Embrace your mistakes...
Perfectionism … it’s the most debility part of the creative process. Where does it come from and why does it show up when creating?
Actually it shows up even when you’re living your every day life. We tend to call it something different like “I learned if you want do to something …you do it right the first time.” And while that makes perfectly good sense from a survival position, to not to waste your energy on repeating tasks until you get it perfect ... you might not get anything done.
We disguise it as education. In this process are some repeated behaviors socially conditioned to be necessary. We blindly accept rote processes of learning grammar, mathematics, or any sport. So why isn’t it accepted to be the same for creativity? Well, there lies part of the problem. There are myths, preconceived ideas passed along about creativity such as “you have to have the genes to be creative,” “there are creative geniuses, and you’re not one of them,” or “only a few have the talent, and I don’t, so why bother trying.”
Once you have been infected with limited creative thoughts, any attempt to be creative which does not give you the positive feedback you may need, turns quickly to avoidance or resistance. New beliefs form around creative attempts, justifying the originating memes of “only a few can be creative.” And further block any attempt to try something new as “you have to be an expert in this other wise you’re inept.” Survival takes over and rigidity controls any process of new discovery.
One small way to move past perfectionism is by paying attention to your thinking. Notice if you are judging too harshly. Give yourself permission to lower your expectations for the outcome of any creative adventure. Open to the practice of understanding the creative process. Embrace your mistakes.
From the dump...
What are the materials needed to create art?
Some would say you need sophisticated easels, canvases, and paint to create art. But the Masters, at least some of them, did not always use these materials. For example, a very famous Picasso sculpture – “The She Goat” (1950) is made entirely of materials Picasso found in a garbage dump. From the basket he used for the rib cage to the ceramic flower pots he used for the udders, and various pieces of metals, all found in the garbage dump close to his home, he used to create the sculpture he later bronzed.
Creatively takes play. And just a guess, but I bet Picasso walked daily in the dump to find things he could create with…such as the bicycle seat and handle bars that became “Bull’s Head” (1942) which he welded together. In 1944 when the visitors to his show at the Salon d’Automne in Paris saw his exhibit, they were shocked to see these found objects repurposed as art.
A powerful message can be made by using materials that others cast off as garbage. A message the material possessions we use in our culture which we think of only one purpose, can be repurposed, can be reused, can be recycled into art. Art that carries a message beyond aesthetics can also be very aesthetically pleasing.
Focus on landing...
November 10th of 2010, 440 passengers boarded Qantus flight 32 in Singapore headed to Sydney. Twenty minutes into the flight, one of the plane’s four engines exploded. Immediately multiple alarms went off in the cockpit of the airbus 380, one of the largest and most sophisticated flying machines ever manufactured. Pilots would solve one problem, only to have five new ones; each with its own alarm, arise one after the other. Miraculously, the pilots were able to return and safely land. What saved flight 32 from disaster was the pilots’ willingness to reframe their thinking, remaining focused when overwhelmed with all the plane’s alarms distracting their attention …all while in a nose dive.
These highly trained pilots knew if they continued to focus on what alarm was going off next, they would become so distracted they would crash. The captain, with his hands covering his face, asked his copilot, “what if this was not a 380, but a Cessna? We would not have all these alarms. Let’s fly this plane as though it was a Cessna.” And they did. They focused their attention on landing the plane, rather than focusing their attention on not crashing.
So what does this story have to do with artists or creative people?
While we are not in the same dire consequences as a plane in a nose dive, our metaphorical nose dive is our creative resistance.
What is that you ask?
You might be familiar with creative resistance – that is the time we spend putting off working on our painting, sculpture, or writing because we might be overwhelmed in knowing how to complete a project. Or we are fearful our creation will be criticized by others. We are focused on the alarms going off… that is the fear that our painting will not looking as we want it to, or our sculpture not be as perfect as it could be. When we focus our attention on the alarms, we limit our creative potential. We do not finish what we start. We crash.
Resistance is the opposite of creativity. Creativity is energy - constantly moving. Resistance is suspended energy - stagnant, not moving. Resistance is a safety mechanism designed to ensure survival. Its purpose allows us to make sense of our issue and work through the details or obstacles before we spend the energy. When resistance blocks creativity, it is not ensuring survival, but like the airplane alarm, distracting us from what is really needed.
There are many forms of creative resistance – we will focus on three of the big ones: Procrastination, Criticism and Self-doubt. Each of these serves as an alarm, calling our attention away from the creative process.
The alarm of Procrastination is easy to spot. For example: when you set a time to create and find yourself cleaning out the cat box – you can be sure the alarm of procrastination is ringing.
The Criticism alarm has different tones – the tone of others’ criticism and the tone of you criticizing another. Often well meaning others will volunteer what they see as weaknesses, flaws, or errors in your creative project without a request for assistance. (Like a friend who reminds you that you might have over committed to your art project.) This alarm can make us want to abandon not only the project, but the entire creative endeavor. And how easy it is to focus on another person’s creative flaws rather than to do our own work!
The Self-doubt alarm is even more shrill, but is often so continuous we don’t even recognize it is blaring. “I’m not good enough.” “I’ll never be able to make realistic shadows.” “I shouldn’t even try” are common ones.
What are some of the alarms that go off for you? You may have to pay close attention because you have heard them so often.
The antidote to the alarms of creative resistance is focus. Focus on landing the project. Keep focusing on what you want to accomplish. The alarms will still go off. You do not have to pay attention to them.
You Ain't No Picasso!
I grew up thinking that being an artist meant you had to know how to draw. My 6th grade art teacher instructed me to erase the drawing of my thumb because it did not look like a thumb. She said in front of the whole class, “You’re not a Picasso, it’s ok sweetie, you don’t have the talent to draw.” Frustrated and embarrassed, I gave up wanting to be an artist. Secretively I wanted to know how to draw, paint, and create master pieces like my grandmother Bertha Berry did at 68 years old. After my grandfather passed away in 1972, she took up oil painting, creating one master piece after another!
I spent one of the hottest summers in Waco, Texas with my grandmother. She placed a sauce pan, several spoons, and rolling pin on the kitchen table with a stack of drawing paper and some charcoal pencils. With her load of wet laundry in her arms, she commanded, “draw what you see,” and then disappeared down the back steps to hang the clothes on the line. By the time she returned, I was in tears, unable to pick up a pencil, so fearful that I would not be able to draw anything that resembled the pile of objects she dumped on the table. AND confirm my 6th grade teacher WAS right - I really didn’t have the talent or genes to draw what I saw. But the love of my grandmother came through that day giving me a principle that serves my life, “honey, you can do anything, someone just has to show you how first.” With that, my grandmother showed me how to draw, not only the positive space but the negative spaces too. On that day in 1983, I became an artist. Or so I thought.
Over the years, I became more and more frustrated living with this artist label. I took classes, LOTS of classes, learning from many different instructors and learning many different techniques. In January of 2002, while in Paris for a psychotherapy conference, my husband and I visited the Musee d’Orsay, the Rodin, the Louvre, AND the Picasso Museum … ALL in one day! Being in the presence of so much art, I hardly noticed my husband’s suffering from “Art Burn.” I sat watching with amazement, a French preschool teacher instructing a dozen or so little children on the concepts of Picasso, helping the children see the faces. Then one child said something and everyone laughed... he declared in French, “Picasso is a Kid.” As I walked through the museum, an Ah-ha moment happened as I viewed the “The She Goat.” I recognized that Picasso used play and recycled materials he gathered from the dump exploring shapes, size, structure, and so could I. On that day, my creative muscles emerged like the Hulk.
There are two phases of creativity. First, there is the Bertha Berry method where you gain entry into the art world - you can do anything, but someone just has to show you how first. This is where you learn the techniques; where you build the self confidence. From the moment Picasso was born, his early years of life were immersed in the art world absorbing the basic art forms and theories until he perfected the realistic model. And then instead of saying, "Yes I just want to paint photographs for the rest of my life," something else happened to him. The second phase of his creativity emerged which said, "I want to go beyond that." He was exposed to many different techniques, yet primarily it was his inner voice. Picasso couldn't get to that inner voice without first learning the structure.
Bertha WAS right; there are some things you have to be taught. But this goes beyond Bertha's instruction. There are some things that CANNOT be taught. You cannot teach someone to be creative.
Creativity is discovered.
Creativity is something that THEY MUST discover on their own. Something that I discovered hearing the child understand Picasso from a child’s perspective. Creativity is learning AND discovering. We can teach art. We can't teach creativity. Yet we can teach people how to get out of the way of their creativity to let it be discovered just as Picasso did, allowing his creativity to flow while walking through the dump.
So my 6th grade teacher was right … I’m not Picasso. I’m ME!
Perfectionism starts early
Some equate who they are with the quality of their work. Even little kids starting to draw begin to evaluate their drawings with unrealistic expectations. “It doesn’t look like a face...” and tears begin to flow for any 4 year old who becomes overwhelmed with the stressful chore to be perfect. We all have a 4 year old inside of us.
One thread we humans have in common is the difficulty with tolerating not being competent in every minute of our lives. And for some, give up quickly, never recognizing life is a practice. We humans are influenced by values in the world – some think there is one right way of doing a task, and too often these tasks are evaluated, judged, compared to other works, all done through unrealistic thinking.
It’s no wonder we have some sort of relentless self-evaluation running through our thirsty souls, searching for the next brilliant solution and perfect ideas. And even when we humans get the feedback we long desired, we might think others are not honest, or feel we are not good enough. We continue to focus on what is wrong, rather than what’s going right.
Long before there was the internet or YouTube when you wanted to make a recipe, say for example cream puffs, you used a cookbook or called a friend. Years ago while I was living in Alaska, my friend, Sue who was interested in making a fancy dessert for her dinner party called her sister in Georgia - long distance. You have to understand how uncommon and expensive that was back then. The sister was not at home, so Sue left a message for her on her answering machine, another old device! Sue requested the recipe for cream puffs. Sue’s sister called back leaving the following message with the recipe on Sue’s answering machine… “ ½ cup butter, 1 cup water, ¼ teaspoon salt, 1 cup flour and 4 eggs, mix and drop onto cookie sheet. Bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes.” Sue timed her puffs to come out 20 minutes before her guests’ arrival. She mixed the ingredients, following her sister’s instructions. She called me in desperation, “They are as hard as hockey pucks!” I asked what the recipe called for – angrily she defended, “I added all the ingredients just like she said, and I didn’t leave anything out.”
This is the day I learned about the empathy of cream puffs … and the creative process.
To make cream puffs there is a process. What was left out of the phone instructions for my friend was that the cup of water and butter were to be “boiling” before adding the flour and salt. As well as each egg was to be added individually into the flour mixture, beating thoroughly before adding each one. There is a process for making cream puffs. Leave out this important part of the process, and there is something entirely different than what was expected.
This is the same for creativity. You see, a creative process takes
Just like the cream puffs, when you throw it all together with no awareness to the process, it might end up as disaster. This is why most people do not enter the world of creativity. And those that venture out in to it, often quit working on the projects they once were so excited about. “It’s just too hard,” and “it’s not worth it.” The Creative Process takes time. Something we humans become so frustrated by. We’ve even become more inventive to strategies that reduce time like developing paints that dry faster. For materials and skills, some do not want to waste their money to explore. Admittedly they never want to fail. They limit the Creative Process through an unwillingness to look at old beliefs or myths about creativity. Everyone is creative. You do not have to have the genes… that’s a myth. All humans come equipped with creativity. Creativity is a master strategy for problem-solving. Creativity is like a muscle, when you don’t use it, it atrophies. You want to keep it exercised, used on a daily basis. As Julia Cameron, the author of Artist Within, says “Creativity is the blood of the soul.”And lastly, the creative process is non-linear. A to B does not mean that C will happen. For example, I wanted to make a fabric piece using part of Gustav Klimt’s “Adam and Eve.” This Creative Process took me over three years to complete. I would get frustrated with the process sometimes not knowing how the process would work. I would put it aside only to pull it out when I had a new idea I would try. During this time, I went to many museums. I would often hear docents say “don’t touch the artwork!” Eureka! It finally came to me! Central to this piece was that I wanted people to touch it. The descendants of Adam and Eve became part of my creation by adding their DNA by touching my beaded fabric.
As for my friend Sue, I came to her house on that stressful day and brought over a cherry pie. I helped her get ready for her dinner party. I listened and laughed with her sharing her frustration of wanting to make something special and not having all of the information she needed. We all need to hold empathy for our own Creative Process. There will be times when we believe we don’t have enough time or the right materials, or become so frustrated with the limited skills we have for our creations. We may get stuck on the belief that “it” must be perfect, focusing only on the PRODUCT, not the process. What creativity is… in the idea world, seldom looks like I want it to in the real world. Holding on to ambiguity allows me to not give up when what I expected to happen does not. It happens they way it happens.
For your creativity, keep your focus on the process - the experience, not the product - the cream puffs.
by Kelly Penrod
I consider myself a midwife assisting others in their discovery of the abundance of creative resources in their lives.