Branching Out: Strengthening My Creativity

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When I was in elementary school, I took several art classes at a local museum. It was a time in my life where I preferred my marks on paper to be of pictures instead of words (although a quick trip through my old collections of notebooks will show that I was still a novelist in the making), and I came home with countless finished and unfinished projects. But what I remember most about those art classes was a drawing exercise that caused me a great deal of stress. The art teacher instructed the class to draw the still-life that was sitting in the middle of the table, but we could not take the pencil off the page once we put it down. We could not erase any of the lines we drew. We had one minute to create our drawing.

I cannot remember what I drew, or if I even tried to do it. All I remember is that my brain froze at the idea of not planning ahead and the constraining time limit. In the years following, I cited that exercise as an example of my deep need for organization even when being creative. Now, I still cite the story, but for an entirely different reason: as an example of how I missed an opportunity to grow.

I can’t blame my childhood self for not recognizing the learning opportunity, or my teenage self for using the story to solidify my personality. Both were moments in my life that required a different type of growth. But since I’m past both of those phases, I see the exercise in a new light. If an art instructor were to ask me to do the same exercise now, I would most likely laugh a little and give it a go—I’m not beholden to the idea that everything I create must be perfect on the first try, and I’m learning more and more that branching out from my typical means of creativity makes me more creative.

A more recent example: aside from a short period of time in my teens, I’ve never written poetry. I’m not one to read poetry, except when others compel me to do so. However, upon talking with a fellow writer who shared their poetry with me, I was inspired by what I saw. They used poetry as a means to explore character development or philosophical thoughts and didn’t follow typical rules of how to format stanzas or rhyme schemes. What they created was beautiful. I wanted to try to create something similar—so, I did. Several weeks later, I had fourteen finished poems and several awaiting completion.

Another recent example: prior to late 2017, I had sworn off modern literature. I often talked about how I wasn’t interested in nonfiction, biographies, memoirs, or self-help-ish books. And, I had no intention of reading anything below high school level. But I began to realize that my swath-like judgments might be unfair, among other reasons, and I decided to challenge myself to read genres that I normally wouldn’t. The results? I found several modern reads that I enjoyed immensely, all from different genres that I would never have picked up on my own.

I had feared, at some point, that branching out from my typical way of creating and consuming art would compromise a fundamental part of who I was. I wanted to stay true to those core allegiances—or, in less flattering terms, I didn’t want to be like all the other people I saw who had typical interests. I relished in a form of uniqueness that I had crafted for myself, based partly upon very specific creative tastes. That’s a fine phase to go through when you’re a young teenager trying to sort out who you are. But once that phase is over with, the illusion that growth has to mean deviating from the core of who you are needs to go too.

I still am a planner, not a pantser; I still am a plot-first writer; I still love outlines, Excel spreadsheets, and overgrown family trees; and I still love classic novels more than anything. Those things have simply become more well-rounded, informed by different perspectives and resources. Pulling from different arts—as well as from things that aren’t arts—only makes my creativity stronger and sharper. Plus, it’s fun to create with no pressure of needing it to be perfect. One of the joys of dabbling in hobbies and interests that are secondary or tertiary to your main passion(s) is how much easier it is to quiet perfectionist tendencies.

There’s an old quote about friendship that goes something like “make new friends but keep the old.” I think the same can be said for creative endeavors. The more I push myself to try new creative avenues, the more I discover that the world is full of wonderful things waiting to be uncovered. I just have to willing to branch out beyond what I know.

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