Practice Creativity

Imagine someone asking you “How many hours a week do you spend working?” or “What do you do?” you are likely to answer something like, “I am a full-time student and I work part-time at a department store,” or “I am a full-time mom of three boys,” or I am a professor,” or “I am a computer analyst”, etc. Your answer describes the daily routine of what you do for a living, which is a job that gives you income, a social identity, a certain professional status and, sometimes, public recognition. However rewarding, very often a job includes duties, tasks and requirements that we are obliged to perform, whether we like them or not. Our freedom to do only what we like in our job is almost always limited. This is a main reason why so many people suffer from job-related dissatisfaction and see their work as the necessary evil they must endure in exchange for a monthly paycheck.

Now, imagine someone asking you “How many hours a week do you spend creating something that gives you joy?” or “Do you have a creative habit that helps you handle stress?” Think of your answer: you may take a little longer to give a reply and, when you do, you may say something like: “Hmm, you know, I’d like to be creative but, truth is, I’m too tired”, or “Well, I’d love to have some time for creativity, but I’m too busy with other things,” or “It would be awesome to have a creative habit but that’s a luxury for the rich and I have bills to pay” or “Me, creative? But I’m not an artist, I am an office manager!”

If your answer to the question about creativity resembles any of the answers above, it is high time you changed your attitude toward your ability to be creative. In this chapter, you will be introduced to a number of mythic characters and real people who consider creativity not as a luxury, but their birthright. The truth is that we are all born with the ability to be creative, just as we are born with the ability to think, dream and imagine. But, while some of us continue to honor creativity throughout our lives and enjoy the benefits of a creative habit, many others betray our creativity as we seek joy in habits that are not only non-creative but, oftentimes, self-destructive.

The prices we pay when we stifle our right to be creative are as high as those we pay when we stifle our dreams. In my practice as a psychotherapist and coach, the majority of clients complaining about feelings of depression, insomnia, panic attacks, low self-esteem, or sense of meaninglessness are the ones who ignore their dreams and their own creative impulses. Over the years, I have helped a number of people reconnect with their natural ability to create, watching them enjoy the benefits of their creativity: a recovered self-confidence, an improved ability to handle life’s daily stress, freedom from depression, and a sense of fulfillment that no medical treatment alone can ever catalyze.
As you are working through the fourth phase of this method, it is essential that you experience the joy of developing and maintaining creative habits. Reconnecting with your creativity will allow you to be spontaneous and daring as you suspend judgment about the outcomes of your creative efforts. Your benefits from becoming creative will be a sense of sustained pleasure, inner freedom and independence from other people’s approval. The more you allow yourself to be creative, the more self-confident you will be and the better you will like yourself.

CREATIVITY 101

“To create” means “to cause to exist”; “to bring into being something that has never existed before”. Everything created is first imagined. Therefore, creativity is the human activity in which we use constructively our imagination by giving material form to our creative ideas. I In this context, a creative person is not only prolific in ideas but also active in materializing creative ideas in the real world. This creative input enriches not only the individual life of the creator, but also the world at large.

Creative people are not necessarily professional artists. They come from all walks of life and their creativity applies to all aspects of our civilization: they may be scientists discovering the hidden laws of the universe or new cures for terminal diseases; business people creating breakthrough opportunities in national economies; lawyers excelling in their field thanks to their creative problem-solving ideas; visionary politicians leading nations to freedom and prosperity; teachers creating innovative methods for the classroom; farmers creating breakthrough methods of farming or breeding; cooks creating culinary masterpieces or revolutionary cooking methods; administrators guiding organizations into success through creative leadership; police detectives solving mysteries and incarcerating criminals thanks to creative thinking. Age, level of education and socio-economic status do not matter: a creative person can be a child, an adolescent, an adult, or a senior. He or she can be single or married, divorced or widowed, childless or with children. Individual differences may be unlimited. But there are three characteristics, listed below, that all creative people share in common, which you must also develop as you work with this method:

a. Creative People Honor their Creative Impulses

Creative people know the relationship between creativity and productivity, and they are careful to keep them in balance. They nurture their creative needs by taking the necessary time and space to access imagination and stimulate creative thinking. And they bring their creative ideas into fruition by being productive. They also honor their creativity by protecting and nurturing their ideas and by following a discipline that involves hard work, concentration, isolation, unusual decisions, sacrifices, dedication to the creative purpose, and trust in their inner voice. Nevertheless, in spite of the demands of the creative process, staying loyal to their creative pursuit is never a burden for creative people. The joy from seeing their completed creation is so pure, that it redeems all the strenuous efforts exerted during the process.

Examples of movie characters portraying creative individuals abound. Some of them are introduced in this chapter. I encourage you to see the respective films and notice how different those characters are, yet how similar in the way they honor their creative impulses. These characters represent simple people yearning for the joy of creating, much as we all do. As you watch the films, let them inspire you to reconnect with your own creativity and feel the joy that you see them experience in the films.
Working Girl, is the story of a young woman’s determination to bring her creative ideas into fruition, having to protect them from being appropriated by her boss. Tess McGill, the main character, is a thirty-year old administrative assistant who lives in Staten Island and commutes every day to her work in the Manhattan financial district. On the ferry, she reads and, in the evenings, she takes classes. Tess wants to become something more than a secretary. She is bright, talented, informed, and, most importantly, she has creative ideas about mergers and acquisitions that she presents to her new boss, Katharine Parker, hoping to be appreciated and offered a better position in the company. But Katharine has different intentions: when Tess offers her a brilliant idea that will save a large company from a foreign takeover, Katharine steals it and presents it to her clients as her own, advising Tess to not mention it anywhere else.

It is not too long before Tess finds out that her creativity is being exploited. She vows to protect her idea and use all means available to make it happen, even if this means that she will pretend to be Katharine. While Katharine is away recovering from a skiing accident, Tess assumes Katharine’s identity and follows through with her plan, fighting to see her idea become reality until the very end, even after her true identity is discovered and she is exposed as an imposter. But, thanks to her persistence and willingness to take risks for her own creative idea, Tess does not give up. Exposing Katharine minutes before she signs the deal with the clients, she proves that the idea was originally hers, and wins. When Oven Trask, the client, asks Tess why she had to do this and risk her reputation, her answer is:

“You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.”

Oven, admiring her courage to fight for her idea, responds:

“You’ve got a real fire in your belly, Ms. McGill.

Tess’s answer to this complement only means that fighting to protect one’s creativity is never easy:

” I’m not quite sure what you mean, sir. I’ve got something in my belly, but I think it’s nervous knots.”

Tess McGill is not an artist. Her creativity is not expressed through poetry, writing, or painting, but through brilliant ideas creating multi-million dollar breakthroughs in the financial world. But, just as an artist who fights to protect her work from being appropriated, she fights to have her idea recognized as being her own. She is diligent, thorough, brave, and she loves what she does. She does not rest until she sees it take form in reality. And, considering her limited means, she thinks and acts creatively throughout her ordeal against all odds, until the truth surfaces and she fulfills her dream.

Another tribute to creative people is the epic Titanic, which is filled with characters honoring their creativity till their last moments, even as they are drowning with the “unsinkable ship” into the abysmal depths of the North Atlantic. The story is told eighty four years later through flash backs by Rose de Witt, a survivor, as she is sitting in her pottery studio. Rose is a hundred and one years old and she is still creating pottery. Surrounded by her works, she recalls her fateful travel and introduces Jack Dawson, a young artist and the love of her life, who died during the tragic voyage. She spent only hours with him, but their love became immortal.

As she recalls their moments together, Rose brings us eighty-four years back to “the most erotic moment of her life”, that she lets us witness it: hours before his death, Jack is drawing a nude of her wearing only a necklace with a big, blue diamond. The beauty of a seventeen-year old Rose in love is immortalized in the drawing, seen through the eyes of the artist. “I couldn’t stop shaking” old Rose confesses, alluding to the erotic intensity of the experience that stayed with her forever. Jack’s art captured a lifetime of love that survived his death. For Rose, his art did not only create her drawing; it created Jack’s immortality.

As Rose remembers, we live with her the tragic scenes that unfold as the ship is about to sink. We are shown five musicians of the ship’s orchestra completing their last piece of music. We watch the unknown musicians bid their last farewell and walk away; except for the violinist, who stays in the same place and starts playing solo. As the other orchestra members hear him play, they stop, return and join him in the piece. Amidst a crowd of screaming passengers running in vain to save their lives, these musicians peacefully accept their imminent death and choose to celebrate life with their music, until the dark ocean swallows them playing their last note. Defying death by remaining creative till one’s last breath is one of the most powerful messages in this epic, which is also a tribute to inner freedom, immortal love, and the inexorable right to honor one’s truth.

b. Creative People Regard Creating as Healing

Creative people are healers. They create to bring wholeness to the inevitable wounds inflicted by life. Their creative output is their answer to aggression, deprivation, unfairness and injustice that, unfortunately, abound in reality. Through creating, they contribute toward increasing beauty, harmony and love, without which life cannot exist. Creativity is their only weapon against the afflictions of depression, boredom or loneliness and the source of strength, courage and hope. Creative people do not allow the burdens of life to discourage them. They create in spite of the daily pressures and dramas to conquer pain, fear, poverty, illness and, even death.

“When I dance, something happens and I sort of disappear” says Billy Elliot during his interview with the Committee of the Royal Ballet Academy. “It’s hard at the beginning, but then something happens and I start flying. I feel free. I disappear into the air like a bird, like electricity. Yeah, like electricity…”

Billy calls “electricity” the divine light that sparks in him when he is immersed in the creative process, enlightening his existence and the world around him. Through dancing, his essence becomes one with The Creator as he, little Billy, disappears. The joy of dancing heals his grief for his diseased mom, his worry for his ill Grandma, his sadness for being mistreated by his brother, and his sorrow for being rejected by his father. Billy’s wholeness is in his dance. That is when his daily life becomes secondary and he feels truly alive.

There is no process livelier than the creative process. Its essence is the very stuff of Life, which is Nature’s will to push beyond limitations in order to accomplish Creation. And, once the creation is accomplished, there is no joy deeper for the creator than the joy of sharing it with the world. A modern myth describing how the creative process brings wholeness not only the creative agent but also to those who commune with the creative outcome is Babette’s Feast.

Based on a short story by Isan Dinesen, Babette’s Feast is set in remote Frederikshavn, a small Lutheran community on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark, in the second half of the nineteenth century. The villagers are fundamentalists adhering to a rigid puritanical dogma. Their life is dedicated to religious observance, reciting of the scripture, material poverty, and avoidance of all temptations of spirit and body. Their Spartan homes and churches are devoid of embellishments or furniture that might provide the slightest comfort. Their manners are restrained; wordy interactions are restricted as silence is enforced to maintain the spiritual tone of relationships; indulging in simple pleasures such as food or other, more complex, physical desires is simply unfathomable. For this community, joy is a sin.

One day, a French woman arrives at the village, offering her services as a maid to Martina and Philippa, the two unmarried daughters of Pouel Kern, the diseased spiritual leader and founder of this community. During his life, father Kern managed to forbid his daughters to have any relationship with the outside world, forcing them to abandon all prospects of marriage or career. Due to his intervention, Martina’s ended her love for a young officer wanting to marry her, while Philippa ended on her own accord her friendship with a Parisian opera singer, afraid of the joy she experienced during their singing lessons. Years later, the same opera singer sends Babette to their home, who agrees to be their servant and work without wages. For fourteen years she does so, following diligently the community’s rules, cooking simple meals, observing the silence, and helping the two sisters with their community service.

No one knows that Babette has been a gourmet chef in “CafĂ© Anglais,” a famous French restaurant, until, one day, she asks the two sisters if she can prepare a lavish French dinner for the entire village, to celebrate their father’s 100th birthday. Babette offers to pay for the entire feast, with the money she won in the Paris lottery. The sisters hesitate but finally agree, on the condition that the guests observe the vow of silence throughout the meal, so as not to indulge in pleasure. Babette orders the food from France and sets out to prepare the feast. Soon the ingredients arrive: live turtles for soup, game and meats for the main courses, a wheelbarrow full of offal, bottles of champagne and fine wine, and trunks with fine china, silver, crystal glasses, lace linen, and fancy candles. For days Babette works at the kitchen, creating a feast of love, a true art masterpiece that will forever change the life of the community.

As the evening of the feast arrives, the villagers congregate around a table where they taste caviar with mussels in vodka sauce, turtle soup, quail filled with foie gras and truffles, fine meats, expensive cheeses and exquisite deserts. As they raise their glasses to drink Veuve Clicquot, superb champagne, they cannot help it: moved by the spirit of the food and enveloped in the delight of its taste, they break the vow of silence and begin interacting. For the first time they realize that spiritual prosperity can be enjoyed through material abundance. As the joy of tasting Babette’s food is lifting everyone off the ground into higher spheres, the retired General, Marina’s discouraged suitor from the past, suddenly raises a glass to declare that nothing is impossible. Babette’s abundance has brought to everyone joy beyond words, empowering their spirit with the hope that no opportunity in life is truly missed, as long as one wants to achieve a dream wholeheartedly. Her feast, creating such spiritual and emotional abundance for that deprived community also proved that the one who creates is never poor.

While the villagers delight in the majesty of the senses, Babette, alone in the kitchen, delights in the fulfillment of her dream: her culinary art has healed an entire village, banishing everyone’s fear of joy. Looking at us, she reaches out with a plea that speaks for the desire of all creative people to create wholeness:

“From across the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”

c. Creative People Pursue their Projects to Completion

Out of the creative projects you have begun over the years, how many have you actually finished? Remember, “to create” means “to bring something into full existence”. If your creative projects are begun ideas that have never found completion, they do not count as creative endeavors. Sorry, but these are only abandoned efforts patiently awaiting your honest attention.
We all have “abandoned efforts” hiding somewhere at home, in our drawers, in our computer’s hard drive, even in our mind: a screenplay that is twenty-five pages before completion; an incomplete needlecraft, quilt or knitting project; a bookcase we built in the garage but never varnished or placed in our son’s bedroom; an antique car that we have been rebuilding for the last ten years; a foreign language that we never learned to speak fluently; a dance that we never learned to dance without stepping on our partner or causing public embarrassment; a recipe for the special cookware we purchased but never unpackaged; an idea to expand our business that we never pursued beyond writing it in our notepad; and so on.

What causes us to abandon our creative projects and betray the joy of creating? A usual explanation is that we stop the creative process because we give into “fear of criticism” or “fear of failure”. This is only partially true considering that, in reality, we engage in many self-destructive endeavors, ignoring criticism and inviting failure in our health, finances, as well as personal and professional life: we indulge in junk food knowing that our cholesterol count will go up; we watch countless hours of television, neglecting to communicate with friends, family, and loved ones; we spend money compulsively, knowing that we are damaging our credit; we cut corners at work, knowing that we will eventually be discovered and called accountable; and so on. The truth is that the reason for abandoning creative projects is not our fear of criticism but our fear of commitment to a challenging process, period. It is in our nature to abandon a creative habit when arising difficulties cause discomfort and to indulge in destructive habits just because they are easy and immediately gratifying.

One of the most deceptive beliefs about the creative process is that it is a constant source of joy, freedom and success. Nothing could be farther from the truth: the creative process is as challenging as any other endeavor and it requires heartfelt commitment from the beginning to the end. Every creative project presents challenges, obstacles, difficulties and problems that suspend pleasure until we resolve them. This is why the joy of creativity is ten percent in starting a project, zero percent in persevering through its challenges, and ninety percent in accomplishing it. But, once the creation is completed, the experience of the creator from sharing it with the world is filled with pure delight. In western religious teachings, the Creator’s profound, restful enjoyment from having completed the universe is described as the Seventh Day of Creation. Creative people seek this joy and, therefore, do not abandon their efforts as unwanted children; instead, they treat their creative projects as children needing to be parented until they become self-sufficient through consistent love and dedication despite challenges and rough spots.

An example of creative person who accomplished her project with amazing determination, overcoming criticism and personal attacks of national proportions, is Maya Lin. Her story is the theme of the documentary A Strong, Clear Vision, a tribute to her creative work with a special focus on her remarkable achievement, the Vietnam Memorial Wall. In 1981, as a 21-year-old senior architecture major at Yale, Maya Lin won first prize in the contest to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the northwest corner of the Mall in Washington D.C. She had proposed a simple, graceful, and abstract design of two 247-foot-long walls of polished black granite, set below grade and connected at a 125-degree angle, on which the names of all the more than 58,000 American dead and missing from the war would be carved in letters a little over half an inch high and arranged chronologically, according to the year of death or disappearance.

Lin’s winning design did not enjoy the public acceptance one would have expected. As soon as it was publicized, it triggered the bitter criticism of a small but powerful group of Vietnam veterans about its color, proposed placement below ground level, and lack of heroic quality. The design was characterized a “black ditch” or “black gash of shame.” A few conservative politicians supported the opposition until a compromise was reached. Following a number of highly publicized meetings, in which Maya Lin was personally attacked and repeatedly forced to defend her project, it was finally agreed to add to the monument an American flag on a 60-foot pole and a group of three realistically-modeled, seven-foot bronze figures of Vietnam-era American soldiers by another artist. Fortunately, these additions were placed far enough away from the wall so that its artistic integrity was not seriously affected.

Maya Lin withstood unfair, chauvinistic and, occasionally, racist attacks with admirable strength and inner composure. She never compromised the integrity of her vision or negotiated the principles of her conception: the Memorial Wall was a healing monument, offering visitors an intimate and contemplative experience as it allowed them to experience the deep sense of loss it conveyed. Lin’s perseverance resulted in the phenomenal success of her project, once it was completed. The monument was dedicated and officially opened to the public on November 11, 1982, Veteran’s Day. Since that day, more than ten thousand people per day visit the Wall; amongst them are Vietnam veterans, families of the fallen, and the public at large who experience profound healing as the names of the dead or missing, which seem to float on a transparent black plane, exert their power evoking strong emotion. Additionally, as the visitors can see their own face dimly reflected on the polished black granite, they are invited to enter a dimension in which life and death are two facets of one continuous experience. The monument, in silence, speaks to each visitor in a very personal yet universal way about life and death, grief and loss, and embracing what one cannot change.

Another remarkable woman who left a legacy of overcoming difficulties in order to bring a creative project to completion is Roberta Guaspari, the heroine of Music of the Heart. Based on the Roberta’s real life, the film tells the story of a schoolteacher’s struggle to teach violin to underprivileged children in East Harlem. After her devastating divorce, Roberta finds herself with two children and in need of work. A music teacher facing few opportunities for work, she becomes aware of an opening at an East Harlem public school. After convincing the school principal about the value of teaching music in her school, she is hired. Roberta begins her work in a problem-ridden environment, filled with burned-out, underpaid teachers, accustomed to expect very little of themselves and the school system. In addition the children, most from troubled families, have little support at home for academic achievement let alone learning the violin.

Roberta begins working with the zeal and stubbornness of a neophyte, as the children challenge her authority and question the value of her work. But she does not get intimidated. Showing determination, amazing inner strength and genuine interest in the children, she eventually wins their trust and connects them to the violin. As her students learn to play, their improving self-confidence has a positive influence on other aspects of their lives. Their parents, formerly skeptical about Roberta’s function in their school, notice their children blossom and begin to respect and admire Roberta. She has earned everyone’s trust.
For ten years Roberta’s program flourishes, earning great reputation in the City until, in 1991, the school board seizes the funding. Roberta will not allow this to happen. Determined to give the biggest fight of her life, she summons the help of the parents, a journalist, and a number of the world’s best violinists, and organizes an amazing concert at Carnegie Hall to raise funds and save her program. The concert, in which she and her students share the stage with artists such as Isaac Stern, Arnold Steinhardt, Itzhac Perlman, and Sandra Park, is a phenomenal success and raises funds that ensure the survival of her program for several more years.