Unless we’re artists, when we think of paintbrushes, play and simple pleasures, we often think that’s for people who aren’t that busy, people who don’t have the responsibilities I have, people who don’t have kids. That’s for people who are not me.
But these things are the very ingredients of a meaningful, satisfying life. Of a creative life. And while different seasons allow for different opportunities, each of us has time for that.
According to Maya Benattar, LCAT, a music therapist and psychotherapist in New York City, a creative life is “being connected to a sense of play, spontaneity and permission.” She believes this is vital because it pulls us out of the everyday. It helps us connect to our true emotions, to who we really are, beneath our lengthy to-do lists.
For artist and art therapist Amy Maricle, LMHC, ATR-BC, a creative life means making art, spending time with other artists and recognizing that these activities are as critical as any self-care practice. “It means knowing there is an artist within you, and giving her some encouragement and a space to play.”
Whether she’s painting, writing or cooking, Maricle feels like the creative energy flows through her. “Art makes me feel connected to something bigger than myself.”
Stephanie Medford, an artist, writer and teacher, views a creative life as “a life of curiosity, wonder, play, and a little bit of magic.” It means paying attention to life’s details and small miracles. It means finding a way to share what she’s experienced with others.
When Medford starts to lose touch with her creativity, everything else also starts to wither. “When I’m not making room for creativity, I’m not present, and when I’m not present, I become consumed with worries, fears and judgment.”
Creativity also is a powerful cycle for Medford: The more she writes or makes art, the more open she is to curiosity, awe and wonder. The more curious she is, the more she pays attention and spots inspiration, which makes it easier to write and make art.
“When the cycle is working, I feel alive and my life [has] purpose. I feel more interested in what’s happening in the world, and more engaged and connected to other people.”
“A creative life to us is mainly: keeping an open mind,” said Irene Smit and Astrid van der Hulst, the founders and creative directors of Flow Magazine. For instance, when they started their magazine a decade ago, there were many rules for creating a successful publication—like having a smiling woman on the cover and not having blank pages. However, Smit and van der Hulst were drawn to covers of notebooks and children’s books and pages with quotes and illustrations. So they did what felt right to them. They still do, letting what resonates with them and makes them smile dictate their decisions.
How you define a creative life is really up to you. Below you’ll find an assortment of ideas—from connecting to your inner child to seeing the world anew to playing with specific projects.
Prioritize play. Benattar encouraged readers to play, “whatever playing means to you, whatever helps you feel lighter and freer.” “Find something that feels like flow and lets you turn your brain off a bit.”
You might define play as improvising musically, cooking, dancing or going to a playground. You might choose to swing on the swings, instead of trying a new art technique, Benattar said. Thinking back to your childhood may give you some good hints. For instance, you might build blanket forts, spin elaborate stories or run at top speed, she said.
Channel your creativity into everything. “I love being creative in a lot of the things I do,” said Maricle, founder of Mindful Art Studio. “It makes my life feel more meaningful and rich.” In addition to visual art, she channels her creativity into writing, dancing and cooking.
Follow the questions. Medford likes walking in the woods, where she sees and hears a lot of birds. Which sparked her curiosity. The more she researches these birds, the more excited she is to get outside and observe. “Lately birds have started appearing in my artwork as well, since they’re becoming such a powerful symbol of wonder for me.” What questions are you curious about? Follow them.
Start a long-term project. Medford calls this her go-to strategy for staying inspired and creating regularly. She picks something with specific parameters and an end goal. She then carves out time every week to work on it.
In the past, she’s done every exercise in the book Draw, Paint, Print Like the Great Artists by Marion Deuchars; given herself weekly drawing assignments for an entire year, with different monthly themes; and read 100 poems and created an Instagram post for each one. What long-term project can you take on? (Maybe pick one you think you absolutely can’t do, and prove yourself wrong.)
Go offline often. Smit and van der Hulst used to answer emails in the evenings and on vacation. They used to fill up quiet moments with their smartphones. Today, however, they savor more time offline, which actually ignites their imagination. “The best ideas come to us when we are standing in the queue at the supermarket, when we are bored, just sitting on the couch or in the sun, when we are waiting for a train.”
When we’re staring at our screens, we miss things, tender things, silly things, inspiring things: “a stork building its nest as you ride past on the train, the conversation two little kids are having while you’re waiting at the baker’s, the lamp a woman has placed on her head like a hat for a fancy-dress party.”
Make it easy to make art. Maricle suggested dedicating a space in your home for art making—no matter how small. “Leave your art out and in process, it will tempt you to keep going.” She also suggested carrying a portable art kit, filled with items like a small notebook and fun pens. This way as you’re waiting in the car or doctor’s office instead of scrolling, you can doodle and sketch and write.
Take your time. Living a creative life also means taking your time, according to Smit and van der Hulst, authors of A Book That Takes Its Time and the forthcoming Creativity Takes Courage. “When you slow down your pace, there is more time to enjoy the little things around you, to see the details in the street where you are walking, to smell the flowers, to stay open to what happens around you.” When we slow down, they said, it’s naturally easier to savor life’s tiny but meaningful pleasures.
For Medford engaging in activities such as writing, drawing and collage making is important. But what matters more is “the everyday attitude of creativity, of seeing the world as an interesting, awe-inspiring place, worthy of being explored.”