Painting Stars

Last week, ragged coming off a long flight and feeling unprepared for a talk I needed to give that evening, I decided go for a run.

Mind you, this is not the kind of thing I’d normally do. My working days are, lately, chopped into 30 minute increments. I look on curiously to my fellow airplane passengers who actually watch movies on the flight as I crack open my laptop. And I’m a big believer that the best way to show respect to your audience and their time is to prepare properly for a talk.

But on this day, I was feeling both tired and under the weather. I couldn’t seem to kick a nagging headache. And, given the time change, I had at least another 10 hours left before calling it a night. It’s not that I really wanted to go for the run either, but it seemed like it would help me kick the headache and I then could get back to work.

You probably can see the punchline coming: there was no trade between the run and the time alone in a cramped hotel room prepping for the talk, because the talk came together on the run itself.

We’ve all seen this happen before, but we tend to dismiss it as the exception rather than the rule. But it turns out that there’s a whole field of creative thought that advocates for parallel creative pursuits as a way to keep creativity flowing. Einstein called this “combinatory play,” and he is famous for having come up with most of his breakthroughs while playing the violin.

Image by Lee White

Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, calls combinatory play “the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another.” She tells the story of Australian writer and poet Clive James who, after a spectacular failure of a play he’d written, got completely stuck creatively for weeks and weeks. Then, one day, one of his daughters asked if he would spruce up her run-down second-hand bicycle, which James agreed to do, painting his girls’ bikes vivid red, the seat posters like barbers’ poles, and,

When the paint dried, he began to add hundreds of tiny silver and gold stars – a field of exquisitely detailed constellations – all over the bicycles…The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighborhood, who asked if Mr. James might please paint stars on her bicycle too. He did it…When he was done, another child showed up, and another, and another…And so it came to pass that one of the most important writers of his generation spent several weeks sitting in his driveway, painting thousands and thousands of tiny stars on the bicycles of every child in the area.

And, lo and behold, somewhere in the midst of painting all of those stars, James figured out that he did want to write again. He got unstuck.

I do, at times, take “a break” – writing a blog post or going for a run or playing the piano – when I feel stuck. But I’d never considered that to be more than a respite, I’d never thought of creativity as something to be actively fed and cultivated.

If anything, it had always seemed that the only way to defeat stuck-ness was with sweat and brute force. Who’d have thought that there’s such a think of intentionally tilling my own creative soil?

It turns out it’s both.

It turns out that having some places where we are unabashedly doing things that bring us joy and allow us to self-express is an integral part to living a creative life—whatever that means to you.

It turns out that we all need small and big moments of painting stars in our lives.

2 thoughts on “Painting Stars

  1. Absolutely love this reminder – and have added “combinatory play” to my vocabulary. Will be spreading the word! Great start to the week! Thank you, Sasha!

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