June 22, 2005

Finding a cure for the creatively stuck

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:30 pm

In the course of normal conversation, my sister-in-law, Erin, made a statement that I have never heard anyone say. She told me she was creatively stuck. After a lifetime of singing and vocal training, including earning a Master’s of Music in Vocal Performance, Erin has spent the last four years not singing. At the time this conversation took place in February, she wasn’t sure how to get unstuck.

I was fascinated. For the most part, I live in a world of creatively thriving people. Very few are professional artists, but all make creative activity a part of their daily lives. In my job, I interview artists, actors, painters, dancers, musicians and writers. If they were creatively stuck, I wouldn’t be interviewing them. I consider myself to be very fortunate that I get to surround myself personally and professionally with people who value the creative life force.

Erin said that part of her stuckness was due to the fact that singing, a major creative outlet for her, had ceased to be creative. She felt she had become a technician, producing beautiful notes, but not much else.

Four months later, Erin is singing again and says she is on the road to becoming creatively unstuck. To look at her, it is obvious that her creative spirit is coursing through her body again. She looks happy, she walks lighter, she brings joy into a room when she enters. There have been several big changes in her life lately, but everything is tied together and I have no doubt that getting her creative juices flowing again has helped heal her and steel her for life’s challenges.

How did she do it? After much analysis on her part, the answer is astoundingly simple. Erin began to focus on the process, not the product. I admit, I choked when she first said this because it is a line I hear from artists all the time. While I was an arts beat writer, it was a phrase used so often in interviews of artistic types that a photographer with whom I frequently worked used to joke about it. If ever we were having a day of dissatisfaction in our jobs, one of us would quip, “Well, it’s all about the process, right?”

As Erin described how she refocused on the creative process, I started to really appreciate what that means. Basically, she shoved her perfectionist tendencies to the side, set up no expectations for herself and didn’t look toward past failures or accomplishments as her barometer for what she is doing now. As she put it, if you’re looking in the rear view mirror, you can’t drive the car. It is a daily challenge she has to meet head on, but she appears to be invigorated by it.

Coincidentally, the last four months has yielded another conversation about creative stuckness with my friend, Jennifer. Jennifer is endeavoring to raise her 2 1/2-year-old son, Clayton, in an arts rich environment. A year ago, she asked me how to start painting with her son, since I am known for letting my kids go nuts with paint. I wrote out instructions for her about letting Clayton explore the paint any way he wants and not to worry about the mess. I gave Jennifer some pieces of paper as big as her child so Clayton could have a large canvas. Jennifer called me from the art supply store the day she bought the brushes and paint. In February, I helped her assemble an easel. Yet Clayton did not paint for the first time until one month ago.

By all reports, Clayton had a blast and Jennifer felt personal elation. It turns out, her fear of the mess and uncertainty about how the painting session would go had held her back from giving Clayton the art supplies. She realized that the limitations she put on herself, she was now putting on her son and that is one legacy she does not want to pass on to the next generation. Jennifer now feels that when she sets up the easel for Clayton, she also needs to set up an easel for herself.

Jennifer feels that culturally, we all put so much emphasis on product that the process is deemed less important. If the picture we paint is not worthy of being mounted on the wall, then it’s not worth the time to create it. Boy, I should have had a mirror to look into when she said that. With all my creative advocacy, I am guilty of this thinking. Erin and Jennifer have set a new, very high bar for me to reach toward.

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