By Katherine Scott Jones
Its first stirrings drew me awake this morning, my subconscious forming the germ of an idea that would become what you’re reading now. Pushed into the conscious realm, words sprang ex nihilo into existence—nothing made into something. How does it happen? No one really knows, although we have a word for it. We call it creativity, this process of generating new ideas and new links between them—or what the poet Mary Oliver more lyrically named “the white fire of a great mystery.”
We experience something almost magical when we create. Creativity taps into a place deep inside us that God hardwired into our souls. How do we know? Because of what Genesis 1 tells us.
So familiar are we with these words that perhaps we seldom pause to consider that the very first thing God reveals about himself is that he creates. And then he reveals that he invested this same ability in each of us. “In the beginning God created . . . Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image’” (Genesis 1:1, 26) Mankind means all of us, even those who don’t label themselves creative or who hardly recognize that what they do is, in fact, creative.
If this is the first trait God reveals about himself and us, it must be important to him. What are we supposed to make of that?
Created to Create?
My friend and fellow writer Alexandra Kuykendall has had to overcome conflicted feelings about creativity. Her father was an artist whose creativity consumed him, so much that she grew up on the other side of the globe while he pursued his passion. Her impressionable heart equated creativity with irresponsibility, so it took years before she could embrace her own calling as a creative. But now in her book Loving My Actual Life, this wife and mother of four is able to proclaim, “We were made to create! It is in us, so when we don’t allow that part of us to flourish, we wither. Our world becomes a million hues of gray rather than a vibrant, in-living-color place.”
That’s another way of saying that we’re happiest when we’re creating. But are we? Because let’s be honest, creating is hard work. We writers have a saying: we love having written. Especially when a project is complex, the joy sometimes comes not so much in the act of creation as in looking back and seeing what we’ve done. It’s the fait accompli that brings satisfaction.
Creativity also inherently involves risk, and not everyone is a natural risk-taker. Me Ra Koh—aka The Photo Mom—defines creativity as engaging in something without knowing the end result. “There’s a huge difference between creating and producing,” she said. “Creativity requires vulnerability. Creativity is about willingly being in the dark.”
Not only that, but creativity often subjects us to a fair amount of unpleasantness, such as criticism and comparison, both from others as well as from within ourselves. Not to mention the matter of life balance. And unlike God, whose creativity is boundless, our daily allotment remains finite. “You have only so much creativity every day,” Koh said. “It’s up to you how you spend it.” She describes the time when she was on an international video shoot. On a shoestring budget, she and her team were often unsure where they’d sleep that night. After hours wrestling with anxiety, she’d often find herself in front of the camera with nothing to give. “I’d spent my creativity on worrying,” she said. “So it became this major muscle to exercise on where I’m going to spend this energy. The cake is only so big.”
But if creativity has its downsides, it has its definite upsides as well. Science abounds with evidence that creativity is actually good for us. Consider the CNN-reported study by the American Neurological Association revealing that adults who engage in creativity are 73 percent less likely to have memory and cognitive issues that lead to dementia.
Also creativity can just plain feel good, especially when we get caught in what’s known as flow. “There is a chemical reaction in the brain, the release of serotonins,” said Kelli Stuart, coauthor of Life Creative: Inspiration for Today’s Renaissance Mom. “When we’re in our sweet spot, we’re doing something we’re good at. That produces joy, which has a very real chemical component.”
She describes a day when after a restless night’s sleep she felt blah. “Wisdom said I should take a nap,” Stuart said. “What I did was write another 1500 words of my next book. It was what I needed. I felt so rested. I needed to get those words out so I could function. Sometimes creativity gets all pent up and we can feel physically sick. The answer is we need to tap into creativity. It gives us life-giving energy.”
Not Just for “Creatives”
A decade ago when Koh began her photography workshops, she uncovered a trait vital to unleashing creativity. “You can only get so far with your creativity if you don’t have confidence,” she said.
It’s so vital, in fact, that she built her workshops around that theme. She apparently struck a nerve. Her CONFIDENCE photography workshops for women have been sellouts across the U.S. for the last decade. “When we teach, we hit on those deeper notes of why confidence is stifled and how we break through that,” Koh said. “I love how when a woman finds confidence in one thing, it bleeds into every area of her life. There’s more joy, risk-taking, stepping into the dark. We’re really trying to shift atmosphere at home by empowering her.”
And it’s this idea—that creativity affects so many other areas of life—which supplies the most powerful motivation for engaging in creativity in the first place: to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. For when our creations serve a greater cause, they imbue our existence with life-giving purpose.
Not to say it comes easily, even for experienced pros. Forty years as a painter has taught New York artist Brian Rutenberg a few tricks in kickstarting creativity, such as:
• Locking the door: “Creativity thrives on solitude.”
• Resisting the temptation to edit: “Spill everything out and fix it later.”
• Practicing gratitude: because as even infamous atheist Friedrich Nietzsche observed, “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”
The effort can render big results. “Our job is to glow in the dark,” Rutenberg said. “The world needs more people who glow. We make art so that we have an excuse to stare at one another. Art is empathy. By glimpsing into someone else’s heart, we gain a greater purchase on our own.”
That is the hope, anyway, and given the potential benefits, it’s hard to imagine a good reason not to engage in whatever creativity God inspires in us. He made us this way for a reason, but he also lets us choose how we use our gift. As Kuykendall said, “My creativity only serves God if I exercise it.”
Katherine Scott Jones lives out her creativity by writing novels and blogging about books in Seattle, Washington.