“Creativity – like human life – begins in darkness” – Julia Cameron
Creativity is a shrewd mistress. It wakes you up in the middle of the night, disappears before you’re ready, and it forces you to do things you wouldn’t normally think of doing. But, where does it come from? And, more importantly, how can we enhance it?
Burstein on Creativity
Psychologists have argued over the origins and identification of creativity for years. It could be a trait, a skill, or a feeling. Creativity can be increased by constraints and motivations. Or, it may merely be the side effect of emotional overload. If you ask Ms Julie Burstein, however, she’ll tell you it’s what happens when you embrace four things: experience, challenge, limitation, and loss.
To the kind of true creative that inspires shocked silence, you need an experience. Whether it’s the creating a Japanese raku bowl, climbing to the top of a mountain, or simply seen the beauty in life’s simple moments, you have to have witnessed something with your soul — seen and felt something in a focused, pure manner. This, in my world, is what triggers creativity.
“Some of their most powerful work comes out of the parts of life that are the most difficult.”
Challenge and struggle are just as much a part of creativity as the medium you choose. You could, of course, just start painting random items with precision. But is that really creativity? Can you consider yourself as being creative if you fail to make a connection with anyone else or the item you’ve created? For me, challenge is what makes the difference between good and great creativity.
According to Burstein, the third driving force behind creativity is limitation. Constraints force you to think critically about your goal. I find it easiest to think of this concept like money: You’ll get a lot more for your money if you’re poor and only have $10 to spend than you will if you’re rich and have an endless supply of money coming in. You’ll garden, mend or make your own clothing, compromise, trade items or work with a friend… It’s not easy, but eventually, you’ll find a way to make sure you get everything you need.
A creative individual has an innate need to release a thought, feeling, or idea into the world, but only a limited number of skills and materials to work with. And while things don’t always go according to plan, he or she will continue to fight with their need, make adjustments, and tinker around with minute details, until the need subsides.
The last element behind creativity is one I’ve found is the most important in my little world: loss, and embracing loss. In the video, Burstein refers to educator Parker Palmer who describes this as “the tragic gap”. You see, he sees loss as tragedy because it’s inevitable. I see it in a similar way.
I’ve always told my children that loss and pain is what makes us appreciate the good moments. In fact, this concept has played such a prominent role in my life, I’ve had it translated to Gaelic and tattooed into my skin. In English, it says, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
Is All Creativity Created Equal?
I find what you label as creative depends on what “world” you’re from. Business people, for example, see creativity as a nice ad. Politicians define it as a different way of looking at and solving a problem. Teachers see a creative child as someone who, given the same set of instructions as everyone else, paints a completely different image. A professor, on the other hand, sees a creative student as someone who takes a concept further than most. Or, in a different direction.
I’ve long been known as someone who sees the world differently. I usually come up with different solutions than most people, and explain things in a way many people don’t think of. However, I don’t think that makes me creative. It’s just who I am. It’s just me, and I wouldn’t be “me” without it. Is that really creative? I don’t think so. I think what makes me truly creative is my music, but not in the way you might think.
Creativity as a Need
For me, creativity is as important to life as breathing. Without it, I’d cease to exist. Here’s how it works: Something happens in my life and I get this feeling demanding to be experienced and expressed. (I think of it like a mental itch.) If I ignore it, it gets louder and louder as it feeds on my energy and attention. Rooted deeply into my core, this need eventually grows into an overwhelming stress that branches into every element of my life. I can’t focus or think of anything else except the feeling I’m experiencing. The only way to get rid of it? Work through it in some creative way. For me, that’s usually music.
The odd thing about creativity for me is that it’s rarely, if ever, about happiness. I don’t think I’ll ever create a piece of music that tells the story of happy little bunnies frolicking in the forest. I’m never happy with joyful, bouncy tunes, and you can hear it in the pleasant falsetto that coats every note. No. For me, it’s about nothing except finding relief.
When I’m finished playing or composing a piece of music, it’s as if someone pulled the plug on the pool of emotions that had drowned out everything else my mind. And, with the stress and overwhelming drive now drained from my body, I feel emotionally exhausted, empty, vacant, and numb.
It’s not what I would normally describe as a pleasant feeling. The relief from the turmoil and silent calm that have now taken over is a cold, stark feeling. Eventually, after some time, the feelings and thoughts slowly begin to creep in again like water dripping from a tap into a freshly drained pool. I have no idea how long it will take — an hour, a week, or even a year — for that drip to fill the pool with water once again, but I know it will happen again eventually.
So, what is that? A trait? A skill? Is there some magic formula I can use to replicate and increase that? I’m not sure, but I am sure that it’s not something I could do every day, for eight hours, as a job. And I’m not so sure it’s something everyone should experience.