The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘My View column

Limiting beliefs are often so hidden from our everyday awareness they feel more like inner immutable truths.

We all have a list of things we “know” we can’t do. It’s good to periodically examine a limiting belief and see if we can’t prove ourselves wrong and have fun while doing it.

For a long time, I believed that I couldn’t write short fiction, especially flash fiction. Flash fiction is a complete story that runs about 500 to 2,000 words. In a short number of words, flash fiction has to serve up all the traditional elements of fiction: interesting characters, a sensible plot, an engaging conflict, a setting and a resolution.

That’s a tall order. E-readers and shrinking attention spans have created a renaissance and hunger for high-quality short fiction.

I had good reason to believe that I couldn’t do it. I had never done it before.

As an academic writer, I’ve spent most of my time producing research and long scholarly books. As a creative writer, I’ve spent more than a decade of my time reading and analyzing novels, learning the craft of novel writing and working on a sprawling 800-page novel. The few times that I tried to write short fiction, I instead cranked out a novella (about 50,000 words).

Case closed, right?

After getting feedback from an editor at a small press that he liked my longer pieces, but wanted to see if I had short fiction, I was forced to confront my limiting belief. If I wanted to develop a relationship with this editor (always a good thing), it meant I’d actually have to create some short fiction. Also strategically, a publisher is more likely to take a chance on a new novelist if the writer has a lot of short fiction published, or a collection of short stories.

After a few moments of white-knuckled panic and some reflection, I realized that I had selectively chosen bits of evidence to support my belief and excluded others. In college, I was a dual major in political studies and creative writing. In my writing classes, I wrote tons of short fiction. I had totally discounted all that early writing. Our psyches are pretty clever, huh?

Scratching a bit deeper, I also knew that a fear of writing badly, in this genre, and hence rejection also had propped up my belief. Fear of the unknown keeps most people from attempting new things. It is very hard to “fail” in public. Matthew Fox, Episcopal priest and author of “Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet” says when we stop trying new things for fear of looking bad, we can suffer from a type of rigid “adultism.”

Although my writing teacher Marjorie Hudson (author of “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas”) encourages her students to think of claiming over 100 rejections as a path to mastery in the writing life, the thought of piling up more rejection letters didn’t make me feel wildly creative and rush to the computer.

However, once that memory from college surfaced and challenged my long-held belief, I took the next step.

I gave myself permission to try a new activity. I enrolled in writing classes devoted to flash fiction, read the New Yorker and subscribed to several literary journals. And, I wrote a lot of bad short fiction. I played and learned. I kept in mind the metaphor about short fiction that I learned from Ruth Moose, recently retired and beloved teacher of creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s like a well-paced dinner party. I stopped trying to get my characters to sleep over.

Although I’m light-years away from mastering the short form, I’ve gained an appreciation for flash fiction and hope to write more. This month, I saw my piece “Urban Wendy” published in Carolina Woman magazine. It won a prize in their annual spring writing contest.

Changing self-limiting beliefs requires a willingness to puncture the skin of deeply-held beliefs. It requires giving one’s self permission to take the next logical action. And, it also requires a recognition and tolerance for doing something badly or even face rejection.

Crime writer Elmore Leonard’s experience with rejection is instructive: 84 editors rejected his first novel before it was finally published as a paperback original – 84! In 1982, after selling 23 novels, the thriller “Stick” became a bestseller.

This piece originally appeared as a ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News on 7/22/2013


I’m thrilled to officially announce that I’ve been signed as one of the new monthly ‘My View’ columnists for The Chapel Hill News. My debut column appeared last month. This month I decided to talk about a topic I’m passionate about–creativity and the myths that surround it.

My View

Yes, you are creative

I’ve observed five types of responses to a question I frequently ask, “Do you think of yourself as creative?”

1) No, I’m not creative. (often emphasized emphatically)

2) I used to be creative, a long time ago, before… (insert a reason – current job, children, volunteer position, age, etc.)

3) Someone else in my family is “the creative one.” (insert mother, father, or sibling)

4) Yes, but (insert self-limiting example – I’m not a professional artist, but I take pictures. It’s nothing really.)

5) Yes. (rare)

Most folks who answer 1-4 often have a desire to be more creative. They’ve heard that creative individuals experience the benefits of greater self-expression, possess better problem-solving skills toward complex and open-ended challenges, and vibrant mental health, but are unsure where or how to get started.

I understand. Talk of creativity is everywhere and it is a bit overwhelming. Creativity is the millennial buzzword and big business! Every industry is trying to figure out how to get their employees to “be more creative.”

Most misunderstood

Creativity, however, is still one of the most misunderstood human traits. Why? Because we’ve absorbed a lot of myths about what “being creative” means and the way creativity functions in our lives. I’ve learned this, over the past 15 years, as a professor and creativity coach working with all types of people – professional artists who’ve had success in one medium – like sculpture, for example, who want to try their hand at painting but don’t know where to begin; writers who hate the marketplace so much that every time they meet an editor they are unintentionally obnoxious; town managers who need to find innovative ways to motivate staff to serve the often cranky and impatient public; and also students who by the time they get to college have trouble seeing themselves as creative beings.

When it comes to assessing our capacity for creativity we can make two mistakes, one is how we define creativity and the other is making comparisons to others.

When someone believes that they don’t have a single creative impulse in their body, I’ll ask, have you ever played with your kids, planned a successful dinner party, told a great joke, or taken a risk? How about created a recipe from scratch, moved furniture around, planted a garden, or helped a co-worker with a problem?

The scowl is replaced by a quizzical look and tentative nodding. But, I’m not out of the woods yet, because they might with a very righteous, “gotcha” look declare, “Those things don’t count – that’s not really being creative!” The scowl and skeptical face returns. At this point, I happily trot out my working definition of creativity.

Creativity is both product (what you make) and process (how you go about making a life).

Most people view creativity as only a product (e. g. a painting, a published book, an invention) and if they aren’t producing a thing, they don’t feel like they’re creative. They tend to ignore the intangible characteristics of creativity that include the decisions that you make, the joy, ease and everyday problem solving that you bring to life, and the enhanced capacity for learning. Elizabeth Gilbert’s successful memoir, “Eat Pray Love” is an excellent example of cultivating creativity as a life process built on self-discovery, pleasure and resilience. While we may not all get to visit Italy, India and Indonesia (nor write about it), Gilbert’s journey offers us a sensory rich roadmap about how to approach change when bad things happen.

The second reason why more people don’t see themselves as creative is because they compare themselves solely to super luminaries – the rarified world of professional artists, scientists and inventors. We have a tendency to view the scale of our creative efforts as inconsequential. Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen (author of “The Creating Brain”) says we take for granted daily examples of our “ordinary creativity” including the generation of spontaneous, yet ordered language. Our inherent creativity helps us to advise a friend, join two unrelated ideas, conjure up the perfect gift for grandma and find new routes home from work.

How would you answer the question I’ve posed to so many others? If you want some new ways to stimulate your creativity try the following:

• Notice what inspires you. For the next month, actively notice what you’re inspired by and allow that to lead to a new relationship with the creative process. If you’ve forgotten what ignites your creativity: Keep finishing the questions: What inspires me? Where are some new places that I can look for inspiration? Treat the inspiration to create as a great mystery.

• Find Your Ten Minutes in Alpha: Our brains invite new insights when we slip into a quieter and relaxed state of mind. This brainwave state is known as alpha. Getting relaxed is different for everyone. Twenty minutes in the garden may produce lovely results for someone. Another person might relax by creating a collage or planning a dinner party. If taking a long bath helps to really relax you, then by all means make sure you do it!

Identify what gets you into a receptive “aha” state and commit to doing it for at least 10 minutes a day. Yes, you can create 10 minutes in your schedule. Regard those precious minutes as the down payment for a long and rich creative life.

Michele Tracy Berger is a professor, creativity coach and writer. Readers may contact her at

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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