The pandemic has dictated new ways for us to communicate in work and in life as well as how we consume, approach, and think about art. This means we are rethinking creativity and what it means to us as individuals and as a society as well.
Hello, I’m Paul; thanks for stopping by. I have been a copywriter with ThoughtLab for about 8 years now, and it has been a ride. I’ve also been an actor for close to 40 years, and that, my friends, has been interesting as well.
In my time here and on stages, in front of cameras, I have met and worked with some incredibly brilliant creative folks. They have helped me be better, understand deeper, and focus my thoughts on creativity and how I approach that particular beastie. I am grateful for every encounter, every minute someone took the time to share their ideas and pursuits of creativity.
The pandemic has dictated new ways for us to communicate in work and in life as well as how we consume, approach, and think about art. This means we are rethinking creativity and what it means to us as individuals and as a society as well. My passion, acting, was pretty much out of commission during the pandemic, and I felt like I lacked purpose and identity. I also worried that the creative drive that had supported me my entire life was going to vanish. I struggled with that quite a bit, as many of my friends and colleagues did as well.
It’s not over, and surely the next life-altering funk is just over the horizon. We will survive, we will learn, and we will go on; that’s the human spirit, never doubt it. In this interim period, I started jotting down thoughts and ideas I have used in the past to deal with this creative life, the ups and downs, the confusion, and the drive to keep going.
ThoughtLab is a creative agency, and I am part of a creative team. But what does that mean, creative? What does a creative life look and feel like? How do we keep that creative spark alive, and what does it take to be an artist?
Here I offer my thoughts, impressions, experiences, and observations about creativity. I am by no means famous, I am, like many, a working artist, and that’s a lot. If you’re having doubts about your creativity, if you’re questioning if you ARE creative, or if you’re just wondering what it’s all about, I offer these 30 thoughts and impressions about creativity and the creative life. I hope they open your eyes to your possibilities.
30 Thoughts on Creativity
- The blank screen, the blank page, the blank canvas, the empty stage. Is there anything more daunting, more freeing, more nerve-wracking to an artist than the starting point? The point before? The moment when idea, need, desire, and creativity meet and birth a darling, a child, the offspring of all these emotions? How many children does the artist birth in a day that are rejected, neglected, misunderstood, and disregarded? Too many to count. And yet, day in, day out, we face the blank and do it again. Why? Who knows? But if we don’t, then we never feel quite alive.
- An artist cannot lock themselves in a garret and paint lovely pictures or turn out line upon line of poetry. An artist must first be a laborer, a plumber, a farmer, a grocer, a cop, a knight, a fisherman, a lawyer, a listener, and a lover of the world and its many inhabitants. The artist may appear the curmudgeon, have palpable disdain for humanity, but it’s a cover, a game. Inside he longs to be accepted and understood. But, it is a dichotomy. To love the world is to keep a distance, not allow themselves to be too much in it, too close, because he might overlook the flaws and foibles that make humans human. An artist is destined to love from a distance.
- Art is the act of making special. Think about that. Macaroni spray painted and glued with care to a piece of poster board will probably never hang in the Louvre, but how many refrigerator doors are adorned with such art? Does it need millions of eyes to make it legit? Does it need an entry fee and a brochure to make it real? Can a mother stopping for a moment before she opens the door to get her morning yogurt or cream for her coffee, whose eyes tear up slightly when she thinks of those little hands and that little heart-toiling tongue pushing out of one side of that tiny mouth, to create something for her, be enough? A museum is a place where art is held for all of us to see, the doors open, and the docent gestures toward the work, a slow movement of the arm that says, come, enter, enjoy, all this is for you. Is that better than chubby hands stained with paint holding up a piece of paper accompanied by a small voice saying, Mommy, I made this for you? Who are you creating for, and why? What is going to make your art legit? Make it special.
- For children, the word “no” is often the first word they hear and understand. Usually, it’s one of the first words they speak. There are people who have attained “positions of power” because they use the word no, often without thought or reason. It’s an easy word. A cheap word. It ruins people with its bluntness and can destroy the creative process with its thoughtlessness. Artists constantly fight the word no in many forms, that’s not good enough, that isn’t how so and so does it, do you really think that is right, we don’t think, okay but, maybe different, and so on. These variations on the theme of no are internal as well as external. If you believe an artist hates to hear the critics, just imagine the critic that dwells in his head. Louder than any voice, bigger than any headline, crowing NO, NO, NO, NO, ad Infinitum. The artist is tasked with ignoring all that no and settling into a room covered with Yes and creating. The reality is behind every yes; there are ten million variations of no just waiting to pounce.
- Sitting with a group of writers, a surly bunch, one of them remarked; well, this was before he was “Hemingway,” and this person punctuated his thought with finger quotes around Hemingway’s name. But, I’ll argue this, Hemingway was always Hemingway. He fished, he fought, he drank, he reported, and he wrote. Hemingway was always Hemingway. Being famous didn’t make him a better writer. There are thousands of good writers that are not recognized, but they still write. They still work. They still produce. It’s a trap that artists can sometimes fall into, keeping their best stuff hidden until they’re “someone”—waiting to be Hemingway before they allow themselves to risk and lay their heart on the page, the canvas, the stage. You are you. You are your creative center. Whatever you produce, if it’s coming from you, your guts, your visions, your passions, then it will be unique and exemplary. The rest, you cannot control that. You cannot control who will like your art and who will pass it by. What you can control is the doing. The sitting down and writing, the standing in the empty studio and dancing, the brush to the pigment, to the canvas. That’s what your job is as a creative person … create. The rest, well, that will sort itself out. Just make sure you’re doing something to be sorted out.
- There’s a point when an artist realizes that all the time in school, all the hours in the study, perfecting the craft, examining the minutia, drops away, and your creativity becomes a job. That’s a hard one. The days of rehearsing for months at a time, breaking down a paragraph with colleagues over coffee, sketching the details of a hand or smile kind of stop. The days of perfecting over time will seem far, far behind you. Now, you’ve achieved what you’ve been hoping for; someone is paying you to create, paint, write, dance, or act. You’ve reached the level of “professional.” Most people think professional in the arts indicates some level of proficiency; it doesn’t. It simply means that you’re getting paid to do something you love. That’s a good thing; the myth of the starving artist is fine for films or someone else’s empty pockets; you have bills to pay, and food has to be eaten, and now and then, a vacation or a date has to happen. Thankfully, you’re doing all that by plying your art. But now, your art is a job. There are deadlines and meetings and people with hands on your time and demands on your creation. In these times, it’s essential to fall in love with your art again. Take time to remember why you love it, why you were passionate about it, why you sacrificed time and money while others were having fun, you were working on your craft. You did this for a reason; now remember that. Punch out and take your art on a date. Paint what you want. Write what you want. Dance for yourself. Take it back to the inception, to the moment when you said; I want to do this. Not I want to make x-number of dollars a year; simply, this makes me feel whole, real, alive connected. Go back to that point from time to time and just fall in love with creating for creation’s sake again. It’ll do your art good.
- If you’re shown an endless space of white, you’ll think, how can I fill that space? If you’re shown a one-inch by one-inch square of white, you’ll think, how can I fill that space? How is that possible? How do you expect me to do that? How do you think I’m going to accomplish anything? See what’s happening? The boundaries of the space are not constricting you; the boundaries of your imagination are. Limits don’t limit; they open paths to new ideas and different points of view. When you change “How can I” into “I get to …” well, now you’re cooking. Now you see the truth; you’re never limited in your creativity unless you decide to be. What will occupy the space is precisely what occupies the space. The right amount of images, figures, steps, words, brushstrokes, and not one bit more or less. If you find yourself saying, I wish I had more space; then you haven’t created within the space you’re given. If you find yourself saying, I wish there were less space, again, you haven’t created within the space you’re given—the space, no matter how big or how small, is the space, and that is freedom. Wishing for more or less is just avoiding the task or not trusting yourself and your innate creativity. All you have to deal with is this gift of space you’ve been given and the freedom to do with it whatever you want. Fear makes us doubt our creativity. But right and perfect are external judgments. There are enough people lining up around the block with uninspiring sandwiches who have not a creative bone in their being, who are jealous, and who are drooling to judge you. Don’t feed their ire fire by judging yourself too. You get to fill this space.
- Our minds choke our creativity in sneaky ways. The voice in our head, the editor, is always there. It’s the “um.” before you speak, giving your mind the time to find the right word. What’s the right word? All the words you need are there in your mind; the um just makes excuses for your brain, and, trust this, your brain doesn’t need excuses. Taking an “um” to find the right word is falling prey to someone else. Will they think my word is clever or funny, intelligent or captivating? Will they think I’m dull or boring, or uncreative? Meh. Who cares. Will what I put in this space, on this page, across this canvas be enough, too little, corny, drab, mundane … meh, who cares? That’s for someone else to deal with. That editor, that antithesis to creativity, is what makes us pause before speaking while we search to find the right or perfect word. It makes us pause before putting fingers to keys or brush to paint. That pause is a lifetime. Imagine what could go into that pause if you exile the doubt, the fear, the judgment of that voice. Imagine all the words, the dances, the paintings, the plays that are sitting in that pause waiting to be released that die quickly, silently, unsung because you feared the judgment of them. Trust. Yourself. Doubt. Not.
- When creating and the question of; is it worth the risk arises, the answer is always yes. Risk is what puts us on edge. If there is nothing risked in the creation, then there is genuinely nothing gained by the outcome. Creating is dangerous, and it should cost you a great deal personally. This isn’t about money or Bitcoin; it’s about standing naked in front of the crowd and saying, this is me, this painting, this dance, this paragraph, this is me, bare and open to you all. That’s a risk. Standing in a winter parka, hat, gloves, scarf, glasses and sliding your work under a table that’s not a risk, and that’s not worth your time or anyone else’s time for that matter. Risk it all every time you step to the work. The magic part of this is that once you fully commit, risk it all, and create, you’re not done; you’re just starting. That piece created with great risk will feed and foster more in you. You will never find the well of risk empty. You may have to drop the bucket deeper from time to time, but it will never be dry if you continue to risk. And those who partake of your creativity will be nourished and quenched; even for a moment, a blink, they will be changed because we can all sense when something is risky. Risk grabs us and holds us. Risk excites us and fills us with passion. Risk begets risk. If you’re not ready to risk, then are you really ready to create?
- Artists, if you’re at a point where it doesn’t feel right, isn't working, you lack inspiration, take this piece of advice; walk away. Just walk away. That may sound counterintuitive to everything you've heard or felt, but if you’re stuck, I encourage you to walk away. Now, this isn’t one lousy day of creating, and nothing would come out; that happens all the time. This is about the weeks and weeks of creative drought, the lack of joy in anything you produce, and the laboring uphill slog that the simplest sentence feels like. In those times, stop, turn, and walk away. Get a day job. Leave the state. Stop doing whatever your creative outlet is and do anything but that. And while you’re away, listen to your heart. Observe your hands. Your feet. Your patterns. Listen to your dreams and be patient. One day, it will happen. In the distance, faintly, just barely audible, you’ll hear it. It will be so distant you will have no idea what it is, but it will be there. Keep listening; keep your distance. Time will pass, the sound will get louder, and with it will be a nudge, a push, a tug, a pull. It’s calling you back. Hold fast. Wait until it kicks down your front door, grabs you by the throat, hurls you against a wall, and screams, drooling and snarling one millimeter from your face. Then it’s time to go back. And when you do go back, you’ll find the joy, the passion, the desire, the skill, and the love has been waiting for you. You’ll slowly feel complete again, right again. You’ll bring something from your journey away to the creation, and there will be a give-and-take established again. No longer are you just taking, taking, taking from the art; now, you’re feeding each other. It will be as it was but better—Fuller and more vital to you than ever. So, walk away. Sometimes you need to walk away.
- Here is a statement that needs to go away because it is simply not true; “I’m not creative.” That is just connerie. Pardon our French. Creativity is not a glass and gold nightclub with a velvet rope and Cerberus as the doorman. Creativity is not something that only the ordained few possess. Creativity is what the Gods, the Universe, the Spaghetti Monster has bestowed on all of us. ALL OF US ARE CREATIVE. Some have developed it to a different degree. Some don’t place that much importance on it; however, we are all creative. The only time you’re not creative is when you have an ax between your eyes, and even then, there’s probably still a spark of it in you. How many school lunches have you made over the years? How many family vacations have you plotted and planned? How many first dates have you gone on? How many surprise parties have you organized? How many days have you woken up and thought, I just can’t do it again today; I don’t have it in me, but somehow, you did it? You created reason or motivation. You created sandwich and nourishment. You created celebration and joy. You created. When we say, I’m not creative, what’s missing is the rest of the thought. I’m not creative … like Chuck Lorre is. I’m not creative … like Picasso. I’m not creative … like Steve, the designer. You’re silently, murderously placing a judgment, a standard on what is creative. Never compare above or below. That goes for the silly notion that you’re not creative, as well as a lot of things in life. When you remove the comparison, the judgment, you’ll understand that you are creative. Are you as creative as Speilberg? Who gives a rat’s puckered ass? You certainly shouldn’t. You are as creative as you are, and that is something genuine and unique. Once again, for good measure: ALL OF US ARE CREATIVE.
- I wonder. That’s the start of something good. How often do you say that, think that? How often do you take it further? In terms of creativity, the statement “I wonder” should always be the start, the jumping-off point. If you say, I wonder and don’t follow through; you’ve passed the impulse. Start with I wonder and keep going. I wonder what that cat is thinking? Write what that cat is thinking. I wonder what he would look like in that dress? Paint what he would look like in that dress. I wonder how she would behave if she were a clown. Do a dance of her as a clown. I wonder should never be the end of the thought. We are in awe of the wonder of a child; when did we lose that? Well, we lost it when someone told us to act our age, behave like an adult, and stop being silly. Somehow wonder is only for children. They already have bouncy castles and slip n’ slides; we can’t let them have all the fun stuff. Take time for wonder. Wander and wonder. Find things that are wonder-full and dissect them, open them up, blow them apart, and reconstruct them in different wonder-filled ways. Don’t stop at I wonder. That’s creatous interruptous. No one likes that. Take a day and just wonder. Allow yourself to wonder and see where that wonder takes you. I wonder what would happen if … and then let the blanks fill. When we say I wonder, that’s our creative self saying, let me out, take me for a walk, let me flex these unused muscles for a bit, and see what’s going on inside. And while you’re at it, stop knowing so much and let that be wonder instead. Instead of saying, I know what is going to happen next, just be open to; I wonder what will happen next. I know exactly what he’s going to do, becomes I wonder what he’s going to do. Allow yourself to be surprised. That’s fun, and that is a gateway to discovery. To a creative burst. I wonder what you’re wondering now.
- Welcome the impulse. Trust the impulse. The impulse is pure, genuine, and authentic. The impulse is a conduit to naked creativity. What’s the impulse? It’s the purist we can be. Think of a time when someone you know did something that shocked you that was, as we say, “out of character” for them. That’s the impulse. That being out of character, not like themselves, is actually naked truth. It’s the stuff that they have covered, bottled, repressed. The emotion or the reaction that they have cowed because society has told them to. Sometimes, that’s good. It keeps us from murdering people. Sometimes, that’s bad because it keeps us from tapping into our purist creative parts. When the impulse comes for an artist, welcome it, use it, accept it, and do not let it pass you by. It doesn’t happen all the time, ya know, so when it does, be open and accepting. Trust it. Allow it to have its full breadth, and let yourself be taken along with it. Over time, you’ll learn to recognize the impulse, and you’ll stop missing it, doubting it, and, instead, you’ll harness it and just fly. Welcome to the impulse.
- Comfort food, comfort zone, Southern comfort, comforters … none of that is wrong or bad. However, if you’re finding that your art makes people curl up and snooze, time to rethink comfort; as a rule, art shouldn’t inspire comfort for the creator or the viewer. It should incite questions, objections, strong passions, and fierce debate, and even if it does elicit feelings of happiness, it shouldn’t be puppies and babies happiness; it should be yes, that’s it, that’s the sweet spot, orgasm in the Louvre on a September Saturday at ten in the morning kind of happiness. There really is no need to be comfortable when you’re creative juices are pulsing. That’s because good creativity is soaked in risk, desire, and drive. Tepid and regular are rarely words we want attached to our creative output. It’s easy to say get out of your comfort zone, but you’ve got to identify your comfort zone before leaving it. So, do that. Put yourself in situations that make you uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean you have to jump out of a plane to be creative. Start small; go to dinner at a place you’ve never been that serves food you’ve never eaten before. Go to a nightclub and see a drag show—dance in the grocery store when the Musak happens to be a song you like or just know. You don’t have to cheat death to recreate life. Just stop going to or doing what you know all the time. The most significant part of getting out of your comfort zone is clocking how you react. How does it make you feel? What does it do to your pulse, your breathing? What’s the feeling of sweat running down your back? How does it change you, even for a moment? Embrace that and channel it into your creativity. Beware, though, the pulse pump, the summer sweat, the urge to leap before you look that could become your new comfort zone. Then, you’ll have to take high tea, in pressed linen, and lace gloves. There are endless comfort zones to experience, conquer and escape.
- Some creative people were inspired to pursue their art by a performance, a poem, a film, or a book, and they knew that is what they want to do; that is how their life will be fulfilling. It’s essential to know these things, how it all started, that will influence your work and keep you on the right track. There is a classic 1946 Looney Tunes Daffy Duck short called “Book Review.” In it, Daffy is being chased by the Big Bad Wolf. In a brilliant moment, Daffy turns to see that the wolf has taken his leg and is salting it. About to eat it. Daffy not only does a perfect double-take, but to emphasize his shock and horror, his whole body turns into a giant eyeball for one second. Taking the idea of eyes popping out the head one enormous, hilarious step further. I saw that, and I knew. To be clear, I didn’t know I wanted to be an animator; I knew I wanted to be able to turn myself into a giant eyeball to express an over-the-top emotional reaction. I’m still trying. That realization has led me to clowning, circus skills, Commedia, physical comedy, and the fools of Shakespeare. Always in hot pursuit of being a giant eyeball. Will I ever achieve that? Who knows, but that’s not the point; the point is the process. Who my drive has put me in rooms with, on stages, and in films with. How I perceive the world and how I go about creating. It’s good to know where I started because when I get off my path, it feels wrong, and I know where I need to go next. Knowing what I wanted to do as a creative person keeps me fed on the stuff that makes me strong and able to keep pushing forward. Where did you start and why? What’s feeding you, and are you getting enough creative nutrition? Go back to the start.
- The imagination doesn’t come with an on/off switch. It is a muscle that must be engaged and exercised to keep it running and in top form. The imagination should be set free often, tested, pushed, and employed as much as possible It’s exciting when it’s present and working, but to just demand it be present and firing on all pistons when you haven’t taken it out, given it attention, tuned it up, is not healthy for it. Find daily ways to spark your imagination and let it run free. Write in a journal, read children’s books, play with G.I. Joe, and create a movie with your iPhone and the salt and pepper. Don’t think about posting on social media and garnering likes; sure, you can do that when the time is right, but first, just get into the process of starting up your imagination and seeing what’s under the hood. How much time do you spend at the gym, in yoga class, pilates, or jogging? Well, take some time and show your imagination a little love. Once you’ve got it running and engaged daily, you’re going to see a difference. You’ll be quicker on your feet. You’ll see a difference in meetings and conversations; words and ideas will have more flow and fewer boundaries. The ability to say yes will squash, maybe, I don’t know, I don’t think. All those doubts will be replaced with yes, let’s try that. Yes, I can give that a shot. Yes, I do have an idea. When you support your imagination, it’s going to support you. So, get it out of storage, start slow, take it for a walk, give it a task, and then just let it go free, follow it, be open to where it leads, and enjoy the ride.
- At any given time, there are more than forty books on creativity, how to be more, how to be better, how to capture and hold on to it on the bestseller list. Creativity is big business, and many people are going to tell you how to do it right and how to make money doing it. Nothing wrong with that. Read those, attend the seminars, hum the mantra, and do whatever you need to feel more creative and tap into your creative soul. Here’s our piece of advice; be a good filter. Creativity is, at its very heart, individual. How you function in your daily day is your personal choice. Mass advice is sort of like horoscopes; not every single Virgo will fall in love on the seventh of May and live happily ever after. That’s why horoscopes in the paper are written in a rather vague form. The same with creativity books. They cannot answer every single person’s individual needs when seeking a creative path. So, when you’re reading the books or attending the lectures, pay attention. Listen, take notes, and do the exercises, but make sure you’re only holding on to what works for you as an individual. The rest, just filter it out. But you have to try it before you can say, no, that doesn’t work for me. If a piece or a chapter of a book resonates with you, great, write that down, follow it, and make it part of your daily habit. But, if the rest of the book just doesn’t sink in and hold on, let it go. Don’t feel that you have to adhere to all of one person’s methods if all of it doesn’t work for you. Listen, understand, try, and then let what doesn’t work for you filter out. Be a good filter, and eventually, you’ll have a nice collection of thoughts and exercises that work for you that pump up your creativity. You’re an individual seeking to expand your individual creativity; does it make sense to just follow the crowd?
- Here’s a confusing statement; “just be spontaneous.” Now, here’s an idea that is going to twist your mind; “You need to practice spontaneity.” People are generally not spontaneous because there is fear, distrust, and the possibility of failure when faced with spontaneity. People, no matter how spontaneous they appear, need to get to that point. They need to learn to override the fight or flight, the social mores, and the inner terrors before being spontaneous. Someone saying to you, just be spontaneous is akin to someone saying to a manic depressive, just snap out of it. Like learning to walk, swim, to drive, letting go of fear, and being open to whatever takes time, patience, and practice. Comedians and improv artists train and work on exercises to help them get out of their own way and tap into their spontaneity. So, barking at someone, why can’t you be more spontaneous, isn’t going to help them get there. If you’re ready and want to be more spontaneous, you need to work at it; it’s not just going to happen in a poof of magic. There are ways to do that kind of work, seek them out, and once you start freeing your mind, your ass will follow. But, like working out or perfecting your golf swing, you need to keep working at it for it to become a natural, immediate part of your life. One improv class isn’t going to do it. And this isn’t just for actors; all artists, business people, truck drivers; everyone can benefit by adding some spontaneity to their lives. But don’t get tied up in knots by listening to people who just say, add some spontaneity to your life with a vacation. That ain’t gonna work.
- Awards and recognition are nice. It’s good to be singled out, especially by your peers, for work well done or work that raises the bar; however, they cannot be your primary focus as an artist. Focusing on awards instead of the work can dull your creativity. Instead of seeking the truth, the art, the impulse, the journey becomes about what has worked before and what can I do like that to win the award. Being “better” than others in the art isn’t the goal of creating; what’s authentic to you, uniting people, sharing, and elevating people through the art is a more vital, more fulfilling aim and one that has its own rewards. Being better than you were yesterday, last week, and last month are goals that help you progress as an artist. You can win an award this year, but someone else will win it next year. You can be better than you were yesterday, and only you can achieve that goal. The best moments of creativity are when we look inside ourselves and improve ourselves when we stay focused, ignore the critics, and believe in ourselves and our work. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing or what your creative process is, a shelf of awards will not change that. The awards may look shiny and impressive to others, but chances are, you’ll still feel hollow and unfulfilled. If the performance this evening is better, tighter, more connected than the one last night, you have achieved much. If the painting is more profound, more personal, and connected to your inner drive more so than the previous painting, that’s an award no one can match or take away. Being recognized is fine, but if that’s the only reason you’re creating, you’ll never be fulfilled. You’ll crave more and more awards, and that, eventually, will eclipse your pure creativity and your ability to create freely, openly, truthfully, and passionately. Is an award given out by a committee that doesn’t really get what the creative process is about worth sacrificing your pure passion for? Probably not. If the awards come your way, be grateful and thankful but don’t make them your focus. If they happen to come for authentic work, then, yay, what a pleasant surprise. Celebrate and then move on.
- Do it. Put the work in. Invest the time. Just get in there and create. Don’t make excuses. Don’t use the moniker “artist” to behave like some kind of delicate, hothouse flower. That kind of behavior gives creatives a lousy name. If you need the perfect lighting, the exact weight pen, the chair that reclines to this precise angle, and you use lacking those things as an excuse not to create, rethink your path. Creativity is impulse and balls: the drive and the need coming together to push out something weird, wonderful, stunning, or questionable. If you’re creativity only appears in a sun-drenched room when dahlias and French bulldogs surround you, your creativity is in serious need of having its ass kicked from hell to breakfast. Rothko painted in a drafty, gross, dirty building on Bowery and Prince Street in the lower east side, and he changed the art world. Writing at a nice desk with a good pen is great, but if you say you can only write at a nice desk with a good pen, that’s just your fear, your doubt, your editor setting up house in your mind. The only tool you need is you. The only room you need is your mind. The rest are just trappings and geegaws. Excuses. Some may say this is tough love; it’s not; it’s truth. Being “excentric” doesn’t make you more creative because then, you focus all your time on upholding the image of an excentric. That time could be better spent creating, in dirty rooms, with chewed pencils, at coffee shop tables, and under buzzing fluorescent lights. If it’s real and coming from your guts, it will happen anywhere and everywhere. You don’t need the excuses, the bowl of M&M’s with no green ones. It’s in you. Chuck the excuses and get your damn hands dirty. Here’s a well-used number two pencil … create something.
- Listen. Pretty simple, but you’d be surprised how many artists cut off that one sense when they’re creating and when they’re living life. There is no better way to be inspired than listening. Listen to the traffic on busy streets compared to the traffic when night settles, cars are garaged or drivewayed, and the streets are empty enough to hear the beep of the walk signal from fifteen blocks away and the step of hard-soled shoes on the pavement. Listen to the laugh of the cashier who thinks you’re hilarious but tries to stifle the laugh because then her mouth will open, and she’s embarrassed about her braces. Listen to that laugh when it cannot be held in check any longer, and it just explodes out and fills the air. Listen to the old man on the park bench who just started telling you his story out of the blue because you were nearby and needed someone to hear him so he can go home and have his can of soup, safe in the feeling that he knows he’s alive because you listened. Listen to the normal listen stuff, the birds, the barks, the bellows of the city street. Listen to the unordinary listen stuff, the trees, the tears, the keys, the pears in the produce aisle. Listen just to hear and hear what you have ignored. Listen to the turn of a page by slender fingers at a corner table in slanted sunlight. Listen to the dip of the spoon, the sip of the soup, the wipe of the napkin in late-night diner with the buzz of neon in the background and the snap of a newspaper in the foreground, and the long pour of coffee fresh ground into porcelain cup chipped at the rim. Listen hard and long. Listen often and always. Listen to the voice that says hello did you find everything you needed today in monotone, practiced pace dictated by company rules. Listen and then watch the face when you actually answer. Listen to the cacophony of kids calling and laughing in a schoolyard and try to find one isolated voice. Listen to that voice. Do you hear your life in it, your youth around it, your hope still pulsing through it? Listen. Just listen; you’ll be amazed at what you hear.
- Then it cannot be stopped. It comes in floods and waves, and you stand helpless in its path, maybe wishing for one second to escape, then giving over, giving in, and letting its course move uninhibited, and you get hit with it full force. What follows is nights of writing or painting, dancing, or rhyming. On and on into night’s hush, til dawns rush, til noons lull, but the flood still comes. And now it’s a fever pouring sweat from every pore. Eyes, mouth, fingers, all bleeding words. Releasing thought and dream, pulsing forward with the idea and the next and then next too fast for pencil on page, too strong for give me a minute, just a minute to get this down, put this up, show this to … on and on and on. The heart pounds, the soul laughs, the body is about to shatter like candy glass over the drunk’s head in the old west saloon by harlot’s hand in the black and white B movie. But it doesn’t; it holds, and the flood resumes. You wonder how much more you can take, how much more you can give. It’s running every minute of your days, and you think of nothing but the flood of creativity, this incredible, harrowing rush, and then … it stops. Nothing, No sounds, thoughts, movements, nothing. The days seem empty and dull. The food tastes old and fake. Every thought is a lie; every idea is a repeat; every breath is a waste. No purpose. No vision. No hope. You wander streets, and your eyes beg for something; your ears twitch and try to pick up every sound. Your hands feel alien, and you have no idea what to do with them. Your one thought becomes a mantra; what’s the point? What’s the point? What’s the point? And mundane runs the days. Sleep, wake coffee, food, blank page, sleep-wake coffee food blank page sleepwakecoffeefoodblankpage. Because creativity was only a visitor that’s now a visitor to someone else, and that someone is pulled along in the rush under the flood. While you … tick clock, drip sink, scratch pencil, sentence peaks from page blank, and the rumble starts distance miles movement more now closer quicker nearer faster knock door ring bell sing hallelujah you’re creative again and then … Tuesday …
- Then it’s time to let it go. Release it into the world. Don’t hold on to it too tightly because once you’re done, once you’ve finished your creative journey now, it belongs to all. The actor knows the rehearsal period is just one step; the play is not complete until the second actor arrives, and that actor is the audience. The writer knows the pages are done for them, but now the pages need eyes, fresh, eager, anonymous to complete the creative process. Now you have to let go. The actor cannot get petty about getting “his” laughs because those are the audience’s laughs now. The writer cannot get too precious about his story because now others are putting themselves into his story and make it their own experience. This is not an easy transition, but it has to happen. You cannot control how the audience views the play, the dance, the painting, how they read the book, the poem, or the essay. You can only do your part, be the conduit for the creative burst, and then you have to hand it over to the world to do with it what it will. Truth is, the world is unkind and full of no and but why, and that’s just not. As the world is wont to be. Gird your loins, have a ritual that allows you to survive the transition, and be kind to yourself, but the best medicine is more work. Take a day, an hour, a moment, drink that scotch, smoke that cigar, sit in the sun, but never forget you’re only as good as your last creation. There’s no time to sit back on your laurels; there’s more to do, more to express, and more to create, so take your moment and then create again.
- At one point, the Gods thought they needed a representation of themselves on earth—someone with their power of observation, insight, communication, illustration, and fascination. With a bolt, they created the artist. Then along came the art critic. A creature that rarely has any gifts of their own, but they sure love to tell the artist how they failed, fell short, could have done this maybe just a little bit better. Keep this in mind when you want to hunt the critic down and rip his lungs out through his nose; it’s just one person’s opinion. Just because they quote Boethius doesn’t mean their opinion counts more than yours, more than the people who say yes. They need to make a living too. They need to feel a part of the creative process in their own little way. Let them have their say. But, if you hate them when they are critical, you have to hate them when they love you. That’s not really possible, is it? Nope. So, leave the critics for the rest of the world. They are not your audience. Truly, there are enough critics in your head to last you a lifetime. Don’t create for them; create for you, as you have to, as you’re moved to. The rest that’s not in your control. You have to let go the work and allow those who experience it to have their say. Some believe the critic is there to elevate the arts. Okay, if that’s what they need to think, so be it. But you are tasked with doing your best, creating from an authentic space. Sharing your views and ideas and, well, that’s going to leave you open to the world of critics. Be strong in what you do, develop a thick skin, and don’t let anyone stop your creative flow.
- There are paths on the floor, grooves in the hardwood. You’ve become a regular at the bar down the street, and there is a ditch running along the sidewalk that you’ve carved with feet, slippered, shod, bare, desperate, joyful, confused, finished, reborn, dead again, lost again, found again, fed again, starved again, here again? The usual? How’s it going? The same. A bit better. Nothing, I have nothing. It’s there, in the corner of my mind, if I could just. When was the last time you washed a dish, washed your body, saw the sun, ate a meal, didn’t drink? The shirt is now your skin melded to molecules with a combination of sweat, regret, beget, begot, begin again. Last week, your eyes just popped out of your head, took the car, and drove to Mexico to get a look at something besides the keys. The cat is long since passed into the next life, his body just a fur purse of bones in the corner. All nine of them paid the price for your block, your inability to summon, raise, coerce, create. You’ll get another cat, you think, as you drop the unfashionable accessory in the dumpster on the way to the bar. There are 218,302 of them, including obsolescence, and you can make none of them bend to your will, meet your need, fill the page, get in line in a way that makes sense, words, sentences, music. Money. If only you’d learned math, medicine, machinery. If only you’d … then there it is. In the window of a shop you didn’t know existed on the tread to the bar. You’ve passed here a billion … but you never saw … and the way the sun hits the worn hat on the wood rack in the dusty corner calls to mind grandfather’s hands whittling the wood for a pipe and … words. They come now in clots and flights, burps and beads, and they sentence and string, paragraph and page, and all is right with the world. For now.
- Respect the art you choose and bring something to it. Don’t just do whatever the trend is; snap chatting your lunch isn’t artistic, nor is being tik tok famous. Work, train, understand. Picasso knew how to paint a portrait before he branched into cubism. Don’t just slap a vague simulacrum of what someone else did on a screen and call yourself an artist. Learn the history, and know the ones who changed the world through art, music, writing dance. Understand the ones who raged against the wrong through words, images, film, and performance. Think about what they sacrificed and try to live up to those examples. Know the roots and acquire fundamental skills. The arts don’t need one more person looking to be famous or get rich overnight; there are plenty of those right now to last ten lifetimes. Plenty of people who take, take, take. What can you give? What can you bring to the art to take it to the next level that has legs and staying power that can change people’s minds or even the way the government thinks. Don’t create to be around for ten seconds; create with an eye to having the work dug from the sand a thousand years from now or read a hundred years from and still have an impact. Strive for more, for the very best you can create. Live in the moment, but create for eternity. Or don’t. Just get rich and fade. Just add to the eye pollution the cheap and easy meh that we get hit with online day, after day, after day. Just be one of the faceless masses that is following the crowd and let your art bleat with the rest of them. Or risk. Redefine the edge. Make people think. Lay it all out there, and when you get bashed in the head because it’s not like what everyone else is doing, it’s not getting the likes or the thumbs up, it’s not trending, then you know you’re on a different path that asks for more of you. Stay on that path. Demand the best of yourself and never, ever settle. Or, just do what everyone else is doing, get likes, and go on your merry way. In the end, it’s up to you. What kind of work do you want to create?
- Chaos. The I Ching, where brilliant dreams are born. Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish to the crowd. Allowing yourself to be foolish, which in and of itself is a misnomer. A fool isn’t an idiot; a fool isn’t a clown. A fool, in Shakespeare, is the most thoughtful person in the room. The riskiest person in the room. Give me an egg, nuncle, I’ll give thee two crowns, says Lear’s fool as he berates him about cleaving his kingdom in twain. He speaks truth to power, he calls the king out on his mistake, and he lives. Til he dies. So, to be foolish is to be laughed at but also to be laughing at the laughers as well, but in such a way that they don’t know what’s happening; that is chaos. It’s an odd give and take—a perfect blend of creator and audience. The creator knowing exactly what part the audience plays and giving them direction while the creation is happening. Chaos is not mayhem; it’s a controlled storm of emotion; it can only come when you don’t fear the crowd, the judgment, the edge; there’s no planning the next step but allowing the chaos to lead you. Sometimes the leap is the thing. Take it, see where you land, or maybe you never land. Wouldn’t that be delightful?
- It mattered, matters to no one. I have laid bare myself on stages, in front of cameras, worked at my craft, studied, trained, fought, learned, tried, failed, leaped, fell, bruised, broken, healed, broken again, and, after 40 years … quietly, like a dying dog, on a back street, in the third world, it came to an end. No one noticed; no one cared. That’s a career, I said to myself before my last entrance, before I spoke the last words I believed would be the last words I would ever speak on any stage again. That’s a career. And the masses looked at their phones, thought of other things, and it happened to no one but me. I wanted, in my heart of hearts, to leave an impression. That’s how it feels when the show closes; this will never happen again. That’s part of my creative journey. The endings, the sorrow, the surety that no one is ever going to cast me again, hire me again, and this will be the last time. Like dying every twelve weeks til the agent calls, and I get put on life support for the run of a contract, and then, I die again. We all feel this; it will never happen again. I had one painting in me. That was the perfect sentence, and now there will never be another. Le petit mort only this little death is not something you crave but rather something you endure. We can choose not to feel this way, but most of us don’t. Some hide it. But even hidden, it still nips at your heels on the walk from the dressing room to places backstage. It still rumbles in the gut at closing night party as we talk about getting back to our homes, our lives, our wives, sons, daughters, partners, our empty. The thing about being creative is it demands you be brave. It demands you face the deaths and somehow scrape up the courage to go on, and put yourself in the path of another and another. It’s demanding this creative life. And, it’s giving. And it’s worth it. Always. No doubts.
- When the work is there, it is excellent. And if you’re smart, when you get the gig, you will stop for a minute and be in it. Enjoy it, and be thankful for it. There are so many chances to be horrible, demanding, and a diva in this business. Some people take it as a sign of power or professionalism to be demanding to be an “artiste.” Don’t let that happen. When you’ve been in a dry spell, and the water comes, and you’re on set or at the first table read, take a breath, look around, be thankful for the job, grateful for all the people you’re working with, and allow that to permeate how you work. Work with humility and care, and work with joy. Believe me, when you approach the work that way, you’ll still feel anxious if the downtime is extended, but you’ll be anxious to get back to the joy, not to the need. Even in the crushing silence of writer’s block or when you’re inspiration has slipped onto a bus in the middle of the night to go to Cleveland for some Skyline chili, try to find the joy in what you do. Don’t let desperation change you, make you bitter, make you forget that this is what you’ve always wanted. It’s difficult, I know. The voices from all corners, doorways, and family gatherings all counsel to give it up, get a real job, find a nice man or woman, stop his crazy art thing, and settle down. But what does your voice say? Listen to that voice. That’s the only truth you need to hear. Trust yourself. In the end, all you have is yourself, your art, and those who see it as part of you and cannot be removed, like a goiter or a shirt. It’s skin, bone, hope, pain, laugh, medicine. No matter what, trust in yourself.
- Some people just aren’t going to get it. They’ll say you’re job is just to have fun all day. To paint and dance and sing and write and act. Even better, they’ll say, I used to do some of that in grade school, high school to you, who has been training and working as a professional for 10, 20, 30 plus years. As if their high school play is equal to your decades of regional theatre, or their high school essay is similar to your years of being a professional writer. Oh, how frustrating, how infuriating it can be. But, step back and understand it comes from a place of not knowing but wanting so much to connect to the artistic side. All of us want to be rock stars and movie stars, and that’s what they see. That life in the papers or TV or the movies and none of that really shows what goes into the work. So, to the outside, it’s all fun and games. Or it’s about an app that writes the screenplay. Easy. How do you combat that? Get to know more about the world. Understand the jobs people do, what they had to do to get there, and how hard it is to do it. See their passions and understand them as much as you can. It works for you, as a creative, as well. The more you know about the world you’re creating for, the better chance you have at reaching the world with your work. The more you connect, learn, understand the world, the people, and make sense of how they see you and your creative work, the easier it is to slip into their skin, walk around and then create to and for them. There will be an impulse to “educate” them on what the creative process is like, what it takes from you mentally, physically, and emotionally but don’t do that. When you show them what goes into it, they are never innocent again. They can never fully enjoy the play, the books, the dance, or the song because they have seen what makes the magic trick work. Allow them their ideas, and then, you don’t have to work so hard to get them to believe the play and become immersed in the book. If you give them the facts about what it’s like to be an artist, to live the creative life, that just puts more distance between them and the work. Leave them to their bliss. Continue to create worlds for them to live through.
There you have it. Thanks for reading, and I hope this little piece had an effect on you, helped you with some questions, or inspired you to dig into your creative selves.
If you have thoughts about creativity, how you approach it or have questions, drop me a line at email@example.com, and I will see what I can do.
ThoughtLab, by the way, is a full-service creative agency, and we’re here to help you on your creative journeys with your brand or company. Talk to us, and let’s get those creative juices bubbling.