It was an unexpectedly overcast day in California and the breeze chilled my sandaled feet. I was eleven years old. A playhouse made of brown chunks of sod piled like bricks leaned towards a wooden fence. Soft redwood bark chips covered the ground. There was nothing green in sight. Trowels in hand, Roxanna and I studied a petunia seed packet and considered which corner would get the right amount of sun. She went into the house briefly, leaving me in the company of her much younger sister Caroline whom we had been ignoring. Caroline rested her belly in a canvas swing seat, letting her head hang down, and fitfully walked her toes on the ground to turn her body and twist the chains of the swing. She was singing and it was soon obvious to me that she was making up the song as she sang. In that moment I realized a number of things. I used to make up songs as I sang them. I hadn’t done so for years. I had forgotten that I ever did so. We never did plant the petunias, but Caroline’s song was a tiny green shoot showing itself to me on that gray day.
Why do most of us stop making up songs and doing other creative things? Why did you? Was your creativity ever praised? Was it ignored? Ridiculed? Did a teacher listen to you sing and tell you to just mouth the words in the choir? Did the teacher pick someone else to put together the art bulletin board? Did these things happen because you had no talent? NO. These things happened because of the human flaws of your teachers. Now you have a choice. You can seek out better teachers. I would like to be one of them right now. If your creativity was never praised, it may be under a beam in the rubble of an earthquake. Listen for that weak groan and be ready with a blanket and some hot chocolate.
One good way to get your creativity going is to do a writing practice known as “keep the pen moving”. Write whatever thoughts come into your head and write fast. This is not journaling. Don’t box yourself into what happened to you on a particular day. Don’t concern yourself about the quality of the writing or worry about spelling or grammar. You are mining for raw material that may be worth crafting later. Be open to images or memories that pop into your head and describe them in your writing. They might be pictures, voices or feelings in your body. Expect most of what you write to be junk. And yet, something magical happens in your mind when you give it that kind of attention. Set yourself a length of time like ten minutes. You might spend nine minutes writing junk but then you get one interesting phrase or sentence that could be the beginning of a poem or story. Or you might remember something you haven’t thought about in years that suddenly feels worth writing about.
Even if all you get is junk, you are doing something of huge value. You are getting familiar and comfortable with the landscape of your creative mind. You are giving it the attention that it craves. If your thoughts are leaves, look under them to see the branches. There will be trivial memories that keep surfacing. These are big branches that might lead you somewhere more interesting. Or is your mind like a body, structured with bones and moved by muscles? What are the moods of your creative mind? Sometimes all it gives are tiresome puns. Other times there will be metaphors galore and some will be stinky and some will be interesting for five minutes and some will make everyone around you go “wow”. Here is something I learned from poetry teacher Peter Levitt. “Everything is permitted in the imagination. ” I invite you to embrace whatever you find there. When you make creation an important part of your life, you will draw to you people who appreciate what you create.
If a gymnast falls, she ends her routine with a gymnast bow. She stands up straight and raises her arms up over her head in a posture of accomplishment. The teacher of an improv workshop I took taught us to do gymnast bows if we did something that felt lame or embarassing during our improv exercises. This created such an atmosphere of trust in that room, we could all be brilliant. If you are displeased with your creation, take a gymnast bow and get back on the balance beam and keep going.
Don’t quit your day job. Being creative does not take a lot of time. It only takes courage. Start by dipping your toe in and get some experience. Find a buddy who also wants to be more creative and make a pact to admire each other’s work, giving only honest positive feedback.
Don’t look to the noncreative people in your life for validation of your worthiness as an artist. This is self sabotage. Whatever wonderful thing you want to do in your life, it is too easy to find someone to tell you why you can’t do it. Don’t listen.
We all have a powerhouse of creativity in our mind. Think of it as a whale. Once you know where to look, you can count on it to surface now and then. It needs to breathe.
Nancy Ibsen is a third generation writer, singer and composer living in Seattle. She is a published poet and short fiction writer. She is currently writing a science fiction novel. See her website at http://www.unleash-creativity.org/