The Practice of Creativity

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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

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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 mtb@creativetickle.com

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You never know where your writing is going to take you. In July, Mark Schultz, an editor at The Chapel Hill News reached out to me after reading a Facebook post about my feelings on the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death. He knew me from some previous op-eds that I wrote. He asked to meet with me to discuss my possible interest in doing a trial run as one of the monthly columnists for the ‘My View’ section.  I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had harbored a secret desire to write columns for years.

Of course, an inner critic immediately began shouting at me not to even consider this new endeavor as I knew little about writing a column. It didn’t want me to appear foolish. I dutifully listened to its complaints, fears and concerns and then assigned it a new job– to become a docent in training for the all of the 19 Smithsonian museums—a job that can use a critic with a great memory and perfectionistic tendencies. After I disposed of that critic I set up an appointment with Mark. We met, in September, and he talked about the nature of the column, the current writers who wrote for it (all fascinating folks), and that he was looking for writers with unique points of view that could write about local and national topics in a fresh way. I said yes to the trial run. If I didn’t like the work, or he didn’t like my writing, no permanent damage would result and I’d have at least gotten a chance to work outside my comfort zone.  I got to work first by reading the newspaper’s columnists, then I read some syndicated columnists and proceeded to write many bad drafts. The critic was right, I didn’t know much about column writing and I often worried about whether I would look foolish. But, I just kept writing through these fears; they weren’t immobilizing. I finally hit on a topic that felt deeply personal and that I hoped would touch other people. My first column appeared yesterday and I can’t wait to write more.

 

 My View: 

The ‘Queen’ grows up

In third grade, kids dubbed me “queen of the class.” I took my intelligence for granted. I could skip school for weeks and still produce 100s.

By the end of elementary school, however, school became synonymous with bullies and boredom. I spent a lot of time cutting classes and instead reading in the public library across the street from my house.

In sixth grade I was just three days shy of being held back due to truancy. Arrogant and undisciplined aptly described me at 16. Everything caught up with me one day when my high school guidance counselor pronounced, “Michele has to leave. She’s expelled.”

The shock on my mother’s face, sitting next to me, revealed she didn’t know how bad things had gotten at school. And, neither did I. I knew I wasn’t the counselor’s favorite, but I never saw this coming.

My mother was always my biggest champion. One of my favorite memories is of her leaning out our third-floor window waving and shouting down to neighbors and passersby about my third-grade spelling commendations. That day, in the office, her gaze pierced me with an unstated question: How could her daughter, a straight A student, with a 12th grade reading score since the fifth grade, now be asked to leave the prestigious Bronx High School of Science?

As an accomplished professor now, no one would ever guess my embarrassing high school failure. Everyone tends to think successful people have always been that way. I was reminded of this tendency when listening to Professor Sir John Gurdon, the recent Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, share that his high school teacher thought science was being “wasted on him.” His teacher thought he showed no talent for science and discouraged him from pursuing it.

Wake-up calls

When mentoring students who are having trouble, I “out” myself about having to do a year over. It’s important for them to know that experts (as in the case of Professor Sir John Gurdon’s high school teacher) can be wrong and that your past doesn’t have to determine your future (as in my case). Sometimes the bumps in the road you face are also wake-up calls.

I arrived at high school, a smart kid with lots of other smart kids. Poor study skills and seven demanding classes later, by sophomore year, I struggled. The biggest challenge wasn’t the work but culture shock! Overnight my primarily black and Latino world of shared cultural norms changed. I hadn’t been a minority in public school since second grade when I lived in New Jersey.

Attending a predominantly white high school meant adjusting to different kinds of students. This alone would have been manageable. The obstacle was that race operated in ways I’d never seen before. How do you deal with a white physics teacher that openly said black students weren’t capable of learning physics? Or that some white and Asian students took their frustration out on some black students because they were routinely beat up, on the way to the subway, by kids from the male (and majority black) vocational neighborhood high school next door? I didn’t have the emotional language to describe the complexity of how racial identity mattered in big and small ways.

By the end of junior year my mother, struggling with depression, was slowly starving and drinking herself to death. I called 911 and had her hospitalized. I was left alone to take care of my sister and developmentally disabled brother for the summer. Not fun. But, by the beginning of my senior year, I was prepared to start anew, so I felt completely blindsided by my guidance counselor’s decision.

Riding the subway with my mother after that difficult conversation, my life options flashed before me. I briefly considered dropping out – how would I ever face my friends who would graduate on time? If I was too embarrassed, to finish school, though, I saw myself ending up bitter, working full time as a department store cashier, helping wealthy women choose clothing to wear on cruise ships. In that scenario, I would essentially remain at my current part time job at Lord and Taylor’s – ad infinitum. It didn’t matter that my mom’s illness and alcoholism contributed to my truancy. It dawned on me then that “being smart” wasn’t good enough. I had to finish somewhere. Smart, poor black girls, who mess up, rarely get a second chance.

Bullies, boredom, prejudiced counselors and family illness aside, I was the one on the spot. I hung on to the one useful thing from that awful meeting – a suggestion that I attend a new magnet school, not as prestigious as the one I was leaving, but 10 times better than my neighborhood school.

Ultimately, successful people recognize potent opportunities and develop qualities of resiliency and tenacity. I did a year over, married my wits to discipline, humbly grew a bigger vision, regained my mother’s confidence, earned my high school diploma and then didn’t stop until I earned a PhD.

(column appeared on Sunday, December 16: http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2012/12/15/74203/the-queen-grows-up.html)


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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