Creative Strength Training
When someone heads to the gym to lift weights, we don’t doubt that strength training will help build muscle. But what if we could exercise our creativity? Jane Dunnewold argues that there are exercises to build your creative strength. Her book, Creative Strength Training: Prompts, Exercises, Personal Stories for Encouraging Artistic Genius, is filled with ideas, inspiration, and exercises to increase your artistic genius.
I found it fascinating, and I kept returning to the prompts to push myself. Then, I reached out to Jane to talk about her research and experience into creative strength training.
Jane Dunnewold teaches and lectures internationally, and has mounted numerous one – person exhibitions of her art work around the world. The former President of the Surface Design Association, she has authored numerous books on textile patterning and surface design.
“You are perfect the way you are…and you could use a little improvement.” -Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
Embrace Your Creativity
Jane, is it possible to increase your creativity?
Yes, Skip, it IS possible. It would be disingenuous to say that everyone is capable of being creative at the same level, but EVERYONE is capable of learning to think (and behave) more creatively than they do right now. Of course there are people who are really creative, and they’ve embraced it. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the large percentage of adults who are “out of touch” with what it means to be creative.
Re-connecting with creativity happens in stages. The first step is acknowledging how you feel about your own abilities. You might not feel very creative. You might not feel creative at all. Either way, I’d be inclined to ask, “What about other people? How creative do you think they are?” Because most of us can see something creative about other people’s behavior more easily than we can see it in ourselves.
Once we begin to notice other people’s creative ability, it’s easier to acknowledge our own. After all, if everyone else has at least some modicum of creativity, by default we must, too! Accepting that creativity is in us, no matter how untapped it may be, is the first step in learning how to unlock its potential.
By the way, I highly recommend actually writing down whatever you’re thinking concerning creativity – yours or someone else’s – because then you’ve tethered your thoughts to the earth plane. We’ve all had the bummer experience of having a great idea – one we can’t possibly forget. But then it slips out of consciousness, and no matter how hard we work to get it back, it’s gone. Writing captures thoughts and ideas in order to allow time to develop them.
The second stage is remembering creative approaches or ideas we’ve used in the past. Sometimes I use a few questions to get people started, like, “Can you remember making something as a kid, from odds and ends – maybe re-purposing something, maybe even a toy? What was it? How did you do it?”
Another good question? Games we invent as kids. What were the rules? Who made them up? These prompts almost always lead to memories of creative activity—changing a recipe, fashioning a quick fix for some household problem, coming up with a gift for someone that was off the wall. Most people are creating all the time. They just haven’t named it yet. So asking someone to recall small acts of creative action primes the mental pump.
The third stage encourages people to embrace being creative on a regular basis. Because, as is true of all learned behavior, practice helps us get better at whatever we’re doing. Athletes don’t come out fully formed and neither do musicians or spiritual guides. Each works repeatedly at improvement. Creativity isn’t any different. You may not ever be the most creative kid on the block, but you can get a heck of a lot better at it if you intentionally seek opportunities to be creative in your approach to work or play – or Life, for that matter – and then embrace those opportunities.
Cultivating strategies to enhance the ability to think creatively include asking questions when you face a situation where the “same old, same old” doesn’t feel like the best solution. The questions could include:
- What’s boring about how this is usually resolved?
- What are the roadblocks to the problem’s solution?
- What’s the craziest solution I can think of right now?
- What would ___________ do? (Not Jesus, but someone you really admire and believe is a creative person! What would that person do under the circumstances?)
Maybe you’re not problem solving per se; you’re just thinking about your life and wishing you could be “more creative.” If that’s the case, then answer these questions:
- Is there something I’d really like to learn to do?
- Am I afraid to try it? Why? What am I afraid of?
- Can I accept trying something even if I’m crappy at it, if I think it will be fun?
Each of us can craft questions that suit our own situation and personality. But ask a few of the above to kick things off. Get a feel for how to advance beyond usual thinking where problem solving or personal use of time is concerned.
Build Your Creative Stamina
What is creative stamina?
I LOVE this question! Stamina = strength, right? Athletes build physical stamina, and you might think “creative” stamina only applies to artistic types. But anyone can build creative stamina by showing up and by working with the three stages I described above. Just don’t turn away or give up when the going gets rough. I’m reminded of the movie “The Shawshank Redemption”: Tim Robbins cogitating, strategizing, working endlessly, bit by bit, to escape from prison. Creative stamina isn’t as harrowing as that, but it does involve good-naturedly returning to a situation with resolve. As an artist, it means not getting a “poor me”’ attitude when things aren’t going well in the studio. It would be easy to look at what other accomplished artists have done, and give up. Just shelve it. But don’t. Keep working. And there’s always more to do. The end goal is elusive. This is the story of authors who send manuscripts to 50 agents before they find one who will give them the time of day. This is the story of actors who try for roles until they’re totally beat, but go to auditions anyway – and eventually land a part.
People who don’t think of themselves as creative assume what I’m describing has nothing to do with them. But it does. Building creative stamina means figuring out what you care about and then engaging with it creatively—whether you love to cook, and the vegetable soup isn’t quite right, or you love to garden, but the ground is hard as a rock. Maybe you don’t even know what creative passion is, but you keep showing up and trying things on for size.
“If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” -Katherine Hepburn
Explain the role of journaling for artists.
I’d rather talk about writing as a tool for EVERYONE! I’m not talking about writing in a journal the way angst-ridden teenagers do. And I’m also not proposing “Daily Pages” which were an integral part of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Neither am I suggesting anyone begin an artist’s journal of hand-painted images and ephemera. Those are works of art.
I’m more interested in “targeted writing,” which I use all the time. It’s a strategy for artists but works for anyone who wants to capture creative thinking.
Here are a few guidelines:
- Writing doesn’t need to be complete sentences or lengthy; we aren’t talking memoir.
- Lists are good. Moving beyond grocery or “to do” lists, you’ll find it’s valuable to make lists about projects you’d like to accomplish, goals you want to set, materials you might need for a project. Remember what I said before about tethering ideas to the earth plane? Capture those babies before they vanish!
- Free association. What matters to you? Write that question at the top of a blank piece of paper. Set a timer. Write for two minutes. Write anything that comes to mind. Once the timer dings, read the list. What does what you wrote tell you about yourself? Free association refines decision-making concerning how to spend your time and resources.
- Stories! Begin writing memories and/or stories about your life. Just a few paragraphs at a time is ok. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer, you’ll benefit from this simple creative act. Because you’re the only one on the planet living your life, writing stories honors your unique experience. These stories may never evolve into art work as mine do, but they can become great conversations to share—meaningful talk that helps avoid the deadly trap of “small talk.”
We live in a culture where it’s quite possible to avoid committing to actually “doing” anything because it’s so easy to keep shopping for the perfect thing we need before we can begin. I recognized this tendency in myself at one point and then noticed it in friends and students. We’d go to a vendor event specializing in materials and products used in art making, and boom! The shopping frenzy began. Bags and bags of stuff. Back in class, I noticed the biggest shoppers were the least prolific “doers.” It was all about deflecting meaningful activity by staying in acquisition mode. Why? Fear. And this isn’t only about artists buying materials or being on the track of the perfect material as a way of avoiding commitment to process. Our culture is loaded with forms of acquisition as protection from possible disappointment or inadequacy. If we keep shopping and never have to make anything with what we buy, then we won’t ever have to face failure. I’d hazard a guess, as gently as possible, that it isn’t unusual to use shopping and acquisition as a hedge to living an authentic life—because the risk of failing at living an authentic life is too scary, and stuff can either be replaced or controlled….
Thing is, we fill up the space around us, and in doing so, we fill up our heads. We no longer have that open grazing space in our brains that’s needed to cultivate new or exciting ideas – which is where creativity flourishes! Shutting down the acquisition impulse and using what we have – if even for a short period of time – helps to “reset” the inner gauge of what we need to prosper creatively. I’m big on giving away one bag of stuff you haven’t used in over a year – no matter what it is – every week for a year. Somebody else benefits from your generosity and you get a burgeoning sense of how free you’d be if you didn’t need to take care of so much shifting real estate!
Would you share a story of someone who went through your exercises and changed their creative mindset?
This from Julie Brown Neu:
“The time since I took your course has been some of the most creative, most fruitful, most joyful of my life, in part because of the small group of women I have been in touch with on a weekly basis as part of an artist group that formed out of your course. Your class was also instrumental in helping me to find my voice so the work that I am doing now, and for the first time, speaks to me in a way that no work before this has. I’m doing exactly the work that I laid out in the inventory lesson (from Chapter 10) and I am also doing some new work that has come since then that I did not expect. My current project is a very emotional and political piece that includes the names of each victim of a mass shooting in the U.S. during the last 20 years where more than 10 people died in one day: 185 names. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that project before, nor would I have been at all receptive when the idea dropped in on me.”
Make Work Distinctively Your Own
How do you make work “distinctively your own”?
I suppose it won’t be a surprise when I say it’s good to write down, or at least think about where your passion lies. As an artist, my passion lies in using my work to comment on society while also creating pieces that have a beauty and serenity to them. Cooks invent recipes or put their own twist on an old recipe. I have a friend who says she’s not creative, but the way she knocks herself out decorating for the holidays belies her protestations. Branding is a form of being distinctive! Jim Cullum, an amazing Dixieland jazz trumpet player and longtime star of “Live from the Landing” on NPR, always wears a bow tie in public and has a great time picking out those ties. My son-in-law is amazingly creative, but his real claim to fame right now is his extensive collection of crazy socks. I’m using those simple examples to demonstrate the real benefit of engaging with creativity in one’s day-to-day life. It’s fun. It adds humor and excitement and a sense of being truly who you are to your life. And that makes cultivating a creative life totally worth it.
Why do so many people “grow up” and leave their natural creativity behind?
It’s stolen from them, and they don’t miss it until they aren’t sure how to get it back. Perhaps it isn’t deliberate, but parents, teachers, and other well-meaning adults who want children to be safe and successful in the world have too often squelched creativity in the process. It’s up to us to reclaim our creative birthright because it doesn’t go away; it only goes dormant.
Reignite Your Creative Spirit
What’s the best way to help someone reignite creative spirit?
Working with the stages I described is a good place to start. It helps to know where you are, so you can determine where you want to go. And there’s no way around addressing the fear factor, since it keeps people from stepping out, fearful of looking foolish, or facing the possibility of rejection. Practicing creative thinking is a risk worth taking. What are you afraid of, anyway? What have you got to lose? Claim your right to creatively try new ideas and approaches, even if they might fail because the good news is, small failures, in the overall scheme of striving to become more creative, are par for the course. Practice makes perfect. Or imperfect, but so what? As Don Henley of Eagle’s fame wrote, “You never see a hearse with a luggage rack.” It’s all about the living.
One more thought. In my experience, joy and creativity are intertwined. Isn’t that an incentive to live as creatively as possible? Engaging with the creative part of us that looks for crazy, new, amazing, simple or otherwise personal ways to deal with cards in the deck of life we’ve been dealt makes us happy. It leads to joy. And what could be better than that?
Creative Strength Training: Prompts, Exercises, Personal Stories for Encouraging Artistic Genius