How A Creative Project Can Heal Your Body, Your Mind And The World

I quit piano lessons when I was seventeen. I remember vividly the day I quit, too, because when I told my teacher I wouldn’t be coming back for our next lesson, her response surprised me.

She said, “I’m not going to try and convince you to keep playing the piano with me, but I am going to convince you to keep playing.” She went on to tell me about how her father had just passed away, and how, in the days after his death, the grief was so heavy she couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. The only time she found any peace was when she sat down and put her fingers on the keys.

All she could do was to play the piano.

creative

At seventeen, I didn’t know this kind of grief, but her words did have an impact on me. I remembered them. They came back in whispers, like words sometimes do, when I lost my grandpa during my sophomore year of college. I sat in my dorm room, fingers rested on my keyboard, trying to remember the chords she had taught me.

They came back when I went through a painful break-up and found my only solace in writing secret letters in a journal.

They came back when I lost a friend to suicide and stayed alive myself by writing poetry. During a dark depression, I survived by strumming a few chords I had learned on guitar in my friend’s attic (where the acoustics were forgiving) and putting my poetry to music.

And it comes back to me now, in a time in my life where grief is heavier than it may have ever been before, and I find my way back to myself through movement, music, yoga, planting things, planning gatherings and of course, my old standby—a paper and pen.

It makes me wonder: have too many of us “quit” on our creativity too soon?

Have we forgotten how much we need it?

Creativity is healing.

The realization that creativity has a remarkable impact on our bodies and brains is not just experiential. It’s scientific. Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at University of Texas in Austin, has been doing research for decades about the measurable impact creative writing can have on a person’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. This is what he says:

The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experiences for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people’s sleeping habits, work efficiency, and how they connect to others. Indeed, when we put our traumatic experiences into words, we tend to be come less concerned with the emotional events that have been weighing us down.

Creativity is how we wrestle and thrive and search and grow and learn and make sense of the world. It’s how we find our purpose and our joy and our way through long, dark days until we get to better ones.

But if creativity can have such a measurable impact on our mood, our brains, our happiness and our overall well-being, why do so many of us dismiss it as frivolous, secondary, unimportant, or something to be done with the more pressing responsibilities of life have already been taken care of?

Why aren’t we making a greater point to live and breathe creativity in our lives?

Our excuses.

Well… I’m “not a creative person”

This is probably the excuse we most often hear (and give) for not engaging our creative minds and spirits more often. But perhaps the reason we believe we are not creative is that we have mis-defined creativity.

We engage in creativity anytime we:

  • Move our bodies (yoga, basketball, running, golf, swimming)
  • Try something we haven’t tried before (surfing, building a business, hanging curtains)
  • Put our hands to something (cooking, gardening, painting)
  • Invent something that has never existed before (a relationship, a baby, a party, a blog post)
  • Use our imagination (daydreaming, writing a play)
  • Engage our brains (math, science, reading, strategizing)

Other excuses you’ll hear when it comes to creativity are: “I don’t have the time for that” “I have too many responsibilities” “that seems frivolous” “I’m busy” “that’s too much money” or “what will people say?” I could go on… as a writing coach, I’ve heard ALL the excuses in the book.

As a creative myself, I’ve made all the excuses.

And yes, creativity is messy, cluttered, silly, exhilarating, embarrassing, unpredictable. But what if we all need way more of it in our lives?

What is your creative outlet?

Creativity is less about the action than it is about the motivation behind the action. This is the thing you do because you can’t not do it. It’s the thing that brings you great joy. It’s the thing that may not make you any money, may not be “productive” or “efficient” in the ways we normally think about these words, but that has tremendous under-the-surface power to help you make progress.

I love what Elizabeth Gilbert says about it in her beautiful book Big Magic:

Are you considering becoming a creative person? Too late, you already are one. To even call somebody “a creative person” is almost laughably redundant; creativity is the hallmark of our species. We have the senses for it; we have the curiosity for it; we have the opposable thumbs for it; we have the rhythm for it; we have the language and the excitement and the innate connection to divinity for it.
If you’re alive, you’re a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers—these are our common ancestors…

Even if you grew up watching cartoons in a sugar stupor from dawn to dusk, creativity still lurks within you. Your creativity is way older than you are, way older than any of us. Your very body and your very being are perfectly designed to live in collaboration with inspiration, and inspiration is still trying to find you—the same way it hunted down your ancestors.

All of which is to say: You do not need a permission slip from the principal’s office to live a creative life. Or if you do worry that you need a permission slip—THERE, I just gave it to you. I just wrote it on the back of an old shopping list. Consider yourself fully accredited. Now go make something.

Now, Go make something.

I love that. I love it because we are all making something, whether we recognize it or not. We are making friendships and homes and careers and breakfast and dinner. We are busy sculpting our bodies and our health and the future of our families. You are creative in that you are creating the life you live every single day.

Losing sight of our creativity.

Robert Fulgram, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, points out that, when you ask a room full of three-year-olds, “who in here is an artist?” nearly every child will raise her hand. And when you ask the same question of a group of adults, you might get a few reluctant responses.

What happened to us along the way?

Where did we lose this sense that we are creative?

I was chatting with a friend the other day about creativity and I asked her if she saw herself as a creative person. “I used to be really creative” she said, “but I lost my creativity along the way somehow.”

“Where did you lose it?” I asked. She thought about it for a moment, and finally wrote:

Somewhere under the piles of laundry and in the cloud of exhaustion and the weight of having to pay my mortgage every month. Somewhere between the persistence of emails and the pressure of trying to be more efficient. I am creative. I know I am. But where can creativity fit into this life of chaos?

Her question is a valid one: where can we fit creativity into this life of chaos?

Because sometimes life gets away with us. And creativity does not always seem like the most “productive” choice. It is not always the most efficient. It’s not always the most “profitable”—at least if we’re talking about money. But it’s binding. It’s essential. Maybe we need it more than we can even fathom.

The problem with losing our creativity.

If by our very nature we are creative—creating our environments and our friendships and our lives and our careers and our marriages and our families—then denying our creativity is dangerous. When we push our creative selves under the surface, they gasp for breath and eventually suffocate.

A part of us dies.

I’ve done this dozens of times in my life—ignoring the creative intuition which lives inside of me for the sake of more money, or approval, or fame, or making a name for myself—and the result is always the same. I’m left with all kinds of external “rewards” while the most important part of myself, my spirit, suffers.

The longer we go without listening to our intuitions, the more silenced they become.

Would you keep speaking if no one was listening to you?

And our creative selves are like our engine. This is what gets us up in the morning. It’s the wind at our back that keeps us pressing forward throughout the day. It’s the quiet reminder that life matters for something. And if we give that up in order to earn a bigger paycheck or make someone in our family happy or to put forward the appearance that we have our lives together—or whatever reason—we are ultimately sacrificing our souls.

No wonder we’re suffering from depression and anxiety and overwhelm and burn-out and just a general sense of being in a “funk” at unprecedented rates.

No freaking wonder.

Creative Answers.

Do you wake up some days wondering what you’re doing here on this earth? Are there moments when you aren’t sure what your place is or what your purpose is? Do you feel discouraged with what’s happening in the world but powerless to stop it? Are you under the weight of terrible grief to where you can’t see an end to the pain?

Do you sometimes just feel down for no reason?

Maybe the peace and the answers and the help and the progress we are all looking for will not found in gaining more information but in exercising our creative energy.

When we acknowledge that we are always responding creatively to our healing process, our sense of purpose improves. We are creating new ways to do things, whether we know it our not. We are not powerless. The more we recognize and celebrate this “everyday creativity” the more sense of satisfaction we can find. —Alison Bonds

Let us put our hands to something: a garden, a book, a journal, a meal, a gathering, a home, a piece of clothing, a piece of jewelry, a business, a math problem, a puzzle, a song, a piano, a guitar, a bouquet of flowers… it doesn’t really matter, just something.

Maybe creativity is more powerful than we even believe it is.

If you’re interested in hearing more about how creativity has changed my life, for a limited time I’m giving away a short eBook I wrote called Writing to Find Yourself. Normally I charge for this book, but for the next two weeks I’ll be giving it away for free. Just type your email address below.

Extra Resources:

As always, you can check out my full list of favorite resources here.

42 comments on “How A Creative Project Can Heal Your Body, Your Mind And The World

  1. Love this!! And I definitely agree with everything you said! My creativity has always been writing too. As a child I always wrote stories, as a pre-teen and teen I journaled, and in college I wrote essays. After college, I stopped writing completely. I felt so strongly that something was missing in my life, but for whatever reason, I didn’t recognize that it was the lack of creativity. In the past few months, I have introduced writing back into my life and it has brought back a sense of meaning and wonder.

    Thanks for posting & thanks for the additional resources too!

    Nicole

    • You’re welcome Nicole! So glad it was helpful for you and that you’re finding a way to reintegrate writing into your life. Hope you grab the free eBook and enjoy some of the other resources, as well. They’re some of my favorites.

  2. Absolutely love this. It was exactly what I needed to read this morning. You’ve summed up so many thoughts that have been rolling around my head lately. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Great resources listed at the bottom, especially that TedTalk. I always enjoy your thoughts, and I completely agree that everyone is creative and designed to create. I think it’s part of the way we were crafted, and something that sets us apart from animals. (OK, except possibly a couple species.)

    I have a question — you are talking about creativity in broad terms (including math, science, relationships, sports), but I don’t know that some of these have the same powerful effect as engaging our mind to make something (cooking, writing, music, etc). Running around bases or solving math problems or talking to friends at a bbq are engaging your mind and good for you in a lot of ways, but I wouldn’t consider them creative outlets (ok, depends on the type of conversation with friends). So would you consider these to be a different type of creativity?

    • Thanks for reading Sho. And glad you like those extra resources. They’re some of my very favorites.

      As for your question, remember that creativity has less to do with the activity as it does with the attitude behind the action. The primary qualifiers for creativity are innovation and imagination (dictionary definition: “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work”) So although we tend to think of creativity as being related to a “creative work” like a painting or a book, that doesn’t mean we can’t engage our creative brains and spirits when we are going for a run, or solving a riddle, doing a crossword puzzle, or playing a game.

      Here’s why it matters. Not everyone is going to be drawn to sit down and journal for an hour in the morning. But then again, some people who are drawn to journaling might feel totally out of place in a dance class or a baseball game. However, when we can learn to move our bodies and our minds in new ways—even ways that make us feel uncomfortable—we will discover new solutions to problems and discover new aspects of ourselves.

      Hope that helps.

      • Thanks for replying! (I’ve been following you for a long time, so it’s kind of exciting to me:)) I like that you are trying to remind people of possibly overlooked creative outlets — and I really like that you include kinetic activities. I guess it was hard for me to equate crosswording to creating a world via art…but you’re right, it’s still using imagination, and I can see how it could be a creative outlet for someone. (Don’t get me wrong, I love crosswords and sports but they aren’t the same emotional release for me. I think I’ve been a bit of a creative “snob” too; like I’m a “creative person” and that person over there isn’t. A bit of a silly view, considering I like to consider myself somewhat mathematical and analytical and wouldn’t want to be put into an “only creative” box.

        Your posts always get me thinking:)

        • So glad! Here’s a quote from Julia Cameron you might appreciate:

          “When we think about creativity, it’s all too easy to think art with a capital A. For our purposes, capital-A art is a scarlet letter, branding us as doomed. In order to nurture our creativity, we require a sense of festivity, even humor: “Art. That’s somebody my sister used to date!”

          “We are an ambitious society, and it is often difficult for us to cultivate forms of creativity that do not directly serve us and our career goals. Recovery urges reexamining definitions of creativity and expanding them to include what in the past we called hobbies…”

  4. I was privileged to be on the launch team for a fabulous book that resonates with some of these points. You are spot on Allison!! Peeps – read a copy of Matt Appling’s “Life After Art”

    • Such a great book! Matt is a friend and fellow Moody Collective author. Should have included that in my list.

  5. I have been journaling since I was a young girl first starting with creative writing which led to my diaries then when I was in my 20’s in the late 1990’s I read The Artist’s Way which led to morning writings (free writing). I continue to write in journals but I’m discovering other outlets of creativity in my life. I know I’m being creative when I feel like a child again, a free spirit, trying out a new recipe and altering it to my liking or making up an exercise workout as I go and enjoying the unveiling of it all. Thank you Allison for your words that help us to recognize the gifts we already have!

    Warm regards,
    Kristin

    • “I know I’m being creative when I feel like a child again, a free spirit, trying out a new recipe and altering it to my liking or making up an exercise workout as I go and enjoying the unveiling of it all.”

      THIS is such a great way to distinguish creativity. It’s awakening that child-like spirit inside of us. Children don’t have to be told to be creative. They just know they are. It’s what they do. We have a lot to learn from them 🙂

      Thanks Kristin.

  6. I have always enjoyed creating – writing, drawing, coding, photography, whatever – but for years I had a huge reluctance to share any of it. I finally decided to get over that fear so I started blogging and (gasp!) sharing these deeply personal thoughts on Facebook! Turns out, people really don’t care about your flaws but they do care about you.

    I still face perceived judgement but I deal with it better. So there’s been a lot of personal growth. Now I paint, and there’s always a feeling of vulnerability when a new person comes over and sees my work. I think this is a good thing though because it has made me invest the hours necessary to do quality work. So, the more reluctant you are to share your work, the more you should! Happy creating and thank you Allison for a great post!

    • “Turns out, people really don’t care about your flaws but they do care about you.” I love this. This has been my experience with blogging, too. It’s funny. The more embarrassed I am to share something, the better response it gets—ha. What a funny paradox.

      But people really do just want to connect in their humanity. Creativity helps us do that.

      Keep up the good work, Brad. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I have been thinking a lot about creativity lately. Thank you for putting so many of the things that I have been considering into such beautiful words.

    Until recently, I did not think of myself as a creative person. In fact, I felt like I was inept in that realm. My mom is the most creative person I have ever met. She always has such great ideas and executes them flawlessly in art, design, and crafts of all shapes and sizes. I grew up watching her beautify everything she touched, which made me feel like I could never even come close to measuring up to her creativity, and, therefore, was not creative at all.

    It was like a lightbulb went on in my head not too long ago when I realized that creativity comes in many forms, and we are all born to be creative, just like you said. We all create in different ways, which is what gives our world the depth and variety that it has. How boring it would be if we were all good at the same things!

    Beautiful post.

    • This is so great Lynette! I have met so many people in my lifetime who claim to be “not creative” and then, later on down the road, I find them building something or solving some kind of problem or innovating in some way… it really is in our DNA.

      Thanks so much for sharing.

  8. Beautiful post, Allison. I’ve wrestled with a lot of the excuses you talked about. The two biggest ones for me are time and energy. Things are really busy right now at work and my kids are really young (4 and 2), so when I get home I find myself expending a lot of my remaining energy with them. By the time they’re in bed and I’ve gotten everything ready for the next day I have very little to give to the creative pursuits that give me life. I need to let some things in my life so I can participate in the things that give me life. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Jeff—the struggle is real. I don’t have kids, but I have enough friends with young children and have nannied a few different times, and I know how much energy kids can take just to get through the day-to-day. Remember, though, what an incredible act of creativity raising your kids is and will continue to be! You’re using a lot of creative energy in that direction right now, and there will be more to share toward other pursuits later.

      For now, just do what you can. Have tons of grace for yourself in this season (and always). Beating ourselves over the head for “not doing enough” just makes our creativity go into hiding.

      Thank you for sharing.

  9. Love this post! I was just thinking about this very thing this morning as I did an art project with my daughter: how we are all born creative and seem to lose it as we grow up! It needs to be exercised. Thanks for this reminder.

  10. So beautiful, thank you so much for writing this. It’s really helpful.

    “I’ve done this dozens of times in my life—ignoring the creative intuition which lives inside of me for the sake of more money, or approval, or fame, or making a name for myself—and the result is always the same. I’m left with all kinds of external “rewards” while the most important part of myself, my spirit, suffers.” — You’re absolutely right, this is what it’s all about… The process is its own reward. Soooo easy to forget, especially when working in a creative field. Thanks heaps for the reminder.

    • Yes! And you bring up a great point—about working in a creative field. For me, for example, I write every single day, but that doesn’t always mean I’m being creative. Again, less about the activity, more about the attitude behind the activity.

      Creativity is play (watch kids). We do it without rushing, without trying to systematize it, and without expectation of return. We all need a little more of this in our lives.

      Thank you for sharing.

  11. This hit the nail on the head for me today. I was just telling a mentor/friend of mine that I feel like I’m dying a bit inside. She started asking about what I was creating or doing with my creativity. The truth? Nothing right now. We just moved half way across the country, I have two toddlers at home, and I’m up to my eyeballs in paperwork and parenting – those great excuses we all make. I need this kick reminder that taking that time is so worth it – even just a little bit of writing in my day makes me feel so much better. I could hardly believe it when this article popped up on my feed. I think my eyes almost popped out of my head! Thank you for your honesty. I so enjoy your work.

    • I know this feeling of “dying inside” so well. It’s awful, but it’s our soul’s way of screaming to us to let it out of the small box we’ve locked it in, and to give it space to play, to create, to explore, to make a mess, to forgive ourselves, to laugh, and to act like a child again. Healing healing healing—so much healing comes from creativity.

      Thank you for reading, Sheri. And for sharing your story!

  12. “Would you keep speaking if no one was listening to you?”

    I seriously LOVE that you said this. God has asked me this same question over and over again to me whenever I seem to fall into a mindset that robs me of creative writing or speaking. I sometimes find myself wanting to write or speak on a topic that might get more views, yet have no passion behind it, and it is in those seasons that I feel disconnected from myself and God. I need to stick a post-it note on my desk as a reminder to ask myself this question before I write. Thank you, Allison, for writing from your heart and for loving people you don’t even know through your writing. God is using you.

    • Alicia—It’s amazing how many of us (myself included) ignore our intuitions and then wonder why we aren’t getting more information about where to go next. We’re like, “I just don’t know! I don’t feel like God is speaking to me!” Meanwhile I imagine God must be like, “Um… I’ve been over here talking to you and you don’t listen!” Ha. I don’t say this to be hard on us. We can just laugh about it, and realize how important it is to listen for that still, small voice and tune out the other noise, and do better next time.

      We have to cultivate our intuitions if we want them to be of use to us.

      So glad this was helpful for you. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  13. This post really resonated with me, as I recently started blogging as creative outlet and form of accountability. I had overlooked this side of myself in the sea of academia, and now my career, for far too long. Sometimes I worry that I’m out of practice and readers won’t relate, but you reminded me that I write first and foremost for myself. Thank you! My art has a lot of growth ahead, but I’m really enjoying the process.

    • Yes! I teach writers I work with that the answer to the age-old question about who you’re writing for—yourself or your reader—is BOTH. It’s like a relationship. You cannot abandon your own thoughts, needs, desires, etc. But you also have to reach out earnestly for the person you want to be in relationship with. I talk about this quite a bit in my Find Your Writing Voice course, which I’ll be opening for registration again in a couple of weeks.

  14. Thanks Allison for your post. It can be so easy to follow the “shoulds” in life rather than an invitation to creativity. Thanks for the reminder.

    I wrestle often with the feeling that I should work more, as I only work part time and do make time for creativity, yet there is this cultural pressure to work more, make more money, etc that isn’t in line with just making time for enjoyment. Yet creativity is worth it!

    • Alyssa—this idea that I should “work more” is so familiar to me and is absolutely the enemy of my creativity. All that to say, I totally get it and I’m with you. Julia Cameron talks about how we have to trick our creative selves into showing up. We have to bribe them and coax them and woo them… not by pounding them over the head for not working enough, but instead by saying something like, “hmm… let’s go splurge and buy your favorite latte… and see if we can get a few hundred words written.”

      That idea was so freeing for me! Hope it helps you too.

  15. It is amazing the healing power of creativity! So many great works have been created as a result of an artist healing through what they were making. I so appreciate this piece as each of us are creative but society will lead us to think we are not. I know I feel I am very creative but was hurt recently when someone said they would not call me creator. It made me realize it isn’t what someone else thinks but how I feel.

    • It’s so easy to let others define us—which is why so many of us end up believing we’re not creative. One way this plays out in schools, I think, is that the words “artistic” and “creative” are used interchangeably. In other words, a child who is gifted with words or colors is told, “you’re a great writer” or “wow, you’re so creative” or “what an artist”. I would define “artist” a little more narrowly than “creative”. Just because you don’t love to write or paint or draw doesn’t mean you aren’t creative. And if we believe we aren’t creative, we just haven’t found our creative outlet yet.

      Thank you for sharing!

  16. Have actually written two different novels, to put my mind at rest when people I’ve loved died suddenly. The first was a mystery, Potter’s Field. The last was a western romance, The Milch Bride. Writing really does help.

    • It really does! Love that Janet. What an incredible accomplishment, and so very healing in the midst of grief.

  17. I know I had many creative outlets as a child, and I pursued them unabashedly. But as I got older, I grew more and more self conscious about my more creative endeavors. I stopped drawing and writing poetry and who-knows-what-else I did at a young age, all because I feared what others might think of me.

    It got to the point where I felt almost ashamed of my words, even if no one else would read them. I’d start a journal, and then I’d dislike myself for what I’d written, so I’d stop writing and hide that journal. Then when I felt the urge to write again, I’d start with a blank journal. As a result, I probably have at least a dozen diaries/journals/notebooks from throughout my childhood (and adulthood) that are less than half full.

    Recently I got the urge to write again. Something was different this time, though. I committed to filling a whole journal, without shame for my words or my thoughts. This was two months ago, and I now have less than a dozen pages left in my Moleskine.

    I was drawn to writing this time around because anxiety has reared its ugly little head in my life yet again, and I’ve found that writing is such a healing tool when it comes to anxiety management. Your words just amplified all that I’ve come to realize, and encourage me to just let creativity flow for the sake of my own sanity and healthy.

    • Jessica—what you’re talking about here is so very common. Julia Cameron calls this our “inner critic” and it’s one of the reasons she gives the assignment of Morning Pages (writing in a private journal every morning). Because she says you will essentially start to see your inner critic come out and flare up—and you’ll have to deal with him/her (for each of us, that critic takes on a different identity and gender).

      Anyway, it’s important to remember that your inner critic is not only NOT on your side, but will be the greatest obstacle for you not only in your creative work, but also in your life. The better we can get at putting that little critic in its place, the better off we’ll be.

  18. Great post! I stumbled upon this article by chance and it was so timely. My mom passed away last month and returning to my creativity zone of writing and music is what has been giving me the strength to keep going. Creativity heals my soul.

    • I’m so very sorry to hear about your mom. What an incredible loss. I will say a prayer right now that your creative spirit continues to bring healing to you, and that your creative work would be like a monument to your mom, holding her memory here with you.

      Thank you for sharing.

  19. I’d ‘saved’ this when I saw the title, but was in the process of moving and couldn’t take time to do everything else I’d wanted to do right then. I just ‘rediscovered’ it this afternoon and read it with interest. Thank You for sharing these thoughts. It validates to me the Many and Various creative aspects of my life – it having been Full of hardships, pain and loss. There are days that I do wonder WHY I should ‘keep on keeping on,’ but – I Persevere – and exercise my creative abilities to the best that I can. Nice to know that someone understands. ;-}

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