How to Shut Down Creativity
I typically spend my evenings "researching" fashion trends, either on Instagram or Pinterest. One evening I was watching an Instastory where a person said that, when working in the fashion industry, one needs to stay on top of the all latest trends. This is a fact that I know very well, yet when I heard it, I began to feel anxious. My breathing grew short and rapid, my mind began racing and I became short tempered.
My husband is a cultural psychologist and his area of expertise is in intergroup relations (i.e., social processes such as racism, nationalism, tribalism, etc.), especially in South Africa and The United States. Our kens could not be more opposite. So when I vented to Jordan about how I can't keep up with trends on top of performing my best creatively, I was expecting emotional, husbandly support. To my surprise, he offered very helpful advice, specifically on creativity, referring to an article from a psychologist! And not therapist-psychologist kind of advice, but again, advice on creativity...from a social psychologist. I was intrigued by the article he suggested that I read, but I'll admit I was daunted when I saw the essay was eight pages long (I need to read more).
The essay, The Anticreativity Letters: Advice from a Senior Tempter to a Junior Tempter, (now don't be overwhelmed by all the social science references) is by cultural psychologist Richard E. Nisbett from The University of Michigan. These letters are written in the style of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. In this rendition, Snidely, the senior tempter works for "The Anti-Muse," and writes letters to train a junior tempter, Slump, on how to prevent his subject from being creative. As I read this I felt like I was "OMG-ing" after every sentence because I am tempted in each and every one of these ways! So, without further ado, here are my key takeaways from Snidely on how to NOT be creative. And please please please read Nisbett's essay! I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!
1. Isolate Yourself
. . . restrict his associations to people in his own field, on the grounds that. . . it is really more useful from a career standpoint to hobnob with fellow professionals.
I have fed myself the lie that the only people who will appreciate my work, who can give sound critiques, and whom I can have good conversation with are artists, and even more narrowly, artists who work in fashion. If you read my experience at NYFW you'll see that I learned, in the most heartbreaking way, that I do not always relate to fashion people. I count myself lucky that I have recovered from my mistake! I was able to find inspiration and strength from artists who are not of my specialty and people who are not even artists!
2. Focus on Frivolous Ideas
Few things are more calculated to destroy creativity. . . [than] to have your patient. . .baying after every article of any conceivable relevance to his interests.
I have lost myself in ideas that do not inspire my art. I constantly battle over which is more important: to know the goings-on of the fashion industry or to paint? I have spent hours reading and looking through my Vogues and even more time on social media in order to keep up with millennial trends. Sadly, I lost my way as a result, feeling uninspired and feeling that my ideas have already been executed (and in a much better way than I could have done them). Then painting became a rare occurrence.
3. Do Not Seek Critique
. . .you may have to make do with steering your patient toward. . .people [who] will give him no criticism whatever.
I'm one who deeply believes that good constructive criticism helps me progress in my work. I am lost without it! In fact, I love critique so much that when I get a chance to visit my alma mater, I visit with my professors and ask them to review my portfolio. My friend and I were talking the other day about how fortunate we were to have been taught the value of honest critique at university, and we lamented on how rare it is to be able to receive actual comments on what we can do better. Critiquing allows the sharing of ideas, gives direction, and gives an artist the practice that they need in talking about their work.
4. Constantly Worry
All but the very most brilliant patients are therefore candidates for constant worry about whether they are smart enough to succeed.
There are so many concerns that I tell myself that keep me from creating. I worry if I'm knowledgeable enough about the fashion industry. I worry about how to manage my life as a mom, wife and career woman. And the worst of these worries is feeling inadequate as an artist. Theodore Roethke said it best, "A mind too active is no mind at all."
5. Keep Busy
. . . prevent the patient from doing things that are intellectually stimulating or pleasurable.
From religious leaders to Youtubers, many people have, of late, been addressing the significant difference between being busy vs. being effective. Since I work from home, I decided it would be best to no longer take personal phone calls during my work hours as to stay focused and to prevent idleness. A friend called me the other day and when I saw her name appear on my phone I thought, "I don't have time to talk to her." But you know what I was doing? I was "busy," telling myself I was "researching," (I was on Pinterest, probably mainly looking at pictures of Timothée Chalamet), and saw her calling as a distraction. Thank you to that little voice that told me to answer because that phone call was the stimulating conversation I needed that would then inspire my Day Two of #the100dayproject.
So to wrap this all up, creativity, like Snidely tells his nephew, is affronted in many subtle and tricky ways. Sometimes the very things we think will fuel our creativity actually close us off, make us exclusionary, undermine our vision and confidence, deceive us into thinking that preoccupation and productivity are the same. Creativity is omnipresent, so we must stay open to where and when it may come.