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.
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?
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 freaking wonder.
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.
- Do Schools Kill Creativity?(a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson)
- Out of Our Minds by Sir Ken Robinson
- Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- Create vs. Copy by Ken Wytsma
- Writing to Heal by James Pennebakbr
- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
- Secrets of the Creative Brain (via The Atlantic)
- Elizabeth Gilbert and Marie Forleo on Creativity
As always, you can check out my full list of favorite resources here.