When is the Right Time to Be Creative?


Or how do we sustain our capacity for creativity? Paradoxically, by knowing when not to create.

There’s a big difference between being a coward and putting your emotional safety first.”

From Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

This was a pivotal statement from love-interest Redford to the main character Chloe in Talia Hibbert’s delightful romance Get a Life, Chloe Brown (1), a book I had a hard time tearing myself away from to write this blog post. And then I realized this quote was exactly what I needed to write about, deciphering that delicate boundary between creative potential and well-being.

Ambition versus well-being

In my last post, I announced I was on a journey of experimenting with my future, purposely living in a state of “don’t know” to give myself time to feel out the right direction. But then it became apparent that what I most need is to put my well-being first, that now might not be the right time to forfeit stability in pursuit of ambition, that I wasn’t being a coward for struggling to implement my plan, but that my unstable mental health was all the data I need to make decision. I’m still assessing my next steps, but the criteria for my choices became very clear: does this allow me to prioritize my well-being? Which led me to deeply question: When is the right time for creativity?

The creative process is more than production

Most people associate creativity with productivity or making. But this is just the end of the creative process. According to creativity researcher Keith Sawyer, the creative process involves many steps including determining the problem to solve, acquiring knowledge and info to address the problem, generating a wide variety of ideas, selecting the best ideas based on relevant criteria, and importantly taking time off for incubation (2). It’s not until the final step do you actually create something. 

This is one reason why I describe creativity as a relational and responsive practice; creativity is mostly about knowing what is needed and how to make it happen. I define creative expertise as a combination of lived experience (understanding the context) and practice (hands-on learning). This is what gives people intuition on how to creatively respond to challenges. Think of when you first start a new job and you’re nervous because you don’t know the rules or organizational culture and each task requires a learning curve, but eventually you understand the expectations and you have enough experience to not only handle the daily responsibilities, but you have ideas for how to do things differently. This is called creative agency. But there are many things that deter creative agency: a toxic work environment that lowers your self esteem, a helicopter parent that never allows you to learn from your mistakes, or an overload of stress and anxiety that cuts you off from your intuition. This last one is what I’ve been practicing with and I discovered a key to creative capacity. 

What is your window of tolerance for creativity?

The everyday creativity tip I suggested in the last post was to keep a mood journal for collecting data on your daily needs. Since then, I have shifted my mood journal to track whether I’m in my window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is a concept by Dr. Dan Siegal that describes “your capacity to manage your emotions even when under stress.” (3) It’s when you’re able to cope with the ups and downs of life, or for me, when I feel grounded, able to be more responsive than reactive, not needing to rely on coping mechanisms to get through the day. And everyone has a different window of tolerance since your window can shrink from trauma or not learning how to regulate your emotions. In fact, everybody’s window of tolerance has shrunk during the pandemic, this collective ongoing trauma has lessened our ability to deal with the many challenges of life.

National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, 
“How to Help Your Clients Understand Their Window of Tolerance [Infographic]”

As the image above explains, those with smaller windows are more easily triggered into survival reactions like flight, fright or freeze; you can jump out of your window into hyper-arousal, a state of anxiety and overwhelm or drop out of your window into hypo-arousal where you feel numb and checked out. Through my mood journal, I’ve noticed that when I’m in hypo-arousal, I have more negative thoughts, and when I’m in hyper-arousal, my thoughts have more urgency. It’s only when I’m firmly in the center of my window do I feel a clear capacity for creativity or when I can choose how I want to creatively respond. And that is my body telling me the answer to when is the right time to be creative.

Well-being is a creative practice

If creativity is responding to the needs of the moment, then I must meet myself where I’m at. When I’m not in my window, my energy is focused on regulating my nervous system; I don’t have as much access to being choiceful in how I cope. So it’s okay to rely on tried and true coping mechanisms to get through. Recently when I was in hypo-arousal and noticed my inner bully getting louder, I wrote the following in my journal: “I don’t need to convince myself that everything is going to be okay right now, but I can pass the moment until I believe that again. Maybe it’s not about getting back to my window but allowing myself to do so.” It was then that I fully understood that the creative practice of living is not always about action, often it’s about rest. Practice is not just what we do but what we choose not to do. And so the question of “When is the right time to be creative?” is really a trick question; you may not always have the capacity to create, but it takes practice to listen to your needs. Which means the real question is Does this allow me to prioritize my well-being?” because what serves your well-being, serves your creativity.

Living is a creative process,
Evelyn Thorne


Everyday Creativity Tip

Post from @thenapministry on Instagram

I owe a lot of the thinking behind this post to the black activist, artist, and healer Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry, who frames rest as a practice of liberation, resistance and reparations. And so I offer Tricia’s wisdom for our everyday creativity tip: What is your rest practice? How can you prioritize rest in your creative practice?

This reminds me of a Q&A session with writer Elizabeth Gilbert when she was asked by a mother of a toddler how to regain the energy to write. Here was Gilbert’s response: 

“I would suggest that if you want to be a great writer… that you just start taking naps during the hours that you think you should be writing, that you rest. I just want you to rest. I’m not kidding….I just want you to rest. And after you’ve rested, and that might take a couple years. You will wake up one day and you’ll be like ‘Hmm, I want to make a thing.’ And that will be when you begin.”

(4) Elizabeth Gilbert, CIIS Public Programs

So, how can you take your rest seriously? Or as Tricia asks: How will you show yourself grace today? Your creativity is worth it. 


Footnotes

1.  https://www.taliahibbert.com/books/get-a-life-chloe-brown/
2. Keith Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, p.88
3. Karen Dempsey, “Coping With Trauma: How To Stay Within Your Window Of Tolerance”, https://theawarenesscentre.com/coping-with-trauma/
4. “Elizabeth Gilbert: Magic, Creativity, and Fear”, CIIS Public Programs, https://www.ciispod.com/elizabeth-gilbert?rq=elizabeth%20gilbert.


Originally published August 15, 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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