Creativity can be a harsh task master

We’re all in this together Christen Giblin

Being creative is fun … until it’s not.

Don’t worry, dear reader, I’m not about to bewail the fate of the tortured artist who must suffer for his craft. We can’t all claim the kind of talent that produces a world-class novel, painting or symphony.

But we all experience the urge to create. Your product could be a letter to the editor on a subject important to you, a poem for your sister’s wedding, a presentation to your book club, a blog entry, or an elaborate meal for a special occasion. Being creative is part of being human. But creativity can be a harsh task master.

Like the boss who leaves an assignment on your desk at 4:45 on a Friday, it can strike when you least expect it. Ideas may come to you in the middle of the night, when you don’t have pen and paper at hand. This flash of inspiration may evaporate in the cold light of dawn, never to return again.

Energy does not necessary follow inspiration. You may plan an ambitious party weeks ahead, only to come down with the flu when the day comes. Or you simply may not have the time or resources you need to fulfill your grand plans at the last minute. Sometimes life gets in the way. Some scholars believe Jane Austen and other women produced novels, not poems, because they needed a form they could write in installments between the interruptions of domestic duties.

Good ideas are sometimes not enough to ensure success. I know a social worker who wrote an excellent curriculum for a parenting class, only to discover she couldn’t find an appropriate a venue for holding the class, even though several students had signed up for it. Sometimes creativity dies for lack of an outlet.

Perfectionism can also get in the way of creativity. “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” as a wise man once stated. Wordsmiths sometimes become so hung up on expressing their ideas with absolute clarity that they find themselves mired in writer’s block. (There’s a reason we pen second drafts.) Insist playing your favorite piano piece flawlessly and you may never even open the instrument. Worry about dropping a stitch and you won’t ever complete that challenging sweater pattern.

So what makes us want to create? What drives people to express themselves, even if the process can be troublesome, taxing, and anxiety-producing?

Maybe we don’t have a choice. Perhaps creativity is in our DNA. It could be that our earliest ancestors needed to think outside the box in order to navigate a hostile world. Creative thinking — seeking new alternatives — helped them find food sources and defend themselves. And establishing rituals (which over millennia became religions and art forms) helped our distant forbears bond as communities, another form of self-defense.

Creativity still helps us reach out to each other. A play, a painting, a work of craftsmanship brings people together in offering us a new perspective on the world around us. Creativity is good for the group, even if sometimes there is a price to be paid by the individual. (It’s no accident that many of our culture’s most creative people have had psychiatric diagnoses. The intense focus and unconventional thinking that producing great art demands have a lot in common with mental illness.)

Yet, as with most activities that contribute to the common good, creativity has its rewards for the person creating. The creative process itself is satisfying. And there’s nothing like the afterglow of accomplishment when a project is finished. Getting kudos from friends, family and your community when they enjoy your creation is also matchless.

Creativity is one of the things that makes us human. And when we produce something that ties us to each other and to the past and the future, it does something more: it brings us closer to the divine.