Last week, Relevant Magazine posted 10 Creativity Tips from Donald Miller. I don’t typically go in for the “self-help-generate-creative-new-ideas” genre, but I was pleased to find that Miller’s tips avoided banal suggestions like ‘take longer showers’ or ‘keep a notebook by your bed.’ I’m sure that sort of advice has led to great discoveries, but we’ve heard it all before. Still, Miller’s tips are a mixed bag.
I appreciated his advice to get work done rather than talk about your work, to be ready when luck strikes and to avoid creating out of anger. The latter point I think is especially helpful. When I was working towards my studio art degree, a teacher told me that I shouldn’t paint just what I hate, but that I should try to paint what I hope for. Sometimes painting the ‘brokenness’ of the world is, ironically, an easy way to avoid the reality that we all want a better world. I think that making something simply out of anger, or even as Miller says out of revenge, diminishes the possibility of what works of art can be.
In spite of a couple gems of advice, I find some of Miller’s suggestions to be problematic, if not confusing. His tips, for example, that ‘A Creator Knows His Likes and Dislikes’ and that ‘A Creator Gets Rid of the Takers in Their Life’ are slightly obscure, and seem to be about more than just creativity. His most problematic, and very first tip, reads: “A creator and his work are one.” Miller writes, “What the creator makes is a statement about the creator, and a manifestation of their sensibilities, which is one with their experiences.” I’m sure there is a grain of truth in what he writes, but I think that artists are better off putting some distance between themselves and the work of art. I think that the mark of a very great artist is the capacity to step inside the shoes of the audience and to see the work as something ‘other.’ The writer must learn how to guide the reader through the story, and the painter must learn how to guide the eye through the canvas. These sorts of abilities are essential to making works of art, and they cannot be accomplished unless the artist comes to her work and asks “what does this mean?” Great artists recognize that their work, the thing they are making, always contains an element of mysterious otherness. A further benefit to placing some distance between the artist and the work of art is that negative criticism will never be crushing because it will be directed toward the work and not the artist (incidentally, Miller does point out the importance of being able to move on from harsh criticism).
Interestingly, Miller evokes divine creativity to support his point that the creator and work are one, but it seems to me that divine creativity is an excellent example of an activity that freely and joyfully makes something other. When it comes to being able to stand in someone else’s shoes, no one holds a candle to a God who is able to become one of his creatures — to enter his work of art — and so to understand it as something entirely other than himself. It is in Jesus’ humble, self-emptying love, even to the point of death on a cross, that I think Christian artists can find an example worthy of imitation for their creative practices.