I’ve heard a common statement from friends and family as I’ve embarked upon this freelance copywriting journey:
“I could never do what you do; I’m not creative enough.”
At the risk of making my job as a freelance copywriter sound unnecessary, I deeply disagree with this statement. Creativity isn’t a superpower granted by the Gods of Inspiration unto a select few.
Creativity is a tool. With practice and discipline, anyone can use it.
Does what I do require creativity? Yes. Do I have more creativity than the average person? No. What I have that many people have lost over time is an ability to access my creativity, focus it, and then unleash it upon a writing assignment. What I also have is:
a) time to devote to writing, and
b) confidence in my writing skills.
That’s my unique selling proposition: I save time and I act as a proxy for people who aren’t in touch with their own creativity.
So what can you do to regain access to your long-forgotten font of creativity? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
1) When was I at my most creative?
According to a recent study, famous painters over the past 200 years appear to have created their greatest works, on average, around the age of 42. If you’re under 40, there’s hope that your best work has yet to come. If you’re over 42, bear in mind that the age is just an average; Francisco Goya and Henri Matisse both sold their most expensive works in their 70’s.
However, the practitioners of fine and performing arts have social permission to experiment and innovate in ways that would prove impractical with some other professions. An insurance adjuster just doesn’t get the chance to improvise with numbers the way that a jazz musician does with sound.
Chances are, unless you’re in a creative career, the time when you were most encouraged to take risks, improvise and explore was in your childhood. That's the time of life when most people not only have permission to create their own imaginary worlds, solve puzzles, and draw pictures, they're also encouraged to do so.
Researchers now understand the relationship between play, life-long learning, and innovation. Play-based and game-based learning is now, with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics—another approach designed to increase innovation), one of the biggest buzz-words in education.
So what does that tell you? When it comes to creativity, the more child-like you are the better.
2) What did I love to do as a kid?
I’ll tell you what I loved to do: write stories (duh), act out Greek myths with my toys (you’ve never truly experienced the story of Psyche and Cupid until you’ve seen it acted out by Barbie and Ken), and sing my heart out to my mother’s vast Broadway musical cast album collection as I imagined the staging behind my eyelids.
I loved to explore the wilds of my backyard, plucking blades of grass and sniffing them—sometimes I struck gold and pulled a wild onion. I loved to draw and experiment with rubbing pencil marks to create shadows.
I liked to pretend I was a radio host; my cassette recorder was a precious object that not only recorded my voice, but also captured staticky musical treasures from the Dr. Demento Show and 99.1 WHFS playing on my boom box radio. I also produced a whole network full of TV programming with my best friend, using her dad’s camcorder and a trunk full of her mom’s old clothes.
Can you imagine if I did these things now?
Can you imagine if you did what you loved as a child now that you’re an adult? How crazy would your life seem to anyone on the outside looking in?
Actually, now that I think of it, that sounds like a life full of joy and wonder. That doesn’t sound bad at all.
3) How can I do those things as an adult?
Okay, so acting out Greek myths with Barbie dolls may be a little too kooky to get away with at 38. Luckily, I have a few kids, so I can legitimately play with dolls and action figures without seeming totally insane.
But some of the other things; the writing, the recording, the nature exploration; these are things I do almost every day. I never lost touch with those activities, they just evolved with me.
My writing is now in the form of freelance work and blog posts. My love of radio is now an active interest in the world of podcasting (and I’m thinking about starting a podcast of my own as part of this blog; should I? Tell me what you think.). My interest in nature has grown into a love of hiking and backpacking. All of these pursuits continue to inspire in me a sense of wonder that is absolutely essential to accessing creativity.
As an adult, do you have passions that are extensions of your interests as a child? If not, now might be a good time to google a few local meetups and events to get involved in so you can revisit the joy of your youth.
4) Where can I find wonder?
This is something you can do right now: take 30-60 seconds to pick up and explore a small object closest to you. Really look at it.
Try to identify all of the colors, explore the texture and weight of the object with your hand. Does the object have a smell or a taste? Allow yourself to experience the object as though you have never seen it before.
That was a mindfulness exercise. Mindfulness may sound new-agey, but the techniques used in mindfulness practice have long been used by artists to unlock creativity.
As an acting student, I remember sitting in a circle with my classmates, peeling and eating an orange while our teacher encouraged us to allow our senses to fully experience the taste, smell, texture and color of the orange. The memory of the exercise still evokes the phantom scent of orange zest in my nostrils.
Did you feel a little bit silly as you were exploring your object in your hand? That’s perfectly normal; as adults, we’ve built up our defenses to the point where we find ourselves apologizing to invisible audiences for strange behavior.
Here’s the thing: creativity requires you to take risks. It requires you to be willing to fail over and over again and to be grateful for the lessons failure has to offer. So, here’s a kind of scary question to ask yourself:
5) What can I do to fail spectacularly?
When I taught an acting class for a small rural extension campus of Ohio University, I had students who had never set foot in a theater, let alone on a stage. On the first day of class, I always started off by making them do something ridiculous. I had them stand in a circle and told them at the count of three, they were to dance the most ridiculous dance, make the weirdest face, and sing the loudest song they knew.
After they were done, I congratulated them: “You’ll never look as silly as you did just now.”
The relief in the room was palpable. They understood: they had permission to fail. And those kids, who had never performed in public before, found the courage and confidence to perform scenes from Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, and Oscar Wilde in front of their educational community after only two months of Saturday morning classes.
So I’m encouraging you to find something you’ve always wanted to try and give yourself permission to be terrible. It’s not about skill, it’s about confidence. It’s about putting yourself out there and trusting yourself to learn from your mistakes.
6) How can I best express my creativity?
Now that you’ve awoken your long-dormant creative self, how will you share your inspiration with the world? Will you write a graphic novel about your career at an ad agency? Will you document your work as a hospice nurse through photo-journalism? Are you going to design that marketing app you’ve been wishing for?
It’s up to you. You see, ideas are rarely unique: self expression and innovation is all about the medium through which you communicate your ideas.
All of this to say: you’re absolutely creative enough to do what I do, but more importantly, you’re creative enough to do what you want to do.
You’re creative enough to take a look at your life and decide for yourself if there’s enough wonder in it. You’re creative enough to have the courage to try something new. You’re creative enough to share the insights you’ve learned along the way and inspire others to find wonder in their own lives.
I’d love to hear what has helped you access your own creativity. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me.
PS: If you still need some inspiration, here's a TED Talk to spark your creativity: