The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘the creating brain

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

The close of a decade offers a time for reflection and taking stock of what has nurtured us, especially in our creative lives. Ten years ago, I had yet to become a creativity coach. I was a few years out of graduate school and adjusting to the relentless demands of professorial life. I was secretly working on a novel while researching my academic books that I needed to write. I have made several intentional and transformative leaps this decade in claiming a life as a coach, writer, and academic. The books below have been traveling companions and witnesses to those changes. They are books that I return to often and encourage my clients and workshop participants to read. As a whole they offer a fountain of ideas, techniques and incentives for accessing and maintaining creative states. Well-written and highly engaging, they provide ladders up from the ditches of self-loathing that creative people sometimes fall into, insights on how to quell doubts about one’s ability to create(at least long enough to get the next thing done), and sport new roadmaps in how we might shape a creative life for ourselves, if we dare.

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet, Matthew Fox: This is a jubilant philosophical discussion about the role of creativity in serving human evolution. Fox, a radical theologian argues for the necessity of creativity for the continued survival of the species. Fox makes a case for the spirituality of creativity, a commitment and practice that renews us and the culture as it fosters social justice, compassion and transformation.

Making Your Creative Dreams Real: A Plan for Procrastinators, Perfectionists, Busy People, and People Who Would Really Rather Sleep All Day?: SARK: How does one achieve a creative dream that feels impossible? SARK answers this question through her helping people tackle internal barriers (e.g. critics) and external realities (i.e. lack of time or money). I probably recommend this book more often than the others on this list. SARK has a gift for helping people overcome obstacles to creating. MYCR offers readers practical guidance about the stages of dream development (i.e. egg, hatched, infant or baby, toddler, child, adolescent, adult). Once you figure what stage your dream is in then you can find exercises to figure out what your dream needs in order to sustain itself. Bursting with color and confidence, this book is meant to awaken the dreamer (and doer) inside of us.

Coaching the Artist Within: Advices for Writers, Actors, Visual Artists & Musicians from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach, Eric Maisel: I’m convinced that by writing this superb book, Maisel wants to put himself and other creativity coaches out of business. He reveals useful techniques that teach us how to be aware of the habits of mind that we use not to create as well as to create. Maisel draws on vignettes from a diversity of clients to amplify the lessons presented. You learn how to be your own coach in a mindful and kind way.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use it For Life, A Practical Guide, Twyla Tharp: This understated but powerful book should have gotten much more notice. Twyla Tharp, world famous choreographer, doesn’t believe that creativity is a gift from the heavens bestowed only on a chosen few. Unlike many creativity books, The Creative Habit is intellectual, incisive and doesn’t coddle. There’s no mention of affirmations or positive self-talk in this book. What’s offered up are more than thirty unique exercises for jumpstarting one’s imaginative musings.

On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity, Ellen J. Langer: I love books that blend neuroscience, mindfulness and creativity because they give us a new window for understanding how to break longstanding habits of mind. Langer presents psychological research that demonstrates how people typically undervalue their perceptions of themselves and the world around them–mindlessly. Mindless living affects our creative lives negatively. Mindlessness when creating might show up as tyrannical self criticism and evaluation, overreliance on social comparisons, and lack of interest in ambiguity. She argues for a mindful approach to creative endeavors that allows us to notice how our choices can arise from the context of our present moment(as opposed to following a mindless automatic script).

The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius, Nancy Andreasen. This book helps us understand how the brain exercises everyday creative acts (i.e. the ability to have a conversation) and what possibly contributes to off the chart creativity (e.g. the lives of Martha Graham, Thomas Edison, Toni Morrison etc). Andreasean’s writing makes neuroscience accessible for a lay audience.

The Twelve Secrets of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor, Gail McMeekin: If an author puts the word secret in a title, it immediately makes me want to read it. This book doesn’t disappoint as it delivers up the life histories of women who have found ways to nurture and sustain their creativity. This book’s emphasis on finding role models, mentors and allies drives home the point that we need support to accomplish our creative dreams.

An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, Diane Ackerman: Although not a book solely about creativity, Ackerman’s chapter on creativity, “Creating Minds”, is worth several other fluffy books on the subject. She writes with a poet’s sensibility and a journalist’s precision about our amazing gray matter.

Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert: I have taught this book in my undergraduate course ‘Women and Creativity’ for the past few years. I schedule the book to be read during a section of the class I call ‘creativity as life process’ which focuses on creativity as life-making. This book offers many lessons about the power of creative problem-solving, the importance of curiosity and exploration and using the self as a resource for understanding life. Gilbert produces a product—which is the memoir, but it is how she makes a life that is real magic.

The Creativity Book: A Year’s Worth of Inspiration and Guidance, Eric Maisel: This is a go-to resource when you’re out of ideas and bored with your current project. It presents a doable, one year plan for waking up your creative muses.

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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