We tend to equate creativity with some extraordinary talent that results in the ability to produce masterpieces. But the heart of creativity is the ability to create--to produce something out of nothing. It means taking seriously an idea, an intuition, or an amorphous urge--at least seriously enough not to reject it--and then putting it into action and seeing what comes forth. Occasionally stupendous results emerge, but these are rare and usually require great perseverance combined with at least some innate talent. And since most of us don't create museum-quality masterpieces, we erroneously conclude that we aren't creative, and give short shrift to both our existing talents and our potential.

I just saw Julie and Julia and found it moving and inspiring on many levels. Both of these women struggled for quite some time to find the outlets that they would put their energies into. Julia Child was a former government secretary who followed her husband to Paris, and was pondering what to do with herself. She dabbled in bridge and hat-making classes; these were popular with the other diplomat wives, but didn't light her fire. Fortunately her husband truly loved and supported her, and prodded her to think about what she was really passionate about. And as we all know, that turned out to be cooking.

But for those who have seen the movie, or have read her excellent memoir My Life in France, the journey from muscling her way in to a Cordon Bleu cooking class to publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking was an arduous one that would have been easily derailed had she let go of her dream. And it's not obvious that she had some extraordinary talent; what is clear is that she worked very, very hard at it. She persisted, spending eight years writing her book, typing using carbon paper to make duplicate copies, and sending documents back and forth through snail mail. (As I write this, continuously distracted by the cacophonous chimes of emails magically appearing in my inbox, perhaps she had an advantage of writing before the age of technologically induced multitasking.) All of this before dealing with the trials and tribulations of ultimately finding a publisher.

Julie Powell, on the other hand, was a frustrated writer, slaving away in a cubicle, handling emotionally draining calls from those affected by 9/11. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that Hollywood wouldn't pour millions into the tale of a failure. I haven't read her book, which the movie was based on, but the snippets of her blog shown onscreen suggest that she is a talented wordsmith. What draws people in to her writing, though, is the bare display of her idiosyncrasies and self-doubts; she is not afraid of showing herself, warts and all. She took risks in her writing, her marriage, her waistline and her day job to relentlessly pursue something that took hold of her.

How many of us would work tenaciously on any project for eight years, not knowing what the outcome will be? I certainly don't know if I would have the stamina and guts to keep plowing ahead. And yes, we hear most about those who achieve stardom or some modicum of success, but there are countless "casualties" in the pursuit of creative passions: those who try for years or decades to make it as an actor or musician, sacrificing more conventional measures of achievement. Still, if you talk to these folks, most of them don't regret the pursuit; they know that it would be hard to live with themselves if they hadn't at least tried to achieve their dreams.

But creativity--with a lower case "c"--is not synonymous with stardom. It is about creating, and each creation takes a first step. It's writing a word that may turn into a paragraph that may turn into a book...or may not. It's cooking something new, and maybe substituting an ingredient because that's what you have in your pantry. It's taking a drawing class even though you "don't know" how to draw-which, of course, is patently absurd. We all know how to draw; we just may not be very good at it. And drawings may lead to paintings, or in my case psychotherapy cartoons (and I still can barely draw, as evidenced by the email I just received from my teacher berating my "wooden head" and my "stultifying visual incidents"). It is only by taking that first step that other ideas emerge and new doors open. And then you muster the courage to walk through those doors and see what happens next.

One clue to accessing and cultivating your own creative juices is to pay attention to what gives you energy. What is it that excites you, or that you daydream about? Often, it's not what you think you're supposed to be channeling your energy into. You won't find it in your job description or the course syllabus. But a strong clue is that you get a tingle in your spine or a warm feeling in your heart-whether it's from noticing the undulations in the clouds, or helping a colleague solve a problem. If you start tuning into these clues over time, you can tap into what excites you. See how you can use and develop this passion of yours, and be open to where that leads you. Create something. The experience in and of itself is tremendously gratifying, and it may lead you to unexpected and exciting opportunities.

About the Author

Victor Yalom

Victor Yalom, Ph.D., is the founder and resident cartoonist of Psychotherapy.net, an online psychotherapy magazine.

You are reading

Department of the Interior

Julie and Julia Pursue their Dreams

Julie and Julia offers some inspiration regarding creativity and passion.

Mindfulness & Psychotherapy...or Mindlessness?

Mindfulness is all the rage in psychotherapy, but is it overblown?

The Age of Psychiatric Diagnosis

The Age of Psychiatric Diagnosis