Do you consider yourself creative? Under what conditions do you find yourself most creative?
If you answered “no” to the first question, may I politely agree to disagree? In another lifetime, I had the rare opportunity to work with the non-profit wing of the acclaimed design firm IDEO on a social entrepreneurship project in which we set out to design a digital tool to promote financial health among low-income youth on the South side of Chicago. The project was awe-inspiring, humbling, and challenging on many levels, but one ancillary benefit was that no one — no one! not even the stodgy funders of the project! — that directly participated in the work left without thinking, “Hey! I guess I am kind of creative.” IDEO’s team members modeled radical, playful, thoughtful creativity in everything they did, from the way they designed their work sessions (often belaboring the structure and order of operations) to the tools they used to communicate (everything on neon post-its, whose shape and functionality remind us that nothing is permanent, everything can be reconfigured, and that many an opus are composed of tiny, seemingly insignificant scraps of thought). It was one of my greatest professional joys, achievements, and experience to work with them. If you’re feeling as though you need to flex your creative confidence, you might enjoy this brief TED talk by the founder of IDEO, David Kelley. I had all of my team members and interns watch this video as a part of their onboarding experiences, and I used to hold regular IDEO-inspired “design sprints” to problem-solve with my team, often warming up with a whimsical exercise problem, like “imagine a colleague comes to you and says she just cannot get to work on time. Let’s walk through the design process to create a couple possible solutions.” It’s interesting to watch team members conduct interviews, sleuth out the underlying causes for tardiness, and then spin out a range of possible solutions, from a simple fix (like moving the alarm clock across the room so the dilatory party will be required to actually get up in the morning) to technical and complicated (designing an app to predict the precise arrival time of a bus arriving at a bus stop on an given morning).
At any rate, you are creative. Humans are inherently creative! Sometimes we just lack the provocation or tools or context to exercise the muscle. There is a section in mini’s book called Julia, Child that casts adults as “big, busy people who were weighed down with worries, who couldn’t remember the last time they climbed a tree or even rode a bicycle, who never watched cartoons and only read biographies.” A few pages later:
‘”I think the problem is not that the world is filled with too many grown-ups,’ said Simca.
‘The problem,’ said Julia, ‘is that too many grown-ups don’t have the proper ingredients.'”
I was thinking about all of this the other day while reading an interesting New Yorker interview with Michelle Pfeiffer (yes, she’s still around — just choosy) in which she comments: “Even when I was a kid I would go out into the garage and I’d find my dad’s tools, and I’d find an old block of wood and some nails, and some duct tape, and I would create things. I could stay out all day by myself. I made a pair of shoes out of duct tape and cardboard. I was very, very pleased with those shoes. I’ve always been happiest when I’m creating something.”
It’s funny because I write for a living, have run this blog for over a decade, and have always been working on something (including a lot of very bad fiction) — even as a child, well before the frame of this blog or any of my previous professional endeavors provided any sort of public platform for expression. And because of the experience working with IDEO, I have spent quite a bit of time (some might say…a nontrival amount) thinking about creativity in the workplace and how to nurture it across a team. And yet I don’t know that I have ever given any critical thought to myself as a creative, or to the measure of happiness the creative process affords me. Sometimes, writing can actually be painful, whether because I am working through a knob of emotion or stumbling over the right words or — as with fiction — positively overwhelmed and chewed up by the process of it. When I emerge from an afternoon of fiction-writing, I am drained, shell-like. I feel like a cartoon character roughly outlined in gray lead, empty and sketchy around the edges. I don’t love the feeling. But then re-reading what I’ve written later, as I smooth out the contours and tinker with the phrasing and trim the excess fat to which I am cloyingly prone, can be delicious. There is an as-yet-unpublished portion of Maiden’s Choosing that I obsess over — a part where Caroline discovers a branding on Buck’s arm — and I think of it at least five, six times a day. I cannot unsee or unfeel the moment, and I created that moment, and the entire thing blows my mind. How did that fictional moment and the very real energy nested in it come to be? Why has it so captured my imagination, my heart?
I don’t know the hows and whys, but I have a loose approximation of the where: in bed, in that liminal space between awake and sleep, when I drop the figure of Buck or Powell or Caroline or Violet in front of me and wonder what they might do at, say, a black-tie party, or a college date function. I have the broad outlines of the novel in place already, but it’s thinking through their movements and minutaie in very specific frameworks that brings color to the pallor of unborn fiction.
What about you? Where are you most creative?
+If this thread interests you, I have given several friends and colleagues a copy of the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In brief snippets, the author provides small windows into the creative rituals of novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians from George Gershwin to Agatha Christie. Fascinating and mildly voyeuristic, the book makes the case that there is no one effective formula for creative practice.
+I will say, though, that the two most effective habits I have with regards to writing are a) publishing a lot and b) reading a lot. I write every single day, for hours at a time. Early on, I prioritized volume over quality, probably vaguely influenced by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier book, in which he makes the case that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness,” but also intuitively understanding that practice makes — well, not perfect, but better. Reading also refines my writing. I spend a lot of time unpacking the mechanics and style of other writers and teasing out what I like versus don’t and why certain elements seem to “work” while others fall flat. Sometimes, it gives me the courage to try something new.
+These jeans have been VERY popular on le blog. Wear like sweats, but look like they have a fashion perspective. Pair with the NBs above and WOW.
+OK, these shades are seriously cool.
+Who doesn’t love a striped maxi?
+HRH Martha Stewart launched a line of puffy vests that have been selling like wildfire. I have to say, I’m into them.
+I’m generally allergic to shorts, but these are beyond.
+Love the color combo of this striped sweatshirt for a little one.
+Still my favorite everyday lip color — glides on like balm and leaves just the prettiest glow. “Bare Pink” is my favorite color.
+Still some of these shearling-lined birks in stock for your WFH uniform.