What are creativity skills?

What are creativity skills?

I recently conducted an experiment on Twitter. I asked:

“Tweeps, what are your creative skills? What creative skills do you have in your armoury?”

Most of the people who replied told me about creative things they do like painting or making a garden or developing recipes or playing music. I really enjoyed hearing about these things.

I asked this question because I was curious as to how people would interpret the question? Would they answer ‘I’m good at drawing’ or ‘I’m good at conceptualising’, ‘I’m good at playing the banjo’ or ‘I’m good at linking disparate ideas’? Or would they tweet ‘Depends what you mean by creative skills’ which is a fair question.

Because, of course, being creative can mean knitting or acting or composing. But it also entails other skills. One of my tweeters replied “Questioning is the ultimate creative skill IMO”; another, a professional artist, said “Making a mess, encouraging others to do likewise” and these guys were nodding in this other direction, towards the other skillset required to be creative. Regardless of what your creative field is, there are skills that need to sit behind your technical skills in writing or sculpting or dressmaking. These are things like recognising patterns, or problem-solving, or designing an artistic process.

Over the years I have heard creativity discussed in different forums, ranging from studios in the arts industry to classrooms in community centres to meeting rooms in large bureaucracies. I have read blogs written by corporate consultants, artists, and workplace trainers alike on the subject. And I have learnt that creativity is often in the eye of the beholder, and ‘creativity / creative skills’ are often what the loudest voice in the blogosphere says they are at the time. And this does make sense, as different projects and fields will require different skills and qualities to manifest creativity in different contexts.

Over the last year I have found myself connecting with educators who are specialising in nurturing creativity in young people. Out of curiosity I did a little research into how schools might be defining creativity skills. I found two curriculum frameworks I liked, that resonated with my own thinking:

Education Scotland lists essential creativity skills as being:

  • Curiosity
  • Open-mindedness
  • Imagination
  • Problem solving.

These gel strongly with what I have experienced or witnessed over the years in my own creative work.

Alternatively, The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) provided a Critical and Creative Thinking learning continuum, which mapped skills against these four elements:

  • Inquiring – identifying, exploring and organising information and ideas
  • Generating ideas, possibilities and actions
  • Reflecting on thinking and processes
  • Analysing, synthesising and evaluating reasoning and procedures.

I particularly liked the way that ACARA amalgamated critical and creative thinking. All too often creative process (especially artistic work) is described as being all about the imagination accessed through disinhibition. But, in my own experience as an arts worker and also as an arts manager observing other artists at work, creative process is about an interplay between the imagination, intuition, intellect, and emotional intelligence. If you stay solely in the realm of the imagination then how are you going to bring everything to fruition? The thing that turns daydreams into finished works of art is this interplay between different cognitions and other qualities within each creative individual. The key to developing a sustainable creative process is understanding how to nurture the right balance between these elements, and how to adapt that balance for different projects, conditions, and stages of development.

A person with thought bubbles coming out of their head
Cover art by Rebecca Stewart

As a creative mentor, meta-cognition is a large part of what I do. Reflexivity is so important to developing creative process and I love helping people to carve out a little pocket of time and psycho-social space in which they can draw breath and ruminate on where they find themselves as creative identities and how they feel about that. And so often, in their reflections, my clients demonstrate the qualities listed above – curiosity, open-mindedness, imagination, and problem solving skills. And it is so obvious to me what their strengths are but, in the hurly burly of everyday life, they don’t always spot it in themselves.

So, alongside allowing yourself to feel pride in any prowess you might have in technical skills such as singing or writing poetry or Tik Toking, it is important to become aware of your personal strengths when it comes to how you, as a person, navigate your way through your attempts at being creative. This is how you embed resilience in your creative process or, if you don’t have time for a creative process right now, your resilience in the very idea that you are innately creative.

Do you want to reflect playfully and imaginatively on what your creativity skills or qualities might be? Buy my workbook ‘Relate: A resource for connecting to your creative self’ https://etsy.me/2VNMQgJ

Precise joy

Precise joy

“I don’t believe that only sorrow

and misery can be written.

 

Happiness, too, can be precise:

 

Doctor, there’s a keen throbbing

 on the left side of my chest

 where my ribs are wrenched by joy.” ~ Edward Hirsch

Maybe it’s the cliché of the artiste starving in the garret. Maybe it’s because making creative work is challenging. But, somehow and often, people talk about their creative lives as some kind of travail. Social media is full of writers bemoaning their writer’s blocks, or the head-banging frustration of editing or rewriting content that doesn’t quite feel right. Similarly, people who act, paint, compose, or invent shiver in fear of being denounced as idiots and impostors. So many of us feel that our flights of inspiration fall down to earth with an ignominious clunk when faced by the cold hard reality of teasing our ideas out of our imaginations and into some kind of tangible process and output. As a creative mentor I often talk to people who are frustrated because they don’t think they are being as creative as they could be for [reasons]. And now lockdown is finished (or, depending on where you are in the world, nearly finished) and no one wrote King Lear.

It’s good to get your worries and anxieties off your chest. And great if, in the process of doing so, you discover that you aren’t Robinson Crusoe. But does talk of being creative or of making creative work or developing creative process always have to be negative?

Have you noticed that when things go right people will tell you curtly that they are ‘good’ or ‘great’ and that’s that? But when things go wrong, these same people with deliver a monologue, detailing their personal failings in rigorous and colourful detail. Delivering these monologues can be highly therapeutic and, as a professional listener, I encourage people to do it. But why can’t we invest the same energy and avid focus on detailing the things that delight us. Especially within ourselves.

A person with thought bubbles coming out of their head
Cover art by Rebecca Stewart

‘Especially within ourselves.’ There’s the rub. We have been coached into believing that to be humble or a good learner or to cultivate grown-up levels of self-accountability we have to favour focusing on the negative rather than the positive. And failure, perhaps, does have a natural pull on our attention given how much it hurts and nags and prickles us.

A disproportionately solid diet of negativity does nothing for our sense of resilience or our boldness, and creative work needs both. Surely being reflective about your creative work in the service of being accountable for your attitudes and behaviours means being honest and avoiding bias in self-assessment. And as undesirable as it is to be too soft on yourself, nor is it useful or healthy to be too harsh or gloomy.

“Happiness, too, can be precise.”

It’s important to put an equal amount of energy and focus into the parts of our inner lives that give us joy. That – shock, horror! – we might even like about ourselves. A way of sending this energy and attention to these parts of ourselves is to find ways of expressing or articulating them, even to within the privacy of our own minds, with precision. If you find it all too easy to complain about how non-creative you are or the ways in which your creative output falls short, balance this out with challenging yourself to identify what it is that you do ‘right’. And in terms of creativity, this ‘right’ will look different from person to person and situation to situation. It could look like playfulness, joy, comfort, hope, stimulation, satisfaction, groundedness, or fun.

Get precise. Find that part of yourself that does create, or which yearns to, and describe it in specific and vivid terms to yourself. Bask in the way it makes you feel. The self-recriminations or doubts will come, and you will need all your resilience and boldness to deal with them when they do.

I have devised thought-exercises and simple word-games as conversational prompts for me to use in mentoring dialogues or workshops to encourage people to explore and articulate their creative skills and identities. I decided to write them down and share them. The result is Relate: A resource for connecting to your creative self. You can buy it here.

Announcement: Connecting with creativity

Announcement: Connecting with creativity

I mentor people about creativity, specifically about learning to identify and relate to their creative selves, to trust their imagination and other creative cognitions or qualities, and to develop a creative process that works with the conditions under which they have to live their lives.

When I talk with my (wonderful) clients I often like to ask:

‘As a creative person, what are your strengths?’

It has often struck me that people find this question hard to answer, sometimes out of shyness or a lack of confidence but sometimes because they have never really thought about it. I get the impression that they simply have no framework or vocabulary to apply to this vital part of their personality.

Our society distrusts creative people. As evidence, see how often artists are decried and denounced as being wankers and airheads, and how willing politicians are to cut arts funding as a waste of public money. Our society also makes very little room for creativity – the way the organisations we work in are historically structured and enculturated to mitigate against the risky, messy, experimental nature of creative work, often in the interest of making us all conform to standardised norms of professional activity.

So, as someone keenly interested in how people experience their individual sense of creativity, and whether they can manifest it somehow, I am interested in and horrified at how our society leeches the confidence, time, and energy for people to explore their creative selves and how those selves might find expression.

Creativity is a human quality; we are an innately creative species. You can’t be human and not be creative. As universally shared as this aspect of our humanity is, the really lovely thing is that creativity does not manifest in the same way in any of us. When we talk about ‘creativity’ we are talking about a large range of qualities, talents, instincts, and skills that are honed or nourished (or neglected or denied) by life and work experiences, including upbringing, education and training, paid and unpaid work, and the attitudes of the other humans we share our lives with.

A person with thought bubbles coming out of their head
Cover art by Rebecca Stewart

We are all walking around as these richly complex and abundantly fascinating sentient bundles of creativity but so many of us do not get the chance to explore or celebrate this. Too many people, when tasked with focusing on this part of their inner landscape, appear to be disorientated.

As a mentor, I wanted to help my clients identify and express this part of themselves. As a counterbalance to the negative internal commentary that many people have running in their heads about their creativity, I put together some exercises that I thought might help people shift their thinking. I wanted to give people an ‘in’ when it came to exploring a part of their personality that may not have been fully appreciated, and I wanted to support people in being able to relate to this aspect of themselves playfully, imaginatively, and lovingly.

Although I started out devising these exercises as simple conversational prompts for me to use in mentoring dialogues or workshops, I decided to write them down and share them. The result is Relate: A resource for connecting to your creative self.

I am proud to announce to launch of Relate. I hope that it can be a support for people exploring there creativity. You can buy it here.

Check if feedback is what they really want

Check if feedback is what they really want

Making creative work can be a lonely business, certainly for people working by themselves on a book or composition or artwork or some other solo enterprise, but even for people who are a part of a small team of collaborators who are just – ‘just’? – seeing the same people and hearing the same voices while working on their creative project.

It follows, therefore, that creators can feel bored / isolated / hemmed in / unnerved / disorientated by occupying the same mind (or hive mind) day after day. So, it’s natural for creators to want to connect with other human beings to feel less alone and to access friendly encouragement, or motivational pep talks, or just a good listening ear in which to rant. It’s also natural that, as technical or aesthetic challenges arise during the work in progress, creators might also want to access more technical instruction. A creative working process can be a complex undertaking, messy and demanding to establish and maintain during the undertaking of an equally complex project. Creators may need to analyse, unpack, debrief, and seek guidance on aspects of this working process such as the management of time, energy, focus, and other (more material) resources.

All the above are valid reasons for a creator to reach out for support. Not all of them are necessarily about asking for feedback. But not all creators are as conscious of this as they could be, and there are societal expectations around the valorising of showing raw work and receiving brutally candid feedback. In my experience in the arts industry, I felt there were too many times when I saw artists (from a variety of art forms) emerge from their studios – blinking in the sunlight and tenderised raw by the demands of making work – only to be subjected to a barrage of criticism that left them reeling (and perhaps unable to process feedback as objectively as they might have). Yes, their work needed feedback – and they did know that – but they, as creators, needed other sorts of support – different types of dialogue – first and as well.

My advice to feedback-seekers is to be mindful as to what kinds of support – be it mentoring, or cheer-leading, or feedback – you ask for. And feedback-givers need to be mindful as well.

When someone approaches you to ask for feedback, perhaps test the waters conversationally to ascertain as to whether they do want feedback or some other sort of dialogue? You can do this by asking what they want feedback on, or how they have felt about working on the project.

If they can answer with specific details about what in their project works or not, or if they have questions about the impact it has, then they probably do want feedback. But if their answer is vague or veers into their subjective experience of making the work then maybe they need mentoring or a debrief?

You can always move onto feedback-giving later. And if you do, then you will find the creator more inclined to be receptive to what you say.

I hope that you enjoyed this blog. If you did find it interesting then you may find my resource Arrows and Honey: How to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects. You can buy it here.

Cover art by Rebecca Stewart
Asking for Feedback is not an invitation to collaborate

Asking for Feedback is not an invitation to collaborate

Feedback is essential for the making of good creative work, but it is something that many of us do badly. There are many feedback-giving sins. This blog deals with one of them.

A common fault among feedback givers is that they tend to tell you how they would have done your piece of work if they had been you, its creator, instead of telling you how experiencing it affected them.

They don’t comment on the work that exists – the work that you made. They comment on how a hypothetical work – a work that exists only in their imagination – could look. They compare your actual draft to their pie in the sky fantasy, and find the actual work wanting.

When people, in the guise of giving you feedback, undertake to ‘correct’ your work by trying to change it into what they would do they’ve missed the point of giving feedback. Worse still, they sometimes latch onto your project in a way that is almost parasitic. In the past, especially during my theatrical existence, I used to have people who would try to muscle in on the making of the work. Having blithely speculated on how they would have crafted the material differently to the way I did, they would then announce, uninvited, that they would be happy to give me a hand.

But I didn’t necessarily want this. Their vision for the work was not the same as mine – they had demonstrated this to me by not addressing the work I had made but by inflating their lungs and talking about the imaginary work that lived only in their heads.

Asking for feedback is not an invitation to collaborate.

And not addressing, specifically and directly, the content in front of you with thoughtful and constructive feedback does not advertise you as a good potential collaborator.

If you give feedback, then you must focus on commenting on the content that exists. If seeing that work inspires other thoughts then be quite clear whose head they exist within, i.e., yours. If you can act on those inspirations without plagiarising the extant draft your friend or peer has shown you then go ahead. If you can’t then tough; respect the work that someone else has put together through their own sweat, blood, and tears. Turn away from your fantasy.

If you would really love to collaborate with the creator who has just asked you for feedback, then tell them so. Tell them what you liked about their work instead of instructing them to change it. Tell them that their work has kickstarted your imagination but accept that this might not be the right time for them, as immersed in their own project as they will be, to want to know how.

If you are giving feedback, then remind yourself to respond to the work in front of you. If you feel impelled to make suggestions, first make sure you understand the intentions behind the work – what the creator is hoping to achieve – and then only give advice if it supports those intentions.

Otherwise, accept that this is not your project to play around with and that a possible collaboration with the creator may not happen during a project that has been under way before you gave feedback on it. Giving constructive and honest feedback with sensitivity will demonstrate your ability to be creative. If the creator wants to hear more about your suggestions, or even to invite you on board, they will feel encouraged to respond by your constructive and respectful approach.

I hope that you enjoyed this blog. If you did find it interesting then you may find my resource Arrows and Honey: How to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects. You can buy it here.

Cover art by Rebecca Stewart
Announcement: ‘Arrows and Honey: how to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects

Announcement: ‘Arrows and Honey: how to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects

“If you have to shoot an arrow of truth, first dip its point in honey.” – Paulo Coelho, The Archer

Cover art by Rebecca Stewart

Receiving feedback can feel like a fraught experience for the creative who has just shown their new work to someone. Earlier this year, novelist Eleni Hale tweeted:

“Waiting for feedback on a #WIP is a special kind of torture.”

We all know that getting feedback is an essential part of the creative process. Having been immersed in a work that is important to you, it is all too easy to lose perspective and to become blind to your work’s strengths and weaknesses. But it is this very act of immersing yourself in your work – living and breathing it so that it almost becomes a part of you – that makes the act of offering it up to the scrutiny of others feel so raw and risky.

“Every time I read that someone’s said something bad about me, I sob… I stop writing… I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I exercise, I go for walks along the shore… and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish that ate Ulysses, why me…” ― Roberto Bolaño

Not everyone reacts quite as strongly as Bolano, but most of us have received feedback that has made us cringe and feel disheartened. The popular take on this reaction is that most of us have egos that don’t want to hear anything but fulsome praise for our creative work. And maybe there is some truth in that.

But over the years, especially in my work as an arts administrator where I was a third-party witness to creatives giving and receiving feedback to each other, I have grown to realise that many of us are actually quite bad at giving feedback, that the cringe-inducing reactions were not always down to the vanity of the creator but rather the brutality of the feedback-giver.

Giving feedback is a privilege and responsibility. There is a skill to it, to achieving a balancing act whereby honesty about a work-in-progress’ flaws and strengths can be expressed so constructively that the creator feels inspired and reassured by that same honesty.

There is even something of a skill for asking for and analysing feedback. Creatives can make life a lot easier for themselves if they are mindful and specific as to how they frame a request for feedback, and then filter out the useful feedback from the inappropriate.

In my mentoring work I have talked with people who were left discouraged or confused by non-constructive feedback. This has inspired me to write a resource – a collection of notes – to help people with the feedback-giving process.

Arrows and honey: how to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects looks at what constitutes useful and constructive feedback, analyses the major feedback giving sins, and lays out some provocations to help you shift your thinking around the experience of giving and receiving feedback so that it becomes more positive.

You can buy it here.

On deflated footballs and ugly ducklings

On deflated footballs and ugly ducklings

I wish I’d taken my phone with me on my walk beside the creek early this morning. I would have liked to get a couple of photos. One was of a cyclist I saw who had zipped his whippet snugly into his backpack. The idea pleased me: I feel that all cyclists should have a whippet in a backpack so that when they stop at traffic lights they can feel, against their back, its body gently shift and settle in the backpack, or hear it sigh into their hair.

The other photo I wished I could’ve taken was of two glorious black swans solicitously tending their cygnet, which, as the legend instructed me as a child, was indeed ugly (but cute): a deflated football covered in grey fluff.

And perhaps it was thinking of ugly ducklings growing into beautiful things – or not – that turned my thoughts to the mess of writing that currently infests my laptop. As I write this, my computer is littered with documents containing strange drafts that I thought were going to be great but, now that I’ve spent some time with them, I can see aren’t. But I only know that now that I’ve tried to write them.

I also have tottering piles of notes-to-self: light bulb moments, scribbled down in a moment of excitement. I regularly go through these and cull most of them. Many no longer make any sense, while the meaning of the rest may be evident, but I find myself wondering why I got so excited about them in the first place. Some even make it to the stage where I do some research on them, resulting in a folder of photocopies, handwritten notes, and newspaper articles, only to find that I’ve disappeared up an imaginative and intellectual blind alley.

But then there are the ideas, research projects, and drafts I stick with. With a magpie mind like mine, I find it best if I regularly clean out my files – both digital and paper – to weed out dead projects, otherwise I would drown in them. But some I hold onto, sometimes for years, before finding a way to bring them to fruition. I’m often not sure what I will do with them – whether they will become a blog, a pamphlet, a zine, a resource, a book, or a workshop. Keeping a hold of them is an act of faith, like discovering a sentient deflated football covered in grey fluff and knowing it will become some kind of a bird if allowed to live, but not even being sure if that bird will turn out to be a swan or not.

The Swan No. 17 by Hilma af Klint

So how can you pick the difference? At the beginning, it’s not always easy. Sometimes the piece of writing is an ugly duckling that, with enough care, can grow up into a swan. And sometimes it turns out to just be a deflated football.

This morning during my walk, I was thinking all of this through and then it hit me. To switch analogies from swans to romance, it’s a bit like the difference between infatuation and love. You meet someone, you feel attracted, maybe even smitten. For a little while, this someone exerts a fascination over you. And then that starts to wear off and you realise that it was just a crush. But every now and again, even after the fascination has started to pall, and you’ve started to notice the wrinkles and the bad habits, you still persevere with it, continue to invest energy into the relationship and learn about this other and about the way you are in relation to this other, and then you realise that it’s love.

Starting all of those funny little drafts and research projects are like dating: you respond to an attraction or the opportunity to have a little fun. You give things a try and, mostly, end up thinking after a while “what the hell was I thinking?”

But, to find an object worthy of devotion, you still have to flirt a bit, go on a few dates, try a few things on for size. Because you never know before you try.

Are you trying to figure out where to invest your energy creatively?

I mentor professionals working on complex creative projects and help them to map their way from scary beginnings, through the messy middle to a meaningful resolution. My clients regain their creative confidence & the resilience required to finish their projects.

Contact me to find out how we can work together.

Angel on my shoulder

Angel on my shoulder

The performing arts and writing are very different art forms, demanding quite different approaches, techniques, and processes. Do they have anything to do with each other as a practice?

My creative practice has spanned a few different vocations. During my muscly sinewy youth, I was a performer and choreographer; later I moved into arts administration and management, while keeping my hand in with a little choreography and acting. In recent years I have turned to writing; in 2018, I published my first book.

Writing that book took two years, and that writing process came off the back of years of recreational research and thinking. I loved the process of writing that book, even when I didn’t. I forget what it was that prompted me to begin; I do know that the writing process spanned two years of very difficult and disorientating conditions in my private life. But through it all I kept writing. Chipping away at the book in evenings, weekends, and ‘holidays’. In fact, in a way, writing the book was a grounding experience. I felt that so much of my life had been swept away by my struggle to just survive each day that I wanted to keep just one promise to myself, to keep on doing one thing that really mattered just to me.

And so, even during the times when I wasn’t sure if I could finish, or do good quality work, I kept plugging away. Writing is fascinating but it is also hard work. Sometimes torturously so. Over the course of a long creative project there are plenty of opportunities for your inner demons to make themselves known. They question the worth of your project, the validity of your ideas, the sanity of your approach. They detail the opprobrium your finished work will attract and speculate on whether there is an audience for it at all. As you tap away at your manuscript, alone, late at night or in the grip of tiredness on what is supposed to be your day off, the little buggers line up inside your mind and shout their lines.

But finish I did. I generally do. And, in between swatting my demons away, I managed to enjoy parts of the writing, and be interested in the others. I learned a huge amount, and by the time I did finish, bone-weary, I was able to see my manuscript’s shortcomings as things I looked forward to tackling in my next book.

I’m a good finisher, even when I produce bad or mediocre work. By this I mean that I reflect, learn, and get ready to do it all again*. So, what sustained me during the writing of my book? And, even more importantly, during the writing of my first book, which saw me learn, on the hoof, about sustaining narrative, tone, and themes over a much longer arc than that afforded by a blog?

I walked away from my earlier career in performance and arts management due to poor health caused by burnout. This was a healthy decision but also the cause of grief. In the years that followed, I puzzled over what decades of effort had meant – had been worth – if anything. And then, while I was writing the book, I had a surprise.

Raphael

Sitting on the shoulder opposite to the one occupied by the demons I had an angel, who knew what to whisper into my ear to counter the damnations offered up by my shadow selves.

“You know what this is,” it said when I descended into a mid-project funk. “You’ve been here before.”

“You’re not going to do anything while you’re sulking like this,” it suggested another time. “Get away from your laptop. Take a walk. Get some fresh air. And think about your writing while you walk. That will help.”

Later still: “Ignore that demon. Don’t stop. Keep writing. Push on through.” And so on.

The angel seemed to always know what to say, when to encourage, admonish, absolve, or challenge according to the stage the writing was at and the mood I was in. It always seemed to be able to find a way to keep pushing the project forward through doubt, exhaustion, or writer’s block. It seemed to have endless life hacks to help manage energy, time, priorities, and complex ideas.

“You know what this is. You’ve been here before.”

Who was the angel? It was my younger self. The performer. The arts manager. The choreographer. The brave one. The reckless but determined one. The one who had tried and tried and tried to make good work. The one I had had to retire because she burnt herself out but who, as it turned out, had also been reflecting and making notes during all of those earlier years of effort. The performing arts are a very different art form to writing. But all art forms are demanding: all see creators plonked into the middle of a challenging process geared towards rolling out a complex creative project. All require resilience, the ability to stay the course.

It was quietly amazing to rediscover this other self, sitting soberly inside my own head, not wishing to duplicate the bad habits or regrets of the past but to share a hoard of self-knowledge and experience to help me to not only finish my projects but to help me be enriched by them.

During the two years of writing my book it was the dancer self I used to be that coached the writer I wanted to become. The depth of experience I had from earlier creative practices sat comfortably beside a first-time book author learning by doing.

I took two things from this: The first is that nothing is ever wasted, the wisdom we often go seeking outside of ourselves can live within. And the second is that self-knowledge is the key to sustaining creative practice.

*That’s not to say I have never quit anything. I have! Sometimes it’s the healthiest thing you can do. But that’s the subject for another blog. 

 

Making creative work can be tough, asking us to be vulnerable, take risks, maybe even fail. If you are struggling with your sense of creative identity or have hit a rough patch in your creative process, then maybe my mentoring sessions can support you? Contact me to organise a brief chat (either on the phone or face to face or on Zoom) about what you’re up to, where you want to go and how I can help?

Laying foundations

Laying foundations

I recently read an essay – In the bird cage: Finding out what funny is – by Steve Martin in The New Yorker describing his earliest years as a working comedian.

As he tells it, Martin started off performing family friendly theatre at a rural tourist park and worked his way into performing comedy routines.

Nowadays we all know Steve Martin as a hugely successful comedian (my favourite film of his is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). His comedy always looks effortless, even while his performances are marked by high energy. So, what struck me in his essay was how many years it took him to find his style as a comedian, how many different approaches he tried – from old fashioned ‘Dad jokes’ to Avant Garde shenanigans – and how much he described himself as searching and being unsure as to what kind of comedian he wanted to evolve into. The subtitle to his essay – “finding out what funny is” – is apt.

Not to put too fine a point on it, his early routines sound a bit lame. By his own admission, he ‘pilfered’ what were already standard jokes from the routines of other comedians. But he pays tribute to these efforts as well, noting that in his earlier humble bookings he was at least able to clock up precious stage-time:

“I strung together everything I knew: some comedy juggling, a few standard magic routines, a couple of banjo songs, and some very old jokes. My act was eclectic, and it would take ten more years for me to make sense of it. However, the opportunity to perform four or five times a day gave me confidence and poise. Even though my material had few distinguishing features, the repetition helped me lose my amateur rattle.”

Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

And this is what I value about his essay: One of the world’s most famous comedians revealing that his apparently natural style was the result of years of slog; that the early path to being hailed a star was littered with average performances, mediocre material, and a few failures.

Behind every overnight success in the arts I have witnessed lies a similar story. You can only get to be good at your creative process if you’re prepared to experiment, sit in uncertainty, risk failure and perhaps embarrassment, and put in the hours.

And yet, we are sold the myth of creative epiphany. Countless movies show great artistes responding feverishly to a burst of inspiration to dash off masterpieces. The problem is when real people – not movie characters or celebrities propped up by an entourage – start trying to produce creative work, they get bogged down in the slog and challenged by uncertainty or a realisation that there are no guarantees for producing good work, that all creative work is risky. If they have internalised unrealistic expectations, they can feel dismayed and assume that they are the problem.

It is easily done, especially when mastering a new technique, say, or working on a complex project. When the excitement of the beginning phase of the project is far enough behind you, and the fulfillment of the finishing line lays still far ahead, you have had just enough time to get yourself into mischief by creating some work but not enough to figure out how to bring it all together. It can be so easy to feel marooned in amongst all of the rough, scrappy, unfinished, unpolished pieces that you have churned out. This is when it is vital to be reminded that, in real life, making creative work is slow and mastering creative skill is gradual.

Martin’s essay details various influences he had as a youngster, ranging from performers he shared the stage with to old girlfriends to subjects he studied at university. He doesn’t record any moments of epiphany. Rather he seems to describe a young life of quiet determination to accrue experience, notch up stage-time, and try out material. And it’s good to be reminded that this work – this layering down of experience including the mediocre with the good – is the foundation that resilient creative process is be all about.

Learning and reacting

Learning and reacting

Learning and reacting are different. It’s important to honour both.

As part of my coaching practice, I have put together a framework to debrief people at the end of their work on a complex creative project. And I have been treating this debriefing process as distinct from, and different to, evaluating the project.

I am probably being quite arbitrary in creating this distinction (I do this sometimes – don’t get me started on the difference between resilience and toughness). But in my experience, there are two different conversations that need to be had at the end of a creative project.

Evaluation is where a project is reviewed, and lessons learnt: did we achieve our objectives? What worked and what didn’t – what could we do better next time? Did this project meet the measurements by which we define success?

This is a useful and necessary conversation to have. But before this discussion happens, I think that there is another that needs to take place. And this other conversation needs to concern itself less with the apparent successes and failures of the project in the eyes of the world and more to do with the creator’s subjective experience of working on the project. And this is where the difference between learning and reacting become important.

Working on creative projects can be an intense undertaking, especially if the project is complex and / or being worked on in challenging conditions. Even if the project goes well and achieves its objectives, project workers can emerge from the process feeling frazzled, exhausted, anxious, or even dissatisfied. A whizz-bang project emerges into the public eye looking new and shiny; the people who put the project together alone know the stress and strain of putting it together. I have been involved in of performances that garner applause and glowing reviews while the cast and crew are feuding and bitching backstage. I have been a part of corporate event teams that have produced events that entertained, informed, and promoted with elan, while we were stumbling with fatigue and losing sleep over logistical nightmares. Or known of award-winning online learning programs that had their creators literally banging their heads on their desks during development.

The intensity of creation
‘Rive gauche et rive droit’ by Grandville

Creative projects are challenging, some more than others. Sometimes the sense of challenge can be so consistent or so severe that it leads to a sense of overwhelm for the people working on it. This can lead to a sort of dissonance between a personal lived experience of tiredness and constant worry about the project and the success and positive reception of that same project. When I used to be a choreographer, I remember being in a foyer and receiving praise from audiences for my work while thinking “You’re wrong. That was shit.” In my exhaustion I lost sight of the fact that I alone knew how the finished dance piece fell short of my original hopes for it; I would somehow not hear the actual audience tell me how the actual piece worked for them: that they loved it.

In short, I was reacting to my experience of working on the project. In my past work as an arts manager and project manager I used to try to lead teams who were swaying with exhaustion through discussions to evaluate a project and found that I was dealing with their reactions to this experience of work, which came from a subjective place. If those reactions were strong enough then they couldn’t analyse or evaluate – they couldn’t learn.

Discussion of this subjective experience is very important – developing self-awareness around your personal capacity for working creatively, and how that pans out for you, is important. Gaining some perspective, too, of how the exhaustion you are feeling or the tension you have felt are colouring your attitude to the project itself is vital. Honouring your personal journey of working on a creative project can allow you to shift from a shell-shocked sense of “OMFG!!!” to reclaiming the ability to celebrate or commiserate or forgive your efforts. Only then, can the true objective learning begin.

Through mentoring, I help people to reflect on their sense of creativity and nurture confidence in their creative process. If you are trying to get some perspective on these things then why not contact me to organise a brief chat (either on the phone or face to face or on Zoom) about what you’re up to, where you want to go and how I can help?