The Truth About Creativity Part 1 (Spoiler Alert: It's Actually Hard Work.)

Have you ever looked at an inspiring piece of art and think “How did they DO that? I mean, clearly this person was born knowing exactly how to make that happen.” Believe me, I’ve spent years searching for a magic pill that flips the creativity switch ON, or the coveted book that unlocks all the secrets to being brilliant. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist.

For me, creativity comes in waves of inspiration and mad flurries of sleepless nights, followed by long dry spells of wishing I could muster enough motivation to do anything except clean my house and binge watch Glee. (Which ironically, always just ends up making me cry…)

If you’ve read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, you know that you are not the only artist in the world who experiences creative block and self-doubt. The War of Art is one of the best-known books out there on the topic, and for good reason. But I can’t help but take pause at the title. Do I really want to think of making my art as a war? There’s already a lot of that in the world as it it. Besides, the emotional highs and lows of being an artist mean I already have more inner angst than a preteen heavy metal garageband.

Instead of being at war with your art, how about being kind to it?  Take it out for dinner and drinks.  Pamper it with a spa day.  If you are really invested in your art, you’re probably going to be spending a lot of time with it, so make that time as pleasant as possible.

I have not yet found that magic pill or secret book. But I figure as long as I’m looking for it, I might as well keep creating stuff. In the meantime, I learned a hell of a lot and I’d like to share a couple of those things with you.

  1. Do the Work.

Most artists don’t like to talk about the grunt work.  If they do, they hide it behind more glamorous terminology like “ creative process.”  And who can blame them?  After all, it is the job of the artist to make it look easy.

My grandmother was a talented and hardworking artist in many mediums, but she was best known for her soapstone sculptures and her subject was always horses.

My Aunt Libette is the eldest of my grandparents’ five children. She once told me that as kids, my grandma would put them all down at the same time every afternoon and quietly work on her sculptures while they slept. At some point, my aunt grew too old for naps and would lay awake, listening to the “clink clink clink” of the chisel for an hour. When naptime was over, she would look at the sculpture to see how it had transformed. Every day, more of the horse would reveal itself- so lifelike it could have emerged right out of the Ozark Mountains. It happened little by little.  One hour at a time. One day at a time. I have no idea how many pieces she had by the end of her 89-year-long life, but I’m sure it is in the hundreds, possibly thousands.

It’s easy to forget how a little bit of work at a time can add up.

2. Visualize Failure.

“But wait!” You protest. “I’ve worked hard in all the dance classes my whole life to be the perfect dancer!  And now you’re saying I should fail???”

Before you run screaming from this blog post to lace up your pointe shoes and practice your 32 perfect fouette´s,  just hear me out. I didn’t say I wanted you to fail. I said visualize failure.

Yes, positive thinking is a totally valid, legit approach to getting stuff done.  Write down your goals. Meditate on them. Make a vision board. Put sticky notes on your bathroom mirror. By all means, manifest the shit out of your deepest desires.  But it might be worth taking a few minutes to visualize failure, too.

Here’s why:

You know how naming your demons makes them less scary? Apply that idea to your fear of failure and BAM- you’ve just liberated yourself!

About four years ago, I started working on a new piece called Standing in the Storm. I used the phases of a storm as source material, taking inspiration from the intense thunderstorms and tornadoes I had grown up with in the Midwest. I was very happy with this concept and most of the choreography, but it was a total departure from anything I’d done before. I was paralyzed by fear and tried to remedy it by spending plenty of time visualizing a successful performance: The audience clapping, a standing ovation… and I may or may not have written down what I hoped reviews might say.  But the more I meditated on it, the more nervous I became. In the end, all I had accomplished was set extremely high expectations of myself and put my creativity in a pressure cooker.

So I thought what if I did the opposite?

Yep, that’s right. I visualized failure instead. Did I want to fail? No, of course not. Don’t be silly. But I knew that if I was ever going to be successful, I had to be okay with failure. So, I started thinking about what that would look like. I didn’t dwell on this or obsess over it, but I allowed myself to go there. What would a bad review say? (It helped that I imagined dance critics as the hecklers from The Muppet Show.) Then I actually laughed out loud at myself: If that’s the worst thing that can happen, it’s really not that bad!

I felt so free, I might as well have ripped off my bra and jumped into Puget Sound.

Guess what? Standing in the Storm turned out great!  Was it the best thing I’ve ever done? Nope.  But it certainly wasn’t the worst, either.

I’m going to leave you with this video by Ira Glass, host of This American Life.  He gives us some excellent reminders about the journey of creative process (aka, the grunt work.)  His advice really resonated with me and I hope it will do the same for you!