17 Things I Know for Sure About Creativity - Christine Kane

This week I’m in West Virginia teaching creativity for the Federal Government.

I’ve been hired to teach as part of a Leadership Development program for people from all departments and levels of government. This program is a week-long retreat that happens here six times a year, and it’s a pretty remarkable thing to be doing.

(I’ll pause to allow you a moment to ask the same question everyone else has asked. “THIS administration? Hired YOU?”)

As a matter of fact, it did.

When I teach creativity, I have to shift gears. It’s like I have to step out of this camp that I’m usually in, so that I can walk to the outside borders, and look in and view it from there. That’s the best way to describe what it feels like to move out of creating mode and into teaching about creating mode.

It’s daunting to try and name something that can’t be named. Creativity, in so many ways, can’t be named. And yet, it must be given names and pointers so that people don’t think that the little creativity camp is exclusive, and give up on ever find their way in. Providing pointers and road signs helps people navigate better so they can get there on their own if they choose.

So, that’s what I do. I walk on a tiny little thin line when I teach. I think it’s the thin line in between the right and left brain.

In the spirit of this week, here are 17 Very Scattered and Random Celebratory Things I Know for Sure about Creativity.

1 – Creativity cures.

I can’t explain how or why. I have this sense that our left-brain world, while productive and efficient, has made us jumpy, panicky, and sad. Our addictions and miseries stem partly from allowing no time for play, no time for witnessing beauty, or for creating it. I have known countless people (including me) who, when they started scheduling regular creative time in their lives, began to heal all kinds of messes and addictions.

2 – Creativity is about paying attention.

So is meditation. So is enlightenment.

When I teach songwriting, I assign daily scheduled writing time. Students always ask, “What do you DO when you write?” I pay attention. I play the guitar. I moodle. I spend time with the song I’m writing. Sometimes I have four songs going at once. I spend time with each one of them as if they were children. When I pay attention long enough, the song always begins to take shape. But if I’m pushing or demanding, it doesn’t budge. All areas of art have their own version of paying attention. But no matter what you’re creating, paying attention is a requirement. (Aren’t the best meals you create the ones where you’re simply happy to be preparing the food?)

3 – Creativity is not sane.

I got a comment recently on my last post on creativity. The angry commenter wrote, “I think your ideas are insane.” Good! Creativity is the one place where you get to let go of rationality and sanity.

4 – The only way to learn about creativity is to create things.

That’s the bad news. I can go on and on here. You can buy twelve more books on how to be more creative. But all you’re doing is putting it off, asking for more time. “Just Do It” is actually quite the wise advertising slogan. When I wrote my first real song (Pocketful of Pennies, on my first CD) I got my first ah-ha glimpses about songwriting and songs. I got that creating things is not linear, which brings me to the next thing I know.

5 – Creativity is squiggle-y.

Songs are linear. Stories are linear. Blogs are linear. You’d think that you’d create them linearly.

But when you’re creating things, nothing is linear. Everything squiggles. You don’t start at Point A and go to Point C, via Point B. Creating a song might go like this: You get an idea. You sit with the idea. Another idea comes about how to begin. You start there because you have to start somewhere. Then you end up writing a chorus that turns out to be the third verse. A whole new chorus comes. Then you get stumped. Then you get one line that turns the whole idea around and shoots you off in the direction you were meant to go all along. And it’s easy for a while. Then you get stumped again and re-write that third verse. Eventually, a song that makes sense to the listener is born.

6 – Creativity is not an event.

It’s not the prom. It’s the times you held hands under the bleachers during gym.

It’s not a wedding. It’s the years after when you’re laughing together as you’re lying in bed at night.

It’s not the Olympics. It’s the Saturday mornings you spend with your kid skating at the rink and smiling at how cute he looks charging along with such determination.

It’s not Christmas Day. It’s all the twinkle lights and the smell of wood smoke and that one carol that reminds you of your grandma.

Creativity is the process and the unfolding. It’s not an event.

7 – Creative prolificity requires that your left-brain shut up.

(Mostly so that you can make up words like “prolificity.”)

Successful creativity has to do with tricking your nit-picky left-brain into going away for a while. This is why having daily scheduled writing time or drawing time works so well. After a few days of it, the left-brain gets really sick of this dumb inefficient use of time and eventually sits it out. That’s when things get good, and that’s when you can really have fun. One of my favorite pieces of advice from Julia Cameron is to say: “Okay God, I’ll take care of the quantity, YOU take care of the quality.”

8 – Judgment transmogrifies into discernment when you’re creative.

You’d think that what I’m describing here would make you so float-y that you’d end up creating any old piece of crap that had no merit at all. But over time, the left-brain critical side can join in, become less critical, and turn into a guide. Rather than judging, it discerns.

If a song isn’t working, I know it. And if I am paying attention to it and sitting with it, my critical mind becomes softer. It says, “Hmm. I wonder if you’ve tried to use too many words in this line. Maybe simplifying would make it funnier.” You’ll eventually have to allow some place for that critical thinking part of you to come out. Especially when you’re editing. And in deep creative spaces, that voice sounds less like judgment and more like discernment. There’s a big difference. You learn how valuable that difference can be.

9 – Miserable people are rarely creative.

Complainers and cynics aren’t typically taking pottery classes and signing up to learn drawing. They’re too busy being pissed off to take action. Creativity un-blocks stuck lives. It’s the side effect no one talks about. I think it’s because when you get to spend any significant time in the right hemisphere of your brain, a whole new world opens up to you.

10 – Everyone has valid fears, excuses, resentments, and blocks.

There are always reasons why you might: fail, suck, look stupid, make bad art, get laughed at, be called a fraud.

There are always reasons why you: don’t have enough time, had a rotten childhood, got stopped in your tracks by a bad review, feel compelled to do everything for everyone else, feel guilty for taking the time.

There are always people: who will be mean, who will laugh, who won’t approve, who won’t show up, who will tell you that your ideas are insane.

Creativity teaches you to say, “So-what?”

11 – Blogging is creative.

I think blogs have become so popular because bloggers get to just write. They get to see the big deal of not making it such a big deal. In addition to all the marketing and business blah-blah-blah that surrounds blogging, it is teaching all types to just create things.

12 – You don’t have to get stoned to shut the critic up.

You just have to keep showing up. In fact, I’ll bet your art gets better when you’re not stoned.

13 – If I am grouchy, angry, tense, or anxiety ridden, it usually means it has been too long since I sat with my guitar.

So, if you’re feeling any of those things, or if you’re a blogger, and you’re feeling awful about how you haven’t written a post in three weeks, then just go sit down and write something. Say Julia Cameron’s prayer. I am always amazed at how a morning of writing will lead me to this next point…

14 – When you’re creating something, you really GET that all of the things that are supposed to matter so much don’t matter much at all.

They don’t. We just let all these meaningless things occupy our minds because that’s what our left-brains like to do. They like to solve problems. And when they don’t have problems to solve, well, then they like to create them.

15 – Creativity is all at once this gigantic mystery and this no-big-deal simple joy.

It’s like those Magic Eye books. For the longest time I watched people staring at those stupid pictures and then exclaiming, “WHOOOOOAAAA!’ And I couldn’t figure it out. I got angry and it seemed so unfair. Then one day, kind of simply and slowly, my eyes made that necessary shift and I was IN. When you’re in, you can move your eyes all over the place and look around and it’s no big deal, but at the same time it’s really mysterious and wild, too! That is exactly how creativity feels to me.

16 – Creativity is better than therapy.

See #14

17 – Creativity is about showing up, not perfection.

If you want to be more creative in your life, if you crave a more artful life, start small. Make cards for people. Make ugly cards. Call them “Ugly Cards, Inc.” Write bad poems. Call them “Bad Poems, Inc.”

I bought a thank you gift for a friend of mine recently. And it sat on my desk for weeks because I was waiting to find “the perfect card.” Knowing what I know about Energy Drains and Creativity, I finally got so frustrated with myself and my perfectionist that I just ripped a piece of paper off a Kinko’s notepad. I folded it. On the front of the “card,” I wrote: “Beautifully crafted card with the perfect sentiment expressing exactly how grateful I am for your presence in my life.” And I opened the “card,” and on the inside I wrote: “with the perfect little punch-line inside to make you laugh and feel good about yourself.” And I sent the card and package. And it brought my friend great joy. She loved the card.

Stop trying to be perfect. Just show up. It will unfold to reveal a hundred perfect little punch-lines.

  • Ghostrose

    Thank you for this post Christine! So far I’ve spent this year trying to get back in tune with myself (my writing performance was very poor in 2006, for no particular reason). I read your other creativity post that you linked to in this one and I realised I’ve never seen the moon rise in my life! Not once.

    Thanks for the great advice. I really like the one about being creative not being an event, because I suffer from that problem more then anything.

  • christine

    Hi Vinny, and welcome. “Professional” and “creative” together make for lots of hard earned wisdom, yes indeed!

  • vinny

    got here from reddit.com. as a professional creative person i couldn’t agree more with everything you said. hard-earned wisdom. you can’t beat it.

  • christine

    Wow! Thanks Muddy Otter. You MUST be an ENFP! Your light shines enormously, and you obviously have taken creativity and become a living example of its power. How inspiring!

  • muddy otter

    I loved this post and just wanted to add that sometimes creativity can come out in all sorts of strange ways… After studying Latin American history and making pottery for years, I wound up working for a bank for 14 years until my team got the Big (Anonymous Bank) Corporate Thank You, since then I’ve been contracting. In my spare time I take pottery classes and make little handmade cards with rubber stamps with a group of great friends.

    Despite numerous comments that I’d ‘never make it’ in the corporate world because I’m too goofy and creative, I’m actually having a great career as a contractor. I’ve found that if you have a strong aptitude for what you do and folks see and understand that you’re totally serious about getting the work done, you can find folks who enjoy humor and and see how much it helps in keeping a team’s spirits up when the work gets overwhelming or tedious. You definitely have to have a good sense of who enjoys it or doesn’t and share accordingly, but I’ve been surprised by how many people in unexpected settings enjoy a small creative touch. I was with my last team for about 16 months, and by the end, we’d punctuate e-mails back and forth with funny clip art when things got rough. When the contract ended, the dept head said she didn’t know who she’d call for e-mail and memo art any more, so on my last day I told her I’d written a special technical procedure for her, which covered inserting clip art into documents.

    The other thing I’ve found is how much creative friends can keep each other inspired. My card making group started out with just the common acquaintance with the person who got us together, and a fascination with making patterns and images with rubber stamps, but after 2 years, we’ve become really close friends and look forward to our monthly get-togethers. We bring our samples to show each other, and while we’ve all been influenced and inspired by what other folks are doing, we’ve also really developed and improved our own styles as well. After all those years of studying history, I’ve developed a new appreciation for how much quilting bees or barn raisings must have meant in older communities–there’s something so wonderful about getting together to craft something by hand with great friends.

    My husband’s creativity involves restoring old cars and performance modification, which is something he shares with a great group of his friends. It’s been great that we understand that and can give each other space to goof around and play.

  • christine

    MK, Actually, when you left that post, you BECAME comment #17! (there was a comment pending approval before you.)

    Thanks Susie! I’m sure your family will love getting your creative gifts!

    HI Mike, Thanks for writing in and for all of your kind words. I’ve never been called “The Bomb,” so thanks for such high praise. And #9 was one I debated writing. By “miserable,” however, I don’t mean grief or phases of misery… I mean cynical, complaining, angry, critical people…most of whom aren’t aware that they’re miserable! But then, I always ponder someone like Spalding Gray, whose work always blew me away… so, on some level, #9 isn’t accurate, and you’re right to disagree. I do think that creativity can shift misery, sometimes just a little bit… and that just a little bit is all you need to make a bigger transformation. As for the Pacific Northwest… next fall is probably going to be when I return! I’ll keep you posted if you’re on the mailing list!

    Hi Caren… That’s so great! Thanks!

    Thanks Elona. What a great idea to write a blog for teachers. (and to do it for the “joy of it.”) I’ll go check you out!

  • elona

    I find that I am happiest when I am creative. You are so right when you say that blogging is creatvie. I started writing a blog for teachers in August 06 ,and I love writing it. I feel like I am writing something and then throwing it into the wind for it to fly and land where ever. I write my blog for the joy of it. It’s not even that important for it to be read by tons of people-although that would be nice.

  • Caren

    Hey, Christine! You were just named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Then again, so was I…

  • Mike


    I came looking for tour dates and stumbled across your blog. I will speak on behalf of the older, Type A, left-brain crowd who only know what blogs and IM are because sometimes that’s the best way to engage our children. : ) BTW, this is the closest I’ve ever come to a fan letter, but as the kids say nowadays, you are “the bomb” and I love your music and enjoyed this blog post.

    I am a mild-mannered research scientist by day, but at night (and on weekends) I often pick up a guitar and, over the years, have written several songs. 1, 14 and 16 really resonated with me. I’ve often told friends and family who ask why I don’t perform (except for close friends and family) that my songs are mostly for me (and for them). They’re therapy more than anything else: a way to understand, voice, capture and archive emotions. …and then replay them. I have songs that put me right back on a beach watching a sunset with my wife or, much earlier in our marriage, dancing at midnight by a stream on a warm summer’s evening in the midwest surrounded by winking fireflies.

    I will respectfully disagree with 9, at least somewhat. Temporarily miserable people can be very creative and, indeed, I find creativity can be a way to move past the misery. I have a song that was written during the final weeks of my mother’s battle with breast cancer that I think captured — for all of us — what we were feeling. It’s been over a year since her death and I still cry most of the time I sing the final verse. …but I treasure that. In some ways I hope I never am able to sing that song without at least choking up a little bit at the end. Maybe your point applies to more permanently miserable people.

    Well, this was a long and very rambling way of procrastinating data analysis (which needs to be done by Monday of course) …and of asking, “When might you be touring in the Pacific Northwest?” : )

    Thanks and best wishes,

  • Susie

    Yea! I always love your ideas on creativity! They are “insanely” GREAT! Good timing too; with the Holidays just a few days aways, I always enjoy making creations rather than gifts and now I have a little extra jump start to get everything finished…thanks!

    P.S. #6 was beautifully written!

  • mary katherine

    So if I leave a comment here and you write back to me then you will have the same number of comments as you have items in your list. Won’t that be cool?

    I very much enjoyed this post. Hope you’re having fun in W. Va.!

    xo, mka

  • christine

    Kathy… The MAKING of the cards can be a tricky thing too though! Make sure you allow for ugliness and imperfection! (i have lots more i need to send out. that one was just the beginning!)

    Thanks Dharmashanti… and congratulations on your book. What a terrific completion. Please let me know when it’s out!

    Hi Bruce, thanks for the thoughts. I agree with you that getting yourself to just sit there and start is the big thing! (that changes once you make it a habit though!)

    Thanks Steve. You’re absolutely right.

    Hey susanne, Thanks for the link to your song. I’ll go listen now!

  • Susanne

    Love this post. So – you mean I will only write songs by sitting down and writing them? Shocking! Dreaming about them doesn’t count? Drat! But then I wouldn’t be able to whine anymore…

    Apropos of nothing, anybody interested in hearing me sing can go to


    (The song is by Abbey Lincoln and I’m not sure if it is proper to link to it here, but I do it anyway.)

  • Steve Johnson

    NUMBER 10!!!

    And #3, #5, #8, #11…

    The best thing about creating: it makes you feel good!

  • Bruce Fox

    Christine: I have found that when I do sit and write, the creativity does begin to flow. Sometimes though taking the time and the energy to sit there and get going is so hard!
    I have a friend that I am trying to entice to read your blog. I told her that keeping up with your blog is keeping my creative side alive. That creative side is almost on life support these days, but that will change! – Bruce

  • Dharmashanti

    Wow! As someone that lives and loves to be creative, you have truly invoked its true nature! I love the examples of how creativity is not an event.

    I’m in the process of finishing the final draft of my book. Your list has put high-octane fuel in my creativity tank! You are so awesome! And I celebrate your success with the retreat! We need more people like you mentoring our elected officials.


    Blog: http://themiseryconspiracy.blogspot.com
    Web: http://www.dharmashanti.com

  • Kathy

    Christine – I love the ugly card thing!!! it’s the best advice for someone who puts things off like I do. Finding the perfect card is fun but requires time and energy – things I rarely have when it’s time to send that gift. So the gift doesn’t get sent on time or maybe at all and it collects with the others gathering dust until I find the next perfect moment to give it. Freeing myself from the perfect card might be just the thing to actually get me off the dime…and spark a little extra creativity. I used to make cards when I was a kid and the recipients always liked them better than store bought. Time to revive the old habit I think. Thanks Christine!!

  • christine

    okay alan! glad you had a moment…

    caren, i haven’t heard of them. but i’ll look…

  • Caren

    I have several friends who are into Artist Trading Cards. I haven’t tried it, yet, but it seems a simple non-threatening way to jump in and create. So tiny! And fun.

  • Alan!

    #14. aha!

  • christine

    Wow, Anne. Thanks for such a beautiful addition to my post. I so appreciate your thoughts (and your geology professor’s…)

  • anne

    Another great post Christine – and a very good reminder to us dominantly left-brained people!
    The ‘shutting off your left brain for a while’ idea reminded me of an article one of my undergraduate geology professors wrote for our department newsletter. It was called ‘Time to Stand and Stare’, and he advocated that sometimes, when you find yourself scurrying around trying to distinguish between that rock and this mineral and whether the feature is Jurassic or Mesozoic or whether it’s igneous or sedimentary, stop for a moment, switch off that left brain panic and just stare at the landscape that initiated your interest in the first place. Appreciate the wholeness and the beauty and the reason for loving what you do. Just stand and stare. Just as analyzing the components of a poem can often ruin the beauty of its completeness, analyzing the elements of the landscape can leave us without the beauty of its whole impact. I loved that article and I still have it in my office. I also learned later that this professor has written beautiful poetry….which reminds me of something else….(sorry for the long comment!)….
    As a child I lived in Wales and I went back to university there, and the country is full of people, especially men, who have this rather terse, tough, unemotional exterior and yet almost all of whom unabashedly have a passionate creative side – they nearly all sing in community choirs or write poetry or take part in national cultural competitions (eisteddfods, pronounced ‘aystethfods’) to tell stories, sing, dance, read poetry etc. It’s remarkable and I have a deep connection to Wales as a result of both the landscape and the people. It’s very inspirational. As are you Christine!!

  • christine

    Hi Elizabeth! (for being sick, you were up late. but if it was because of drawing, then we are all better for it!) Your daily drawing has been a huge inspiration to me, so I’m glad that you’re the first to comment here!

    Thanks Leonie! (You were up late too!)

  • leonie

    Another great post from you, thanks Christine! Thanks especially for the reminder in # 6, the giggle I had at #9 and the ah-hah moment I had reading #14.

  • Elizabeth Perry

    Hear, hear!

    This was just what I needed to read tonight… have been fighting off a bad cold and it was all I could do to show up at the page today, and make a drawing ,,, but having done it, I’m feeling better, and am replanning tomorrow so that I have more time to rest and daydream as well as draw.