Keeping Creativity Alive

“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”—Henry David Thoreau

Imagination springs from nowhere and brings something new to the world—games, art, inventions, stories, solutions. Childhood is particularly identified with this state, perhaps because creativity in adults is considered to be a trait possessed only by the artistic few.

Nurturing creativity in all its forms recognizes that humans are by nature generative beings. We need to create. The best approach may be to get out of one another’s way and welcome creativity as a life force.

If we are familiar with the process that takes us from vision to expression, we have the tools to use creativity throughout our lives. When we welcome the exuberance young children demonstrate as they dance around the room, talk to invisible friends, sing in the bathtub, and play made-up games we validate the importance of imagination.

When we encourage teens to leave room in their schedules for music or game design or skateboarding or whatever calls to them, we honor their need for self-expression. Young people who are comfortable with creativity can apply the same innovative mindset to their adult lives.

Creativity is necessary when dealing with an architectural dilemma, new recipe, marketing campaign, environmental solution, or personal relationship. In fact, it’s essential.

Imagination and inspiration have fueled human progress throughout time. Creative powers have brought us marvels and continue to expand the boundaries. The energy underlying the creative act is life-sustaining and honors the work of others.

But there’s a caveat. Creativity isn’t always positive, visionaries aren’t always compassionate, and progress isn’t always beneficial. After all, a clever mind is required to craft a conspiracy as well as to negotiate a peace accord.

Creativity is a life force when it arises as a healing impulse, as a truth-telling impulse, as an impulse to approach mystery.

Tomorrow’s possibilities call out to our inventive, imaginative selves. Let’s answer.

Portions of this post were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Feeding Creativity With Constraints

Learning to Love You More, creativity thrives on constraints, innovation fueled by challenges, be odd, try something new,

Maybe an unusual assignment will amp up your creativity. Perhaps:

~make a poster of shadows

~write the phone call you wish you could have

~compose the saddest song

~describe your ideal government

~plant a surprise garden

~make a documentary video of a small child

These assignments were devised by artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher. Their work called them to be original every day, but they realized that their most enlivening experiences came when they worked under constraints. An assignment, a challenge, even an annoyance spurred them to different, sometimes more profoundly joyous productivity.

Although we set creative people off in a special category, being creative is simply part of the human experience. You’re creative all the time. You might change your approach to a difficult neighbor, tackle a work problem from a new angle, adapt a recipe to suit ingredients on hand, make up a game to amuse a fretful child, figure out another way to do your errands when a road is closed. We have to come up with new ideas and different tactics constantly. Often they’re imposed on us by obstacles. Annoying as constraints might be, as something original comes forth in response we’re likely to feel that zing of aliveness that creativity sparks.

Constraints can actually promote creativity. A study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled “Stepping back to see the big picture: when obstacles elicit global processing” explains that obstacles blow open the approach we ordinarily take. This even has a spill-over effect into the way we approach other challenges. As the researchers explain,

These studies show that encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.

That’s why artists July and Fletcher developed a project, called Learning to Love You More, back in 2002. The idea was to encourage the general public to take on assignments, then post the results on the project’s site. The assignments are themselves a sort of constraint, forcing us to do something within new boundaries, thereby provoking a shift in perception of ourselves and the world around us. Creativity has a way of doing that.

A few years ago I wrote an article about Learning to Love You More for the Canadian magazine Geez. To prepare for the piece I did about ten of the projects; some with friends, some with my kids, some alone. Each one felt entirely odd and yet liberating. And because they were so unusual, they stand out in my memory, as we want the moments of our lives to do. Some assignments felt delightfully silly, like drawing constellations made of freckles (#9). Some felt radical, like making a public information plaque to hang at the door of City Hall (#62). Some felt fun, like creating a wind chime from a coat hanger and old kitchen utensils to hang on a parking lot tree (#15). Some felt wrenchingly poignant as I carried out the assignment, like this one.

All Holy

Assignment #63:  Make an encouraging banner. I cut a worn blanket into squares and shaped felt into letters to create a banner reading, “It’s All Holy.” The blanket was once my mother’s. The project not only re-purposed a ripped blanket but also satisfied my restlessness, as the day I spent creating the banner was the first anniversary of her death.

I hiked through the snow to hang the message outside between winter-bare trees. Beyond the banner lay our land where carefully tended free-range cows and chickens live.  On the other side, the banner’s words faced a conventional farm where animals are confined and raised on unnatural feed. I believe it’s all holy, but faith isn’t easily applied to real life. Standing there on a bright cold day with those words lifting in the breeze I could almost imagine what it would mean to live beyond concepts of good and bad, sorrow and joy, ordinary and sacred.

Somehow creativity thrives on the limitations found within the constraints of a particular challenge. One family, captivated by the Learning to Love You More project, did every assignment together. They ended up showing their work at a local gallery, giving talks titled “Art is Where You Find It and Everyone Can Do Art.”

The site is no longer listing new assignments, although previous submissions can be viewed. And the founders have put out a Learning to Love You More book. But we carry it on as long as we recognize just how enlivening challenges can be for ourselves, our kids, our creative lives.  Constraints, annoying as they may be, can push us to engage in new ways of seeing and being.

A Few Creativity Generators

16 Ways to Spark Creativity

Don’t Say It, Draw It

Throw Strangely Amusing Parties

38 Unexpected Ways to Revel in Snail Mail

7 Ways to Make Your Day More Magical

Have some ideas for quirky, fun, or heart-expanding Learning To Love You More type assignments? Share them in the comments.

Throw Strangely Amusing Parties

throw an art party,

We used to throw strangely amusing parties on a more regular basis. Box parties where kids made forts and mazes and castles out of huge boxes. Tie dye and batik parties that were a messy extravaganza of color. Science-y gatherings where everyone worked on the same ridiculous experiment with vastly different results. Even an election commiseration event where everyone had to bring a few jokes about a certain president whose name rhymed with “tush.”

The longest lasting tradition? Our summer pig pen parties. These were grand messy BYOB affairs, as in bring your own bucket—of dirt. It was dumped in a backyard kiddie pool and mixed by all children in attendance into perfectly creamy mud, which they used to coat themselves until they were recognizable only by bathing suit outlines. We put a garden hose at the top of our slide and the kids careened down in glorious streaks of mud. We handed out cans of shaving cream for use as body décor (with firm instructions to avoid faces because it’s not fun in the eyes). We brought out ample water balloon supplies. And we insisted the kids eat without utensils or hands, just direct face to plate. Like pigs. Of course these parties got out of hand once the grown-ups refused to sit in lawn chairs watching their kids have all the fun. Some neighbors showed up in pig masks, others showed up with water balloons sneakily hidden in baby strollers and red wagons, others brought massive auxiliary supplies of shaving cream. Normally well-behaved men used hoses to fill garbage cans with water, which they dumped over the heads of the few civilized mommies who thought they’d keep their hair looking nice. One year the entire assemblage of pig pen partiers were incensed that a regular pig pen attendee decided to stay home to repair a fence. All of us walked down to the street in wet, muddy, shaving cream streaked glory to drag him to the party. His police chief father who was there helping him make the repairs looked seriously alarmed. We dragged him anyway.

I’ve been fantasizing about a backyard Jackson Pollack party where everyone brings leftover paint to fling at canvases, maybe even using the giant trebuchet our kids built for some super-charged paint tossing. I can just see us all in splattered clothes, posing for a group picture with candy cigarettes hanging out of our mouths. What’s stopping me? I live with practical people who wonder if paint will get tracked in the house because partygoers are human and will eventually need to use the bathroom.

My recent event was a quietly civilized affair: a collage party for some artful cutting and pasting. I have all sorts of glue-able stuff here. Old sheet music, sewing patterns, stockbooks, wallpaper, tiny do-dads, lace, game pieces. All I asked people to bring were their own scissors, marked with their names (because scissors are migratory beasts) and a potluck offering. They brought a lot more glue-able stuff to share. I thought we’d stick down some background, let it dry while we ate and drank, then finish and move on to a second or third one each. But my friends ate and drank and talked while collaging. They didn’t want to stop cutting and arranging. It’s as if we all have too little time for something as simply satisfying as placing a scrap of paper on a page exactly as it pleases us. The event was less lively than the average pig pen party, that’s for sure. But it was restorative. No phones. No screens. Nothing else to do but indulge in the kind of play we call creating. I guess that doesn’t happen unless we make time for it.

Here’s a sample of collage party creations. (Some are backgrounds awaiting finishing touches.)

And let me know your ideas for strangely amusing events. I plan to steal them.

turn junk into collage,

art party,

make a collage, throw a collage party,

science collage,

16 Ways To Spark Creativity

how to be creative,

1. Get out of your head and back to your senses. Touch, smell, and taste. Reach out and feel the texture of bricks as you walk by a building. Forgo utensils to eat with your hands. Notice the sensation of cool water sliding down your throat as you drink. Be in your body.

2. Avoid your playlist. Listen to music from a genre or part of the world completely unfamiliar to you. Music is a language more evocative than speech.

spark your creativity,

3. Better yet, try silence. The constant presence of media playing in our homes, cars, and public places dulls the essential connection we have to our inner selves.

eliminate blocks to productivity,

4. List your aggravations. Highlight the ones you have control over. Cross out the ones you don’t have control over. It’s a smaller list now isn’t it? Once you stop fretting so much you have energy for more generative pursuits.

why you should doodle,

5. Doodle. What seems like an aimless activity is a great way to allow your brain to idle while creative impulses emerge. And the doodles themselves may tell you something.

fun is good for your brain,

6. Play. We function best mentally and physically when we indulge in the free form fun sort of play that calls on us to improvise, move, and laugh. If you’ve forgotten how, consult a three-year-old.

Mateo Inurria: Daydream

7. Welcome daydreams, they fuel our creative lives.


8. Seek metaphors. Challenge yourself to discern a “message” in the first billboard you see, first sentence you hear when you turn on music, or first visual that appears when you flick on the TV.

Margret Hofheinz-Döring/ Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen

9. Listen to your dreams. Before falling asleep, ask for a dream message. Remind yourself to remember the dream. As you waken, pull the threads of your dream into your conscious awareness and let it inform your day.

“Sprich! Ich höre Dir zu”

10. Imagine your own burning questions are being asked of you by someone you love dearly. Then answer as if you’re talking to that person. Your responses tend to be more wide open, innovative, and kind when responding to someone you love, much narrower within your own “self-talk.”

spark your creativity,

11. Keep creative thinking notebooks, as da Vinci did. Use them to make quick sketches and doodles, note ideas, write observations, free associate, draw mindmaps, and keep track of your inspirations.

creativity exercises,

Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

12. View issues from all angles. Don’t accept what you’re told or think what you’re expected to think.

Danny Gregory

13. Don’t wait till you have more time or life gets easier. Cultivate a passion that has been dormant too long. Pick up that paintbrush, practice your guitar, try out for that play, take those glassblowing classes, learn to sail. For inspiration, take a look at Everyday Matters. Author Danny Gregory’s wife became paralyzed in an accident. While caring for her and their infant son, Gregory decided to start drawing. His study of color, value, and ordinary beauty helped to heal their family too. And you don’t want to miss his extraordinary new book, Art Before Breakfast: A Zillion Ways to be More Creative No Matter How Busy You Are.

teach yourself to be more creative,

14. Make an effort to connect regularly with something in nature. Watch the same tree as it changes throughout the seasons, pay attention to a body of water in different weather conditions, take an evening walk (no matter the temperature) each time there’s full moon.

Mary Barnes

15. Cultivate flow, what’s also called being “in the zone.” That’s the feeling of being fully absorbed in your activity. Time is irrelevant, in fact you may feel at one with the project whether it’s sailing, gardening, sculpting, composing, or welding.

16. Do something unusual (for you) every day. Try an unfamiliar food, drive a different route, make up your own lyrics to a song, compliment a stranger, make a unique board game out of an old one, laugh off an irritation, use a new word three different times, lie in the grass, write affirmations on your underwear, leave encouraging notes in books, compose an anti-thank you letter, go on a media fast, use binoculars, chew every bite ten times, do somersaults.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.       -Martha Graham