The Open Window: Are you Smothering Your Creativity? Part I

Insights on Creativity by Quinn McDonald

Of course you aren’t smothering your creativity. You can point to definite ways you are nurturing it: artist dates and morning pages (if you are a Julia Cameron fan), meditation, retreats, book groups—even hiking clubs, motorcycle groups, wine-tasting groups.

Ignoring creativity killers may however do more damage than all the nurturing you can do. It’s easy to engage in them because they feed the more shallow, consumer, peer-pressure side of our lives. Our culture encourages them because most people never think about their creativity or about nurturing it. Ask ten people how creative they are, and nine of them will insist they “aren’t creative at all.” But they could be.

A part of us wants to belong, and another part—the creative part—wants to be the outsider, the observer, the stranger, the visionary. It’s a hard tension to keep in balance. Who wouldn’t rather eat fresh hot French Fries than lentil salad? It’s the same with our creativity; it’s work to keep it growing.

Creativity killers are habits that drain the considerable energy needed to fuel our creativity. They may be fun, but they are empty calories in our creative diet. And they are sticky, so once we connect with them, they seem more harmless, more engaging than we gave them credit for. Having powerful creative minds, we begin to rationalize that these creative killers are really “people watching” or “observing how people interact.” Nope. If you haven’t been in your studio for three weeks, but haven’t missed an episode of Flipping Out or Hell’s Kitchen, you aren’t observing, you have a drama addiction.


Creativity Killer #1: Addictive TV.

“Must See TV” is what we often call “relaxing.” They are shows we watch because they don’t require much from us and deliver an emotional rush. You’ve had a hard day, it’s easy to want to be entertained by a reality show, a game show, or a comedy. And you aren’t addicted . . . you simply haven’t missed an episode in three years.

Try This Instead: Use TiVo, Netflix, or some other device to record the shows, and spend some time in the studio instead. After studio time, power through the shows, skipping commercials and getting the idea of what happened without using up the whole hour. Try to figure out what the attraction is—watching other people be bullied? Making yourself feel better about your own life? A little self-knowledge goes a long way to changing “must see” to “must flee.” A good number of TV shows are entertaining while teaching you something useful (even art techniques!), fun, and interesting. Watch those instead.


Creativity Killer #2: Drama

It’s a short step from watching drama to creating it. The push is adrenaline, and it’s addictive. Careful, here—adrenaline addiction is as real as drug addiction and about as productive. It feels like creativity, but it’s the opposite. It’s all slick surface and bright flash, but there is no deep satisfaction. There is a strong let-down followed by a need to go on the prowl for more.

Try This Instead: Avoid drama for three days. If you feel dull and uninspired, you are addicted. Find a creative outlet that suits you and get involved in it every day. Physical exertion will feel good—hiking, dancing, swimming, skating—a physical stretch brings on a creative rush. Worth it!


Your creativity is no different than tending your garden. To get those perfect end-of-summer tomatoes, you will have to put down mulch or another barrier to keep out weeds. You’ll have to plant seeds, guard the young plants against animal and insect pests that can stunt or kill them while they are still too tender to take care of themselves. You’ll have to water the plants if nature doesn’t, and pull weeds that got around your mulch. Gardeners do not think this is too much work to reap those flavor-filled tomatoes. It’s not too much work to tend and nurture your creativity to reap those wonderful ideas and moments of huge joy.


Next month in The Open Window: three more creativity killers and what to do instead.


Quinn McDonald is an artist and certified creativity coach who helps artists through transitions in their lives and work. You can e-mail your business-of-art questions to Quinn is the author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art (North Light Books, July, 2011).


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