Reclaiming the creative impulses we enjoyed as children
Photo: William Abromowicz/Illustration: Oksana Badrack
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For years I've kept a dog-eared copy of an old Lynda Barry comic taped to a wall in my office. The first panel shows one of the artist's iconic, primitively penned women hunched over her desk with a cup of coffee, pencil poised in midstroke. Two thought bubbles hover over her head: "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?" "I'm not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work," Barry writes beneath the image. "I just know I'd stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it."

As the strip unfolds, Barry describes the easy pleasure she took as a child in drawing and storytelling ("Look out! It's Dracula! What's that smell? He's pooping! And the mummy is pooping back! But it's lava!"). It didn't seem special, she recalls: "Every kid I knew could do it."

That's because children are naturally driven to understand their world. They live by that incessant, creativity-inspiring "why?" Why does the grass grow? Why is the sky blue? Why can't I fly? And to answer these questions, they experiment, imagine, and explore. Their minds are free to wander and to wonder.

Then, usually around the time they enter school, that loopiness disappears. They begin to compare their work to others'. Will they be judged as better ("Is this good?") or worse ("Does this suck?")? Suddenly there are right and wrong answers. Expressing their own tentative understanding of an idea becomes less important than figuring out what the teacher makes of it. Beghetto, who studies the ways in which early experience influences creativity later in life, found that by first or second grade, students realize that "the game of school requires replacing the question 'Why?' with 'What do you want me to do and how do you want me to do it?'"

In his work with teachers and older students, Beghetto found that most had vivid memories (from both inside and outside the classroom) of what he called creative mortification, a term so evocative I will carry it with me to my grave. "They were moments when people were developing their experience in something—music, sports, science—and were having a personally meaningful insight, which is the catalyst of creativity," he told me. "But when they shared that insight, they received a too-harsh evaluation. And once they'd experienced that moment of shame, they often stopped doing what they'd loved."

In rapid succession I recalled my beloved kindergarten teacher putting my drawing of the solar system into what was obviously the "bad" pile; being repeatedly, negatively compared to my musically gifted brother; being mocked for wrong answers as one of the few girls in eighth-grade accelerated math.

So, step three in claiming our creativity: realizing that we're actually reclaiming it, that it was always, rightfully, ours to begin with.

But let's be clear: The response to creative mortification should not be to reject criticism altogether, or to overpraise middling work. Rather, for both children and adults, experts advocate shifting our idea of critique from evaluation to exploration: asking questions about process, identifying what works, wondering what can be improved. Those suggestions, by the way, eased my mind about Daisy's future creativity; her school promotes open-ended learning and rejects grades for teacher-written progress reports. And I had to admit that her imagination didn't seem to be suffering from her math/science placement. She was as enthusiastic as ever about churning out poetry and hand-drawn comic books. (Though, for better or worse, no lava-pooping vampires yet.)

The point of little-c creativity is to express and challenge yourself, to make meaning, to enhance your life. It's not about being the best at something, but about becoming better than you are. And as you tinker with your poem, or work on your rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," you might even change your brain: Rex Jung, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the University of New Mexico, has found that people who consistently engage in creative activities become better and faster at marshaling the brain's creative networks. In other words, the more you are, the more you will be.

Next: How creative are you?

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