the Creative Life
Eric Maisel, PhD
one person, the answer might be "worry less." For another
person, the answer might be "grow wilder."
third, it might be "be braver." For a fourth, it might be
"somehow find the time."
do not explore, we do not get to go anywhere new, and if we do
not go anywhere new, we can't be creative.
out the following excerpts from The
Book on exploring. If you give them a try, you will
become more creative.
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.
to explore bayous so as to paint them and to experience
sunsets so as to write about them.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
course is the question Dostoevsky poses and answers in Crime
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
Matisse poster on a table, anchor it with apples, and use it
as a giant red place mat to hold your other red delicacies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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!"
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
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.
for the Unknown
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
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."
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
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.
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
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.
a List and Have a Chat
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.
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.
at top: Ginny Ruffner from article Eric
Maisel on his course “Your Life in the Arts”.
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 EricMaisel.com for more information on his work.
is the author of more than thirty books - some titles at
Also see more articles by Eric Maisel.
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