My brain told me to paint a tree....this is what happened....
‘Creativity is not just something we do. It is a natural part of who we are’ says Julia McCutchen, author of Psychologies’ first step to creative bliss: Cultivate a Creative Mindset. This is clearly someone who values the creative process. She believes that in order to be creative, we need to cultivate the right internal and external circumstances. The greatest commodities that aid this, she states, are time and our environment.
I put her advice to the test, and set aside a healthy chunk of time in which I could allow my creative juices to flow. I also created the perfect environment; incense burning, tidy space, paints at the ready, soft music playing in the background….I have decided that creative endeavour number one is to paint a tree (yes, that’s right, a tree). And so I begin.
I have to admit that initially I feel a bit stupid. I mean why on earth have I chosen to paint a tree?! That doesn’t seem very creative. Well, even Picasso had to start somewhere and so placing my preconceptions of what creativity is to one side, I start applying paint to paper. The soothing environment definitely seems to be helping and quite quickly I relax into it. Although I have some sort of idea of how I want my tree to look, I go with the flow, mixing colours and adding paint here and there. There seems to be a flow of energy coming from some deeper place within me that’s making me move the paintbrush. I am barely conscious of it. All I know is that I’m having fun. It’s cathartic. My mind wanders and I begin thinking of things related to the rest of my week. Then suddenly it’s back on the painting and I am mindfully creating brush strokes on the once blank canvas.
Half an hour later I am done. Creative effort number one is complete. Ok, so it’s not exactly a work of art. Actually it’s more reminiscent of a pattern on a bedspread I once owned. Einstein did say the secret to creativity is to hide your sources, but I guess I just disclosed mine, so never mind. As a novice ruminating on her own creativity, a few thoughts and feelings come to surface. First, being in that creative zone feels good, but perhaps that is because there was no real pressure on me to perform. Second, I was less worried about the finished article and more focussed on the creative process. And third, setting aside time and being in the right environment does seem to help in some way to allow for creativity to flow.
Whilst glancing at the magazine aisle in a local newsagent, one feature caught my attention: ‘kickstart your creativity.’ The main feature of April’s Psychologies magazine, the 18-page dossier seemed to suggest that creativity is something that everyone can cultivate, the tagline being ‘how creativity can enrich your life.’ Interesting, I thought. So I handed over £3.80 and bought a copy.
Later, whilst flicking through the glossy pages and sipping at my glass of wine, I was surprised to discover that this article did not see creativity as limited to the artistic few, but as a fundamental driving force within all of us. Three main things were stated to lie behind creativity: the ability to reflect, be curious and most important, be inspired. And thus followed a series of (five) steps which the feature seemed to promise, if followed, would unlock creative potential.
Such an attitude intrigues me. If I’m being honest, I have never seen me, Sarah, as much of a creative individual. I’ve had brief moments in which by some mysterious means I have created something like a painting, or written a song or poem. Sometimes I even surprise myself with a new way of philosophising about my life or research. Yet ultimately, I more often than not think of myself as average. This article appears to suggest that if I just open myself up more, and cultivate certain qualities in my life, then creativity can be mine and I can realise my true potential. So, considering the fact that I am researching creativity for my thesis, it seems sensible that I try to expand on and document my own. In the next few blogs, I will be trying out and commenting on each of the feature’s tips for enhancing creativity, purely to step out of the academic mindset, and focus more on what creativity feels, and looks like. Although the ontological gap between my own creativity, and the creativity of a person living in the Bronze Age is of course huge, this exercise serves as a way for me to broaden my thinking from a purely empirical data driven means of investigation, and to encompass notions of what it means to be creative as a human living in today’s world.
We are all familiar with the concept of a tradition. It is traditional for many of us to sing happy birthday when our friends and family members become one year older. It is again traditional for us brought up in the UK to have a roast on a Sunday, or drink (too much) Guinness on the 17th March. Traditions can also be more localised. For example, it’s now become a tradition for me to bring home a shot glass souvenir from every new country I visit (of which there have been quite a few in the last year alone!).
Traditions define us as individuals and collectively. They also shift, mutate and sometimes disappear, perhaps more so in the modern world. My exposure to different customs through travel and living in quite a cosmopolitan city have meant that the traditional boundaries in my life are less clear cut and echo my experiences and the social milieu in which I live. Yet the traditions are still there.
The fascinating thing about tradition is that it acts as a crystal ball in which we can see the past, the present and the future. Tradition mirrors the remains of a past set of practices that have been transmitted over time. This repertoire of past knowledge allows for and directs social practices in the present. If we think in terms of making a pot, often vessels are made traditionally according to the community in which a person is potting in. This practice is based on a combination of how we learn to pot and what is a socially acceptable vessel. But we also have the ability in the present to put our own spin on a tradition. In fact, it is our creativity that allows us to play with tradition and create or do something that adheres to the familiar but is also different. If we think again back to potting practice, it may be that we decide to decorate a vessel in a slightly different way, or add an extra handle. The finished product and the practices that created it becomes the mental mould of the present, but also becomes a template for future practices. In short, tradition is never static but is ever fluid, ever developing and full of social information that can not only give us clues about where we come from, but also about our future.
Sometimes I wonder whether the hippies have got it sussed (or if at least they are part way there to a deeper understanding). The other night I was participating in my yoga class, as I do every week (bear with me!). This particular type of yoga is less about attempting ridiculous postures that no-one in their right mind should ever be able to do, and focusses more on the nature of human existence within a more ‘spiritual’ context. In that particular session our teacher began discussing what it is to be an individual in an interconnected world. He likened us to single waves that belong to a deeper ocean. In essence we are all connected to the source of our life (the earth) and also to each other. Therefore nothing that we do is ever in isolation.
I have to admit that the ocean metaphor struck a chord and started me thinking about my research and whether using the similar but more dynamic analogy of Gaia theory is a useful approach to understanding creativity. Coined by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, this approach is the holistic idea that the earth is an integrated whole and is a complex and dynamic system that self-regulates through a biofeedback mechanism. Before I continue, I am in no way suggesting that I am an advocate of the Gaia hypothesis; my own academic training limits my ability to comment on the scientific validity of such a theory. However, I do think it has potential as a useful analogy for a discussion of creativity. Just as in the Gaia hypothesis sees the earth as a web of interrelated systems, we can also begin to think of the cultures and societies in which creativity manifests as complex and dynamic structures that are linked to a larger overall system (mankind).
Einstein famously quoted that the secret to creativity is to hide your sources. Being creative therefore is integrating existing ideas in a novel or original way. In other words, just like being a wave that is connected to larger body of water, creativity is the act of tapping into a fluid resource of information that resides within a given social environment, but it is also part of that resource, adding new information and ideas to the pool. In light of this analogy, new questions are brought to the forefront of my mind. Does the creativity that emerges within such complicated networks regulate and change social structures? How far does this go; does the action of an individual start off a rippling effect that eventually changes the whole ocean? What enables one person to be ‘more’ creative than another? Whatever the answers may be, I certainly feel out of my depth! Such questions, without any concrete answers as of yet, lead me to believe that there are perhaps boundless facets to creativity. It appears that to be creative is to be connected; to a community, to a culture, perhaps even to the entire world. However, I would argue that researchers of the field have only just begun to scratch the surface when it comes to a holistic understanding of creativity, and my research is just a drop in a vast sea of knowledge.