Photo courtesy SXC.
Back in the day (and I do mean way back—maybe several millennia!), myths weren’t such a bad thing. We all recognize the tales of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and other larger-than-life fictional tales as containers for a larger truth.
Myths about the creative process don’t work the same way. At best, they’re based in misunderstanding of how new ideas and concepts are born, and at worst they are mean-spirited lies we tell those tentatively stepping out into the creative realm to crush their spirit and discourage the risk, vulnerability and paradigm-breaking that are necessary for creativity to happen.
Recently, I came across two different lists of “top creative myths.” Hyd-Masti listed 10 myths that he/she considered particularly nasty, while the always-incisive LifeDev lists 15. There is quite a bit of overlap between the lists, but both have a slightly different take on which myths are the worst/most prevalent/most pernicious, etc.
After reading these lists, and thinking back over my experiences as a creative person, I would have to say that I find the following five myths at the top of my personal list.
- “I’m not creative.” The unfortunate variation on this one is “YOU are not creative” or “only artists/specially gifted people are creative.” This myth overlooks the very widespread capacity of people to improvise solutions to their problems and create in subject areas (think crafts, auto repair, home decoration, cooking) that matter to them. The other downside of this myth is that it puts extra pressure on people who are labeled “creative” to come up with all the really good ideas.
- “The only way to collaborate on an idea is to brainstorm.” Brainstorming has its place. It can work quite well under some conditions, but Washington University at St. Louis professor/researcher Keith Sawyer and others have found that groups are often better at sifting through ideas that group members generate on their own and figuring out how to implement the best ones. Many businesses and nonprofits use the phrase “let’s brainstorm” when they mean “bring an idea about this project to the meeting so we can convince management we’re making progress on it.”
- “Creative people are inherently dramatic and messy.” Some are, some aren’t, but I’m not convinced that disorganization or conflict-laden personal lives are the path to artistic or innovative productivity. Julia Cameron tells creative folks to “save the drama for the page” (or canvas, or dance studio) and develop habits which ground them. I agree. This post from Zen Habits is a nice reminder that prolific artists don’t aspire to bounce around in the emotional equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.
- “If I didn’t take up a creative activity when I was young, there’s no chance for me to master it at my age.” Should we tell that one to the ghost of Grandma Moses, who took up painting in her 70s and became a world-famous artist before she died at age 101? Or to the departed spirit of Julia Child, who didn’t even pick up a ladle until she was 37? Or any of these artists, who got started in their field in their 30s, 40s or even later? Like sports, some disciplines naturally favor learning certain tasks at a very young age—but passion and self-discipline count far more than calendar age when it comes to making meaning through art and other creative modes.
- “Creativity is hard work, and people who create must suffer for their art.” Listing this as a myth will set me at odds with some artists and coaches, but this simply hasn’t been my experience, nor has it been the experience of many working artists that I know. I find not creating far more painful than the very real effort that creativity requires. I have found that often, hewing to the “hard work” part of the myth will encourage me to “force” out ideas, which are usually pretty crappy. A lot of the creative process is about letting go—letting go of being certain where our best ideas will come from, when they will arrive, and where they will take us. Clearing the clutter from our lives, creating positive habits, and designing practice regimens that stretch us can go a long way towards being ready when that un-forced great idea emerges…
Those are my top myths. What are yours? List them in the comments field below. Perhaps if we get enough of them, we can vote on which one is the absolute worst!