Creativity is an enticingly rewarding yet elusive pursuit. It seems to spring into existence like a strange and wondrous flowering plant, popping up in our gardens now and then regardless of whether or not we attempt to cultivate it. Those of us who appreciate the blooming presence of creative inspiration do all that we can to nurture it, to keep it alive and thriving for as long as possible. Despite our efforts, creativity withers, dies, and springs anew according to its own natural laws, an unfathomable set of principles that we sense yet cannot know. How is it that one can be all fired up to create something one day yet utterly unmotivated and bereft of ideas the next? The answer is as difficult to grasp as the creative muse itself.
While I cannot pin down the cause of creativity, I can vouch for its beneficial effect on my psyche: creating something (almost anything) simply makes me feel better. Conversely, enduring a period of creative stagnation makes me feel worse. As this correlation has gradually become apparent to me over the years, I have concluded that there is a physiological basis for it, hence the tagline for my blog: Stories. Commentary. Endorphins. Endorphins are naturally occurring substances that are released by the brain. They are known to deaden sensations of pain and are thought to produce feelings of well-being. Some people think endorphins foster creativity, but I suspect it also works in the opposite direction. I know that I need to be in a good frame of mind in order to write well, yet I also know that I always feel better after I write well than I did before I started. So, Stories. Commentary. Endorphins. The stories and commentary are for you, and the endorphins are for me.
If my hunch is right, and my creative productivity is responsible for a physiological response that enhances my well-being, then it is in my best interest to be meaningfully creative as frequently as possible. That is partly why this blog exists, as a means to keep myself regularly productive. More than once I have found my self-imposed Friday deadline to be a very welcome distraction during an otherwise stressful week. Though my profession of elementary education affords many opportunities to be creative and expressive, much of a teacher’s work is a series of routines and repetitive tasks. Mulling over creative options regarding my writing is an effective counterbalance to the monotony of grading papers and assembling report cards.
Though there is comfort in routine, it can also be deadening. An absence of novelty and challenge can smother the smallest spark of creativity before it has a chance to start an inspirational fire. But it doesn’t take The Great American Novel to get the endorphins firing. Sometimes even a utilitarian chore can do the trick if it requires some meaningful input from one’s gray matter. For example, the other night I needed to write an appeal for a denied health insurance claim, not exactly the sort of composition that stokes my imagination. I would have preferred not to do it. In fact, I put it off for at least an hour by fiddling around online and shuffling through relevant papers. When I finally got started, however, that part of my brain that is keen on language and syntax kicked into gear.
I opened with a paragraph stating the purpose of my letter and quoting from the insurance company’s denial. Then I embarked upon a brief medical history that identified the providers and their rationale for treatment. Lastly, I made the case for my appeal by noting that the denial appeared to be a contradiction of the insurance company’s quoted policy, adding that the provider agreed and would be forwarding pertinent documents. When I was done, I read through what I had written several times and felt that familiar feeling of satisfaction, the neural reward that comes from having realized a creative conception.
Funny, isn’t it? You might think that there is little creativity involved in tossing off a perfunctory business letter, and I suppose that might be the case if I were employed in a capacity that required me to write such missives on a regular basis. Once it becomes routine, it’s no longer interesting. But in this situation, my brain had to do the same sort of juggling that I demand of it when I’m writing for pure enjoyment. I had to focus on an objective and determine the most economical route to achieve it. I had to mentally reconstruct a series of events and present the chronology in a compelling manner. I needed to be precise in my language and persuasive in my argument. If something wasn’t working, I had to have the good sense to cut it out. That’s just the sort of mental engagement that makes time evaporate for me, and it seems to be an integral part of the creative process, no matter the scale or nature of the endeavor.
The same satisfaction can be generated by an endless variety of activities. There are the obvious creative projects, such as writing a book, choreographing a dance, composing a photograph or painting a portrait. Then there are those behaviors of subtler creativity, actions that may not seem inherently imaginative because of their utilitarian practicality. Putting together a good meal, planting a garden, and even rearranging furniture or organizing a closet can bring about a similar sense of fulfillment. I have, for example, experienced much the same pleasure I derive from writing by simply devising the optimal arrangement of objects within a desk drawer.
Perhaps that intoxicating release of endorphins comes down to this: an engaging goal, the freedom to reach it any way you choose, and the fulfillment of that goal. Note that engagement is a must. I am quite sure that I do not experience any advantageous change of brain chemistry when I mow the lawn, for example. Maybe I did the time I decided to start in the center and work outward in concentric circles, but the novelty of that wore off pretty quickly. Some tasks are uninteresting no matter how you choose to handle them.
“I finished the letter to the insurance company,” I announced to my wife at the dinner table.
“Oh, good,” she replied.
“In fact, I hate to admit this, but…I might have even enjoyed it.”
She smiled the way one does at nerds, a mixture of admiration and revulsion. “Well, I’m glad you liked it, because I hate doing that kind of thing.”
I nodded empathetically. Our conversation ebbed as we focused on our food. And then I felt a rising truth welling within me.
“Alright,” I confessed, “I did enjoy it. No, I really did. Would you like to hear my favorite sentence?”
One has to be careful with those endorphin rushes. As with any stimulant, it’s easy to get carried away.