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