Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Exercising Creativity: Four Essential Skills

Can you practice being creative?

Source: KLaMothe

It was a simple idea. 24 squares; 36 colored pencils; one instruction. I would fill in one square for every day of December from 1 to 24.

I wanted to mark time during that hectic whirl of weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Rather than pant with the pressure of present-ing, I wanted to breathe and feel grateful—even if only for one small square a day.

I wanted to mark time by making a mark in time—creating something that would exist outside of me, reminding me of that moment when I felt the peace, the gratitude, the love.

So I opened my sketchbook to an empty page and drew a four-square-by-six-square grid. Each day I would select a square, and draw some kind of sunburst-flower-mandala, basking in gratitude for the imminent return of light to my part of the planet.

I called it my Additive Advent Calendar. December 1, I began.

Immediately, I liked the exercise. It was fun. I thought my first star looked just fine. It made me smile. December 2, 3, and 4th rolled along. New stars popped out from the page. I propped the sketchpad in the family room window, and walked by it hundreds of times a day.

Soon, I was hooked. This calendar wasn’t just Additive. It was Addictive.

It took me a while to figure out why. It felt good—so good—because I was allowing myself to experience the pure pleasure of creating. Not only that. In doing so, I was practicing the patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that enable me to move creatively in any realm of my life.

What does it take to be creative—to think or feel or act in a way that you have not before? Whether you are drawing, painting, or sculpting; writing a poem, making a dance, or playing music; planting peas or baking bread; parenting a child or engaging a partner, creativity requires the same four skills. You need to be able to: welcome inspiration; follow it through; appreciate what emerges, and manage the inner critic every step of the way.

My Addictive Additive Advent Calendar was a veritable creativity skill-building workout. Everything about it served this end.

1. I started small. Each day I had only one square to fill—a tiny, white space—two inches by one and three-quarter inches. It would only take a few minutes. The stakes were low. I had little to lose. Each blank block was a safe space. I could open and receive… what will come?

2. I set constraints that enabled freedom. On any given day, some decisions were already made for me. The grid was drawn; the pencil colors were fixed. When a square called to me, I was free to move toward it. When a color called, I reached for it. When a shape beckoned, I made it. Within any square, I started in the center and worked my way out.

Most of the time, once I got settled and started, I never had to ask what to do next. As I looked at a pattern I had just made, the next one flew into view. With every mark, as the mandala grew within its square, I felt small jolts of joy.

3. I practiced appreciating. The aim, remember, was to open a space for gratitude—to make a mark reminding me to appreciate all that was and is emerging. So I practiced appreciating—not just life in general, but the shapes and colors that were emerging before me too. Green, yellow, pink, and blue. Five points, four points, six, seven or two.

The idea was not to step back and judge “And it was good”; but rather to participate in the act of creating itself, appreciating the pulse of pleasure that quickened as I moved, marked, and manifest,

The magic of the exercise really hit home, however, in relation to the fourth skill.

4. I managed the critic. The very nature of the exercise created a situation in which the critic was relatively easy to manage. I could practice, and get better at it.

The voices of the critic are many. Believe me, even in this exercise I heard them all: I don’t like it. It is not good. Yesterday’s was better. The colors clash. The shape is lopsided. The pattern is too messy. I ruined it. This is a waste of time. Don’t bother. Go fold the laundry.

Even so, as quickly as the critic spoke, as long as I kept my pencil to the paper, and kept cultivating gratitude, another voice always responded. And day after day, I learned the truth of these replies.

a. Keep going. It is too early to know. Time and again, I would start a design, fall in love with it, make another move, and collapse in despair knowing that I had ruined it. A design disaster! Yet time and again, if I stayed open for new impulses to move, the next color, the next shape, would bring the whole square back into focus as something I had not seen before.

I got it. So often, when the critic threatened to shut me down, I was, at that very moment, crossing a threshold into a new realm, making a new move. The critic’s cry to stop was a sure sign that I needed to keep going.

b. You will like it tomorrow. Yes, there were still moments when the day’s drawing was done, and all I could think was “Yuck.” But so often, when I would wake the next morning and take another look, it was as if the drawing had changed—even though I knew it hadn’t. The colors would coalesce and the shapes crystallize into new coherence.

Again, I got it. So often, when the critic was out to dismiss a design, I was, at that very moment, developing a new capacity to perceive. The critic’s cry to stop was a sure sign that I should suspend judgment and look again tomorrow.

c. Even if you don’t like it someone else will. It became a family ritual piggy backing on mine. Every night, after I finished my square, the kids would gather around and debate whether the new one was their favorite—or not. They compared one shape to another—noting how many points on this star, and how much yellow in that one. They locked on to one that kept them coming back to appreciate it again. In this process, time and again, even squares that I deemed unfit for inclusion inevitably proved, at some point, to be someone’s favorite.

I got it. My critic, in the scheme of it all, was only one voice. There are many more—many other perspectives and interests and needs. The critic’s cry to stop was a sure sign that I should let the designs be.

d. Each square is a part of a larger whole. Then there were those moments when I was dead certain that I would never like the square, that no one else would either, and that there was nothing to do about it but pack up and go home. Even then, the additive exercise came through. Each square was just that—only one square, one small moment of a larger whole with its own life and logic.

By the time I got to square 24, that whole came to life, and it was more than the sum of its parts. Sure, I had my favorites, but I also knew that what I had learned from the ones I didn’t like had spurred me on to create ones I loved even more.

I got it. Every moment of my life, every move is important. With each movement, as I open to receive, I am learning more about how to do so in ways that align with what I value most. I am participating in the creation of a larger whole whose beauty is beyond me. It is a matter of faith.

The Calendar in Action

In the end, I got much more from this exercise than I had expected. When I sat down to draw, I felt the wonder of new things emerging. I felt the peace of opening to the flow. I felt gratitude as a catalyst to creativity, and not only its byproduct. For in making my squares, I was not only opening small spaces of time for thinking about gratitude, I was quickening my feeling for it.

And I had something to show for it! Something quirky and beautiful. Something that reminds me now, on the cusp of 2016, that it is important to do more than set sturdy goals. Rather, I am asking myself how to cultivate the skills of creativity itself.

How can do I set up projects that will create themselves through me—making their mark on me as they go—and manifest in new shapes and colors of freedom, gratitude, and love?

Time to find out.