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The Creativity Sweeps

by Julia Sneden

Back when I first started writing this column, a friend suggested that I write about some of the “wildly creative” types I’ve encountered during a lifetime of associating with theatre people (my husband is a set designer; I was a drama major; and, back before my children were born, I worked at a couple of movie studios). The idea sounded good to me, because I have indeed been fortunate to have met some famous and fascinating people.

But when I sat myself down at the word processor to try profiling a few, the most flagrantly creative and Out There people who came to mind were the preschool and kindergarten teachers at the extraordinary school my children attended, long ago.

Everything those teachers did, they did with flair. They knew no bounds: They entrusted good, sharp knives to four-year-olds who chopped vegetables for their “Pilgrim Stew” contribution to a feast which was held the day before Thanksgiving, outdoors (as the Pilgrims had done). They hung the kids’ art works from the ceiling, on the playground fence, off the rail of a balcony. They taught letter formation using pencils to scribe rolled-out clay. They taught beginning sounds through cooking (“Preparing Plain or Pepperoni Pizza”).They let the children make designs and large letters using push pins on individual cork boards. They broke down recipes and made pictogram cards, setting them up in a long, left-to-right row, so that if a child followed the recipe steps, he or she emerged with ONE cookie or ONE individual pizza. They showed the children how to find the seeds in various flowers and vegetables; they taught them how to coax sprouts from those seeds. They gave the kids shovels and hoes and rakes to turn up the ground in the class garden plot, where the children planted a garden using their seedlings, and the following year, when the children were no longer in their classes, the teachers invited them back after school to harvest the fruits of their labors.

A couple of the teachers dragooned some of the mothers to bring their sewing machines to school, to sew up “dinosaur pillows” which were patterned from the children’s huge drawings on unfolded newspaper. For the most part, the teachers scorned published educational programs and workbooks that made boring the process of learning, and taught their students directly, thrillingly, energetically and in partnership – which also describes the way the children learned.

Years later, I was hired to replace one of those teachers. It took real chutzpah to join that group, and I have to admit that I copied the others shamelessly. When I confessed that to my supervisor, she simply replied: “Don’t worry. Sharing is what teaching is all about.”

The truly creative are often generous of spirit. They spark our admiration, and our desire to tap into their boldness (witness the success of the lifestyle gurus and the plethora of home decor magazines). Sometimes we can get beyond slavish copying, and give someone else’s idea an individual tweak that hints at our own creativity. Sometimes we can use another’s creative idea to spring loose and let our own ideas take us in a new direction.

Right up there with the preschool teachers in my pantheon of creativity is someone I never met, a woman who lived in the neighborhood where I like to take my daily walk. All the houses in that area sport front yards neatly landscaped with lawn and boxwoods, azaleas, hollies, and an occasional patch of creeping cedar: all, that is, but one. The woman who lived there had the temerity to grow pumpkins in her front yard, and not just plain old pumpkins, either. The requisite azaleas and small patch of lawn had been pushed back, up near the house, and all across the front where there was a large, gentle slope leading down to the sidewalk, were pumpkins of all sizes, shapes and colors, spilling down the slope and over the low rock retaining wall along the sidewalk. Huge, medium and small, round, oblong, and flat, squatty ones, tall ones, orange pumpkins, tan pumpkins, blue pumpkins, purple pumpkins, and even some white “ghost” pumpkins, lay tangled in a riot of vines and tendrils and gigantic leaves.

There wasn’t a kid in the neighborhood who didn’t love the sight of those pumpkins. At harvest time, I’m told they were invited to help themselves (one to a customer). That front yard pumpkin patch was a magnificent, in-your-face statement of bold originality and delightful creativity. Many times, I had to restrain my urge to ring her doorbell and cry: “I love your pumpkins and I love you!” I never found the courage, however, and couple of years ago, that family moved away. The new owners keep a very tidy and traditional yard, not at all displeasing, but - ho hum. I miss that great splash of rebellious joy.

It seems to me that rebellion is a large part of what we call creativity. Lots of us are able to “think outside the box,” but in order to act on those thoughts, we need to get beyond the accepted or traditional parameters. Unfortunately, we’re often intimidated by fears of what others will think. It takes more courage to act unconventionally than it does to think unconventionally. Even Leonardo and Galileo bowed to the need to flatter patrons (or to give lip service to the Inquisition!).

Creativity comes in all sizes and shapes, like those pumpkins. It also comes in degrees. Sometimes it shows up in little spurts, like the myriad ways my mother sparked our family mealtimes. From time to time she would serve supper in the living room by the fire, or on take-it-where-you-want trays, or she’d put a picnic lunch into a knapsack for the children who were up in a tree, or announce “reading nights” when each of us brought a book to table.

There are also big jolts of creative thinking, like the whirlwind reorganization of living or storage space that often hits home owners or office managers. Creativity can be lighthearted and whimsical (flowers grown in an old bicycle basket), or earnest and purposeful (scientific pursuits).

There’s a long, quiet manifestation of creativity that goes into making a garden or for that matter, building any body of original work. And there is also the rare, overwhelming, life-changing experience of creating a masterpiece of art, music, poetry, craft, etc.

Humans have often been called “the curious species.” We’re hard-wired to want to know. It seems to me that we’re also hard-wired to want to create, but I suspect that that urge is often repressed by our need to conform to the expectations of our societal group. The urge is always there, and we frequently find ourselves envying and even applauding those who have the moxie to pursue their own, special ways of thinking. But when it comes to ourselves, we are so often afraid of being perceived as peculiar that we keep our divergent thoughts quiet. By sublimating our unconventional instincts, we begin to think of ourselves as dull and somehow unable to “be creative,” when in fact the urge to create exists in all of us. We just need to spring free.

Perhaps we need to consider that creativity is a process, not a goal.

The “thinking out of the box” may come first, but translating the creative vision into action is rarely as easy as one hopes. That’s where it helps to have a certain stubborn, rebellious streak.

Mind you, not all rebels are creative. There’s a vast difference between the creative rebel and those who are rebelling merely to be noticed. In the latter category, I’d place a handsome man I used to observe as he drove into the studio parking lot in his convertible, top down, with a gigantic, shaggy dog in the back seat. This man starred in a fairly popular television series. He received huge amounts of fan mail. I thought him a lackluster actor. In his attempt to be perceived as creative, he achieved flamboyance and not much more. I could probably spin a yarn about this person, because he was, after all, famous for a short time.

But fame has little to do with creativity. It is sometimes a byproduct of a creative mind, but as noted, some of the most creative people in our society receive little recognition, never mind fame. And when fame gets out of hand, it can stifle the very creative spark that generated it. But that’s another story.

I have known many charming, creative folks, and among them are some who were also utterly zany. Someday I may get around to writing about them, but as far as I’m concerned, the pre-school teachers and the pumpkin gardener win my creativity sweepstakes, hands down.

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