Creativity is many things. It is personal exploration, a scavenger hunt, a way of being, how we make meaning. And everyone has different ways of working with their creativity, of cultivating it. Which is why I love interviewing a variety of individuals about how they create.
Today, I’m happy to feature my interview with Carol K. Walsh, MSW, an author, artist and coach. Specifically, Carol is the author of a new memoir called Painting Life: My Creative Journey Through Trauma. In it, she writes about using creativity to heal from the trauma of losing her fiancé to a massive heart attack. Carol also has exhibited her artwork around the country and led workshops on color theory, design and creativity. So I was incredibly interested in Carol’s thoughts on creativity.
Below, Carol reveals how creativity defines her life, her three favorite creative processes, the internal and external sources that inspire her and how she navigates the emptiness that arises after completing a project—along with other powerful insights.
Q: How do you define creativity? What does creativity mean to you?
A: I am creative when I bring something new into existence. That could mean a work of art or writing, but it could also mean a new business venture, a new garden, etc. We are all born with the ability to be creative, but unfortunately we tend to forget or ignore this gift, because we think it applies just to the arts. Not so. For me, creativity fosters my self-awareness and enhances emotional healing and helps me define my life.
Q: Why is creating important to you?
A: I think of myself as a “creative”—that is, one for whom creativity is the lens through which I see myself and the world around me. For me the most important use of creativity is to define who I am, and in turn create a vision for my future reflecting my heart, soul and spirit. Because nothing is constant, creativity helps me continually re-define myself in relationship to my age and life circumstances.
When I am clear about who I am—that includes my values, beliefs, thoughts, emotions and priorities—I can make wiser choices. Creativity has also helped me heal emotional wounds, and move through physical pain. I was especially grateful for creativity when I experienced a trauma in my mid 40s. (This is the subject of my memoir Painting Life.) I believe that being creative is one of the best coping skills we have.
Q: What are your favorite ways to create?
A: I have three favorite creative processes. Being creative began when I was 3 years old. I would crawl under a card table that my mother covered with a sheet and draw. Drawing helped me feel safe. This love of making marks has followed me my whole life. Currently I love the process of layering multiple colors of pencil over watercolor washes. In college, I added photography to my list of favorite creative outlets, and now I derive great pleasure out of entering competitions – even if I don’t win anything – and exhibiting my work.
When I was in my 40s, I began writing by authoring a series of articles for a professional art magazine. Subsequently, I was asked to write and illustrate my first book – that became the first of four books.
These three processes, drawing, photography and writing, have continued to be my favorite forms of creative expression. Sometimes I’m working on all of them simultaneously, and sometimes my focus is solely on just one, like this last year when I was working on my new memoir Painting Life.
Q: What inspires your work?
A: My inspiration comes from both external and internal sources. Externally my preferred source of inspiration is nature—particularly clouds, sky, water, as well as the colors of autumn. I also try to capture evolving change, like different times of day, seasons, weather and mood.
Internally the sources of my inspiration come from my heart, spirit and also my dreams. A friend said, “I try to notice what I am noticing.” For me, that sums it up beautifully.
Q: What does your creative process look like?
A: I think of my creative process as a ritual I engage in on a daily basis. Every morning I try to exercise for at least half an hour. (Preferably a walk or bike ride.) Exercise stimulates my energy and in turn my creative juices, so that when I’m walking valuable ideas often float up into my consciousness. This is my preparation stage.
Once home, I try to enter my studio by 9 a.m. My studio is on the top floor of my townhouse, which has beautiful natural light. Upon entering my studio, I feel a shift in my energy and spirit, much like one would experience walking into a religious sanctuary, and I become peaceful, focused and quiet.
When I am creating I like my space to be totally quiet to facilitate a meditative quality. Usually I have something in process from each medium. Moving from one creative project to another helps to give me a better perspective on the one I am not working on – particularly if I am creatively stuck.
In general, the final product or outcome is not as important as the process, which I experience as grounding, energizing, and healing.
Q: There are many culprits that can crush creativity, such as self-doubt and distractions. What tends to stand in the way of your creativity?
A: I have always been self-disciplined. Because I love engaging in the creative process so much, I am very particular about not letting anything interfere with my studio time. I schedule all appointments and social events in the afternoon and evening.
I don’t tend to have the kind of distractions that a lot of people have like self-doubt, although I used to. Now, at my age I have stopped caring what others think, although I always listen carefully to what others say, and then decide for myself what fits.
What does cause me difficulty, and what I’m experiencing right now, is when a big creative push is done, i.e., such as finishing my new memoir, I experience a very powerful postpartum, depressive feeling. I have given birth to a creative product and now I feel creatively spent and empty of ideas. It takes me a while to fill up again and to begin a new creative venture and adventure. Although I see this as a natural part of the creative process, it is still uncomfortable.
Q: How do you navigate these obstacles?
A: I navigate this empty space by doing rote tasks, such as cleaning out my studio, organizing files, and meeting with fellow authors and artists. Going for long walks and talking to fellow creatives is immensely helpful. Journaling my thoughts and feelings, or sketching, help reduce the edge of concern.
Sometimes it is hard to trust my process. That is, trust that these periods of emptiness will once again be filled up with creative ideas. Even though I know I will eventually be moved to express myself in some form, I tend to be impatient.
I also use the first step in what I have defined as the “5-C’s of creative energy”: curiosity, courage, consistency, commitment and conclusion. I begin with curiosity and ask myself a lot of questions, such as: “What is grabbing my psychic attention?” “What am I feeling and why?” “What are my dreams telling me?” “Whose work is currently inspiring me?” “What would I like to communicate?”
When these questions finally trigger an inspiration, I begin creating. I don’t care whether I express my inspiration in writing, drawing or photography. I like having three forms of creative expression, so that when I feel creatively spent in one medium, I can switch to another.
Q: What are your go-to resources on creativity (e.g., books, websites, social media)?
A: As an undergraduate studying painting and design, I found my first go-to resource: Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols, describing his theory of dream symbolism. This book, and now his Red Book, remain favorites, as they are filled with creative ideas. I was also inspired by Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create. Although these are old books, their meaning has held up over time.
Recently, I have different go-to resources depending on the medium I am currently focusing on. For example, in the area of creativity and writing I have used Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and all of Natalie Goldberg’s books, such as Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones. I love reading biographies of different artists, looking through books of their work and going to exhibits. Most recently, I read Hold Still: A memoir with Photographs, which helped inspire my photography.
Beyond books, I also find it stimulating to take courses, or join a group, such as the accomplished photography club I belong to. However at my age, my best go-to resources are things that inspire me, like walking in nature or engaging in a meditative experience that helps me connect with my inner spirit.
Q: How do you suggest readers cultivate their creativity?
A: “Slowly” is the first word that comes to mind. People need to cultivate their creativity slowly, for if they were not encouraged by their parents, they probably began ignoring their creative skills around 4th grade. If they have not utilized nature’s gift of creativity as an adult, it takes some time to rebuild the habit and to trust the process.
Creativity is like a muscle; it has to be used to be strengthened and maintained. An analogy would be a runner who doesn’t begin running by racing in a marathon, but instead takes routine short runs to gradually increase strength, endurance and confidence.
I suggest taking a couple of steps. First, pick one form of creativity—at this point it doesn’t matter what it is. It could be writing, doodling on paper, or creating a new recipe, planning an organic garden or designing a shelving system.
If you can’t decide on a medium, begin with writing, (because writing comes naturally to most people) for just 15 minutes a day. Just write words, no sentences, and describe what’s going on inside. Then set aside a certain amount of time every day, or every other day, and have fun with your idea.
I stress fun, for if you take it too seriously, the tendency is to tighten up and become judgmental. Try to keep the intellect out of this, for our brains tend to put things in categories and one category is usually negative.
I find that once a creative process has begun and it feels right to the creator, an urge develops to continue expressing oneself. It’s as though the hunger for self-expression is being satisfied and we want more because it feels so good. A natural craving for more sets in.
Q: What’s one thing you really wish people knew about creativity?
A: I wish people understood that creativity is not about art, but about how we live our lives. It is about finding out who we are in this world, for if we know who we are, we will be able to more accurately make choices and answer the questions presented to us.
Plus, for all parents, please help your children—no matter what age—to continue expressing their creativity. It is one of the best traits you could help them develop and maintain.
Carol K. Walsh is the author of the new memoir Painting Life: My Creative Journey Through Trauma. This is Walsh’s 4th book; she is also the author of Break Through: Coping Skills for Chaotic Times, The Art of Awakening Spirit and Designing for Weaving (a book for fiber artists). She has also written a free 17-page whitepaper on creativity that can be found on her website.
Carol lives in Maryland with her husband, Tom, and is the proud mother of two daughters and four grandchildren. Check out her artwork, and her whitepaper at http://www.ckwalsh.com.