Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Fueling the inner fire: thoughts on fostering creativity

You might not think February is a particularly cheery time of the year, and in most places you'd be right.  But in the east Bay Area of California, February is early springtime, with mild days and cold nights.  Oatgrass springs up everywhere, mustard flowers pepper every vacant lot, and sometimes the trees break into bloom.

Of course, I wasn't paying much attention to any of it.  I was twelve years old and I would have been devoting most of my energies to hating my wretched middle school if I'd had more emotion to devote to anything.  I was still largely sleepwalking through life.  But when I heard my name over the PA system, I discovered I could still be startled.

"Please report to the office immediately," droned the office secretary.  Well, that couldn't be good.  I slid out of my desk chair, trying to ignore the snickers from other students in biology, grabbed my books and headed for the door.

The secretary wouldn't tell me much, other than that my mother had called to tell them she was going to pick me up early, and that I was to wait out in front of the school for her.  She had to reassure me several times that there was no emergency, since my dad had died two months earlier and the first place my brain had gone was oh no, another death in the family.  So I went out and stood out in the front of the school, smelling the fresh green scent in the air and slowly feeling my spirits rise.  Spring smells like possibility.  I was sure that meant something significant.  And even if it meant nothing else, I was getting out of school early.

I waited, scanning the school parking lot, looking for a familiar car to drive through.  Japanese auto, old BMW, '70s-era Cadillac.  And then this behemoth RV with maroon trim drove into the lot.  It pulled up next to me and my mom rolled down the passenger window.

"Hop in!" she said.  "We're going to Disneyland."

Now, obviously, not every parent wants or can afford to do what my mom did in this instance -- make all sorts of secret preparations weeks in advance, pack up our clothes, excuse us from school, rent the RV, buy the tickets, rope in an auntie to help with driving duties, and rescue six kids from public school to enjoy the best 'playing hooky' incident ever -- but every parent who wants to can afford to do what my mom and dad did on a regular basis: provide plenty of fuel to fire the imagination.

My parents told us bedtime stories -- usually ones they made up extemporaneously, often very silly fairy tales or gentle stories about two little farm boys.  They took us to the Concord Public Library once a week and we'd check out our weight in children's books.  They took us to Steinhart Aquarium and the Museum of Natural History and the San Francisco Zoo.  They took us to the beach and let us hunt for sand dollars.  They let us run loose in the field next to our house, and had a neighbor teach us which plants were good to eat and worth foraging.  They allowed us to ride our bikes all over the neighborhood.  They let us keep pets -- everything from dogs and cats to parakeets and chickens.  They took us to concerts and plays.  They did silly things like jumping into my grandparents' pool fully clothed.  They sang in the car with us on long trips.  And they encouraged us to create.  Every time we got to try a new experience, not only did the realm of the probable grow in our minds -- so did the realm of the improbable, the place where stories and songs and poetry and art grow to fruition.  Everyone in my family has a relatively fertile imagination, I think, because our minds were cultivated for it -- prepped and tilled, ready for the seeds of creativity to drop down.

This doesn't have to cost a lot.  Mom and Dad raised six kids on a freelance graphic designer's salary (which is to say, below the poverty line), and they made sure we had plenty of activities to stimulate our brains.  Most museums, aquariums and zoos have free or reduced-fee days at least once a month. City libraries are free as long as you return your books on time.  Any medium-sized city worth its salt has free concerts in some nook or cranny (even our local mall hosts a performance space where singers and musicians perform regularly).  Local city parks and small amusement parks cost little or nothing to visit.  And every now and then you can afford to diverge from the routine and do something a bit whimsical -- as, for instance, my mother did the one summer night she said, "That's it!  Too hot to cook!  We're all eating strawberry shortcake tonight and nothing else!"  (It became a yearly tradition.)

I agree with James Christensen that the key to creativity is collecting as many new experiences as possible.  But you don't have to go to Italy (or even to Disneyland) to start stretching your brain in new and different directions.  You just have to start looking around.  The world is full of amazing things waiting to be discovered.  Many of them are closer than you think.

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