Ellen Langer, a Harvard Professor of Psychology, relates the story of being on vacation and making a spur of the moment declaration to a friend that she was “thinking of taking up painting.”
She added, “I have no idea why I said that. I don’t think I’d had more than a fleeting thought or two about painting in my entire life up to that point.”
Her friend is an artist and gave Langer several small canvases to start her out, and advised her: “Your first painting shouldn’t be too precious,” a perspective shared by another artist friend who said, “Don’t evaluate your work. Just do it.”
Langer continues in her book “On Becoming an Artist” that “A week or so later, I did my first painting on a small wooden shingle I had found. The painting was of a girl on a horse, racing through the woods. I was surprised at how much I liked it.”
One thing I like about this story is her casual pursuit of an impulse to paint: she did not assemble a lot of tools, prepare a studio space, or even take an art class; she simply found a throw-away “canvas” for her first project and went ahead.
Langer writes of that experience, “I was fully present when I painted the girl on horseback, did not evaluate it while I painted it, didn’t mindlessly follow any rules—I couldn’t because I didn’t know any.”
Part of her research and other books emphasize the value of living mindfully.
She explains, “When we live our lives mindlessly, we don’t see, hear, taste, or experience much of what might turn lives verging on boredom into lives that are rich and exciting. We are essentially ‘not there’ to notice much of the world around us.”
“Beginning an artistic activity is one way to help us move from excessive mindlessness to a more mindful life. If we fully engage this new activity, we will come to see how enlivening mindfulness is.”
One of the quotes she includes in her book is this one by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), creator of the painting above (“The Letter,” c1906):
“What attracted me was less art itself than the artist’s life and all that it meant for me: the idea of creativity and freedom of expression and action. I had been attracted to painting and drawing for a long time, but it was not an irresistible passion; what I wanted, at all costs, was to escape the monotony of life.”
While I like his reference to “freedom of expression and action,” using our creativity can be much more valuable than just an escape from boredom.
And even mundane tasks – like writing a letter – can be an occasion to be creative.
Langer writes that we may too often regard creative projects as “leisure” activities, and “that word suggests they are rather unimportant. They may well, however, hold the key to the problem of finding meaning and fulfillment in the rest of our lives.”
She notes some of what holds people back is fear: “As much as we’d love to play the recorder or write poetry, it’s easier and safer to put it off because we are afraid of making fools of ourselves. Of course, we know we shouldn’t worry about what other people think, but we do.
“Or when we actually give writing or drawing a try, the trying turns out to be more terrifying still, and we too quickly put our creative activity aside. Something interferes with just enjoying painting or playing an instrument for the pleasure it brings us.”
So just start with something easy. If you’d like to make a sculpture, or paint or compose, there are many supplies you can use, even ones for children. Writing takes even less material.
Even if you’re a creative professional, taking on a new form of creative expression can be expansive and fuel creative thinking even more.
Have you found that doing something creative adds to your enjoyment in life?
Book: On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity, by Ellen J. Langer, PhD.
Earlier book: The Power of Mindful Learning.