A Mixed Bag: Donald Miller’s 10 Creativity Tips

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.



  • Travis says:

    Good discussion of creativity Jim, thank you. I appreciated your point that Miller had gone too far in claiming that a ‘Creator and his works are one’, which on the surface reads like an affirmation of pantheism. Calling into comparison the Christian example of the incarnation as exemplary of God’s deep association with and care for his creation is a necessary counter to Miller’s statement.

    When you were pondering the appropriate ‘distance’ an artist or creator should remain from her works, my mind went to the term ‘negative capability’, coined by the English poet John Keats and a quality he describes variously in his letters but one which he thought ‘Shakespeare possessed so enormously’. One way to understand negative capability according to M. H. Abrams is as a characterization of ‘an impersonal, or objective, author who maintains aesthetic distance, as opposed to a subjective author who is personally involved in a work of literature, and as opposed also to an author who writes in order to make persuasive his or her personal beliefs’ (A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th ed., 125). If Shakespeare was the ideal representative of a writer with ‘negative capability’, for Keats Coleridge was the opposite type of writer, who ‘would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude . . . from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge’, and as a result was an example for Keats of how ‘with a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’. All of this to say that I was curious how this literary concept of ‘negative capability’ as described by Keats and Abrams would interact with your comments on the benefits of maintaining some distance between artist and the art produced, and 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”‘. It seems to me that this is exactly what Keats was praising about Shakespeare’s ability to write characters, a sense of objective or aesthetic distance resulting in a drama where each character seems to possess a reality or authenticity of his or her own, and not merely read as a projection of some facet of Shakespeare’s ego, as well as what stands behind Keats’s critique of Coleridge, who–because he was a ‘great poet’ no doubt–was susceptible to letting ‘the sense of beauty’ of what he was writing run away with his sense of ‘consideration’ of what would best serve the poem, persona, etc. in question.

    Do you see a resemblance as well?

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Travis, thank you for this comment and for brining up Keats’ idea of ‘negative capability.’ I had not heard of this, and I think I will need to look into it further. I am also very interested in Abrams’ three types of author: impersonal, personal and persuasive. I think that the kind of distance I am describing is akin to Keats’ idea of ‘negative capability,’ at least as you have described it. It seems to me that you are aligning ‘negative capability’ with Abrams’ impersonal and objective author. This is actually a rather complex subject because there are all sorts of ways in which an author might seek to maintain the ‘otherness’ of his work, but I think I would want to take issue with Abrams’ typology. First, it appears he has unfairly juxtaposed ‘personal’ and ‘objective,’ and second I don’t think he has left quite enough room for the author who seeks to ‘erase’ himself. On the latter point, one might think of Wagner who envisaged the great artist of the future enacting his own death on stage so that he could offer the work over to society, and also of postmodern notions of the ‘death of the artist.’

      I say all of this because I think that the distance an artist can cultivate with her work is objective, but that it remains personal. I think that it is because the work has taken on ‘a life of its own’ that the artist becomes more personally involved. But (and this is a big ‘but’) this involvement is not of the kind one finds in Abrams’ third category. The artist who seeks to develop this ‘negative capability’ is not aloof, but he is also not using his work as a puppet for his own self-expression. Instead, the kind of distance I am talking about is that which is attained through a loving commitment to the work.

      Does that make sense? I will need to look at both Keats and Abrams on this. Thank you for bringing them to my attention. I hope I don’t sound too disagreeable, its just that the typology Abrams wasn’t allowing me to say quite what I think about this. Also, do you know where Keats talks about ‘negative capability’?

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