an excellent way to channel and focus our creative efforts.
Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem. – Rollo May
Shakespeare wrote his sonnets within a strict discipline, fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming in three quatrains and a couplet. Were his sonnets dull? Mozart wrote his sonatas within an equally rigid discipline – exposition, development, and recapitulation. Were they dull? – David Ogilvy
The benefits of working with limitations
Working within a set plan is as critical to developing our creative experience as the aimless doodling we’ve discussed in previous newsletters (Relaxing into Creativity). It offers us the opportunity to put into practice the abstract discoveries captured from our non-focused contemplations, and stretches our responses, ironically forcing us to be more innovative, rather than less.
If we don’t have specific imposed constraints, one nice approach is to copy the way children make up rules for their games. These ‘rules’ generally take a reasonably simple exercise which offers little sense of accomplishment in itself but by adding daring elements and time limits, turn it into a series of challenges to pit their wits against.
In a creative project, these rules create a kind of lens, temporarily distorting the way we view the world, focusing our attention to ‘draw out’ our creativity as we rise to the challenge of examining and representing our world from a new perspective.
We also feel invigorated by overcoming challenges, and as we go along, set ourselves new and more stimulating ‘rules’ that allow us to grow from strength to strength.
By forcing us to go beyond our comfort zone, these imposed ‘strictures’ allow us to experiment, push ourselves a little bit further, develop confidence in our ability to meet challenges, and develop whole new lines of interest.
Wishing you all a stimulating and invigorating May.
Aside from time and budget, creative challenges can be applied to style, content and technique. Here are some ideas:
Visual Arts: Make a collage all in one colour, or using only one motif / Focus only on one of the formal elements at a time (line, colour, form, texture, light, space, shape) / Build up form using one shape only
Writing: Write in metred prose / Write in haikus / Use opposites to describe an image
Music: Work a piece from another song into yours / Create a handmade instrument & work this sound into your music / speed up the rhythm, or slow it down.
Cooking: Explore the use of specific spices / Create recipes with substitutes for wheat or sugar
Fashion: Incorporate contrasting textiles / Design the same garment for different markets.
These exercises expand our abilities and provide us with new insights into how we can recreate and represent the world around us, in the process revealing something of our personal style. Over time this builds easily into a body of work that bears our own personal ‘stamp’.