The messiness of creativity

I was a neat freak as a child. My mother says that I refused to go anywhere without first carefully making sure every single item in my room was in its exact right location. In fact, one of the ways my younger brother used to pick on me was to go into my room and move things out of place. All it took was one knick-knack moved an inch or two out of its “right” spot, and it would reduce me to a screaming mess.

I don’t remember that at all, but I do remember my extreme aversion to getting dirty. I would not play in mud puddles or make mud pies. (Oooh, gross!) I didn’t even like to play outside that much because there was always a risk of getting dirt on me. I absolutely would not finger paint. My mother wound up buying me a place mat that had finger paint carefully sealed between the top and bottom layer of plastic so I could simulate finger painting without ever getting my fingers dirty.

I’ve had to get over that squeamishness as I’ve gotten older. With koi ponds in the back yard that need constant cleaning of filters and mucking out of algae, I’m pretty much stuck with getting dirty on a fairly frequent basis. But I still don’t like it. I don’t like to be sweaty. I don’t like to be dirty (especially muddy, oily, or similar kinds of “slimy” dirtiness). I prefer things to be clean and neat and organized (although my housekeeping frequently falls well short of my desired state). I don’t like mess.

And I realized today for the first time just how big of a problem this is for my creative life.

I’m reading a book on using creativity to change our relationship with time, and each chapter has suggestions for art projects to create to help deepen the understanding of particular points the author makes. I was noticing how I reacted with discomfort to the suggested activities each time they came up, and I recognized that this is a familiar pattern for me when I am asked to do “creative art” activities. Having recently decided that it’s time for me to work my way through The Artist’s Way again, I decided that it was time to dig into this discomfort to see what’s beneath it.

And what came out was that I think of creativity and art as being “messy.” They are inherently chaotic and not very neat. It’s a messy process. And that still generates a fair amount of discomfort.

This took me by surprise because I think of myself as a creative person. I make jewelry that I design myself (nothing extravagant—just simple items primarily with stone beads). I crochet Reiki prayer shawls of my own design. I recently developed a way to make non-scratch scrubbies for cleaning posts and pans using plastic grocery bags. (I’m testing out my prototypes now to make sure they work as well as expected before writing up the pattern, but I think they’re pretty cool!) I frequently come up with creative solutions for problems, like finding a way to make small notepads out of the backs of business cards that were to be thrown away (due to changed information) or using a bungee cord as a replacement for a broken shelf bar in the door of my refrigerator (you know, the bar that holds all the condiments on the shelf … the bungee cord worked out really, really well, by the way).

But in each case, I had a very clear idea of the final product before I started, so my creativity was really more like a problem-solving process to get to a desired solution. Given an assignment like “Using materials you have around your house, create an art project that is a visual representation of your inner guide who speaks to you about time,” I panic. I have no idea what the desired solution/outcome to that looks like and no idea how to get there from here. Even the process of trying to figure that out feels irredeemably messy.

And this realization naturally brought my mind back to my writing. The times when my writing prospers and flourishes is when I have a clear idea of what the final product needs to look like. It may be a blog post or an article where I know what point(s) I’m trying to make. It may be a poem where I know which emotion I wish to convey, which metaphor I want to draw on, or which observation I wish to highlight. Or it may be  a story where I have a very clear ideas of the characters and the plot going in. (Yes, I’m a plotter, not a “pantser.” I’m sure you’re shocked!) I have no problem deviating from the original plan along the way when that’s where the story (or poem or article or blog post) goes, but until I have a picture in mind of what I am trying to convey, I am as blocked as they come.

While some of this is obviously just a part of my personality (it’s that J in my INFJ, I think), this realization today has made me wonder whether increasing my level of comfort with messiness and not knowing might be just what my creative side needs in order to be able to express itself more fully. I still don’t know exactly what that needs to look like yet, but I suspect that the Artist’s Play Dates from The Artist’s Way process just might be the key to unlocking this block for me.

I’m looking forward to seeing what this particular stage of my journey brings!

A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a fragile and vulnerable place to be, so I am committed to keeping this a safe place for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight are not welcome here and will be deleted.

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3 thoughts on “The messiness of creativity

  1. “I don’t like mess. And I realized today for the first time just how big of a problem this is for my creative life.”

    Wow! We found each other. I was a professional organizer for 7 years and a teacher for 20. I also have been all about organization and systems. And while I used to LOVE to play in the dirt, I have a strong inner critic that demands that sentences be perfect before I press publish. Blogging has helped that — somewhat. But the manuscript I am working on is stiff, and I think it is because I am afraid of really getting dirty. Really getting honest. I’m pretty scared of where those answers might lead me.

    So thank you for your comment at my place today.

    I’m really glad that I found you. Interesting to note that my manuscript has lots of gardening imagery in it. Including weeds and ladybugs and bumblebees and dirt and… chrysalises and butterflies. 😉

    Maybe we can learn to get messy together.

    • Welcome, Renee! I’m glad to know that I’m not the only person struggling with this. I’m always delighted to find other people who are on a similar journey. It’s great to have support when learning something new … even if it’s how to get messy! I look forward to reading your work someday; your gardening imagery sounds beautiful (especially the chrysalises and butterflies, of course). I wish you many blessings on your writing. Thanks so much for the comment!

  2. Pingback: Learning to wander off the path | Journey Through the Chrysalis

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