What it means to be creative
When I was in first grade at St. James School in Denver, Colorado, my teacher, a Catholic nun whose name I’ve long forgotten, pinned a picture of a cowboy—it was Denver, after all—to the board at the front of the class and told us to draw him. I can see the tall, strong cowboy gazing down on me as he clenched a curled-up rope in his leather-gloved hands.
I don’t remember the drawing I created of him— mercifully, it has been erased from my memory. I do remember trudging home after that cowboy’s gaze turned to a glare and my first-ever report card, with the letter D printed in bold next to Art, weighed me down as if I were carrying a boulder in my tiny arms.
To my parents’ credit, they were as incensed as I was ashamed. My mother stomped down to the school and berated the nun for judging a six-year old’s attempt at creativity. Sadly, it didn’t change my grade, and despite my mother’s efforts, I grew up believing I was not a creative person. My teacher told me so, so it must be true. As a result, I rarely attempted drawing or anything that I assessed required creativity.
Valuing common sense over creativity
I believed that some people were smart, like my brother; some people were creative, like a couple of my friends; and some, like me, were gifted with common sense. I prided myself on being the practical one who knew her way around in the world. I figured common sense could get me a lot further in life than either brains or creativity.
Even as an adult, I carried that wounded six-year old with me as I focused my writing career on producing software manuals instead of anything that smacked of “creative” writing. In a ten year period,
I organized outlines and wrote original content for over 25 eight-hundred to twelve-hundred-page books on PCs and the software that ran on them.
I developed sample files to demonstrate features for all the varied Microsoft Office products.
I was an early advocate of PowerPoint presentations that relied less on bulleted text and more on graphic representation of key points.
I figured out and wrote step-by-step instructions for new features for which Microsoft hadn’t even developed Help files.
I helped business professionals make their Word documents and Excel spreadsheets graphically appealing to their respective audiences.
And, in my writing, I strove to make software understandable and interesting to people at all levels of technical competence.
I never viewed any of this as creative writing. And, in fact, eventually, I decided to stop writing software books so I could learn whether I could "become creative." When a former partner died and left me some money to "go on a big adventure," I decided that the biggest adventure I could take was a trip in search of my creativity. In my 50s, I enrolled in the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College with the hopes of transitioning my writing into a more creative pursuit.
Enrolling in this program was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. I know how word choice can turn an otherwise blasé piece of writing into something memorable. I know how creating scenes draws readers in ways that bland descriptions never can. I found a community of writers who truly care about me as a writer and as a person.
But most importantly, I learned that anytime you create something out of nothing you are being creative. Some writing might be more lyrical, but if your goal is to learn how to navigate Microsoft Office, it doesn’t come better than the hundreds of thousands of words I created on this subject.
On my big adventure in search of creativity, I discovered that my creativity was with me all along.
I am a creative person
Today, I can say without hesitation that even though I never expect to draw a respectable cowboy, I am a creative person. I also learned that writing is only one way I express my creativity. My creativity is evident whenever I imagine something that does not exist and take steps to make it real, for example,
a flower garden of early spring blooms I plant in late autumn
a spreadsheet I design to capture critical data
a PowerPoint presentation I create to accompany a talk
the talk itself that I write and deliver
a website I design
photographs I capture
Each of these things is a creative venture for me. For you, it might be:
a dinner you prepare
a scarf you knit
a trip you plan
a gift you create for someone you love
the way you arrange the furniture and wall-hangings in your home
Creativity is all around you and me every day. In fact, I’d say it’s hard to get through a day without being creative. The trick is believing in your own creativity.
Creativity is for you
My brother’s girlfriend, Jan Dittmar, is a prolific painter. She produces what appears to me to be a painting a day. Some of them are humorous, some serene, some so abstract I don’t have a clue what they are supposed to represent. The great thing about creativity is that it doesn’t matter. If it makes you happy, do it. Painting clearly makes Jan happy, and I’m sure it’s an extra delight that so many people enjoy her work too, like I do every day when I see her sunflower painting smiling down on me in our kitchen.
Twyla Tharp, American dancer, choreographer, and author says, “The thing about creativity is, people are going to laugh at it. Get over it.”
I’m still angry at my first-grade teacher who squelched such an early attempt at creativity, but I’m even more disappointed in myself for letting her take something so precious from me for so long. I wrote recently about fear in Zen and the Art of RV Driving. Just like my fears can prevent me from going places and doing things, my fear of being laughed at, at feeling inadequate, at being critiqued can prevent me from taking risks with my gift of creativity.
I refuse to let that happen anymore.
Mae Jemison, American engineer, physician and NASA astronaut, says, “Don't let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It's your place in the world; it's your life. Go on and do all you can with it and make it the life you want to live.”
For whatever time I have left on this Earth, whether it’s one year or forty, I plan to nurture my creativity, because as Maya Angelou said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
I can’t wait to see what I come up with next! What are you planning to create in 2019?