I was walking down the street near my home in Berlin a few days ago when the image at right caught my eye in a shop window, and I couldn’t resist snapping a picture through the glass. ‘Kreativitat’, as you may have guessed, means ‘creativity’ in German, and the idea that it could be bought in a spray-bottle and kept on hand to be deployed as needed, appealed to me somehow.
Of course things aren’t quite that simple; the irony was presumably intended, but it got me to thinking: what if they were? What if it really weren’t that complicated? What if it could be? What if, just possibly, for some people, some of the time – what if it really were that easy?
The Genius and the Tortured Artist
Of course, this is in part what the myth of the Creative Genius is based on – the idea that there are people with Special Talents who simply do not have to work at it. The river of original and striking thoughts is always flowing by their door. They spend their lives idly lounging, and once in a while offhandedly turning out a finished, polished masterpiece. Any idea becomes brilliant once they pour on some of their Special Sauce.
Now I will not deny that there are people with remarkable talents, but I’ve been around enough of them to know that the idea that they don’t have to work at it is preposterous. If they are at all serious about making the most of their gifts, they work like crazy at it.
Let’s take an extreme example: Mozart. The popular imagination has it that in brief interludes between gallivanting around being chirpy and mad, he whipped off stacks of exquisite music as easily as breathing. This image does not stand up to much scrutiny. Mozart wrote his 25th symphony (the opening music from the film Amadeus) at age 17; unbelievably talented, yes, but also driven. He was able to sustain a workload that defies comprehension for about 36 years before it killed him.
Which brings us to the second great popular myth about creativity: the Tortured Artist. He lives in squalor or at the very least chaos, pulling out his hair and rending his clothes searching for the elusive key which will unlock the door, release the flood. His life is mostly pain, but will all be worth it in the end when his genius is finally revealed – usually, tragically, posthumously – after he has died a pauper, never recognized in his lifetime but celebrated down through the ages.
The trouble is, of course, that like all good myths these are based to some extent on fact; there is some truth to them. Not much, but at least a grain. Things do come easily to some people, and others do struggle and suffer. Furthermore, like all good stories, they appeal to us because they engage our emotions, our dreams of effortless mastery, our pathos for the waste of unfulfilled possibility, our desire to feel something passionately enough to sacrifice everything for it.
Are We Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill?
I have noticed a trend of late that posits our creative demons as monsters to be confronted, dragons to be slain. We must don our armor and ride forth to do battle with them as warriors. Face the enemy, slay the beast. And I think that merits a closer look, because I am not sure it is helping us out as much as is perhaps intended.
Now, I do feel there is something to the ‘Warrior Spirit’ idea – staring down and overcoming our ‘resistance’ (to use Steven Pressfield‘s excellent term), all the myriad distractions and excuses that keep us from realizing our creative potential… but I also have to ask myself sometimes if perhaps we’re not making a bit too much of it, for drama’s sake.
Are we not giving our fears and anxieties even more power over us when we envision them as fearful and terrible monsters? What if instead we imagine them small and weak and helpless? Better still, what if we simply ignore them? Tune them out, and create something amazing right under their noses?
I’m going to go a bit further. What if it’s really not such a big deal, this creativity thing? What if everyone has it – different flavors and strengths of it, to be sure, but still – what if it’s not special, and we who seek after it are not unusual or inherently remarkable?
What if this whole mythology of the tortured artist, the demons and monsters that stand in her path, the hero’s journey she must undertake to confront and slay them, is mostly self-aggrandizing – to make ourselves seem braver, stronger, and our work more dangerous, more significant? What if creativity is really not a Herculean labor, nor the preserve of certified geniuses, but rather the natural state of humankind?
It’s Only Creativity
There is a saxophonist in the town I used to live in, the father of a drummer friend and a kind of elder statesman of the jazz community there. He’s a wonderful player, one of the most elegant, relaxed and tasteful musicians I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Let’s call him Al, since that’s his name.
Al has a saying which he likes to unfurl at rehearsal, backstage, or whenever anyone seems nervous or too tightly wound:
Hey man, it’s only music, don’t freak out. No-one’s going to lose an arm…
In other words, if you screw something up, what’s the worst that will happen? Will you be immediately fired and driven from the stage? Not unless you’re working for James Brown. Will the entire audience get up, en masse, and walk out in disgust to smear your name all over town? Very unlikely.
Will they really throw things at you and point and laugh? Are they all sitting out there poised and just waiting to hear you make that first mistake so they can feel superior to you? Again, no, unless you’re sitting an audition for Juilliard, and then you’d better be prepared for it.
No, they’re here because they want to have a good time, they want to enjoy the show, they’ve paid to get in or bothered to show up, they’re invested in it. They are, in short, on your side. The only thing you can do to really screw up is to wreck their good time by not having one yourself.
There is really no great danger in making mistakes – but there is danger in being afraid to make them: if we are terrified to put a foot wrong, we may be too scared to begin.
I believe this is true of all creative endeavor. People generally want to enjoy art, dance, poetry; they wouldn’t bother with it otherwise. They don’t really want to pick it apart finding things to hate – and if they do, there’s not much we can do but pity them. Most people actually want you to succeed, they want you to entertain and uplift them. We could choose to feel overwhelmed by the pressure of this, but why not instead experience it as support, as encouragement?
Make Fun, Not War
Perhaps this approach is not for everyone. Some people do not seem to be in the art game for fun or enjoyment, and while I think this is sad I accept it and accept their goals and their process as being different, but not less valuable than my own.
However, if you’re like me and would like to have a less antagonistic, more relaxed and affectionate relationship with your creative demons, try something different with them next time. Rather than visualizing them as immense and terrifying, and then striding out to fight them to the death… try having some fun with them – imagine them in pink tutus or big purple bunny suits. Instead of a warrior, try being playful, like a child.
Then, while they’re distracted, get into something and let creativity happen. It isn’t all that difficult, if we get out of the way and stop making it harder for ourselves.
And remember: it’s only music (art/poetry/dance/sculpture/design/whatever you live to create)… no-one’s going to lose an arm.
Over to You
Have you ever been trapped by the myth of the Genius or the Tortured Artist? How did you escape?
Do you agree that having fun is conducive to creativity?
What difference does it make when you visualise your creative demons dancing around in pink tutus?
About the Author: tobias tinker is a musician and composer best known for his haunting score to the online Motion Comic Epic ‘Broken Saints’. This and his other music, including the ‘continuum’ solo piano series, can be found at Aeos Records. He writes about creativity and fearlessness on his own blog, Cliffjump!