Mindful Creativity Step One: Notice Things

“I now know that I don’t know what any particular tree will look like without first seeing it, and even then it is likely to be more than I see.”

-Ellen Langer, Mindful Creativity

A few weeks ago, I went camping with my kids and husband.  Previously, I have been reluctant to engage in such endeavors because:

  • I loathe and fear mosquitoes
  • I am a little weird about how I sleep (fan must be on, three pillows must be available and placed in specific places, must have something to cover my face while I sleep etc.)
  • It has given me a bad case of my own version of FOMO (fear of missing out) which I shall call FOBU (fear of being unnecessarily uncomfortable);

This last fear is not unwarranted.  On one of the few experiences I have of camping with my husband and oldest son, we decided to camp on the beach.  Idealization of this included romantic beachside campfires at night, stumbling out of the tent into the water by day.  Reality of this: immediate sunburn followed by no shade available ever, massive swarms of aggressive insects in the single available restroom, sand everywhere…everywhere…  all the time.

However, over the last year I have come to appreciate and crave my time in nature, and I wanted the opportunity to share this time with my family, to stretch our range of experiences, to revel in the natural silences of outdoor spaces. For all of these reasons, I got over my hang ups and decided to go camping.

Overall, I have to say it was a refreshing adventure; I would now consider myself to be in the category of “people who can camp in a tent.”  One of the things that helped me in the ninety-plus degree weather and the daily thunder storms that swept through on a daily basis was letting go of the fact that I could be cooler, more comfortable, less itchy, somewhere else.  That is just a given.

The other thing that helped was noticing.  I can picture even now the light coming through the trees creating streams of bright, shimmering on the dew in the morning as I lay in the tent chatting with my husband before the kids were awake. (Of course, full disclosure, the night before was a slightly different story.  We all went to “bed” at 8:30 when a thunderstorm came through, my five-year-old was too excited to calm down and wouldn’t stop touching my fifteen-year-old who responded in loud fury, the tent was hot, damp and smelly because we had bean chili for dinner- you get the picture.)

There was one point on the trip when I was left alone at our campsite for an hour or two while the boys went fishing. I took this opportunity to do some exploration.  First, I went and looked closely at a single tree.  I touched it, ran my fingers through undulated ridges and crevices.  I got down on the ground and examined the insects and mosses growing at the base of the tree and watched the little worlds evolving.


Eventually, I found this interesting insect.


I noticed some mushrooms cropping up around the base of the tree.


Once I discovered these little guys, I became enamored.  With all of the rain, there were various types of fungus everywhere.  Within minutes, I was on my hands and knees in the woods, sometimes laying down, to try and capture these widely variant growth forms.  

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Did I got poison ivy from my creative endeavor that is still, weeks later, slowly spreading in itchy waves across my body?  Yes.  Yes I did.  But was I totally engaged in the task of noticing, reveling in the beauty of something I had never bothered to see before?  Absolutely.  That, too.

These camping experiences helped me to ask myself some questions:

1.  What happens if I drop the story of “being more comfortable somewhere else” and just accept that this is what is happening here and now?  How does that change my experiences?

2.  What am I missing by not noticing the little worlds that exist around me every day?

So, I am going to take a leap here and analogize my experience.  Like my mushroom hunting adventure, the artistic process begins with noticing, gathering, exploring.  Also, like my little adventure and its aftermath, it may not always be comfortable or convenient at every stage.

Many believe that the process of creativity begins with noticing; observing; documenting; archiving; and curating experiences, knowledge and evidence.  It’s the input that eventually becomes the fodder for individuals to make the connections and see the relationships between seemingly disparate things, one of the roots of the creative process.

After much observing and gathering, slowly the connections become apparent, and at some point, a novel perspective, product or idea is actually produced.  This is often described as the “moment of insight” or the “aha” moment, similar too the moment I realized how I would use all of these photos in this blog post about mindful creativity.

But then, later, comes the vulnerable and uncomfortable part: you push your creative stuff out into the world for all to see.  This might be considered to be the latent poison ivy of the experience.  It feels vulnerable, it feels scary, it feels uncomfortable because “what will people think about the fact that my kids and I farted in a tent, or that I could never hack it as a backpacker, or that I see caressing trees as a valid recreational activity that I would recommend to others?”

But I guess the bottom line is: I do it anyway.  That is what it is about.  Creators share their stuff.  It is part of the process, and if we don’t do it, we are missing out on all of the really powerful connections that come from being our authentic selves with others.

It is worth it for me.  Being a creator in in the world, turning life into a creative endeavor, makes everything a point of possible inspiration.  Each conversation, sight, sound, smell becomes another input that may be snuggled away for who knows what. And yeah, sharing is scary, but also, it is what makes us human (in the very best way possible.

Many of the ideas about “how the creative process works” mentioned here are from James Webb Young’s classic A Technique for Producing Ideas: A Simple Five Step Formula.  Maria Popova, the beautiful and creative mind behind Brain Pickings wrote this lovely article about the book that summarizes the five-stop process and the book itself very well.

I will definitely be exploring mindful creativity and the creative process more in the future.  In my work with The Wexner Center for the Arts on Ohio State campus, and in my work specifically with the Pages program, it is going to be a primary (and very exciting) focus for a little while.

Please do share your stories of “information gathering” with others in the community via commenting on this post or contacting me via the “Contact” tab.  

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