What the heck is creativity? In favour of Shit Craft, Terrible Songs and Awful Dancing.


An extract from our book: Creative First Aid - The Science + Joy of Creativity for Mental Health.

What the heck is creativity?

If what comes to mind when you think of creativity is paints and brushes, or musical instruments, or a craft cupboard, we understand. This is what the concept of creativity has been tied up with for a long time. It's a bit like thinking that physical movement is only about playing football or running a marathon, and that a walk around the block doesn't count as exercise.

Limiting the definition of creativity means that many people truly believe they aren't creative. And so, if this is you, then it's you we are speaking to, heart to heart. Because you are creative. We all are.

Some might say that creativity is the ability to make art, whether you can write a song or paint a picture. It's the seemingly effortless ease with which you can put pen to paper, sing into a microphone or dance on a stage. People who do those things are definitely creative in ways that define them as artists to be marvelled at. Perhaps their creative expression is even their livelihood. This is one way we witness creativity.

Others might say that creativity is a state of mind that is only for the realm of artists, that is requires the luxury of space and time and inspiration. Perhaps even that creative ideas arrive in on[e mind fully formed and that it's just a matter of getting them down on the page, into the aural landscape, into the world. It is an experience reserved for the talented few.

And yet, so many creative acts are performed under devastatingly oppressive circumstances by everyday people. Take, for example, Scottish mountaineer W.H Murray, who spent three years as a prisoner in World War 2. He wrote his book, Mountaineering in Scotland on scraps of toilet paper, a close-to-finished draft discovered and destroyed by the Gestapo. Or Mostafa Azimitabar, an Iranian refugee who was locked in an Australian Detention Centre when he painted a huge self-portrait with a toothbrush and coffee grounds. The artwork was eventually selected as a finalist for the esteemed Archibald Portrait Prize.

Mostafa Azimibatar, KNS088 Self Portrait, Coffee and acrylic on canvas, 2022

Regardless of circumstance, acts of creativity prevail. Sometimes they are not just acts of creativity but of survival. The ability to be creative is the very thing that cannot be taken away from us humans. We can be imprisoned, removed from our country and family, or tortured, but the urge to express ourselves and make things always wins out. It is an essential part of surviving these very experiences.

Our friend, the artist Jack Manning Bancroft, founder of AIME (Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience) and author of Hoodie Economics articulated this beautifully as we kicked a soccer ball around in his art studio last November. "The freedom to think anything we want, it's the one thing that the most oppressive regimes in the world have tried to take away, and always fail. [Creativity] is how people can move through these experiences, and it might be all they ever have. Some people will work in terrible jobs and conditions all their life, but they still have this freedom to think, dream, to invent in their minds, to choose."

Interestingly, the more we try to capture this elusive, mysterious creature, creativity, just like a brilliant, inky octopus, changes form and becomes rigid when under the spotlight. To become its true, fully realised form and character, creativity needs the hands holding it down to just relax and stop insisting on some perfect set of characteristics before it slips away, into the sea.

In the context of our work (and this book), creativity is any act that makes something that wasn't there before - a recipe, a herb garden, a walk around the neighbourhood, a cat meme, a dance move at the traffic lights, a haiku, a moment of movement, a new idea, a mindset. Creativity comes in as many forms as there are people, which is a wonderful thing to behold. It also helps us to make connections that weren't there before, linking together ideas, images and concepts.

If we are all creative, why can creativity be so hard?

There is no quality that people are generally quicker to announce their apparent failure at than creativity. It's a curious thing. Despite this innate quality appearing so early in our infancy, we quickly get the message that unless we show exceedingly unusual promise, the correct behaviour is to declare, "I don't have a creative bone in my body!" The traditional forms of 'creativity' - painting, writing, making, drawing, acting, storytelling, dancing, playing, singing, etc - can often have some high fences around them in our weird world. Fences that are designed to exclude. It means that some people who were told they weren't good at singing when they were 13 never, ever do it again. For many, the memories of dipping their toes in the waters of a creative practice like visual arts or music, dance or performance are ones shrouded in red-hot shame. Facing criticism in those formative years when our brain and sense of self were still very much a work in progress can be one of the cruelest experiences in life. This shame can hang around for decades, stopping us from getting up at karaoke, or saying yes to that life drawing class, or joining a choir. It's a story we have heard thousands of times.

If we line this up alongside sport and exercise, it's easier to see the vast differences in how we are socialised to view creative art forms. Sport is deeply embedded in school and education, with compulsory sports days, events, subjects, carnivals, teams, competitions and awards. We receive these messages so often that people generally don't close the door forever on physical movement. But they do for creativity. Imagine if music, art, dance, writing or comedy were given such focus and resources!

Being 'good' at creativity only matters if it's how we make our living, but otherwise? Can't we release the grip on the need for it to be 'good', whatever that means? In fact, why not embrace the opposite: Shit Craft, Bad Drawings, Terrible Songs, Awful Dancing. Who cares? And the quality is actually a matter of opinion anyway. If it's fun and feels good, why deny ourselves this pleasure?

When we go for a run, we can be untrained, unpractised and unused to it, but we will still get the benefit of the cardio exercise, the peak of endorphins, the rush of adrenaline. It's good for us regardless of whether we're good at it. We can (and should!) think about our creativity this way too. It might be helpful to think of creativity as a muscle, one that needs to be flexed over and over in order to be strengthened.

This is an extract from Chapter 1: Creative First Aid: Creativity is good for us, and we all have it, from our book Creative First Aid - The Science + Joy of Creativity for Mental Health, published by Murdoch Books.

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