Andrea has written a really interesting post about creativity in the context of parents’ questions about how to encourage their children’s creativity. Her post really triggered a lot of thinking about broader issues for me that I started to write about in her comments and then realized I had a whole post-full…
This is what I said in Andrea’s comments:
What you say about adult creativity is so spot on. I am conscious of working on this myself. I also think it affects how many and what sort of craft supplies we have. Just look at all the discussions on knitting blogs about ‘stash’. Folks seem to feel really guilty about having lots of yarn in the house, much of it with no defined purpose. And yet, the really creative knitters have a huge amount of stash. This means that if they get an idea they can start working on it, no matter whether the stores are open. AND that when they don’t have any ideas they can get (some of) the stash out, spread it out and look at it and feel it and be inspired. I frequently experience internal conflict about not having enough stash and not really ‘needing’ any more yarn.
In an e-mail correspondance that followed, we discussed a bit about frugality, as well. I think that there are several things at work here. One is about frugality. Not wasting money or the things you buy with it is one aspect of that. Another is not buying stuff just for the sake of it, which means having a purpose for it. There is also a protestant work ethic thing going on (which has become so pervasive, particularly in North American society that you don’t need any of the protestant religious belief that originally went with it). This contributes to anxieties about finishing things and also about doing them “properly”. That is then linked to the whole valuing of productive work over leisure, relationships, and other aspects of life which I’m mulling for a whole other post.
I returned to knitting a few years ago. At that time, I had a very strong sense that I should only start a project that I knew I could finish and should work on it until I finished it. I was living alone at the time and was unemployed (though looking for work). I remember going to a yarn store and thinking that I could commit myself to finishing something for Tigger. I really liked the Mission Falls cotton and asked for help finding a suitable pattern and out I walked with what I thought would be enough to keep me going for a while. I knit a cardigan (too big, still is 3 years later though closer) in 1 week.
I can’t remember what happened next but I think I just went and got more supplies. Then in the summer I went to a party and got talking to someone who also crafted. She mentioned some website she liked and when I got home (the party was in northern Michigan, don’t ask) I looked it up and followed links and . . . and discovered a great community of on-line knitting pals. At some point I actually asked these wonderful people about the issue of not finishing things or having multiple things on the go. One of them replied that it was even okay to throw half-finished projects in the garbage. This was mindblowing.
So I started to let go of my anxieties about finishing, multiple projects, and whatever was related to that. And I discovered that I actually finish more projects when I have several things on the go. This is partly because the several things are usually different kinds of things. So if I get bored with knitting a garter stitch cardigan (one of the WIPs in the current basket), I can pick up a lace shawl. Or if I am in a situation where I could knit but can’t concentrate enough to knit lace, I can knit socks (or the garter stitch cardigan). I keep socks in my purse for on the bus, in waiting rooms, in the pub, etc. They are small enough that I don’t mind carrying them around even if I don’t get them out, and they are mindless enough to do while carrying on a conversation. In my previous life, I think one of the problems was that if I got sick of a project I would put it down but then I wouldn’t start another knitting project because that one wasn’t finished. Mostly this led to abandoning knitting for long periods of time.
Now that doesn’t have a lot to do with creativity but in some ways it does. Part of freeing myself to have unfinished projects was about freeing myself from the obligation to the finished product. The process of knitting has become increasingly separated from the product that will result. I am still working on this but I am increasingly able to buy materials that are attractive and look fun to work with (in this case yarn, but it could apply to materials for any kind of creative project) with only the vaguest sense of what I might make with them.
Again, my on-line community helped greatly. I once asked how to decide how much yarn to buy. While some folks gave approximate yardage requirements for different kinds of knitted items (I now carry Ann Budd’s Knitter’s Handy Guide to Yarn Requirements in my purse), others suggested things like, “As much as you can afford.” (in cases of particularly nice but pricey) or “As much as they have.” (in cases of a good deal). Mindblowing again. I still need to be able to imagine one concrete product I could make with that amount of yarn, but I don’t actually make a commitment to myself to make a particular thing when I buy yarn now. It is more a case of “Is there enough to make anything with this.” than a case of deciding what to make before purchasing the yarn.
My stash is still pretty small. It mainly fits in six 1.7L containers in a cupboard (actually one of those has spinning fibre in it but there is yarn in the basket by my chair that probably balances that out). Some people have gone past the point where their stash can be an inspiration because they can’t get at it. But my stash could definitely be bigger. I recently had cause to lament the lack of sock yarn in the house, for example. (Don’t worry. Great friends have rectified that problem.)
And losing the focus on finishing a product that will definitelly get used also frees me from anxiety about whether the product will be any good. I can try new things and see how they work out. Knitting is amazingly forgiving compared to some other creative pursuits in that one can rip out and start again (or do something completely different with that yarn). But things can be tried and enjoyed for the learning process and the process of making them. The end product then becomes a nice bonus.
With my knitting this has led to two concrete outcomes: designing and lace. Designing has started from a desire to make things that fit and look nice. Much of it has been modifying patterns and pulling together elements from several patterns though I am currently working on (or not, since it is hot and it is wool) a sweater for Tigger that seems more designed than previous efforts.
And I have discovered that I love knitting lace. My initial reluctance had nothing to do with perceived difficulty (I know I am a skilled knitter) but rather with the perceived uselessness of the product. My sartorial style tends towards butch. Shawls seemed old ladyish. My decorating style tends toward the modern (therefore doilies would be really out of place). What need would I have for lace? Well, I got over that by knitting a lacy shawl for an old lady (my mother; I gave it to her for her 76th birthday, I think) and then I just knit lace. As a bonus, I discovered that wearing shawls was quite wonderful and that one can have a style that combines the best elements of butch (comfortable and easy to move in come immediately to mind) with a classy lace shawl. In fact it could be argued that the beauty of the lace shawl draws attention away from the fact that I am inevitably wearing sensible shoes.
Ah, but socks, you say. They are useful. And you would be right. But again this is only a bonus. Perfectly good socks are available from a range of reputable retailers (and even disreputable ones) for much less than the price of the wool I knit socks with (which assumes my time is worth nothing). I knit socks because I enjoy them. And I had a sock yarn crisis in April because I’m not going to knit socks with sock yarn I don’t enjoy knitting with. This means that Tigger has a pair of Koigu socks (which she lent to a friend and we haven’t had back yet, ARRRGH) and I have just started some in Lorna’s Laces for her. The fact that my father expressed a liking for the Regia Silk that I knit a pair out of for myself only gives me an excuse to knit with that again.
Freedom from the product also allowed me to take up spinning and to pursue it in a relaxed manner. When in New Hampshire at the festival and contemplating some lovely Grafton Fibres batts, I did ask how much yarn one could spin from one batt. But the answer (almost enough to knit a pair of socks but not quite) just made me realize that I needed two batts if I wanted to have any hope of making something useful out of my efforts (especially considering the likelihood of unevenness of spinning and the potential desire to be picky about which part of what I spun up would get used). To be really free to experiment with what you can do with a wheel or spindle, you need to feel confident that you have enough fluff lying around to play with.
And this nicely returns me to Andrea’s point. If you unduly limit the materials available, provide materials of low quality, worry a lot about the product and the ‘right way’ of doing things, you inevitably limit creativity. We need to free ourselves from these limits, or at the very least suppress our anxieties about them, if we are to raise creative children or become more creative ourselves. I do not pretend that freeing ourselves is easy. I am still working on it myself. But bringing them to consciousness is a good first step.