Engaging in the hard work of creativity is one of the most enlightening and edifying things a person can do with this life. It is, at the most fundamental level, the act of gathering together the detritus of this world—the raw materials of words/colors/sounds/physical objects/etc.—and transforming those things into something other. A song or a novel. A painting. A statue. The architectural plans for a house. A game of Dungeons and Dragons. Anything.
It is by our creativity, really, that we are set apart from the other animals on this planet. Are some of the monkeys and dolphins creative? Sure. Do they use tools to achieve end-goals? Yes. But humans are exponentially more creative than anything else on this planet. As one of my writer friends once told me, we humans are so creative that we’ve built artificial legs to jump to the moon! But the question I’ve been asked to tackle in this essay is: what does all this creativity do to us as people? How does it change us? With that in mind, I’ve come up with four key areas of life in which creativity improves our souls.
- Creativity Helps Us Retain Our Sense of Wonder
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
– Pablo Picasso
“The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.”
– William Faulkner
I write. That’s my main avenue for creativity. But I used to play percussion (I took band from middle school up through college), and I’ve tried my hand (unsuccessfully) at drawing and painting. And every time I’ve ever tried to do anything even remotely creative, I’ve experienced two simultaneous emotions: disappointment and exhilaration. Disappointment because the end product is virtually never what I was aiming for. Exhilaration because I almost always create something unexpected in the process. Characters develop in ways I hadn’t planned. Freestyles on my drumpad end up going off the rails and landing on pleasing combinations of rhythms I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. I’ve heard the experience is much the same with painters and sculptors and all other types of artist. It’s why Bob Ross used to say that artists never make mistakes, but rather “happy” accidents.
Spend any time in a college writing workshop and you will hear this idea repeated over and over, usually translated into some form of “trust the process.” I’ve heard about writers starting to work on a novel with nothing more than a feeling to guide them, nothing more than a color or a single image that they want to write about. But they aren’t worried, really, about the outcome. Because they have been doing this long enough to “trust the process.” They know that the point of art is to keep reaching, and you can’t keep reaching if you ever grasp onto what you’re reaching for. The point is to strive for perfection and then see the happy accidents that happen along the way. And as you strive, you continually perfect what you’re making. These authors end up writing brilliant, incredible works of literature based on a specific color or a single image of a vase. The process does this—it isn’t anything they could have done if they weren’t comfortable getting uncomfortable.
And this is the profound lesson that creativity gives us. Because, let’s face it: shit is going to happen in our lives. We live in a world full of horrors. But in being creative we learn to see the journey in a more positive light. We learn that we don’t have any control over anything, really, and so we shouldn’t expect everything to be perfect. The important thing is to keep reaching.
- Creativity Encourages Us to Pay Attention
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”
– Orson Scott Card
“What counts most is finding new ways to get the world down in paint on my own terms.”
– Georg Baselitz
There are other mantras I can tell you from my time in college writing workshops. “Write what you know.” “By the time you turn 10, you’ve had enough memories to write stories about them for the rest of your life.” Etc. I’m sure that there are similar sayings in art and music classes. The gist, basically, is that making art (in whatever medium) is about seeing what’s around you and getting it down. Many of my stories start with images from my life. Ditto for my poems, which are really just stories in distilled form. And because of this simple fact, creativity forces us to pay attention. If I didn’t really engage in the business of life—if I chose instead to wall myself off in my home, to never talk to or observe other humans, I would have nothing of import to say about… anything.
Most of us live in a sort of oblivious malaise for most of our lives. We wake up, get dressed, go about our daily work, drive along the same routes, eat basically the same foods, and then fall asleep to start all over again the next day. Granted, some of this is necessary. Our world driven by money, so we have to work even if the only jobs we can get are ones we dislike. Routine ones. Stagnant ones. But write one story, paint one picture, or create one song on the instrument of your choice, and I can guarantee you that your daily routinewill suddenly have a couple moments in it that you find inspirational. It will be small at first, probably. But go home, write about that inspiration, and the next day will have a couple more. Soon you’ll find yourself obsessed with seeing the potential for art in everyday life. Creativity infects us with the drive to observe our world, to understand it and deal with it. As Baselitz said: to get it down “on [our] own terms.”
- Creativity Combats Our Loneliness
“Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
“Remember the first time you went to a show and saw your favorite band. You wore their shirt and sang every word. You didn’t know anything about scene politics, haircuts, or what was cool. All you knew was that this music made you feel different from anyone you shared a locker with. Someone finally understood you. This is what music is all about.”
– Gerard Way
Our lot as finite, subjective beings is to be utterly and complete alone. I cannot access your thoughts directly. I cannot enter your mind. We are born alone and we will, someday hopefully far in the future, die alone—even if there are lots of people around us. But art allows us to connect with other people in a way that almost nothing else does. Reading someone else’s story, listening to her song, or admiring her painting evokes certain feelings in our very souls—feelings that we were certain we were the only ones familiar with.
I am beginning to suspect that this is what people mean when they say “so-and-so is my favorite author/painter/musician/band/etc.” What they mean, a lot of the time, is that so-and-so “gets” them. I am this way about David Foster Wallace. I read Infinite Jest and blabbed on and on about it for years to anyone who would listen because it struck a certain chord in me that nothing else did. I felt like DFW was writing specifically to me. For me. And once I started writing my own stuff, I realized that this sort of connection goes both ways. I wrote a novel, self-published it, and then was shocked at the way people received it. Some of my readers told me that they were very absorbed in the world I’d built; some told me that they connected strongly to my characters (which, really, aren’t all our characters just extensions of parts of ourselves as writers?). So this little science fiction story went out into the world and came back to me dragging behind it people that it had affected. Everywhere you turn in the world of creativity, people are connecting. They are realizing that they are not alone. And this is one of the most important things for us to realize in this life. We are not alone.
- Creativity Heals Our Existential Wounds
“The act of painting is about one heart telling another heart where he found salvation.”
– Francisco Goya
“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”
– Billy Joel
Make no mistake about it: creativity is a kind of escape. And that isn’t a bad thing. This world often needs escaping from. As I said earlier, it is full of horrors. A look at the Middle East or Darfur or a cursory glance at history will be enough to show you that. What’s interesting to me, though, is that creativity isn’t just an escape from this hell that we humans sometimes find ourselves in. It’s also a kind of sign pointing the way for others.
I am confident that virtually any romp through an art museum will reveal a healthy percentage of work fraught with terrifying imagery. Why is that, do you think? Quite simply, it’s because the artist went through those things and was trying to deal with those experiences. Now, I’m not trying to say that art cures our wounds completely. It doesn’t. Making a nice painting won’t erase the fact that you were raped, or that your father just passed away, or that your house burned down unexpectedly and you are now homeless and bankrupt. It doesn’t fix the things that happen to us. But what it can do is help us deal with those things in a constructive way. I suspect that creativity’s ability to do this is tied up significantly with #3. Because part of what happens when we write a story about our troubles and tragedies (or make any other art with these events as a theme) is that others read it and connect with us. We realize that others have been where we are. Or at the very least that they sympathize. We realize that help is all around us, in some form or another.
Creating art is perhaps the most successful avenue for dealing with our problems. As humans, we have this gift/curse of having to process things. Science is built upon the idea of processing things—of taking the raw data of our world and filtering it through rigorous testing to see if it holds up to scrutiny. But we also do this with our hurts. Being creative often allows us to sift through these experiences and get our emotions out. In doing so, we grow. And it is growth, fundamentally, that is the essence of creativity.
So those are my four thoughts on why being creative is good for us as humans. Do you agree? Do you have any other points you’d like to make? Let me know in the comments below!