Living the Creative Life

By Eric Maisel, PhD

People often ask me how they can become more creative. By this they mean many different things; even if they meant just one thing, there would still be many different kinds of answers.

Ginny RuffnerFor one person, the answer might be "worry less." For another person, the answer might be "grow wilder."

For a third, it might be "be braver." For a fourth, it might be "somehow find the time."

But whatever else you might need to do, one thing that will help you grow more creative is consciously engaging in new explorations.

If we do not explore, we do not get to go anywhere new, and if we do not go anywhere new, we can't be creative.

Check out the following excerpts from The Creativity Book on exploring. If you give them a try, you will become more creative.

    * Explore
    * Ask One Question
    * Have Feathers Handy
    * Carve Basalt
    * Leave for the Unknown


Huckleberry Finn escapes his father's clutches and heads down the Mississippi River in order to save himself. He rebels against the rules of his culture — that he go to school, that he attend church, that he obey his father — and, by lighting out, opts for adventure and exploration instead.

Huckleberry Finn is a great yarn but it is also a metaphor for the creative journey, which requires that we escape the clutches of everyday thinking and culturally-determined behaving and explore life in a personal way, seeking out adventures of the mind and actual adventures.

We need to explore bayous so as to paint them and to experience sunsets so as to write about them.

Few of us do enough exploring. When we were very young a day came when we took our crayons and used them on every surface we could find. I know that I used them on the pages of my brother's stamp collection, because those pages still exist and every so often I happen upon them.

We unbridled toddlers would take our crayons and try them out on the bathroom mirror, the wallpaper, the parquet floor, the plastic slip cover entombing the living room sofa, even on white bread and other really unsuitable surfaces.

We explored and learned an awful lot that way and were on our way to a lifetime of creating, the heart of which is trial-and-error exploration. But our parents got wind of what we were up to and halted our efforts.

Children who were punished for writing on walls and had their crayons taken away — rather than being graced with a wry smile and given reams of paper for their further explorations — had their ability to explore and their desire to create undermined.

For many people those early years at home and at school did little to encourage their instinct for exploration.

Now we need to explore again, if we are to create. A good place to start is with the love that prompted us, those many years ago, to see how red crayon marks looked on cream-colored wallpaper: that is, with our love of color.

Explore Color

Stop by an art supply store and buy three tubes of acrylic paint: one cobalt blue, one aquamarine, and one white. Also buy some cheap student canvas boards, shrink-wrapped in packages of three, or a sketch pad, some palette paper, and a cheap brush or two. All of this shouldn't cost you too much money.

Today, you're going to make some blues. You're not out to paint irises or blue mountains, you're just exploring blue, doing a little color homework. Squeeze out some of the cobalt or aquamarine paint onto your palette paper.

Look at it. Squeeze out a little white. Is it white like white-washed walls or white like soft serve ice cream? Mix a little of the blue with a little of the white.

You've made a new color. Look at it. Make a mark with it on your canvas or sketch paper. Make blue marks until there is no more blue left on the bristles of your brush. Then clean your brush.

Mix a second blue, using a little more or a little less white, or combining the aquamarine and the cobalt. Mark with it. Notice the mark your full brush makes and the one it creates when it's half-empty.

Does the blue seem different when you paint up-and-down and when you paint side-to-side? What happens when the new blue touches the old one? Do you get three blues, one blue, or many?

Encircle some blue with white. Encircle some white with blue. Make a hundred shades, a hundred hues, and a host of marks, some like blue animal tracks, some like blue ivy growing.

Spend a little time naming the blues you've created. Blues already have names like bronze blue, Berlin blue, Antwerp blue, celestial blue, Chinese blue, steel blue, Milori blue.

Name yours. Name the one in the middle of the canvas for the lake you used to visit with your parents. Name the one off to the left for dusky skies in winter. Name the one you made blue lines with for the blue veins just above your wrist.

Tomorrow, explore your current creative project. If you're composing Latin fusion tunes, spend an hour sampling your tango collection. If you're blocked on your dissertation, explore your hypothesis.

If you've been feeling unmotivated to complete your statue, explore some interesting anatomical structure: say spines, from the spine-like filaments in deep sea creatures, to the outrageous spines of dinosaurs, to your own spine. Make "explore" one of the sacred words of your religion.

Ask One Question

You can jump start your creativity in the following way:

   1.  Ask yourself an interesting question.
   2.  Try to answer it.

As simple as this is to say, it is anything but easy to arrive at deep questions worth our devotions or to answer them adequately once we get them framed.

Many complications arise. We may unwittingly impose an answer on the question because of some agenda we have, rather than engaging in honest inquiry. For example, our desire to prove or disprove the existence of the unconscious will surely color the way we answer our own provocative question, "What is meant by the unconscious?"

We may ask a question that has no answer, or that has several competing answers, or that was framed just incorrectly enough that we can't get started answering it. These are the kinds of difficulties that confront everyday creative people who take it upon themselves to ask and answer large questions.

Here's an example. The following interesting question occurs to you. "If a poor, basically decent man, caught up in the egotism of youth and holding to the twin ideas that the end justifies the means and that great individuals can step outside the law, decides to steal some money and commits a murder in the process, will he stick to his so-to-speak principles and consider himself justified in his actions or will his conscience cause him to confess, leading to his ultimate redemption?"

This of course is the question Dostoevsky poses and answers in Crime and Punishment.

It is an excellent question. But we have to wonder if Raskolnikov's conscience would work so admirably in real life that he'd confess and willingly let himself be shipped off to Siberia.

How many confessions of that sort have you heard of? I can't think of any. It appears that Dostoevsky wants to answer his question in a certain way, even if it isn't the truest way, because he is arguing for the existence of God, the power of God's love, and the possibility of human goodness.

The novel is great, but it isn't a true inquiry; the fix is in. Whatever Raskolnikov would do in real life, in Crime and Punishment he will confess and he will find God. That is Dostoevsky's agenda.

Take a second example, where a question and answer both occur to you in rapid succession. The following question pops into your head: "What would a book about creativity for children focus on?"

An answer immediately arrives: "Such a book should focus on giving children permission to make mistakes. Maybe it could be called 101 Mistakes Every Child Should Make."

But when you sit down to write it you discover that focusing entirely on making mistakes, no matter how cleverly you maintain that focus, is too negative and one-sided an approach.

Part of you still wants to provide the answer you first arrived at, because it's an important one, but part of you recognizes that a new answer is needed, one that is more rounded and complete.

Do you stick with the first answer or surrender to the need to find the second? In this example my hunch is that surrendering to a new answer is the better path. But whichever path you choose, you're likely to experience anxiety and self-doubt in the process.

You may wonder why I suggested that you engage in this two-step process and then focused on the problems inherent in the process. I did so because I wanted you to respect the complexities of the work we do.

At the same time, I wanted to remind you that despite these difficulties we can still end up with something as fine as Crime and Punishment or as useful as your book on creativity for children.

This two-step process — asking yourself an interesting question, then trying to answer it — only sounds easy, but for all its hardness it can result in the best work human beings are capable of producing.

Ask One Question

What makes for an interesting question? Today, begin to develop your criteria for deciding which questions are interesting and which aren't really.

Must a question never have been posed before? Or never answered adequately? Must it have great inherent difficulty, so that you really get to sweat as you try to answer it? Or must it be a question whose answer helps people live better lives?

Tomorrow, pose yourself some interesting questions. Make a long list of them. Take your time and then select one to answer, or let it select you.

The day after tomorrow, visit with your question, have tea with it, take it out to lunch. If the desire to answer it wells up in you, then you will have a new creative project on your hands.

Have Feathers Handy

Certainly you could sit in a bare room and create. Monks in their unadorned cells have painted icons and illustrated manuscripts, prisoners have written novels and poetry, ascetics with few worldly possessions have produced revolutionary philosophies and inventions.

You don't need to be surrounded by stimuli or have the best tools in order to create. Tools are useful and sometimes vital and the objects with which we surround ourselves can, like the stained glass windows of a church, filter reality beautifully and move us mysteriously. But no paintbrush, sunrise, or nude model ever made a painter.

Indeed, it often seems as if people are harmed by accumulating too many tools. One of my clients had a studio full of instruments: a dozen synthesizers, scores of drums from around the world, and reed instruments of every description, in clay, bamboo, ebony, you name it.

But it had been many years since he'd done any composing. Another client, a would-be writer, purchased every new writing book that came out. But still she never wrote. Owning the tools of your trade does not guarantee that you'll create; and if those tools sit around unused for too long, they only become a reproach.

But whereas too many tools may prove stifling, keeping resonant objects nearby can ignite your creativity. A postcard on my desk of the Place des Vosges in Paris always puts me in a creative mood. So does a painting of irises on the mantle, done by my daughter Kira when she was thirteen and studying Van Gogh.

Then there are the odd books I've accumulated — on Los Angeles painters, chaos theory, the Soviet short story, neurophilosophy— my CDs of Andean music and the Indigo Girls, a certain rusted iron gecko, a wooden African spoon, and a tailless clay horse: each of these objects in its own mysterious way supports my creativity.

How do I actually make use of these things? I don't know. But when you have resonant objects nearby, they work wonders. With some feathers handy, you have a talisman of every bird that every took flight.

When you have pebbles on your coffee table, you have the tallest mountain ranges right beside you. Maybe a feather will find its way into your next collage, or maybe its job is to add lightness to your next poem. Maybe the books on your shelf are there for actual reference, or maybe they're there to remind you of Byzantine libraries and ideas that never die.

Sometimes these supportive objects have some direct use, but just as often their job is to stir us and join us on our journeys of exploration.

Gather Some Objects

Let's say that you mean to paint a red painting, because red somehow has been on your mind lately. In that case, gather some red things: a poster of Matisse's painting "The Artist and His Family," five or six varieties of apples, red candies, whipped cream mixed with red food coloring, a brick, a Chinese red vase, an apple-and-cinnamon scented red candle, a wheelbarrow, a locket of hair from a red-headed friend.

Put the Matisse poster on a table, anchor it with apples, and use it as a giant red place mat to hold your other red delicacies.

Or let's say that you mean to learn to cook Indian food. Instead of adding another cookbook to your collection, find an Indian market and purchase some spices. Buy black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, a lump of asafetida, and anything else that catches your fancy, including that package of edible gold foil, even though you haven't a clue what to do with them.

At home, put each spice in a bowl and visit with it. Aren't black mustard seeds amazingly tiny? You could put thousands of them in a thimble. And the gold foil ... has anyone ever made a gold foil sandwich? Roast some cumin seeds, grind them up, enjoy their aroma.

Or let's say that you're a federal prosecutor hoping to write a book about your prosecution of a corrupt federal judge. Gather on a large table some relevant objects: a photograph of the defendant, a copy of your summation to the jury, the tie you wore on the day the verdict was returned, the menu from the restaurant where you ate lunch throughout the trial, hand-written letters from the witness whom you befriended, a coaster from the bar where you sometimes drank with FBI agents.

These objects will do you more good than a stack of Grisham novels or how-to books on plotting: they'll jog your memory, which will be good for your story, and they'll remind you that you served justice well, which will be good for your soul.

Carve Basalt

One of the great impediments to unleashing our creativity is the fear that we're not equal to creative and intellectual tasks.

The stone in front of us, which we would love to transform into the face of a girl, looks too obdurate, too hard to carve, too much like a stone and too little like a face. We have the sure sense that our first gouge will ruin everything, that we'll waste the stone and disappoint ourselves. So we back off.

This sense that the work is too hard, that any attempt to think big and tackle mighty themes will inevitably lead to failure, haunts song-writers, sculptors, sociologists, and microbiologists alike.

You try to write pop songs rather than deep songs, bore yourself in the process, get blocked, and write nothing. You sculpt shapes you can manage rather than shapes you would love to try.

You repeat the same sociological experiment for two decades, refining it and mastering it, because you fear venturing into territory where you might look a fool. You gain expert knowledge of one amino acid, get grants to study it and earn a reputation, but don't allow yourself to leap intellectually. Creators in every field stifle their own creativity by announcing to themselves, "Doing that would be far too hard."

A singer-songwriter calls me from New York about once a month. She's very young, not even twenty-five, but she feels old, especially for rock-and-roll. She hates her day job, she can't shake her depression, and, although people say they love the sound of her voice, she passes up most singing opportunities.

She also isn't writing songs. To her, writing a song feels as difficult as scaling Mt. Everest. The very thought of writing a song daunts and defeats her.

Of course her problem has nothing to do with song-writing per se; her problem is the secret muffled message she sends herself, about the difficulty of creating and the smallness of her ability.

That message completely enjoins her from trying. What really distinguishes the productive artist from the would-be artist? The former looks at the blank ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and says, "Hm, I wonder what should go there?" The other says, "My God, no way I'm touching that!"

Most people are in the second category. They see difficulty where the creative person sees opportunity.

If you find yourself in that second category, what should you do? First, become aware of that secret muffled message. Second, when you hear it, try to change it. In cognitive therapy this technique is called "thought substitution." You could try replacing "This is too hard" with one of the following messages:

    *  "This will be easy"
    *  "This will be hard but not that hard"
    *  "This will be very hard, but I'm game"

Each of these three affirmations has its merits and it doesn't matter which one you choose. What's important is that you dispel the idea that creating is too hard, that it's somehow beyond your capabilities. In this period of exploration, it would be good if you got acquainted with using all three of these affirmations. Let's practice doing that.

Tackle a Really Hard Project

Today, pick a very hard creative project, one that you would not normally contemplate even for an instant. Instead of writing a song, start writing a musical. Instead of writing a book, begin work on a twelve-volume series. Say to yourself, "This will be easy." Think and feel that it will be easy. Begin.

Tomorrow, continue with this very hard project. Having worked on it for a day, you now have some idea just how easy and just how hard it will be. Say, "This will be hard, but not that hard." Continue working.

The day after tomorrow, with two days of work under your belt, you can better evaluate your project's hardness.

Maybe the idea of writing a musical now really excites you, and maybe two of the songs have already gotten written. But maybe you also see a thousand problems ahead. Say "This will be very hard, but I'm game." Just continue.

At the end of these three days, take a moment to determine which phrase you like the best. Then remember to use it. When you come upon a blank Sistine Chapel ceiling posted with the notice "Paint me," instead of exclaiming "This is too hard!" remember your affirmation. Then gulp and get out your paintbrush.

Leave for the Unknown

A certain image helps me remember why people find it so difficult to create. I see two plateaus separated by a deep gorge hardly three feet wide at its narrowest point. The near plateau, where a would-be creator lives, is barren, while the far plateau is jungle-covered, wild, and mysterious.

Everyday the would-be creator walks right up to the edge of his plateau, stares into the gorge to its floor two hundred feet below, and says to himself, "If I try to get across I'll fall and kill myself."

Then he glances across at the tangled vines that obscure the jungle interior, making it impossible to know what riches or dangers are hidden there, and murmurs to himself, "Even if I did manage to get across, something bad would happen."

He is aware that his side of the gorge is barren. But he's afraid of that short leap and afraid of the jungle interior. His instinct for survival, his fear of the unknown, or some elemental human inertia causes him to stay put, even though he is perfectly aware that his current life is unrewarding.

To think that clay, pigments, words, or ideas could put one in the same such fear! Yet would-be creators of all kinds pace on their plateaus, held in check by fear of that small leap and that unknown territory — even though the dangers are largely chimerical.

The psychologist Otto Rank, who took a special interest in artists, likened them to heroes. We know that everyday creative people are very fallible, very human, and regularly unheroic, just like you and me, so to call them heroic feels like hyperbole.

Yet, since so many people fear making a creative effort, it turns out that there must be something heroic about launching yourself across that gorge and into that unknown jungle. Maybe everyday creative people really are heroic and maybe the courage they show is among the very most important: the courage to leave for the unknown.

Besides, some of the dangers may be real. Maybe it is dangerous to get too involved with color: won't life look drab when you return from your painting explorations? Maybe it is dangerous to obsess about language: how will the bills get paid if you spend your days writing poetry?

Maybe it is dangerous to commit to composing: what if the music you compose is jarring and sends audiences scattering? Maybe the psychological and practical dangers of leaving for the unknown are real enough that we have further reason to call creative people heroic.

We are built to explore but we are also built to avoid exploration.

We are genetically coded for both. In order to leave for the unknown on a regular basis — that is, to go wherever our creative efforts want to lead us —it looks like we need to have regular chats with ourselves about why that's worth doing, given the chimerical and actual dangers.

The reasons to create are plentiful, but still we have to convince ourselves to take that leap and to venture into the dark territory of the unfamiliar.

Make a List and Have a Chat

Spend some time today listing the reasons why it's important to venture into the unknown. My partial list would include:

    *  Because life would be too dull if I didn't
    *  Because that way I can have vicarious adventures
    *  Because what I come back with has proven useful to others
    *  Because what I learn there I can't learn anywhere else

Tomorrow, have a chat with yourself. Set up two chairs so that they face one another. Sit in the first chair and begin arguing against venturing into the unknown. "When I sit and think for too long I get anxious."

Move to the other chair and respond. "Yes, but that just means that I should work on my nerves. Am I going to let anxiety prevent me from creating? "Return to the first chair and counter your counter-argument. Engage in a real dialogue.

My clients find this "chair work" both scary and transformative.

See if you can stick out the dialogue until you've convinced yourself that leaving for the unknown makes great sense — so much sense that you bound right off, over the chasm and into the jungle.


Published with kind permission of the author.

Photo at top: Ginny Ruffner from article Eric Maisel on his course “Your Life in the Arts”.

Eric Maisel

Eric Maisel, Ph.D. holds Master's degrees in Creative Writing and Counseling, and a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology. He is a California licensed marriage and family therapist, a creativity coach and trainer of creativity coaches, and teaches through lectures, workshops, and teleseminars.

Dr. Maisel is widely regarded as America's foremost creativity coach and has taught thousands of creative and performing artists how to incorporate Ten Zen Second mindfulness techniques into their creativity practice. See his site for more information on his work.

He is the author of more than thirty books - some titles at right:

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