“It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.” ~ D.W. Winnicott
When was the last time you made something for fun? Not because you had to, not because you needed to make money, not because your kid needed help with a school project, but a time when you sat down, gathered a few materials, and decided to scratch the itch of an idea?
I’ve always been drawn to create. But for a little while, when I became “an adult”, I convinced myself of two things: 1) that most of my original ideas were not worth pursuing, and 2) that there was no longer time to engage without a clear purpose or tangible gain. I couldn’t articulate this at the time, but at some level I had come to believe that stepping in line to follow prescribed rules for a “successful life” was my new assignment.
However, prior to that, as a child, making things was as instinctive to me as breathing. Sleepovers were always filled with drawing and various crafts – though never with an adult guiding or prescribing it. I remember once around first grade, spending the night at a friend’s house and filling a paper cup with dirt, sticking a small branch in it, outlining the sticks with glue and covering it with glitter. Ta-da! A Christmas tree! Next up, homemade paper ornaments. Other times we made stained glass windows out of tinfoil, smeared pastels, or made small elaborate houses for sparkly plastic fishing worms we’d stolen from my uncle’s tackle box and pretended were pets. There were tiny beds and pillows made from kleenex, pictures on the walls, the works.
One of my favorite things to do as a tween and teen was to draw, sitting on my bedroom floor while I listened to music. In this solitude my brain would reach a relaxed place of pure peace. I could sit for hours humming and sketching. In high school I learned to enjoy painting and drawing with new media like charcoal, prismacolors and chalk.
In college I tried photography, and loved the experience of peering at my slides on a light table. And while I continued dabbling here and there in creating what I considered artwork as I entered adulthood, the time I allowed myself to play in this way became less and less. At some point, I must have decided that I had officially grown up and should pack it all away.
After all, it was clear I wasn’t going to be an artist for a living. And if I couldn’t make money off of it, should I really be wasting precious time doing it? Eventually I threw away many of my canvasses because they became more of an embarrassment than a source of pride, and were too large to continue to store.
When I had my first child in my late 20s, my nose caught the familiar but almost forgotten whiff of creative impulse. But this time, I didn’t have to justify it with a salary. This time I could do it in the name of A+ parenting! I once again had what I considered a legit reason to play. The bonus was that others validated it by saying I was “such a good mom” to pull out paints, butcher paper, and markers instead of leaving the kids in front of the TV all day. Little did they know, often I would be the one on the floor alone with the materials while my kids circled the room in their own pursuits.
Sometime in my early thirties, I remember noticing our pair of adirondack chairs that had degraded after ten years of backyard sunshine. I knew it would be time to retire them soon. I glanced at a can of leftover paint on our porch, and in that moment I envisioned those chairs taking on a new life. I went in the backyard and painted them in the sun.
Later, I had my weekly call with a parenting group led by Margaret Webb, a friend and talented coach. She asked us to share a recent time we felt really happy. I shared how happy it made me to give those chairs a makeover and to see something bright and blue in the middle of my backyard. Margaret zeroed in on this in an instant. “That right there,” she told me, “is part of your magic. Something about that experience is your ticket to joy.”
These comments caused me to pause. Was she talking about what I should be doing for a job? I certainly didn’t see myself resurrecting furniture every week, so that must not be it… I didn’t want to paint every day…so what exactly was it that occurred that afternoon? After having her comment swim in and out of my thoughts a number of years, I eventually realized she was absolutely correct. I thrive when I get to create. In a way I am still absorbing this message, with less than a year before my fortieth birthday.
At the end of the day, I think it’s as simple as this: I love making things. I love the sense of ease that fills me up when I’m completely absorbed and time passes in a blink. I love the satisfaction of seeing and touching a finished piece, or tasting a recipe that captured the essence of the experience. I love it so much that the following words surfaced in my mind one day when I tried to explain it to someone else: Busy hands. Quiet mind. Happy heart.
That’s the best way I know how to describe how I feel when I make stuff.
Every year my maker interests continue to evolve. The past 3 years or so I’ve focused on creating homesteading goods and recipes from our little yardstead. I’ve done everything from soap-making, to creating nontoxic household cleaners, to beeswax candle-making, to building self-watering container gardens, to using a kitchen mixer to whip body butter, to fermenting my own kombucha.
I’ve also played with water color paintings of the birds in my yard, sketches of plants, and consider writing this blog an act of creation. Each of these activities take anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours. They can take as long or as little as I have available. But it doesn’t seem to matter at all what I’m working on – if I’m simply making something, my brain gets quiet and my heart fills up.
Creativity is a source of play, and play is not something to take lightly in our lives. According to authors Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire of the book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, “adults who are more playful report feeling less stressed, being better able to cope with stress, and having greater life satisfaction and other positive outcomes.” Furthermore, time spent playing contributes to the growth of a flexible brain that is poised for creative thought and problem solving.* In short, play and creativity are a vehicle for humans to build the muscle that researcher Dr. Brené Brown calls resilience.
So why do so few of us make room to engage in the creative process, and of the ones who do make room, why do even fewer decide to actually share their ideas? Well, Kaufman and Gregoire explained exactly why in their book: there are huge risks.
Despite all of the new ideas, inventions, scientific advances, artistic movements and spiritual growth that have come from the sweaty shoulders of relentless pursuers of creativity, it turns out that, in general, most humans don’t like it when we follow our instincts, creative impulses and explore hunches. We live in a society that rewards conformity but needs creativity to survive.
And to make matters more complicated, “It is often uncertainty that stimulates the search for and generation of creative ideas, but it is also our fear of uncertainty that renders us less able to recognize creative ideas.”*
As Kaufman and Gregoire explain, we wait to celebrate creativity until it has been marked as successful and integrated into the “normal” routines of every day life. In other words, we wait until it’s very comfortable to accept anything new. “By definition, any work that is considered avant-garde is initially rejected, until it earns critical approval, becomes mainstream, and is in turn eventually uprooted by something new.”* This is not only true for arts and music, but is also true for the realm of science. “It’s usually only after an idea has gained acceptance and recognition that we applaud the idea and its creator.”* But consider how many humans contributed to developments, but never heard the applause because they were considered “failures”? Or how many died before their ideas were accepted as brilliant?
As a culture, ours generally disapproves of the people who follow creative paths that are necessary for leading society new directions. “There’s a high price to pay for being creative – tireless work, solitude and isolation, failure, and the risk of ridicule and rejection. The reality of creative work is that most artists will never sell their pieces, most actors and musicians will never make it big, most writers will never pen bestsellers, most start-ups will end in failure, and most scientists will never make earth-shattering discoveries. As Star points out, it’s a price that most of us don’t actually want to pay.“*
In the world of science and health, with evolving new and rare diseases, antibiotic resistance, rampant pathogens and toxic exposures, envelope pushers are essential. And yet, “despite the fact that open-mindedness is the institutional norm in science – and, as we’ve seen, intellectual curiosity is the best predictor of scientific creativity – Campanario’s research revealed a systemic skepticism toward new theories that challenged existing scientific paradigms. And beyond Nobel Prize winners, many scientists and commentators have suggested that the scientific peer-review system is designed in a way that discourages innovation and instead rewards research that reinforces existing paradigms.”*
With all signs pointing to the reality that conventional, mass-produced, convenience-based ways of living are dissolving our most essential basic needs, natural ecosystems, and social structures, we are faced with both a physical and an emotional health crisis, with a finite amount of time remaining on the clock. New ways of thinking are essential: to our own well-being, and to our children and grandchildren’s very survival. Making space for the creative acts that bring us joy, introspection and integration is not only worth it in terms of life satisfaction, but is critical in terms of longevity for our species.
Will every person change the world with their creative pursuits? Certainly not. But some will.
And of those, some may be growing up in our own homes, watching to see what we give ourselves permission to do, question and explore. And the more we create a culture that values exploration, the better shot we all have at thriving.
So I challenge us both, let’s lead by example and help create a world that fosters creative thinking. Let’s run households that applaud new ideas. Let’s not tease friends and partners when they explore something new, even when it seems out of character from how we’ve defined them to date, or flat out weird. And for the love of God, I hope it goes without saying, let’s please not tease our kids (or allow their siblings to do so) when they take creative risks. In a world that sticks with the status quo, and with a status quo that is heading for destruction, let’s all contribute toward creating a planet that welcomes new thoughts and conversations; one that fosters having fun in the short amount of time we have together.
Let’s make stuff and see what happens.
This simple act of remembering how to play can lead us back to our creative instincts, the ones from childhood. Back to when they were completely in tact, and ironically at their prime, before we got so grown up, so smart and so certain about everything and everyone. Let’s think back to what we loved most before we cut those strings in the name of adulting somewhere along the way. Let’s rethread the needle and welcome ourselves back home.
I suggest one way to do this is to make something – anything – and to do it often. You never know whose life you might save with the ripple. Most likely it will be your own.
*Quotes and data sourced from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire
Resources for Busy Hands, Quiet Minds and Happy Hearts:
Make Stuff Together: 24 Simple Projects to Create as a Family, By Bernadette Noll
Yardsteading Projects By Katie Hanus
Carla Sonheim’s Online Art Classes
Austin Tinkering School
Austin Maker Faire
Becky’s Homestead Videos
Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World by Kelly Coyne & Erik Knutzen
“We human beings are messy creatures, to be sure, and creativity is a process that reflects our fundamentally chaotic and multifaceted nature. It is both deliberate and uncontrollable, mindful and mindless, work and play. It is both the realm of a select group of geniuses through history, and the domain of every human being.
When we embrace our own messiness – engaging with the world with our own unique imagination and artistry – we give others permission to do the same. We help create a world that is more welcoming of the creative spirit and, it is hoped, make it possible to find a greater connection with ourselves and others in the process.”
~ Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, Wired to Create
I am convinced that ritual is one of the key ingredients to a life well-lived, or at the very least, a great way for a busy person to pause and actually notice when he or she is in the midst of a life well-lived.
And I am even more convinced that ritual is most likely to happen consistently when it is simple, easy, imperfect, and quick.
I’ll be sharing several little rituals I rely on this January and February. I encourage you to try one, and see if it’s something that adds meaning or space for reflection and integration of all the seemingly ordinary yet rich facets of your own every day life!