How Creativity Dies

A couple weeks ago, I drew this pig for one of my kids. He came up with an awesome story about how the pig ran away from his mommy but his mommy was coming to find him. You can see the whole drawing and story here at Anthdrawology.

One of the other artists asked the excellent question: "Why does that crazy creativity go away when we grow up?"

I can think of a couple of reasons, though these might just be why my creativity died, or almost did.*

My son's story about the pig and his mommy comes almost directly from The Runaway Bunny (which I know only because I read it to him all the time). It would be easy for me to say it's not creative because I know where he got it, and I think a lot of people -- parents or not, well-meaning or not -- do exactly that.

But his story is creative. He added bits that are totally unique (at least I don't recognize where he got them, which is the same thing), and the whole thing put together is his own creation, whether I know where he got all the pieces or not.

A lot of people assume originality means something completely new, never been done before. Unfortunately, that's an unreasonable expectation, especially for a kid who hardly knows any tropes and has no idea he's "stealing" them.

A friend of mine was teaching a Jr. High art class. One of the students was very good, with a unique style all her own, and the teacher said so. This student's mom, however, disagreed because her daughter's art wasn't "realistic." She kept asking the teacher to help her daughter "get it right."

Stories like this make me mad. Can we just agree that art is subjective? What moves one person may not move another, even if those people are a kid and their own mother. Realism does not equal art.

We could define good as something that moves a lot of people, or moves more people than it doesn't. But to get to that level takes practice. Telling a newbie they're no good isn't helpful and -- especially with kids like I was -- it can make them quit forever.

I understand the difficulty. When one of my kids brings me a piece of paper covered in green scribbles, usually the best I can muster is, "That's nice, buddy. Put it over there with the rest of them." But I try really hard to praise creativity when I see it, and especially to praise practice and hard work, because those are the things that will turn those green scribbles into Awesome some day.

I have to remember that for myself too. I'm constantly getting down on myself for not being creative (that's why I keep writing posts about how nothing's original; it makes me feel better). It's the thing I hate hearing the most, but it's true: you have to fail a lot before you get good at anything.

What are your thoughts? Did you ever have your creativity squashed by some well-meaning authority? How did you get through it?

* For the record, my parents were fully supportive of my artistic endeavors. I don't actually remember who taught me that "original" and "good" were required for creativity.


Charmaine Clancy said...

I think we do get scared to experiment - because of the reasons you mention. It's when we get to that place of not caring about anything outside of the creative that we can really let ourselves go. It helps having little ones around because they are always encouraging when we try to be creative, telling us our work is brilliant. And they're right.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm very good at squashing my own creativity, having been trained well in countless hours of engineering education (which made a sport of mocking the arts; love you engineer-people! Just have to be accepting of the non-analytical side of the human species...)

In a completely free-wheeling, non-structured book (If you want to write: a book about art, independence and spirit), Brenda Ueland talks about writing as an exploration of your own uniqueness. Keeping in mind that you are unique, that there is only one YOU in the world, and you're here to contribute something to it, helps (I think) to free that creative expression. I encourage this in my kids, especially, trying to feed the part of them that is uniquely them, so it can grow.

Laurel Garver said...

I really struggle to embrace the very weird plot ideas that pop out of my brain. I suspect there must have been some realist in my past who frowned on "unrealistic" something or other I did as a kid and that criticism still niggles at me decades later.

Bane of Anubis said...

Part of it, I think, is that the reality of everyday responsibility butts in, sucking the creative soul out of you.

Part of it, I think, is that you become aware of the more realistic side of human interaction, which stands in stark contrast to the fairytale world we want our kids to live in.

I do believe J.M. Barrie wrote a story addressing the sad phenomenon.

Good post.

Victoria Dixon said...

This is so true, Adam. Thanks for reminding me to not use my critic self on my kidlit like this! My Dad once asked to see a book I'd written and I agreed. I knew it was something I'd rewritten (using my friends as characters) from a favorite book my fourth grade teacher had read. I'd like to think I'd done this as a way of discovering how to write a full length novel. He was so impressed he took it to my teacher without my permission and of course, my teacher recognized it. I got in trouble for trying to learn. I don't think I've let my Dad see anything since.

fairyhedgehog said...

I remember the first picture my elder son drew; he banged the crayons down on the paper and for the first time managed to leave marks: little coloured dots. We put that up on the fridge.

Kids need encouraging and we didn't all get it, either from our parents, our teachers or well-meaning friends. Or maybe it's the culture or the way we interpret the world. Whatever it is, the good news is that we can get it back!

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

I sabotage myself as well. Also, I think having more exciting life experiences helps with creativity. Then again, other people who have boring lives might rely on their creativity to imagine an impossible world. And they might flourish because of that.

Either way, thanks reinforcing the idea that being creative doesn't have to mean being original. It just means writing a story the best way you know how and sprinkling it with your personal flavor :).

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

Aargh, sorry for the grammar error :P

Adam Heine said...

@Victoria: Ugh, I'm sorry to hear that, Victoria! Glad you didn't let it stop you.

@fairy: What a great story, fairy, and a great point! We can get it back!

@Keri: I'm pretty convinced originality is a myth, or at least needs to be redefined. TV Tropes may be influencing me on this, however :-)

Michael LaRocca said...

Lots of folks did things when I was a child that should have crushed my creativity, and I was always very eager to please others. But fortunately, my limited social skills means I didn't notice most of the crushing.

How serious was I just now? I don't know. I probably wasn't very original either. But hey, I had fun.

Michael LaRocca said...

Lots of folks did things when I was a child that should have crushed my creativity, and I was always very eager to please others. But fortunately, my limited social skills means I didn't notice most of the crushing.

How serious was I just now? I don't know. I probably wasn't very original either. But hey, I had fun.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I loved reading fantasy as a child, but I think I stopped trying to write it because my books (like your son's stories) were just copies of someone else's work. I like your point that we NEED to start there. I probably shouldn't have been so hard on myself. :)

Thanks for the great post -- and your pig is cute! I can kind of see why your son thought of Runaway Bunny ... the wings remind me of the wings in that book (NOT to say you're copying or anything - lol).