pink boxes are still boxes: on being creative

Once upon a time, I lived in a purely utilitarian building. There was a good reason for its existence. Most of the city had been destroyed in World War II, so the citizens of Wrocław, Poland–many of them newly arrived after deportations from parts of the country that were annexed by the Soviet Union–needed shelter. Eventually, concrete apartment blocks took shape. By the time I lived there in the early 2000s, some were deceptively sunny in coats of pink and yellow paint. But they were just concrete boxes, and I shook my hand at them and said, “You can’t fool me with pink paint! I know I live in a box.”

Living in a box is certainly better than living on the street, but I always felt a little better when I got outside and walked to the square, where the Gothic and Baroque buildings (many also rebuilt) thrilled me. I need creativity in my life. I must feel it, see it, hear it, taste it. Maybe it’s a luxury for some, but it’s a necessity for me.

Slate has an article that describes our rejection of creativity. We say we appreciate creativity, but the reality is that we only appreciate the result and most of the time when we see creativity, we stomp it out. Jessica Olien writes: “Even in supposedly creative environments, in the creative departments of advertising agencies and editorial meetings at magazines, I’ve watched people with the most interesting—the most ‘out of the box’—ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution.”

Ugh. I’ve experienced that in a lot of jobs. I’m the type of person who likes to solve problems, so when I see a problem, I’m not interested in ignoring it, or enabling it, or trying the safe things we know aren’t going to work because they never have before. I’m a creative problem-solver. I will find a way to fix this thing, but you have to give me the freedom to do it and you have to back me up on it to make it work. Unfortunately, most people are satisfied with the status quo, so things don’t get fixed. They remain inefficient and ineffective, and I pull out my hair and wonder why I am still there.

Olien cites a study that shows that teachers prefer uncreative students over creative ones. These would have to be uncreative teachers, I think. Teachers who toe the line and lash out against students whose curiosity extends beyond the neat borders of the curriculum. I’ve had those teachers. In ninth grade, my friend Kate and I were always the last two to make it into our English class after lunch. We were seated before the bell rang, but we preferred to linger in the hall or outside in those last few minutes rather than sit at our desks, where we’d be stuck for the next hour anyway. We were definite creative types, more comfortable in the theatre than on the track, and our teacher was a cross-country coach who was so obsessed with his team that rumor had it he named his child after his best runner.

It was clear that he didn’t think much of us. His feedback on my papers convinced me that he didn’t like my writing style and that he wasn’t interested in my creative approaches to his assignments, which only made me more determined to write them the way I wanted instead of the way he recommended. Kate and I both did a lot of daydreaming and gazing out of the window while he droned on about cattle rustling in The Ox-Bow Incident.

One day our teacher looked at Kate and said, “You’re such an enigma. Why don’t you sit in the same seat every day?”

Yes, apparently being the last person in the room and taking whatever seat is left is enigma-worthy. But what he really meant was: you’re creative, and I don’t understand you.

No thanks to him, Kate and I are both writers now. Fortunately, we also had creative teachers who nurtured our creativity and encouraged us to take risks.

In my first year of college, I wrote loads of papers, but one stands out. Another English class and an assignment on some really boring religion debate where you had to take one side and develop an argument. I didn’t want to do that, so I expanded the topic and wrote a creative response to the idea of organized religion. My instructor, fresh out of grad school and not much older than I, pulled me aside after class and said, “You know I can’t give you an ‘A’ on this paper because it doesn’t fit the assignment, but I can see that you are smart and creative. I’m going to give you the chance to rewrite it as assigned, but I also think you should keep writing creatively outside of class.”

Although I’d been encouraged by teachers in theatre and music, I’d never had a teacher tell me to “keep writing” the way I wanted to write.

I can get stuck working in formulas just like everyone else. That’s how we appease and, often, move forward. But, as with teachers, I’m always looking for the employer who will recognize what I really have to offer and open up a space for me to soar. Sometimes I’ve been lucky to find that person, sometimes I’ve retreated into the corner after too many disappointments, and other times I’ve been able to create that opportunity for myself.

Like anyone else, I can get so caught up in the mundane chores of life that I forget to find room for creativity. So I’m practicing intentional creativity. Every day I look for opportunities to be creative. If I’m stuck inside, I stop and notice what the natural world is up to outside my window, which allows me to wonder how mockingbirds learn to mimic, how I can work those sunset shades into something pretty to keep around, or what flowers to plant in the spring. I play with spices and listen to stories while cooking. If it’s too cold to run, I have a private dance party. If I need a distraction, I turn to Pinterest for project ideas and daydreaming rather than scrolling through Facebook posts. When I wake up, I take a moment to try to remember my dreams.

And whenever I feel like I’m trapped in a box, I at least open a window and bring in some flowers until I can find a way out. I definitely do not paint it pink and settle in.