Six Techniques for Coaxing Your Creativity out of the Basement

This afternoon I gave a talk to the English student honorary society, Sigma Tau Delta, at Rollins. Here’s what I said to the inductees.

I love lists. One of my favorite chapters from the book of prompts I wrote a couple of years ago is the one called “Make a List!” In it, I turn the list into a kind of literary genre of its own by asking writers to create lists that somehow lean into a story. Students have created list-stories based on some of the following:
– things I took from a failed marriage
– toys I have loved
– things I read about doing but never actually do
– red shoes I own
– flowers present at important events in my life
– things I’ve left in a hotel rooms
– money spent trying to impress women
– men who rejected me
– number of automobiles I have totaled

Several years ago, Harper’s magazine printed a list of salutations that French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir used in letters she wrote to her American lover, the author Nelson Algren. See if you can detect the turning point in this list chronicling the arc of their romance:
Nelson, my love—
Sweetest darling you—
Dearest nice dear you—
My beloved nice man, my nice beloved husband, my own nelson—
My own local pretty man—
My precious beloved Chicago man—
Dearest flower of Istanbul—
Dearest man with the golden arm—
My man with the golden brain—
Dearest lazy you—
Dearest naughty you—
My poor dearest American dilemma—
Dearest lazy crazy pimp of mine—
My dearest too busy faraway wonderman—
My beloved crocodile—
Dearest male-brute—
Sweetest you, sweetest of all monsters in the world—
My dearest not too repellent you—
Darling disgustingly greedy you—
Darling poor old ugly rejected you—
Dearest sitting and brooding local beast—
Dearest meanest-than-ever you—
My own dearest piggish pig—
You dirty jackass-brained camel-hearted pack of mud—
Dearest nutty king of nothing—

Ah the vicissitudes of love!

There’s a wonderful site that also supports my love of lists. It’s called Brainpickings, and if you don’t know this site I highly recommend it. Maria Popova regularly posts lists that famous people have made about the rules of writing, or the rules of living, or the rules of being creative. It’s kind of sad that after years of research on the art of writing, I’ve been reduced to a desperate search for a tidy little list that will tell me everything I yearn to know about being a writer. But I can’t help it.
Here is a sampling of some of her great collection of lists:
6 Types of Writers and 2 Rules for Forming an Opinion by Ezra Pound
4 Motives for Creation by George Orwell
8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story by Kurt Vonnegut
30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life by Jack Kerouac
6 Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck
11 Commandments of Writing & Daily Creative Routine by Henry Miller
10 Rules for Students, Teachers and Life by John Cage
10 Life Lessons from Esquire’s “What I’ve Learned” interviews of
people who shouldn’t be giving any advice

> slide: Cage’s Rules for Students, Teachers and Life

Inspired by the lists of these famous writers, I thought I’d try one of my own on the very slippery topic of creativity, which has been the focus of my study, research, and teaching for the last twenty years. I’ve long been fascinated with creative people. I’ve become obsessed trying to figure out how they do what they do, unwilling as I am to accept that creativity is relegated to a small group of special, beautiful, or lucky people.
And I’ve discovered, there is good news. As I’ve matured in my living and in my teaching, I’ve acquired a core belief: we are all here to grow, to learn, to evolve, to emerge into the next best version of ourselves over and over again, and this is nothing if not a creative act. And further, I believe we are here to express our unique gifts and talents in ways that are beneficial, to ourselves and to others. And finally, I can say this: true creativity has to do with much more than just ability or skill, or even actions or behaviors. Ultimately, creativity has to do with our state of being. The Dzogchen teachings of Buddhism describe it this way:
“Creativity can be seen as a state of natural flow, one that spontaneously and effortlessly gives birth not only to manifest form, but to all experiences of body, energy, and mind. This state of flow, which has its roots in openness, occurs only in the absence of hope and fear. It is at once naturally joyful, peaceful, compassionate, expansive, and powerful.”

Now I ask you, what kind of world would we have if we all lived in this state? Just a question.

The list I offer you today recommends 6 actions to embrace should you desire to tap into your rich creative potential, a desire, I believe, we all share. I offer this modest list to any of you wanting to ramp up your own level of artistry (whatever form that may take), or to those who wanting live more artfully.

1. Take up a practice.
A practice is an activity you do with dedication and devotion on a regular basis. It can be writing, or drawing, or singing, or playing the guitar, or gardening, or wake-boarding, or designing shoes–anything that you love to do and want to get better at. Bring all your resources to maintaining your practice. Immerse yourself in it; give yourself over to it; do it as often as you can; do it with presence and discernment; do it with dedication and devotion; do it because it brings you joy, but also because you’re willing to keep doing it when it isn’t so joyful.
George Leonard has a great little book called Mastery in which he talks about the characteristics of high achieving artists and athletes. He says their primary quality is that they don’t live for the peaks in their art form, though those are nice, but they are equally dedicated to their art when they experience the inevitable plateauing that comes in the practicing of it. Those times when nothing seems to be happening–no change, no growth, no improvement, no ecstatic moment of performance. Just the day in day out drudge of the practice. This too has to become a source of satisfaction for anyone seeking to become a master.

2. Form a Wild Pack.
Surround yourself with people who inspire you, motivate you, support you in your endeavor, people who push you to be better than you thought you could be. My writing coach, Jeffrey Davis, calls this a Wild Pack. It’s a small group of people who are on the same path to excellence and benefit that you are and who will support you on your walk towards mastery. Get rid of the sluggards, the dullards, the energy vampires in your life. Ratchet up your efforts to develop the skills, the habits, and the lifestyle that will allow your gifts and talents to radiate into the world.

3. Clear the obstacles to doing what you really love to do.
Get rid of negative self-image.
Jettison excuses for not moving forward.
Stop being overly attached to stories about yourself.
Reduce laziness > causes for low energy (food, sleep, exercise).
Delete toxic people . . . delete, delete, delete.
Improve your sense of time management.
Focus on what is right with your life instead of what’s wrong (gratitude).

When there are obstacles in the way of reaching an academic, professional, personal, or creative goal, a shift has to take place within you–not in the world out there.

4. Get quiet.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra tells us that the purpose of yoga is to still the fluctuations of the mind. I know you are the generation that thrives on the stimulation of multiple data streams. You live in noisy cyberspace. But I beseech you to shun that noisy space periodically for the quiet, open clarity offered by some form of reflective practice (meditation, prayer, being in nature, swimming, among others). Anything that reduces the chatter in the mind. Such a practice allows what most uniquely wants to be expressed by you to rise to the surface of your awareness, where you can grab it for the benefit of your art or your life experience. And you English majors, better than anyone on the face of the earth, know that nothing brings more satisfaction than expressing beautifully and authentically what we see, feel, and understand about our world. How many stories, poems, songs hover shyly in the basement of your consciousness because there’s just too much noise for them to enter into the light of day?

5. Open to potential.
You have a deep potential to make/create/do what most wants to be made/created/done by you in this world. It’s why you are here. So be bold, and create what you yearn to create, no matter how far-fetched, no matter how contrary to your parents’ desires, no matter how unlikely based on your current situation and location. Thirteenth century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich said, “The yearning you feel within you is God yearning in you. And how would God not fulfill his own yearning?”
We unleash the free flow of creativity when we cultivate and connect fully with our innate sense of potential. You are more than you think you are. You have access to a multitude of positive alternatives to any problem or unhappiness you may encounter. In the Dzogchen tradition it is said, “Nothing is missing in your life; you are complete.” I know that sounds like pie in the sky, new age woo-woo talk from a certain perspective. But think about it. What could you accomplish if you really believed that?

6. Nurture a sense of joy.
This rule is very closely linked to number 5, be open. Be open? Be open! Sounds good, but how do I do that? What does it mean? Well, it doesn’t “mean” so much as it “happens” through your practice. And you’ll know that you’re becoming more open, more expansive, more willing to receive the gifts of your talent when you are experiencing joy. And I mean really submitting yourself to joy in the most radical sense. Full out. Open-hearted. Unselfconscious. In the moment. With no thought of result, meaning, or usefulness.
Please note, I’m not talking about pleasure here, like eating a good dark chocolate or finding a great pair of boots on sale. The kind of joy I’m talking about is very akin to a moment of grace. It breaks your heart. It makes you cry. It makes you feel expansive, like anything is possible, and everything is OK. It makes you feel connected to all of the rich potential and capability that reside inside you. And to the same thing residing in the hearts of those all around you.

Joy is a state of being that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” It’s not goal oriented, but it is the portal to creative and enlightened manifestation in your own life. It makes you want to be better. Creativity flows naturally from this space created by joy. You know you’re there when you feel inspired, lifted up, hopeful, in love, and deeply grateful for the very fact that you are alive in this moment and get to have this feeling.
It would serve you well to spend some time thinking about activities that bring you this kind of joy. Then do them as much as you can.

I’d like to conclude this talk with a demonstration of what I mean by joy. Watch with me this flashmob that took place in Sabadell, Spain.
Flashmobs in general are joyful events for me, but this one is particularly affecting because of the variety of interesting faces we see reacting to the seemingly spontaneous arising of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: older people, businessmen, lovers, babies, children, all being collectively pulled into a rare musical experience. Watch their faces and tell me you don’t see pure joy in them. Tell me you don’t think they are precious. Tell me you don’t know something remarkable happened on that sunny plaza in Spain. No, I didn’t think you could.

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