Creativity is Your Birthright
Are you practicing it?
Think about something you’re good at. Maybe your job. Maybe some household task. Maybe a hobby.
Just something you’re really good at, that people comment on. Something that you impress yourself with.
Maybe you’re really good at accounting. Or growing tomatoes. Or teaching math. Or line dancing. Or brewing craft beer in your kitchen. (Is that even a thing?)
I’m just absolutely sure there’s something that you’re sure that you’re good at.
Here’s an example.
Last night I made tacos for dinner. They were made of flank steak slow-cooked with salsa verde and they were a-mazing. I served them with perfectly homemade pinto beans that came out absolutely perfect.
I make good tacos. Really good tacos.
I was not born an excellent taco maker. But I love to eat tacos and I had to learn to cook when I was a kid, so it makes sense that at some point I started making them.
My first tacos involved ground beef cooked within an inch of its life and a packet of taco seasoning and a can of refried beans. Basic. Thirty years of practice has made me a really good taco maker.
Everything you’re good at, you’re good at because you practiced.
And that goes for creativity.
If you’re a creative adult person, you’re creative because you’ve put effort into it. Just like every artist, of every type. You’ve practiced.
I started to write that no one is born creative, but that’s not true. Not even a little bit.
Everyone is born creative.
Think about it. We’re born with the capacity to learn language in infancy. We’re born with the capacity to create something out of nothing. It’s truly incredible.
Creativity is our birth right, but just like anything else, it atrophies if we don’t use it.
Sometimes it falls to the side because other things feel more important. Who has time to knit or plant a garden or learn how to play the guitar if they’re working sixty hour weeks just to keep the lights on?
Or we lose the childhood ability to suck at something and keep doing it anyway.
Which is the essence of practice, isn’t it?
Think about it. Kids don’t expect to be good at everything they do. They expect to have to learn things.
I remember reading once that most people who enjoy science fiction started reading it as children — when they were still conditioned to read for context. Children don’t expect to understand every single word they read, so they are okay with figuring out what a word means by reading the words around it.
Science fiction readers who have read the genre since childhood have retained that skill, because they’ve continued to practice it. Adult readers expect to understand every word they read. It can be harder for adults to find a way into science fiction, if they are new to it, for that reason.
The other day I went to my daughter’s band concert and was struck by the progression from fifth graders, through sixth graders, and seventh graders — then finally my kid with the eighth graders.
Those eighth graders started out as fifth graders, squeaking out Rolling Along and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. And they just kept showing up. Three years later, they were playing Bohemian Rhapsody. And in a few years those same kids, if they stick with it, will keep getting better.
But me? I’m 47 and I don’t play the guitar because I don’t know how to play the guitar. I don’t take lessons because I don’t know how to read music and I’ve convinced myself that my brain doesn’t work that way.
No, really. I don’t know how many times that the reason I can’t play the guitar is the same reason I can’t speak Spanish — because my brain doesn’t assimilate language well.
Never mind that my entire life revolves around language and words and books and stories.
My brain assimilates language just fine. It’s just that somewhere along the way I decided I couldn’t learn a different language (Spanish, music, whatever) and I’ve never really tried.
It’s one of those cases where I thought about it a lot, and somehow decided that since thinking about it didn’t make me good at it, then I can’t get good at it.
It’s so easy to conflate thinking about something with actual practice.
I’ve wanted to play the guitar for thirty years.
Imagine if I’d been practicing all that time.
Would I be the next Eric Clapton? Highly unlikely. But I’d be able to whip out my guitar at a family bonfire and lead a singalong, or maybe play some carols on Christmas eve.
I have been practicing writing all that time. And it shows. I’m a considerably better writer than I was when I was seventeen. I’m published. I earn a living as a writer. I teach other people how to write.
I make great tacos because I’ve made them at least once a week for my entire adult life. I only make a couple of birthday cakes a year, so I’m not a great baker.
You can see the difference, right? You can see how important practice is.
When did you stop being willing to learn new things?
I wonder if becoming good at some things necessarily narrows our willingness to learn new things. And I suppose it makes sense that focusing our time and energy practicing one thing leaves less time for doing the same with other things.
But I think it’s more than that.
I see it so often. Someone puts all of their energy getting good at doing something that they don’t really care about. Maybe it pays their bills and maybe it keeps their house tidy or whatever, but it doesn’t feed them. Not really.
And they say that they always wanted to write or sing or paint or snorkel or make their own clothes or whatever it is — but they can’t. They’re too old. It’s too late. They aren’t good at it. They don’t know how.
My little girl is fourteen. She’ll be grown up soon. I watch her learn how to draw, how to play her clarinet, how to be a goalkeeper on her soccer team, how to shoot free throws.
And I want to be like her.
Pretty soon I’ll have an empty nest. My nest is so freaking chockfull right now that it’s hard to even imagine, but it’s coming. It really is. I want to shake off my ability to learn new things and stretch it and bulk it up.
Get ready to use it.
I want to live a vibrant, creative, imaginative middle age and old age. I have a plan for it.
I’ve created a little course — just five emails — about building a creative practice. You can sign up for it here.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.