I’ve been thinking a lot about imagination and creativity in recent months. (This is mostly due to my work with The Artist’s Way, which I’ve been diligently plowing through since the first of January, as part of my 35 Before 35 list. But more on that later.) I don’t think of myself as someone who is naturally very imaginative. I don’t know if I am inherently talented at anything. That is not to say I am not talented or imaginative. But I subscribe to the controversial philosophy that talent can largely be learned. Or rather, earned.
I remember when I was a little girl and desperately wanted to act on stage. Of course, I had no teacher and only imagined what it would be like to do so. In my first auditions in my new middle school, the genius performances I envisioned somehow did not translate into reality, and my auditions were…how to put it? Embarrassing. I longed to be in The Good Doctor or Oliver Twist like the eighth grade girl with the blonde ringlets who was cast in everything. I was instead asked to be the director’s assistant. I remember the frustration and pain of the inexplicable incongruity between what I knew I should be doing and what I was actually doing on a stage. My voice and body just wouldn’t do what I wanted them to. I sat next to the director in rehearsals and studied the curly-haired mini-starlet with envy and determination. I watched movies and recited lines into my bedroom mirror. I daydreamed.
Finally, at fifteen, I went away for the summer to my father’s in Washington state. I escaped the confines of my school and my early teen angst and joined a theater day camp. I will never forget the June day that I, alone in a room with the head of the camp, had to show him the stuff of which I was made. My audition would not only determine my part in the upcoming summer play, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but my future in this camp for summers to come. I stood in the wings, bracing myself with heart pounding and hormone-laden blood pumping, and made the conscious choice to step into the body of a fierce actress. (I guess you could say I chose to act like an actress.) So, I stormed onto the stage with all my might and landed the part of Lucy, the coveted female role.
Ever since that day, I have maintained that I am not naturally a talented actress, but that I studied and willed myself into being one. I continued to work on my auditioning with coaches and directors, came back to school having transformed myself, and then kept growing and learning. It was that transformation that formed one of my core beliefs: a person can make herself into pretty much anything she tries to be, so long as she tries hard enough. The flip side? The skill must be nurtured and practiced, or it can be forgotten and grow stale. Even acting. True artistic aptitude is not like riding a bike.
I think about this on the heels of my recent post about acquiring good habits, and the possibility that any desired behavior can be attained. In the wake of Steve Jobs‘ death, the country seems to have a renewed appreciation for imagination and innovation. Outlets like The Huffington Post are publishing op-eds crying for more nationwide nourishment of our imaginative sides, asserting that “society benefits from those who take the knowledge they acquire and combine it with the personal imagination that is unique to all of us” and asking “What can we do to foster innovation? How can we cultivate imagination and creativity? How do we spark curiosity and inspiration?” They pose this question not just on a societal level but an individual one.
Jonah Lehrer has recently published what I expect to be a refreshing theory in response to such a question—it’s high on my ‘to read’ list, especially since I dug his first book Proust Was a Neuroscientist (at least much more than I thought I’d dig a book with the words Proust and Neuroscientist both in the title), an enticing meditation on the convergence of art and science. His latest book, Imagine, examines the science of creativity. For those of us who bounce between the right and left sides of our brains, and doubt the innateness of our own creativity but not the value of it, his arguments that creative talent is never a “gift” but rather a thought process that can be learned should offer some gratification.
The Artist’s Way would agree with Mr. Lehrer; that every one of us has the spark of inspiration within us, and that feeding that spark (however small it is to start) is not only a more fun way to go through life, it’s necessary for personal growth. And the late Mr. Jobs, the HuffPost, and many prevalent voices of today would take it one step further: your personal efforts in service to your own creativity are not only important for you—they are essential to the advancement of humanity.
So, how’s that for inspiration?
P.S. I’ll write more on the awesomeness of The Artist’s Way experience once I’ve finished it and can officially cross it off the list… There is much to be said.