Nurturing Our Creativity

Creativity is, to me, one of the most mysterious and perhaps intimidating concepts I could be asked to preach about  I'd much rather preach your pledge drive sermon and ask for money. That, at least, I understand.

Before I jump into this, a reminder: creativity is not just for self-defined “creative” types like artists or writers or musicians.  As Norma reminded us, creativity is part of everyone's life, not just the artists among us.  It can show up in day-to-day tasks like cooking or gardening.  It's there in the ways we think about the world, approach our challenges, manage our relationships.  So while I might frame a conversation about creativity primarily through the process of writing, for example, for you it could be something very different, from planting a garden to designing a new process for your job to rethinking a conflict in your family.  We can bring the power of creative thought to everything we do.  Give yourself permission to hear this in very broad terms.

Some of you may have heard me speak of my struggles with procrastination and writer's block when working on sermons, and that all ties in with the concept of creativity and where it comes from and what happens when we have to “be creative” on a deadline.

So often the image of the creative type is held up as solitary, inspired figure, alone in their studio, or at their desk, or in their laboratory, or under a tree – or wherever their art form emerges.  Beauty and art just come flowing forth onto the canvass, or the page, or into the clay.  New ideas burst spontaneously into the mind.  All the brilliance that waits within just comes flowing forth with joy  for all the world to see. Doesn't that sound lovely?

Or, there's the less joyful and easy image – the tortured artist alone in their garret, struggling to pull each word out and wrestle it onto the page.  But still, a completely solitary image.  It's very easy to buy into that way of thinking about creativity and to think that's how we should find it.   And maybe that does happen, sometimes, for some people.   But for most of us it's a lot more complicated than that.

I got to thinking about this through an article by Joshua Wolf Shenk, who has done a lot of work on the social foundations of creativity and especially on the creative power of working in pairs.  His opinion piece “The End of Genius” was published in the New York Times in July of 2014 and now he has a book called The Power of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. Shenk got me thinking about what he calls the “myth” of the “lone genius” as the model fro creativity, and thinking instead about a more collaborative creative network.  Most of us have had the experience of new ideas bursting forth when we're in conversation, when one thought sparks another and they build off each other and grow into something better and more complex or nuanced or useful than we'd ever have come up with sitting by ourselves.  Creativity may be much more grounded in our connectivity than we have previously realized. 

But there are also downsides to a collaborative approach.  Most of may also have had the the experience of having our own tender ideas squashed by conversations that didn't honor them, or that turned in a direction that felt less authentic to us, so that our creativity was subsumed in someone else's vision.  It takes courage to put things out there and it doesn't always go the way we hope.  And sometimes all that energy and input, while valuable, makes it hard to hear what is trying to speak from within us.

So I found myself going back a little further in the creative process than the actual sharing and expressing of ideas and concepts, the actual words on the page or clay on the wheel or notes on the scale.  And here I'd pull in something else that Shenk said in his article, just to stir the pot a little more – he also points out that, and I quote, “Historically speaking, locating genius within individuals is a recent enterprise.  Before the 16th century, one did not speak of people “being” geniuses, but having geniuses. 'Genius,' explains the Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber, meant 'a tutelary god or spirit given to every person at birth.' Any value that emerged from within a person depended on a potent, unseen force coming from beyond that person.”

Of course, for some people that's exactly what collaboration supplies – that potent, unseen force is understood as the ideas and energy that come to us through other people and our interactions with them.  But the more traditional way of understanding it has been a bit more solitary and mystical than that.

I remember a conversation with a colleague once about sermon writing, when he described the process of writing a sermon, and how sometimes the words would flow in surprising ways, and he had the sense that those words were not coming from him, but through him.  “As if,” he said, “they were coming from  . . . coming from . . .  well, God.  Let's call a spade a spade here.”  

For me, this all comes down to a question of balance.  How much of our creativity really comes from us, and how much from those “potent, unseen forces?”  What do we understand those forces to be? How do we open up to them?  Where is the balance between working alone, and working collaboratively, and what allows us to get to the source of creativity in the first place?

I won't be answering all of those questions this morning, but I'll keep playing with this idea of balance – starting with the balance that we need to tap into our creativity at all.  For a long time I bought into that lone genius model, and it was really lonely.  I remember this New Yorker cartoon that I clipped many years ago that showed a simple line drawing of a wolf, sitting on a hillside in the snow.  The caption read “Lone Wolf.”  And in little thought bubbles above the wolf's head were four words:  Proud. Independent. Resourceful. Cold.

There's an expression that has been attributed to different people over the years, including sports writer Red Smith and author Gene Fowler. Whoever said it first, many would agree:  “Writing is easy, all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”  That is the most evocative description I know of for that tortured, lone genius model of creative writing. 

When I get to that point, when I feel the drops of blood begin to form, I've learned to reach out, to build some collaboration into the creative process, to share ideas, to reach and watch and listen as grist for the creative mill.  Articles, conversations, Facebook posts – I have found all of these to be potential sparks for the fire of creativity.  Early in my ministry I had a good friend on the west coast, so even in my last-minute Saturday night grind, when it was midnight here, it was only 9 there, and I could call her to kick some ideas around.  And I often realized that I'd be further along if I had built more collaboration into the process earlier, and allowed time for the creative interchange to stretch my understandings and open up new possibilities before I went into the solitary mode.  Maybe if I'd done that first, I wouldn't have go belled quite so much in the solitary time.

But – too much of that external stimulation can also become a distraction that keeps us from going inward.  At some point, early or late, we still have to go into the quiet, look inside, and figure out what is trying to come out.

And that's where the Billy Collins poem I chose for our reading this morning comes in.[1] Because he expresses so beautifully the things that allow us to tap into and trust those potent, unseen forces – and whether we understand those as coming from within us, or beyond us, I don't think it matters – as long as we can find them and trust them.

In the poem, Collins describes the way our experience of the natural world can bring us to the deep places, bring us back to our center.  Listen again:

But it is hard to speak of these things
how the voices of light enter the body
and begin to recite their stories
how the earth holds us painfully against
its breast made of humus and brambles
how we who will soon be gone regard
the entities that continue to return
greener than ever, spring water flowing
through a meadow and the shadows of clouds
passing over the hills and the ground
where we stand in the tremble of thought
taking the vast outside into ourselves.

Conversation and collaboration can be powerful creative tools. But if Billy Collins had had his phone along and been checking his Facebook feed, he would never have written that poem.  Instead he walked into the wilderness, away from all the noise.  He allowed the “voices of light” to “enter the body and begin to recite their stories.” He opened his heart so it could take the vast outside into itself.  Sometimes, we have to go into the quiet, and feel our place within something larger, something beautiful and good, and know that we are part of it just as we should be.  That can free us from the fear and anxiety of not being good enough, from the pressure of needing to be perfect – which I understand to be at the root blocked  creativity of all kinds.  Think about kids.  They just create.  It doesn't occur to them that it has to be perfect, or that they can't draw, or sing, or dance. They just create out of the fullness of their being. It's that fullness of being that we need to reconnect with in order to free our creative spirit.

Because sometimes creativity may come out of sadness or despair or desperation.  Necessity is the mother of invention after all, and we may find creative solutions simply because we have no other choice.  And the image of the emotionally tortured artist creating beauty out of suffering is an old and powerful image and has its share of truth.

But I still believe that most of us do our best work when we're grounded in a sense of our own worth, of being a beautiful piece of something larger than we are.  And that brings in another level of balance that we need for creativity.  Because I've said that creativity requires the right balance between enough contact and conversation to stimulate us, and enough quiet to allow things to gestate and be born.  But now I'm adding the fact that creativity also require the right balance between true companionship and deep solitude that allows us to be grounded in our own worth.

And I say true companionship with a purpose.  Because we can surround ourselves with people and interactions, we can have so much input that we become overwhelmed, and still not get the input that's useful to us, that actually helps our self-development and the creative process that flows from it. 

And that's why I love the final stanza of Billy Collin's poem.  After he has poured forth all that beautiful imagery of going along into nature, describing the journey of leaving the path, going up the hill, paying attention, having his profoundly solitary experience of feeling one's place in the natural world, then he doubles back to the beginning of the journey and says:

Still, let me know before you set out.
Come knock on my door
and I will walk with you as far as the garden
with one hand on your shoulder.
I will even watch after you and not turn back
to the house until you disappear
into the crowd of maple and ash,
heading up toward the hill,
piercing the ground with your stick.

If you are lucky, you have known people who have walked with you as far as the garden, with one hand on your shoulder, and then watched after you  and not turned back to the house until you had disappeared into wherever it was that you needed to go.   That reassuring touch on the shoulder saying “I love you and I am with you,” the watching after saying “I will continue to hold you in my heart,” while still respecting the part of the journey that you must make alone.

That is the balance I need to allow my creativity to flow.  And maybe this is what we are called to do for ourselves and for one another.  To challenge and inspire each others' thinking, to affirm each others' essence, to share each others' journey, and also to make room for the quiet places and time alone.

One of our most important tasks – whether as individuals or as a congregation – is to encourage and support conditions that allow people to find that balance and bring forth the best of who they are.  Because our world needs people who can bring forth the best of who they are and share it with love and without fear.

So in this month of creativity, when we see and feel the creative power in the world of spring all around us, may we find it also in ourselves and in one another, and pay attention to the balance that best allows it to flourish.

[1] "Directions" by Billy Collins. https://www.poetseers.org/contemporary-poets/poet-laureates/billy-collins/directions/