Creative play

I’ve just come home from five wonderful days at the Sydney Artists Retreat, which I try to get to every year. On the drive back, I happened to listen to a fantastic podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) with Liz Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear) discussing creativity.

One of the many topics that came up was the blocks that people often have about creativity – her statistic was that something like 78 per cent of people say they’ve been told at some point that they’re not creative (e.g. that they “can’t” sing/dance/paint/write), which often leads to people becoming blocked or giving up on certain art forms. Often, sadly, this occurs in our childhood and adolescence, and a lot of us never get over it. Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artist’s Way is used by practically every artist I know to address this – but that’s a post for another time.

Anyway, the thing that struck me most about this in the context of the retreat was that even if we’ve got over our blocks sufficiently to develop a primary art form, many of us still feel that way about other types of art, as if they’re all mutually exclusive. There’s still the idea that you’re a writer or a visual artist or a musician, when in fact creativity often crosses boundaries. Although it’s true that most artists excel in one main field – due to the sheer amount of time and effort involved in developing talent to a high standard – it can be immensely freeing to engage in creative play in mediums that aren’t your natural inclination.

One of my paintings from the Sydney Artists Retreat

One of the things I love about the Sydney Artists Retreat is that it’s one of the few places I’ve been that actively encourages this. The competitive aspect of art is stripped away and attendees are encouraged to engage in whatever art form they feel called to, even if it’s not the project they came to work on. So, despite intending to spend the week working on the second draft of The Iron Line, what I did most was paint, sing, play piano and make things out of clay. Was it immediately ‘useful’? No. I’m a writer, and words will always be my primary art form. But it was incredibly relaxing and refreshing, which was exactly what I needed after several months of stress and creative paralysis. It didn’t matter if my paintings were ‘good’ or not – what was important was that the act of creating them tapped a well in me that I was worried was starting to run dry.

So I guess the moral of this story (and I’m sure Liz Gilbert would agree) is don’t be afraid to play. It doesn’t have to be great – it doesn’t even have to be good, whatever that is. Just get stuck in – sculpt, paint, write, dance, sing, sew – whatever gives you joy. Because ultimately we’re all creative beings – we just have to stop telling ourselves we’re not.