What Is Normal Creativity?

A client asked me the other day whether their creative process is normal. On the spectrum of creativity, where do their fits and starts sit? Do other people have intentions that don’t measure up to the realities? Do they experience pauses in their creative flow?

I began my answer saying that I have no idea what’s normal, and that people who create effortlessly probably don’t seek out the services of a creativity coach like me, so my sample is skewed.

Beyond that, I said, I can’t believe there really is any useful notion of normal when it comes to our creative work. I then went on to give examples of the quite divergent work processes of other creative people I have known. The client and I both relaxed, the more we enumerated the recent choices they had made to open up space for their creative work, and the more we celebrated those choices as well as the new work that resulted.

The client’s question came from a familiar place. I suspect most of us share these doubts. Are we doing enough? What do other people do? Do we measure up? Are we hopelessly less than those other people – older, younger, wealthier, more famous, more privileged, more productive, better looking?

Negativity Bias v. Recap Routine

How else to address these doubts? For one thing, all of us are hardwired with the negativity bias securely installed into our neurons back when mortal threats lurked behind rocks. Guarding against danger and focusing on what was wrong saved lives. (No lollygagging or celebrating for those ancestors.) Times have changed, but those primitive stress neurochemicals still flood our body with danger signals even when the threat is to our calendar, not our life.

photo of threatening lion with jaws open

The body knows what to do when it perceives a threat. Any kind of threat. Image credit: Pixabay

Nowadays, an important antidote to fears and doubts of many kinds is to install what I call a recap routine (one of the tools in my book FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers). We can compensate for our built-in tendency to accentuate the negative by pausing routinely to take in the positive. By setting up daily, weekly, and other periodic routines that remind us of our accomplishments, we cultivate an internal sense of worthiness that might otherwise not have a chance. Doing this will calm our fears.

No Joneses To Keep Up With

In addition to making a habit of a functioning recap routine, we can also survey the lives of other creative people who somewhat resemble us. I recently read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a collection of factoids about the working habits of painters, writers, composers, scientists, and others from the Western traditions over the past several centuries.

portrait of René Descartes

René Descartes (1596-1650) was in favor of idleness. He thought it was important to take it easy.

Through his curated selections, the book’s editor, Mason Currey, reminds the reader that anything goes. If I’d had doubts before, I now feel confident in saying there’s no normal way of being creative.

The Lightness of Being A Regular Person

Beyond that, it’s useful to note that Currey’s book looks only at well-known creative people and intellectuals. So the field is much larger, since most of us will not appear in an equivalent compilation from the next century. There’s immense freedom in the realization that as regular people, with nothing to measure up to, every creative thing we do has inherent value.

Our Mortality Liberates Us from Expectations

So if we begin to accept that there’s no normal, how do we come down from any remaining panic that we’re still not doing enough? Oliver Burkeman debunks productivity myths. He explains in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals that because we’re mortal we’re never going to measure up to our large ideals and we’re incapable of completing everything on our lists. “[I]t comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance: It’s the feeling of realizing that you’d been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet.”

portrait of John Milton

John Milton (1608-1674), blind when he wrote Paradise Lost, composed in his head for an hour or two each morning and then recited from memory to a scribe.

Normal Is as Normal Does

So if we put it all together – accept that there’s no normal to begin with, celebrate our even modest accomplishments on the regular, note that well-regarded artists and thinkers disagree completely on what constitute good creative habits, and take in the reality that we live inside one finite chunk of time, unable to manage or control it – what can we get? Peace of mind. We’re as normal as we need to be. We live our lives, celebrate the good, and find the joy available in our own particular, changing, creative process.