On the final day of matric, I headed off to school one last time with an extra white shirt tucked into my satchel.
Along with leaping into the ocean still wearing our uniforms, getting an old shirt signed by teachers and classmates was a long-standing student ritual we partook in to help mark the end of this tender period in our lives.
As per tradition, the back of the shirt was decorated with something that seemed to capture a bit of your essence. I suppose in a last-ditch effort to represent yourself – or who you thought you were at the time – accurately to your peers.
Desperate to always be ‘different’, mine boasted a pixie (yup, I was *that* kid) I had asked my brother to draw while visiting from uni the weekend before. The rest remained a blank canvas for my companions, frenemies and educators to fill in.
By the end of the day, it was covered from corner to corner with sweet messages and funny ones, kind words and crude jokes. (I’m happy to report that nothing could have passed as mean.) One of my best friends had even drawn an elaborate border of hacky sack moves – a favourite pastime of ours during breaks (yup, we were *those* kids) – along the collar and on the pocket that made me laugh so hard, because my signature – albeit accidental – trick had been the ‘boob stall’ and she had captured it so comically.
But the one message I will never forget came from my English teacher, Mrs Claassen. It simply read: “Carry on being a creative genius!”
I was baffled. What was she referring to? I mean, I couldn’t even draw a picture!
Well, it’s taken me the best part of my adult life to realise that creativity isn’t so much the ability to make things that are pretty, but rather a way of approaching life. I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear’ and am really enjoying her no-nonsense approach to it.
It’s also sparked a few thoughts about creativity that I wanted to share with you:
You don’t need to be an artist to live creatively
My brother, Imar, is an incredibly talented artist and has always been extremely good at making/drawing/capturing things that look exactly the way they’re supposed to (that’s why I asked him to draw the picture on my shirt). I, on the other hand, have always been exceedingly talented at making/drawing things that don’t turn out quite the way I (or anyone else) had imagined.
Growing up, I always envied his gift and wanted nothing more than to draw pretty pictures – just like him. (Although, as a grown-up graphic/web designer today, I know his work involves far more than just drawing pretty pictures). Basically, he became the benchmark for my creativity. And I fell horribly short.
For a little while, as kids, we attended art classes together and produced works that couldn’t be more different from one another’s. His, all clean lines and perfect execution of form. Mine, mostly just a messy suggestion of what might have been a vase of flowers or a perching owl. (It was kind of painful at the time, but looking back now, it’s pretty hilarious!)
For the longest time, this really bothered me. Why had he inherited all the creative genes (not to mention the sporting abilities) and I had gotten none?
When I furiously complained about this, my mother would always respond: “Not being ‘artistic’ doesn’t mean you aren’t creative. You just express your creativity in a different way to Imar.”
This always annoyed me a bit, because I didn’t fully grasp the concept. But, as I’ve grappled with it more over the years, I’ve come to understand it a bit better.
Creativity transcends specific artistic talents and abilities. We can be creative in the way we dress, the way we solve problems, the way we decorate our colleagues’ desks for their birthdays, even the way we stack the drying rack when there are CLEARLY too many dishes to fit in, but we’re too lazy to dry some before continuing to wash.
Which brings me to the next point…
We’re ALL creative
I believe one of the low points in human history was the moment ‘creative’ became a noun.
“Oh you know, I’m a creative, so don’t ask me to split the bill!”
“Just look at John’s outfit today. He is such a creative.”
“It’s Loerie’s weekend in Cape Town. All the creatives are going to be out on town. Lord have mercy on us.”
Well, guess what. Drab little George in accounting? He’s creative too. Being able to crunch those numbers, put them in the right Excel sheet columns, reaching a point where they’re all perfectly balanced – that takes some damn creativity!
We come from a long line of humans who had to use their creativity to survive. Whether as farmers or soldiers or preachers or servants or accountants or even artists.
And dividing the world into ‘creatives’ and ‘everyone else’ is just damaging to a legacy and heritage we ALL have the right to lay claim to.
Your creations don’t have to be perfect
Having said that, the fact that we all possess the ability to be creative doesn’t mean that we’re automatically living our full creative potential all the time.
In fact, even the most consistently creative among us experience dry spells which leave them devoid of inspiration and like they’ll never be able to make whatever it is they enjoy making (whether it’s a dish mountain, a well-composed photograph or a perfectly-balanced spreadsheet) again.
There are many factors that influence this, but a big one for me is feeling like I can’t let the things I make out into the world until they are absolutely perfect. And nothing is, of course, ever perfect. Fortunately, I’ve relaxed with this (in certain aspects of my life) over the past few years.
For instance, I’ve made peace with the fact that I simply cannot bake. Yet, every year on Guillaume’s birthday, I bake a terrible cake and present it to his friends and family with good humour and ironic pride. Because, really, it’s the thought that counts, right? Right.
Taking this nonchalant approach is, however, a lot more difficult when it comes to the creative projects I care deeply about and feel I must do well. Which is directly related to what I want to say next…
You don’t ALWAYS need to create something meaningful
We put immense pressure on ourselves to constantly deliver work that is meaningful in one way or another. You know what? Sometimes it’s okay just to make, write, draw, paint, build something totally meaningless for fun.
This extends to so many other parts of our lives as well. We don’t always need to justify our actions with a sensible explanation. If you feel like taking a solo drive to the West Coast on a Sunday to look at the flowers – even though you *know* it’s going to be crazy busy – just for the sake of it and have no responsibilities holding you back from doing so, go for it! You don’t need an explanation beyond: “It’s what I felt like doing today.”
If you’re an overly sensible person (which I kind of consider myself to be), chances are you’re missing out on SO many good things in life – not because you don’t have whimsical desires too, just because you’re always rationalising yourself out of them before they even take root properly, let alone start to grow!
I’ve come to realise that one of the secrets to living a creative life, is sometimes letting go and just doing things for the sake of it!
Don’t be afraid of the quiet periods
Just getting back to those creative dry spells I mentioned earlier: it’s easy to get completely freaked out by them. This is especially true if you depend on your creativity to earn a living (not always a good idea).
But what if – instead of becoming frazzled and frustrated during these quiet periods – you started using them as opportunities to rest, do that research you’ve been putting off, read the book that’s been gathering dust on your nightstand, get in touch with that friend you haven’t seen in a while?
I suspect – because I haven’t really tried it yet – turning your attention away from your creative crisis and toward something constructive could bring you back to where you want to be quicker than staring at a blank canvas while pulling the hair out of your head.
Creativity blossoms when it has space
Ideally, we’d all have a room of our own (as Virginia Woolf so eloquently put it) to do whatever the creative work is we do. But, obviously, that’s not possible for everyone.
Earlier this year, I decided to dedicate a single corner of my bachelor flat to my writing (which also happens to be my job). I bought a comfortable chair for my desk, removed all the papers, books and magazines that had been cluttering it, stuck some inspirational quotes and pretty pictures on the wall and plonked down a plant or two. And a strange thing happened – I felt immediately drawn to that space.
Now, instead of wandering between the kitchen counter, the couch and my bed during my working day and getting super distracted in the process, I sit down at my desk in the morning and systematically work my way through my to-do list. It has become a space synonymous with productivity and has also made a huge difference in the actual enjoyment of my work. Which, of course, boosts my ability to be creative enormously.
Share your thoughts and ideas
Many – even most – creative endeavours spring out of and happen in solitude. They rarely, however, happen in isolation.
In order for your creativity to grow and expand, you need input from others. You need constructive criticism for your work to improve and sometimes you need collaboration for your ideas to reach their full potential.
This can be super scary. But the alternative is to run the risk of creative stagnation. In that case, I’d take the painful vulnerability of the former any day.
There’s no sell-by date
Finally, we live in an ageist society that reveres the resilience, spontaneity and even the folly of youth. We bow down in awe of the prodigies who build multi-million dollar empires in their twenties and retire in their early thirties. The young activists who are fighting tooth and nail for a cause so much bigger than themselves and, against all odds, gaining ground. The teenage artist who is already being chosen to participate in international exhibitions.
These kinds of things are truly amazing and the young people who achieve them certainly deserve every ounce of attention and praise.
However, this doesn’t mean that if you didn’t make something of yourself in your 20s, your chances are over; on the contrary, your twenties (and even thirties) can often be so fraught with trying to prove yourself that the things you create might be somewhat strained and even devoid of true joy.
As you get older and relax into yourself, you may find that making things for the joy of it, rather than for the recognition, allows them to resonate more deeply with your truest self… and maybe even those around you. So, whatever it is you want to do, don’t let some societal sell-by date put you off. Ever.
So, getting back to Mrs Claassen’s message on my shirt: I don’t think I will ever come to think of myself as a ‘creative genius’. Nonetheless, her kind message continues to serve as a catalyst of sorts, convincing me to think more generously about my own creativity and the creativity of others.
And I’m beginning to think that’s the fodder on which creativity thrives: generosity of spirit, heart and mind.