Creativity has a kind of ethereal, ephemeral quality. It’s the muse that comes and goes as she pleases. It’s the breakthrough you can’t explain. It’s the aha! moment you worry won’t happen again.
But creativity, while magical in many ways, is concrete practice. It’s a garden that needs nourishing, planting and plucking. It’s the muse that sits at her desk at 9 a.m.
So how do we cultivate creativity? What does it really look like? We asked several creativity coaches and artists to share what they’ve learned about creativity throughout the years.
1. Creativity is about showing up.
All of the individuals interviewed stressed the importance of showing up and doing the work. “I think the thing I want readers to know about the creative process is that it isn’t some mystical fairy dust and twinkly lights that only happens to special people if all the stars are aligned. It’s work,” said artist Jolie Guillebeau, who knows this lesson all too well: For three years now, she’s been creating a new painting every day.
Miranda Hersey, a writer and editor, creativity coach, and host of the blog Studio Mothers, echoed Guillebeau’s words. “I thought that creativity had a lot more to do with talent and inspiration than anything else. Through life experience, voracious reading, and my training as a creativity coach, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to show up and do the work.”
“Sometimes you get inspired after you show up and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you create beautiful work and sometimes you don’t,” said artist and photographer Andrea Scher. Years ago she also believed that you had to wait for inspiration to strike to start creating.
Scher shows up by having many different practices at her disposal. In addition to her main mediums, she carves out time for walking and daydreaming. “I have to nourish myself in other ways to show up to my craft.”
2. Creativity is about getting curious.
“I think the doorway to creativity is curiosity,” said Scher, also a life coach and e-course creator. “Practicing curiosity is a wonderful way to spark your creativity.” She practices curiosity with photo walks. Her goal isn’t to take amazing photos. Instead, her intention is to answer this question: “What is beautiful or interesting that I haven’t noticed before?” She regularly discovers new details, such as how the inside of a dandelion resembles a pincushion. Taking a photo walk, she said, helps you discover “tiny worlds you never knew existed.”
3. Creativity is limitless.
When Guillebeau started her painting project, she worried that she’d run out of ideas. Scher also faced similar fears. “You think it’s the last good idea you’ll ever have, or the last great article you’ll ever write.” But she realized that “there are always plenty of ideas and possibilities.”
In fact, sometimes the problem is too many ideas. When that happens, Scher asks herself: “What sounds like the most fun, easy and delightful thing to do?”
For instance, 13 years ago, Scher was a painter trying to sell her work. “I found the hustle very draining and exhausting.” At the same time, she started making jewelry on the side. Scher found it fun and freeing. “It occurred to me that [jewelry-making] was the path I needed to follow and let go of painting as my profession for a while. I had that jewelry business for more than 10 years.”
4. Focus on the process, not the product.
“I used to think that the ultimate outcome was the most important element in a creative work,” Hersey said. She’s learned that it’s more important to nurture the process of creativity. When you’re steeped in the process, the outcome will take care of itself, she said.
According to Hersey, “Forget about finding an agent or deciding whether or not to self-publish or how to get your paintings into a good gallery. By focusing too much on outcome, the process gets stifled and the work suffers. Don’t worry about your Pulitzer; just do the work.”
5. Being creative does not mean being skilled.
“I used to think that being creative meant getting really skilled at something —watercoloring, for example — and then being able to execute beautiful paintings all the time,” said Carla Sonheim, an illustrator, workshop instructor and author of the new book The Art of Silliness: A Creativity Book for Everyone.
Today, she views creativity as “the process of solving problems.” For Sonheim it’s more interesting and fun to try new techniques and take risks. Inevitably, this means she makes more mistakes. But it also means she’s constantly learning. “Skill, then, is more of a by-product of practicing creativity, rather than a prerequisite to it.”
6. Forget perfection, and find the “magic threshold.”
Guillebeau used to spend 30 to 60 hours perfecting one painting. So when she started her painting-a-day project, she was terrified that her work would suffer. To combat her fears, she adapted a story from Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
In that book they tell the story of a pottery class where half the students are graded on the quantity of the pieces they make– no matter what the quality, at the end of the semester all of their work would be placed on a scale and if the work weighed more than a certain number of pounds they’d receive an A. The other half of the class would only be graded on one single piece — they didn’t have to create anything else that semester. Of course, the first half not only created more, but the work they made was better than the half who spent dozens of hours perfecting the one single work. I decided this applied to my own work as well.
Today, she still creates the best painting she can. But instead of perfection, she strives for a “magic threshold where I love it, and I’m happy…[A]t a certain point I have to let it go and hope that the quantity of my work will also improve the quality.”
7. Creativity is full of surprises.
“You never know when you start on a creative journey exactly where you will end up,” said Gail McMeekin, LICSW, a coach to creative women entrepreneurs and professionals and author of The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women. For instance, an artist in McMeekin’s coaching group wanted to have her work in a prestigious gallery. She then discovered that she’d love to have her own studio and teach and mentor other artists. “She had no idea that her vision would expand so dramatically.”
8. Creativity is full of ups and downs.
“I used to think the creative process should be a 100 percent positive experience,” Sonheim said. Now, she likens creativity to life. There are highs and lows. “Like life, mistakes or unhappy accidents can result in frustration and pain, but most of the time they also provide an opportunity to fix – or hide, obscure, or work with, or learn from – something which can make the end product if not better, at least richer and more human.”
9. Everyone is creative.
“Too many people, women, especially, do not identify themselves as creative if they are not in the arts,” McMeekin said. But it takes creativity to solve a problem, invent a product or do a marketing campaign. It takes creativity to negotiate a contract for a new home or calm a toddler with an interesting object or game.
“We need to own our creativity and cultivate it, regardless of what profession we are in.” In her creativity books McMeekin has interviewed everyone from an astronaut to a doctor to a developer. “Creativity is everywhere and we all have the software, even if it is a bit rusty.”