Owning Your Creative Self

I don’t know about how you react to compliments, but I reject them outright. They make me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Which is odd, because I would love to believe someone liked something I did.

So whenever anyone compliments me on “being so creative,” I wince. I’m not creative. Creative is Yo-Yo Ma. Creative is Anthony Doerr, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Jefferson, Cindy Sherman, James Salter, Adel, Walt Disney, the founders of Cirque de Soleil, Stephen King, Mary Oliver… Those people are legitimately creative.

I imagine them living in houses that are unique and beautifully designed and decorated, expressions of themselves. I imagine it’s not–or was not–difficult for them to paint and to become the painting; to write, and find their voice; to compose songs and sing; to make a cello be their heart and soul; to invent machines, write the Declaration of Independence and design homes like Monticello; to have such vivid lucid dreams that they awake with the whole concept of Cirque de Soleil fully-formed.

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When I compare these paragons of creative achievement to what is my messy, inconsistent dabbling in multiple ways of making things, with results that are mostly not great successes, it’s painfully obvious that I don’t even occupy the same universe as they, true creative artists, do. And with that realization, every impulse in me to create just stops.

It is this self-degrading, utterly ridiculous–and habitual–way of comparing myself to others’ achievements which time and again holds me back from attempting to make things. I doubt I am alone in making this knee-jerk, self-critical assessment. Perhaps most people do the same thing, thus we are deprived of the joy and the enormous psychological benefits of freely and joyfully expressing ourselves through the production of things.

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We’ve got to stop it! Break the habit of shrinking away from our creative impulses and minimizing them as “worthless,” or “silly.” Focus on the spark that leaped in our heart or mind instead of being hypnotized by an ingrained social construct that makes us apologetic and slightly ashamed of having felt a spark at all.

“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” — Vincent van Gogh

Creativity isn’t something that belongs only to the famous and accomplished. We all have emotional responses to things, we all dream, we have things we want to say–it’s just that we’ve stopped believing in the worth of those inner impulses. Our professional lives teach us to value other things: working as part of a team to achieve a goal set by the organization; proficiency in performing as expected; attaining quotas and “making the numbers.”

When we were children, before we learned to tune out of our own openness, curiosity, and eagerness to explore, before we learned to fear failure, we made things–messy paintings with our hands, castles built out of sand, messes created with food that were joy-filled expressions of our inner selves.  We did not fear failure. We did not think to compare our expressions to those of others and find them “less than.” As children, we were plunged into the exuberance of creation, totally joyful in the act of creating something.

Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” –Pablo Picasso

As adults, we carry the burdens of what we’ve learned to do to grow up, to earn a living, to “fit in” and to support ourselves and others. We also have more control and more choice over our lives than we did as children. And we can choose to create space within ourselves and our busy lives to allow the creative spark to rise again, and the bonfire of production to flourish in our heart.

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These days there are many studies on how to develop creativity in young students (they are, after all, our future), and in the workplace (where sometimes creativity is highly valued). And there are many publications geared towards a general audience about how creativity “works,” in particular, “Wired to Create,” by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, and they are of interest to me.

But we don’t need to pour over manuscripts or take special classes to allow creative impulses to return to us. We just need to want to feel the leap of inspiration, the tug of an idea within ourselves, and be open to and honor those little flutters. Once we are mindful to sensing the small nudge within, we can allow ourselves the unconstrained time to follow wherever that particular impulse may lead–without (and this is the most important part), without judging our impulses, without being ashamed of “a failure” if our day dreaming leads to “nothing.”

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford

Notice life around you; notice especially when something makes your heart beat a little faster. Be curious about things: what would this pie taste like if I added cinnamon? How would this room look if I painted it in bold colors? I wonder what would happen if I tried to paint blindfolded… Learn from each effort, each thing you make. Own your creative self.

My hope is that we’ll all find enormous joy in embracing our creative selves. And that nobody (are you listening, Turner?), nobody will cringe from self-critical judgment when told, “Oh, you’re so creative!”

“Creativity is the quality that you bring to the activity that you are doing. It is an attitude, an inner approach – how you look at things . . . Whatsoever you do, if you do it joyfully, if you do it lovingly, if your act of doing is not purely economical, then it is creative.” –  Osho

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