Thoughts: On Creativity

Everywhere I stumble this week, I see articles about the need for boredom in order to be creative. People are railing against checking your cellphones and advocating (I think) reading the phonebook aloud. Apparently, if you stop the former and begin the latter, your creativity will spike.

One might hope there are easier–less boring?–methods to creativity. Any artist worth her salt already grasps this: creativity is borne from margin and ritual.

The margins are, to some extent, physical margins we need. We need time to rest and recuperate. But busy people can also be extremely creative. The real margins we need are softer ones: margins of emotional and mental space. If we are obsessed with problems, cut by anxiety, we’ll never find those creative moments–those aha! moments. To find those, we must allow our minds to wander, whether in the shower or the morning commute. If you cannot do this, you cannot be creative.

If you are trapped by anxiety, you cannot be creative.

It’s ritual that often helps us build these margins. Just like old-time religion, we enter into rituals to engage our creativity. I get coffee in the morning and come to sit at the blank screen, the same way each morning, the same steps. The two minutes of ritual prepares me, initiates a creative sequence.

The same thing happens, of course, in the shower or on our commutes. That’s why these are creative spaces, spaces where you’ll often solve problems or develop ideas (assuming you sometimes turn the radio off, of course). You can see why these spaces also inhibit creativity if they’re filled with worry or anxiety: our unconscious has no room to pop up, speak a word, then disappear until the next shower.

The real problem, of course, is that we do not see ourselves as creators, but consumers. Some of our most intractable problems are what to buy; we define ourselves by the buying choices we’ve made in clothes, house, car, how we spend our Friday evenings, the shows we consume, the sites we visit.

Part of the problem lies in our very language itself. We invest in things. We spend time wisely. These are consumer mentalities. Three hundred years ago, no one spent time. They passed time. Experienced it.

The role of an artist, but also a pastor or an entrepreneur (and there’s often not much difference), is to look at the world and describe what you see. The artist does this with words or images or music. The entrepreneur sees holes in the market and imagines ways to fill them. The spiritual leader steps back and asks where we are really going.

Look at the world and describe what you see.

This is the mind shift of the creator. It may mean we check our phones less often or limit our time on the internet. It probably should. It may mean we engage in rituals, showering thrice a day, or engaging in less waste by building in time to think, to look, to engage in a different way. It probably should mean that, too. It may mean we speak about time differently. It will definitely mean that we speak about ourselves differently.

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On Lunch and Ritual

I had lunch with a friend this afternoon, and after the usual pleasantries, after the how-are-yous and relating significant events since we last met, our conversation turned to ideas and things we like to think about when we have the time and space: philosophy, language, culture.

I found myself, this morning, before I had lunch, thinking about rituals. As someone who strives to be creative, I have rituals that I perform to set myself in such a creative mindset. My rituals have to do with making coffee, opening up my draft, then walking around a bit–moving–so my mind engages on whatever my problem was yesterday when I stopped. And, I always stop at a problem.

I have the same ritual as I drive to work: I leave the radio off until I get to the highway, winding the few side streets, frozen at a stoplight. Since I consider myself part of the Christian tradition I recite the Lord’s prayer, silently, at the stoplight. Before that I showered and ate breakfast, reading while my girls watched television or played, another ritual. And even at lunch we entered into an old ritual, asking about each other’s lives in the span since we’d last talked, preparing the conversation for wherever it would go.

Later, at lunch, we talked about religion and ritual. People in our circle talk about how religion is relationship, and I know this has been helpful for many people. Religion, of course, has been a terribly destructive force at times, and continues to be in some people’s lives today. But, religion, at its best, is an embrace of rituals: corporate rituals that center and focus the participants, that remind us of our broken humanity and our need for something beyond ourselves. We all need this, whether we’re atheist or fundamentalist: we need rituals to prepare ourselves for connection. The individualism and assumed free-form of relationships does not focus us in the same way. It does not connect us so tightly with the suffering, wandering, hopeful people around us, and it negates the rituals inherent in any relationship. This is why thousands of conversations across our culture had the same arc as mine today. We performed the ritual of relating events as a springboard for connection.

The ritual was connection, and it provided for more.

It’s crucial that we note these rituals. As someone who longs to speak and write meaning into the world, I enter into ritual in order to enhance my creativity, not to stifle it. I make coffee and pay attention to its smell and earthiness to awake my senses; I move, oddly enough, to awake my mind and let it wander. This is why walking or showering or pulling weeds have always been a creator’s friend: we need mindless movement to see what’s really in our minds. These are rituals that, rightly viewed, connect us with what is around us, within us.

I call these rituals because it wraps these mundane events with meaning, because to the creator no event is meaningless. Perhaps–perhaps–to the human no event is meaningless, even if it is an event that signifies the absurdity of life. “The writer should never be ashamed of staring,” writes Flannery O’Connor. “There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

We could say the same about the well-lived life: all requires our attention. And our rituals, if performed rightly, increase and stir that all-important attention.