What Counts as a Creative Practice?


When I hear people say ‘I’m not creative’ I hear internalized oppression. This was a clarifying statement from my last blog post; a kind of elevator pitch for why I do this work. But the reality of this statement requires much more explanation and nuance. As the title of my website suggests, our relationship to creativity is contextual; we are all carrying different stories or experiences that shape our understanding of creativity. And one context that impacts many of us is capitalism. We live in a system that equates value with paid productivity; we are what we make (both physically and monetarily). So if you call yourself creative, you better be actively creating, and what’s more, getting paid to create. I know so many artists who struggle with referring to themselves as an artist when that’s not how they’re making a living. And often the paid job takes away the time and energy for making art. So what then? Can you be creative without a creative practice? My answer depends (as it often does) on how you define creative practice. 

In the article “The Transformative Power of Practice” Staci K Haines and Ng’ethe Maina explain “Practice is simply the act of doing something….We call it a practice when the act becomes a repeated behavior.” They continue: 

“Practice can be both distinct and indistinct. We can set aside time to intentionally focus on our practice, such as when we set aside time to practice a musical instrument, practice basketball, or practice meditation. Practice is also indistinct in that we are always practicing something, whether we are conscious of it or not.”

(1) Staci K. Haines and Ng’ethe Maina, “The Transformative Power of Practice”

We usually refer to a creative practice as one of those distinct practices, but the indistinct practice of creating our lives is always happening. The question is how creative are we being? Haines and Maina distinguish between default practices or behaviors and intentional practices that shift behavior. In this case, we are what we practice (rather than what we make), which means that creativity is the choice of what to practice. I.e. how intentionally are we living? And since creativity is putting imagination to action, then a creative practice can be how we live our values. And like any practice, it takes practice. As we have discussed, creativity requires learning from lived experience, so the measure of a creative practice is less what you produced but how responsive you are to what you learned. So perhaps the question should not be “Do you have a creative practice?” but rather “Are you practicing creativity? And by that, I simply mean: Are you paying attention to how you can respond or adapt?

Recently I have been in a deep practice of wonder. Wonder requires presence; you literally have to stop and smell the roses to enjoy them. In the working paper “Towards the Pedagogy of Play” by Project Zero, they define the three tenets of playful learning as choice, wonder, and delight (2). They describe wonder as “the experience of curiosity, novelty, surprise, and challenge, which can engage and fascinate the learner.” When I asked my students how they could practice wonder in my Imagination & Play class, they came up with the following:

  • Actively challenge myself and others to be creative, productive, and accountable
  • Develop my curiosity through asking questions and paying attention
  • Adopt a playful attitude towards life (let it surprise you!)

At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote about committing to a practice of letting life surprise me, but of course this became harder as quarantine continued to limit life. I’ve spent most of the pandemic walking around my neighborhood, the same streets over and over. In many ways, this has been an opportunity for a daily meditation practice, a break from the computer world and a check-in with myself. But rarely did that practice incite wonder; the internal focus often resulted in more ruminating on anxieties or stress. And then I listened to an On Being episode with ornithologist Drew Lanham and my world opened up. Here’s the excerpt that changed my perspective:

Tippett: There’s part of me that really wants to make this confession to you, which is — it’s something I’ve thought so much about in my life — that I didn’t have a family like you did, that taught me the names of birds or really that paid attention to them….And I’ve always wondered — I feel ashamed of this, that I don’t know the names, and I also think I’ve felt like it’s too late to start, so I will just appreciate them. I don’t know; do you have any advice for me on that?

Lanham: Well, it’s not a problem. There’s no shame in not knowing the name of a bird. If it’s a redbird to you, it’s a redbird to you….I say, the birds know who they are. They don’t need you to tell them that.

But over time, when we relax into a thing and maybe just being with a bird, then your brain kind of relaxes, it loosens, and things soak in….And you begin to absorb it, in a way, in a part of your brain that I don’t know the name of, but I think it’s a part of your brain that’s also got some heart in it. And then, guess what? The name, when you do learn it, it sticks in a different way.

(3) On Being with Krista Tippett, “Drew Lanham ‘I Worship Every Bird that I See’”

All this time I’d been walking around my neighborhood, I hadn’t really been paying attention to the birds or nature around me because I thought I needed to know their names in order to get to know them. Whenever someone told me the name of a plant or bird, I would listen with interest but then promptly forget. I had assumed I needed some baseline of knowledge to retain this information, but actually I just needed wonder, to ask the questions that spark my curiosity instead of looking for the right answer. Now I stop to look at each plant or bird and just notice what I notice; I don’t know the correct words for describing them, but I can notice their similarities or differences. I remember the exact moment I realized that clovers turn down their leaves at night. I had noticed two different kinds of clovers on my walks, some with their leaves turned up and some with their leaves turned down. I thought they might be different species until one day, I was walking at sunset and watched their leaves changing their direction as the sun faded. I literally squealed with delight at this realization. That moment was only possible through a sustained practice of wonder. Now my daily walks are full of possibility; by embracing a state of “don’t know” I get to be surprised every day. This is not a creative practice of productivity, but of generating possibility. And if we are what we practice, then our lives are worthy of practicing creativity.

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne


Everyday Creativity Tip

If we want to practice living creatively then we need to pay attention to how we’re living. One way to do this is through a time audit. I recently learned of this practice from Dr. Ashley Whillans on the Ten Percent Happier podcast:

“This is why the first step of becoming time affluent is to become mindful of how you’re spending time, to do a time audit…The point of this exercise is to begin to cultivate awareness about what activities you find meaningful and pleasurable, what activities you find stressful, what activities are you engaging in, perhaps mindlessly, and to cultivate a greater awareness around how you spend time on an everyday basis in order to start spending moments, minutes and time in everyday life on activities that bring you joy and satisfaction.”

(4) Ashley Whillan‪s, Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris

Here’s how you can do a time audit of your daily practices:

  1. Pick a typical day to audit (Dr. Whillans suggests a Tuesday).
  2. At the end of that day, journal about the activities you did the morning, afternoon and evening.
  3. And then ask yourself the following questions: What was a joyful moment for me? What was a meaningful activity for me? What was a stressful, unpleasant activity for me? And is there anything I can do about that? Can I spend less time engaged in that activity? Can I get rid of it? Can I delegate it?

Through this practice, you can start to notice how you are using your time and where you have control to prioritize the things that bring you more joy. Aka where you have creative choice!


Footnotes

1. Staci K. Haines and Ng’ethe Maina, “The Transformative Power of Practice”, The Strozzi Institute, https://strozziinstitute.com/the-transformative-power-of-practice/
2. Project Zero, “Towards a Pedagogy of Play”, July 2016, http://www.pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Towards%20a%20Pedagogy%20of%20Play.pdf
3. On Being with Krista Tippett, “Drew Lanham ‘I Worship Every Bird that I See’”,  https://onbeing.org/programs/drew-lanham-i-worship-every-bird-that-i-see/
4. Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris, “A New Way to Think About Your Time | Ashley Whillan‪s”,  https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/a-new-way-to-think-about-your-time-ashley-whillans/id1087147821?i=1000506474813


Originally published March 7, 2021 on the Creativity in Context Blog by Evelyn Thorne.


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Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

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