“I’m going to make something every day this year,” I announced in December.
When I saw my friends’ responses, I thought perhaps this might be too ambitious an undertaking. However, I’ve really just decided to turn more of my attention to creativity this year.
Why? Well, when I peek back through the years and squint at the more unhappy periods of my life, I detect a common thread: I wasn’t creating much of anything. Maybe I was working overtime at a day job. Maybe I was in a season of editing instead of writing. Maybe I was just uninspired. But a dearth of creativity and a general malaise seem to go together. Which causes which? I’m not sure. But I know that when I’m working on a creative project, I feel more alive.
I know I’m not alone. Matthew Crawford, author of The Case for Working With Your Hands traded his job in a Washington think tank for a career fixing motorcycles, because “knowledge work” made him feel tired and useless. “Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day,” Crawford writes. I think we can all relate to that thrill of making or fixing something with our own hands.
In her book Lifting Depression, Dr. Kelly Lambert explains what might cause the burst of happiness creating gives us: “When we knit a sweater, prepare a meal, or simply repair a lamp, we’re actually bathing our brain in ‘feel-good’ chemicals.”
So this year I’m making things.
I’m off to a great start. In the last month, I’ve knitted half of a scarf out of bamboo silk, made kombucha and St. John’s Wort oil for the first time, wrote a handful of poems, brainstormed a new novel, and churned out quite a few drawings. Mostly I’ve had a lot of fun. But I’ve also remembered what makes creativity hard: there’s often a lot of groping around, stumbling, and failing involved.
But I’m going to do it anyway.
Perhaps you’d like to join me in paying more attention to creativity this year? If so, here are five things experts say can help stoke our creative fires:
- Spend time in nature
A University of Kansas study of a team of hikers found that a four-day backpacking trip boosted the participants’ creativity by 50 percent. You might need to leave your electronic devices in your backpack to reap the benefits. Ruth Ann Atchley, the researcher who conducted the study, suggested the results may have been due to turning off the distractions of modern life as much as the natural setting.
- Embrace boredom
Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire in Great Britain found that boring jobs encourage creativity. It turns out performing dull tasks lets us to detach from our surroundings and daydream. So committing to creativity might mean committing to some mental downtime.
- Focus on the process instead of the results (or just dance)
“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free,” the poet Rumi wrote. In an interview, artist Dana Lynne Andersen said that one of the biggest mistakes beginners make when sitting down to paint is focusing on the end product. To get her students focused instead on the process of being creative, she encourages them to dance. That makes sense, since dancing is a creative process with no real end product. It may be worth a try, and as Rumi points out, there’s really no reason not to dance.
- Learn from kids
One afternoon I watched a soccer coach force a group of elementary-aged kids to run laps around the track. They looked like deflated balloons as they trudged along, and it occurred to me that kids should really be coaching us on joyful, exuberant outdoor play. Similarly, young kids are experts in creativity. In a famous 1968 study, George Land found that 98 percent of three- to five-year-olds showed genius levels of creativity on a test developed by NASA. By the time the kids were 15, only 12 percent exhibited divergent thinking. And when the test was given to thousands of 25-year-olds, only two percent showed divergent thinking. So what makes kids such creative geniuses? They ask lots of questions. They marvel at things. They find any excuse to play. It’s a model worth studying.
- Commit to practicing
All humans are creative. But a lot of us don’t commit to creative work, and perhaps the biggest reason is that it forces us to confront our own mediocrity. We likely will never compare to the best artists, musicians, novelists, designers, and even home-brewers of the world. Of course, the one way we’ll get better is practice, and Ira Glass offers some wise words about recognizing your creative work sucks and doing it anyway:
For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. … You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
Here’s to creativity!
If you liked this post, check out more of my popular posts about creativity:
- Is Knitting Better than Prozac?
- Depression-Proof Your Life
- Do Real Men Knit?
- Why Spring is the Best Time to Start a Project
What are you creating? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.