How a Crocheted Taco Started a Trend That Brought Ear to Ear Smiles

The first thing I do when I speak to groups about creativity is make this statement: Raise your hand if you consider yourself creative. I’m still surprised when, in any given audience, only about half of the people will raise their hands. The statement brings smiles and nervous laughter. It’s always my goal to convince everyone in my audience that she or he is most certainly creative. Sometimes you just have to look for it.

My mom told me about a story in southeastern Wisconsin where creativity brought a boatload of ear-to-ear smiles. It started with a bus driver who simply loved to crochet. One day one of the kids on the bus bet her that she couldn’t crochet a taco. She told him she could. He told her to prove it. So she did. She created a crocheted taco for him. When she presented him the taco I’m sure there were smiles all around.

Pretty soon all the kids wanted a crocheted gift. So the bus driver went to work. She asked every child what they wanted and she produced it for them. Get a load of this quote from the bus driver:

I get joy out of seeing them smile…So when I would finish it and they’d come around every morning and see how progressed I got on their little creature or whatever they got, and when that was done, I would set it on my dashboard when I got to the stop, and they would see it and be smiling all day with it and they would take it into the school and they’d still have a smile on their face when they came back out.

Do you think that bus driver was always good at crocheting? Probably not. Was she ever a beginner? Of course she was. There may have even been a time when she would have told you she wasn’t creative. But she kept working on it. She practiced while she waited for her little bus riders to get out of school. She took a hobby and created something that brought smiles to all kinds of little faces.

Now you might protest and say she was already creative. But if you think about it, all it takes to learn to crochet is a little practice. Hook yarn, thread it through, and count. Pretty much anyone can do it if they set their mind to it. Once you learn to do the simple things you can learn to do that which is more complicated. Before you know it, you might even be creating a crocheted taco.

You are creative. Yes, you. Whatever hobby it is that you have you can use it to bring joy and smiles to others. That’s what art is. It’s something you create that changes both the artist and the recipient for the better.

What will you create today that will give joy to another person?

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How Stephen Schwartz Uses the Unconscious Mind to Create

For a man I’ve never met, Stephen Schwartz has had a profound impact on my life. Schwartz is the brilliant mind behind Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, and Children of Eden, amongst many other musicals. I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of the highlights of my life was the first time our family saw Wicked on Broadway. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that it involved winning a last minute lottery for two tickets and scoring two other tickets in the twelfth row center as the curtain was about to go up.

If you’ve never seen it, Wicked is both funny and poignant, it tells a great story, and the music is more than memorable. It is the clever backstory of the Wizard of Oz, based on the book of the same title. But Stephen Schwartz has had an impact on me because I’ve had the chance to perform in more than a few of his musicals over the years. I have studied his art. I have literally acted it out. And I have read the book, Defying Gravity, that tells his creative story from beginning to end.

One of the things that fascinates me most about the man is his exceptional creativity. In an interview with musicalwriters.com he gives a little glimpse into his creative process:

For me it is a matter of doing a lot of preparation and then getting out of the way of my unconscious mind. If I have a specific assignment, I will do a lot of research, read a lot of related material and just jot down ideas and phrases that strike me. I may look at visual images — paintings or photographs. Imagine myself as the character and see what words or phrases, rhythms or sounds come to me. Just a lot of things to get my mind in the right place. Then I will let go of all of it consciously, and try to let my unconscious mind go to work. Sometimes I will do things like take a walk, take a shower, go for a drive, or even hit tennis balls or play solitaire, anything to get out of the way of my unconscious. And almost always, the creativity just starts to flow.

The key for Schwartz is to fill his mind with all kinds of related material. Then he lets it sit there. When the time comes for it to be used his unconscious mind goes to work to make connections and bring ideas together. As much as we’d like our ideas to simply come out of thin air, they often require a great deal of background work.

Those of us who want to produce creative content should take a lesson from Stephen Schwartz. The lesson is this –feed your mind with the creative content of others:

  • See art at a museum
  • Read the classics
  • Watch documentaries
  • Attend a play or musical
  • Check out an Instagram account
  • Experience the culinary arts
  • Make a day trip

Fill your unconscious mind. Your creative self will thank you.

How will you fill your unconscious mind today?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

Edward Hopper and the Repetitive Way to Creativity

Edward Hopper has always been one of my favorite artists. His attention to detail, straight lines, and use of color draw in my eye. But I think what really connects me to his paintings is his exploration of loneliness and isolation. Instead of making us feel sorry for the lonely subjects, we want to know their story. We feel an affinity to them. Their loneliness becomes ours. It doesn’t feel sad or depressing. It’s more of a thoughtful and pensive kind of isolation. That can sometimes be a good thing.

I imagine that Edward Hopper had more than his share of loneliness. But his loneliness was the productive kind. It’s how he fulfilled his unique creative process. The painting you see above is one of Hopper’s most well known. It’s called New York Movie. Before he painted it, Hopper drew 54 studies of movie theaters and his wife as the model. He would spend days and days visiting different theaters and doing drawings. Then he would come home and sketch his wife.

In fact, Hopper drew more than he painted. He painstakingly sketched people and places before he painted. He said that painting was a difficult process for him and he only painted two or three paintings a year. It took him six weeks to three months simply to produce one.

Funny thing is that modern day curators now see the drawings themselves as significant art. Hopper refused to produce a book of his drawings because he didn’t think they were good enough. Apparently others vehemently disagree.

Here are the lessons for anyone creating anything:

  1. We don’t always get to decide whether our art is good or not. Others sometimes see things that we can’t. To paraphrase a famous saying: Art is in the eye of the beholder.
  2. Background work is valuable to the finished product. Hopper’s paintings would never have been as good without the all the preparatory sketches. A first draft of your work will never be as good as a fifth, tenth, or twentieth iteration.
  3. Even difficult (for us) art is worth producing. Hopper had to work hard at his painting. But it made him money and it made him famous. Art doesn’t necessarily come easily. But sometimes effort is very much worth the result.
  4. Time alone makes for great productivity. With a goal in mind, isolation is time for hunkering down and doing the work that needs to get done. It’s what Hopper did with his sketching. And he produced some incredible work focusing on isolation itself.

So do the (sometimes) lonely work that leads to great art. We will thank you for it.

What lessons do you learn from Hopper?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

Beethoven’s Trick for Inspiring the Creative Process

Beethoven inspired me. I was having trouble coming up with a topic for this post. That’s when I remembered something that lit my creative fire. A couple of weeks ago I attended the Senior Piano Recital of a good friend. Incredibly, he played by heart three movements of a Beethoven piece (as well as two other compositions). It got me to thinking: What was it that inspired the great masters in their creativity? For Ludwig von B it was a very simple thing: He took walks.

Beethoven discovered that he needed the time for his ideas to incubate into something concrete. So he took regular walks through the wooded valleys of Vienna (that’s modern day Vienna in the above photo). He took along with him a pencil and a few sheets of paper. When he came up with solid musical thoughts he would jot them down.

It’s such a simple lesson, but it’s one that I so often fail to do. The whole idea is to feed your creativity by putting yourself in a different environment. It’s giving yourself time to create. Psychologists tell us that we are more apt to be creative outside of our regular work environment than inside of it.

Let’s take the example of this very post. The idea for it came while I was listening to incredible music played live by a skilled musician. I’ve been letting the idea for a series of posts on the creativity of creative masters ruminate in my head since then. Just now I came inside the house from a short time sitting on our delightful front porch with my wife. As I came inside the idea began to crystallize. Sitting outside in a different environment helped the idea take root and grow.

This whole concept of taking a walk, and “differentiating” spaces, is also true in the creative work I do in my vocation. Most every week I have to write numerous pieces for work, not the least of which is a sermon to preach. I have found that when I write my sermon in my office at church, it’s often like pulling teeth. The background work has been done, but creative ways to communicate the message are difficult to come by.

But when I write in a coffee shop, or in my quiet home, the ideas seem to flow much more freely. In these environments I see different things, I think more freely, I feel more relaxed. More ideas are hatched and they come to fruition on a much more consistent basis.

So thanks to Beethoven, I’m going to try taking more walks and writing in different environments. Why don’t you try the same. I bet it’ll get you off the creative dime. And, as I’ve said many times before, the world needs your art…whatever it may be.

What inspires your creative process?

This is the first of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters. 

When Enough Became Enough

Today’s post is a guest post by a new friend I met at a writing workshop I recently attended. Elizabeth Ivy Hawkins holds an MFA in Painting, and currently is an Adjunct Professor at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, MI. Elizabeth’s artwork has been exhibited regionally and nationally, including exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles. She speaks on the importance of the artist’s voice, and coaches individuals and groups on how to cultivate individual expression as a way of being fully present in our daily lives. She writes on her blog about creativity, relationships, and spirituality. Her story, Where I Fell in Love, was recently featured on the Story Gathering Podcast, and is a contributor to the online publication Off the Page. She is a wife to the dashing and strong Bradford, and stepmother of one, and mother of two naughty and smart children. She shows us in this post that enough is enough.

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When I was completing my Master’s Degree in Fine Art, I studied abroad in Italy. What I learned there changed everything. I had come with the idea that I would encounter an ancient culture, and by ancient I mean a culture that was less advanced than what I knew. I found just the opposite. As I was walking through the remains of the city of Pompeii, I realized that we have not done things better than in Renaissance Italy. Partially because of the intelligence, the design, and the innovation. But mostly because of the hand-made craftsmanship that you see everywhere. The handles on cutlery found in a Pompeiian home are painstakingly well crafted. The quality of the marble floors and intricate detail of the mosaic walls, the expanse of the architecture, it all holds up and surpasses anything that would be made today. In a postindustrial, information saturated age, the cost of such craftsmanship is irreplaceable. We couldn’t afford it.

When St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10 that, “…We are God’s handiwork…” I consider his words in the context of the culture Paul was writing in, a culture similar to what I observed in Pompeii. I am not talking about Religion or a Christianity that is overly Westernized or simplified. I am searching for what it means to be fully alive and human. The Greek word Paul used for handiwork is “poiema.” It is where we get the English word for poem. Some researchers would go so far as to say that Paul is describing humankind as God’s Artwork. In Paul’s day, artwork wasn’t in some quiet museum waiting to be observed, it was all around. A part of everyday experience. Everything was handmade, and considering what I observed in Pompeii, handmade extremely well. 

Paul was a craftsperson, financing his travel through work as a tent maker. I imagine craft would have meant a great deal to him. Considering where Paul lived and traveled, he would most likely have been exposed to Etruscan frescoes that depict beautiful landscapes and Roman Architecture with its grand and expansive columns and ornate reliefs. I wonder if Paul was thinking about a particular work of art when he wrote this passage, and if so, what kind of significance did it have to him? I do know that he asks me to remember my identity is a beautiful, one of a kind, hand-made thing. Maybe he knew something about creativity and craftsmanship that we have forgotten today. Maybe this is how we are designed, to make and invent things. Innately, just because…

I used to think my value as an artist came from what I did, but now I know that the real flesh and blood matters are found in my artist’s heart. The heart I was born with. I used to put the mantel of financial success on my work. Or how popular my work became. Or praise I got for its uniqueness. Because if I am honest I have a real fear that…when it’s all said and done that I will have missed it. That my life will pass and that I won’t make a significant contribution, that I screwed it up—my one chance—and now I will dissolve like a vapor into the unknown and nobody will notice or care. There is this primal longing within me to matter. I try to get a handle on this fear by performing. 

We live in a culture that affirms the idea that people who work hard enough, who are smart enough, invest their money well and don’t buy expensive jeans, that keep that twenty something appearance well into middle age, or who get all A’s, who exercise when they are supposed to, and who have a diet of only greens and lean protein. That they are the ones. They are the ones worth it. They are the ones keeping all the rules just right. Those who reject this social norm we label dilatants, slackers…they are shamefully insignificant. It’s probably why we don’t value our elderly like we should, or our mentally challenged, or even our children. Because when you get down to it, we find a person’s real value resides in what they do.

But we are poems. We are artwork. It sounds too good to be true. It sounds like a lie that dreamers believe who don’t live in the real world where results matter. But what I have observed is this: Those who are truly doing creative work, who have the kind of lives that everybody else wants, they know this. They let this belief reside in their bones. They don’t do work chasing anything, they do work because they already have it to give. They have changed the dynamic of life from one of a transaction i.e. you do this to get that, to one that starts and ends with joy. It is life changing. It is changing me. It changes the space from which I make my work, whether it is work that supports my family financially or not. I no longer work for money, I work for money that supports a life well lived. Money is a means, not a master. It creates more opportunities to be grateful on all kinds of levels. And when I get a chance, I break bread and wine with others, and maybe cry and then laugh, and then cry some more. Because poems we are. Every one of us.

If you like the ideas I have shared and would like to take this information to the next level, sign up to my News Letter to receive a free digital download on Creativity and Finding Your Individual Voice, here

Church Is the One Place You’re Sure to Get a Creative Boost

Our son and daughter-in-law live in Nashville, Tennessee. So it isn’t very often that we get to accompany them to church. For me it’s always fascinating to visit other churches and soak in the way they do things. I always learn something new and bring back a few tips to help in my own ministry. But this time I learned a little something more. Church is a place that always seems to offer a creative boost.

On the way out of church our daughter-in-law, Emily, asked: “Why do I always seem to get creative ideas in church?” Our son agreed. He said he does, too. And I have to admit that when I have the opportunity to sit in the congregation, the same goes for me.

Emily owns and operates a very successful jewelry businessOur son is a musician. And my wife, Tammy, as you know, has just started her own business. So after church Emily started telling Tammy about an idea she had for Tammy’s business. In the car we started discussing the idea and expanding on it. The whole thing grew out of thoughts that came to mind in church.

Before you think that we missed the whole point of church, think again. I came away with precisely what I needed this week for my spiritual life. The pastor preached a sermon that spoke directly to me. The four of us who worshiped together all agreed. And yet at the same time church is a fertile ground for creativity.

Here’s why I think that is:

  1. We’re in the presence of a creative God. God gives us a creative boost whenever we’re conscious of His presence. Creativity is part of His very nature. He created the world and everything in it. To be touched by Him in weekly worship means to be touched by a creative spark.
  2. We hear the creative Word of God. God’s Word does what it says it’s going to do. It delivers and creates the forgiveness of sins. If it does that (and so much more!) it can most certainly create in our hearts and minds new thoughts and ideas.
  3. There are moments of silence and contemplation. We live in a noisy world. Church is one of the few places where there are moments of silence and contemplation. In prayerful moments why can’t the Holy Spirit introduce new and creative thoughts into our minds?
  4. We’re not distracted by (many) other things. Church is the one place we (mostly) put away our phones and focus on the things going on around us. Even the screens in church help us to focus on the topic at hand. We have common voice and common thought with the people around us. It brings clarity of mind.
  5. We are drawn out of the world. Church is a very different environment from most of the other places we frequent in our daily lives. Even the architecture points us to higher things. The art and music speak of the things of God. His Creative Presence brings creative presence into our own beings. We are refreshed and renewed.

The next time you’re in church (and I hope it’s this coming Sunday), see if you don’t find yourself creatively inspired. Being in the presence of a creative God does that.

When have you experienced a creative renewal in church?

P.S. I write about this topic more extensively in my book, Fully and Creatively Alive. You can get your own copy by clicking here.

What Chocolate Cake Taught Me About Art

If I can help it, I’ll never eat cake someone makes out of a box from the grocery store. I’ve been spoiled. My birthday comes around about this same time every year (!). When it does, my wife treats me with a made-from-scratch birthday cake. The recipe is her grandmother’s. It’s handwritten by Granny herself. And it includes things like buttermilk (when was the last time you bought that?!) and chocolate baking squares. To top it off it’s covered in buttercream frosting. To. Die. For.

I dare you to bake a cake from a grocery store box. Then bake one from scratch. Do a taste test. There is no question in my mind that you will much prefer the one that’s made from scratch. The grocery store box cake will be dry and lifeless. The one made from scratch will be moist, dense, and filled with flavor. It’s a work of art.

When I ate that deliciousness again this year it taught me something. A little extra effort, care, and fine ingredients make a world of difference. It could be compared to coloring in a coloring book as opposed to drawing freehand. Or paint-by-number instead of an original painting. Paint-by-number never looked good to me. There is no blending of the colors.

Here’s the lesson: In your daily work — in the art that you create — don’t paint by the numbers. Whenever possible, don’t use a box cake. Be daring enough to start from scratch. Even a little bit more effort can make a big difference in quality. More love and care in your project will set it apart. Ingredients that are a step above may be more expensive, but the quality will bring back your customers or consumers.

Seth Godin likes to talk about the fact that far too many corporations are on a “race to the bottom.” They use the cheapest labor and materials to get things to market and sell them. Quality and creativity are lost.

You don’t have to be that way. You can put extra effort, care, and fine ingredients into your work and art. You can bake a cake from scratch. The people who eat it will notice the delicious difference.

When have you noticed a home made difference?

How to Write Something that Gets People to Take Action

No matter what you do you have to know how to write. More than that, there will come a time when you have to write something that causes people to take action. Whether you are in sales, marketing, teaching, or ministry, you are a salesperson. You may have to sell an item, a concept, a course, or an idea.

Today I heard a master copy writer speak about how to write things that move people to take action. He narrowed the whole process down to four steps. When you are writing copy that converts, it’s important to do these four things:

  1. Here’s who I am. Your reader needs to know who you are. It’s important to make a personal connection. Start by sharing something about yourself with which your targeted reader will identify.
  2. Here’s what I have for you. Once you have introduced yourself, show your reader what you have for her. Whether it’s an item, a concept, a course, or an idea, explain it with colorful and creative language.
  3. Here’s why it matters to you. If any of these four steps would be the key, this is the one. Your reader won’t buy or take action unless what you are “selling” matters to her. Speak into the heart and mind of your reader as best you can.
  4. Here’s what I want you to do next. Create a call to action. Be specific. Don’t be afraid to ask. Refuse to back down.

This structure would work for:

  • a sales email
  • a sermon (with proper distinction between Law and Gospel)
  • a newsletter article
  • a lesson plan
  • a Facebook post

Here’s what I want you to do next: Try writing something according to this structure. 

How do you get people to take action?

What It’s Like to Be Born Into a World of Innovation

I got to babysit my eight-week-old grandson yesterday. Our daughter had to go to the dentist, our son-in-law had a meeting, and my wife had to substitute teach. It was my day off, so I got the text: “Would you want to come watch Crosby?” Um. Do you even have to ask? I would move heaven and earth to spend some time with my favorite little boy. Being with Crosby made me realize that this little boy is surrounded by innovation.

Crosby and I spent about an hour-and-a-half all by ourselves. And Grandpa did just fine, thank you. I carried him around the apartment. He fell asleep. His Uncle Ben called and woke him up, so we face-timed with Uncle Ben for a little while. Pretty soon a diaper needed to be changed (yes, I still remember how to do that). Then we played on his little play mat. Before we knew it Mommy came home.

As we spent a little time together I began to think about all the innovation Crosby already has in his little world. He has an Amazon Echo Dot in his house that can set a timer for his nap or play lullaby music. His pack n’ play has everything but the kitchen sink. The monitor attached to his bed plays video to an app on an iPhone. Even his diapers don’t have sticky tabs. Don’t ask me how, but they attach without “tape” like diapers used to.

The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, recently described today’s world as a place that “values innovation more than anything else.” We can debate the value and morality of that statement. But there’s no arguing the fact that our world is filled with innovation that is greatly valued. That’s the world that Crosby has been born into.

He will never know what it’s like to live without a cell phone, a computer right on his desk, or the internet. He will always know the conveniences of innovation. He’ll be able to do things past generations only dreamed of. When he wants to he’ll be able to book his own vacation online. All the information in the world’s libraries will be right in his own hand. When he wants to see (live!) the face of a friend on the other side of the world, he’ll be able to do that.

Now Artificial Intelligence is coming down the pike. Machines are being taught to think like human beings. Who knows where that will lead? It’s both scary and exciting at the same time.

So here’s what I will try to teach Crosby in this innovative world:

  • Use technology with gusto, but always be wary and respectful of it.
  • Learn how to be bravely creative.
  • Don’t be afraid to innovate. It will do you well in life.
  • Don’t always rely on technology. Find opportunities to use your own brain without any technological help.
  • Love people before innovation.

I hope I get to babysit again soon. I’m sure it will inspire yet another blog post. (Love you Croz Man!)

What would you add to the above list?

The Power of Happy

Yesterday I did a happy little experiment on FacebookI posted a simple sentence: “Tell me about something that made you happy today.” I didn’t know whether anyone would respond. 122 comments later it seems as though I struck a chord. Ask people what makes them happy and they are more than……happy to share it with you.

Here’s what I found in my admittedly unscientific analysis of the results of my little experiment…

Happiness is a powerful and infectious thing.

 

Once people started posting answers, others couldn’t help but join in. I had people post on my page who had never ever done so before. Others commented that they simply enjoyed scrolling through and reading all of the responses. It was so much fun to bring a little happiness into people’s lives.

Here are the things that brought joy into people’s lives at this little snapshot in time:

  1. People. Far and away it is people, and interaction with them, that brings happiness and joy into lives. People posts were by far and away the majority of the posts. Simple things like lunch with a friend, time with a grandchild, and talking to someone special on the phone made the list.
  2. Events. It was events that came in second. Baseball games, plays, or going to a museum injected some joy. It reminds me that it is far more important to spend resources on making memories than it is on stuff.
  3. Work. Believe it or not, there were quite a few people who posted things that brought them happiness at work. Work is often a good thing. It brings meaningfulness, purpose, and, yes, happiness into our lives.
  4. Health. Exercise, recovery, and appreciation for illness-free bodies were appreciated by quite a few.
  5. Spiritual Life. We are spiritual creatures. As St. Augustine said: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” When we recognize the joy our God delivers, it also brings happiness (And, no, joy and happiness aren’t the same thing. Ask me about that some time.)
  6. Creation and Nature. Sunrises, beaches, and “beautiful views” made the list for some people. It’s a reminder that beauty brings joy. Thank God that He is creative. His creativity can be seen everyday if you just look for it.
  7. Affirmation. There were some who simply found happiness in being affirmed for something they had done or accomplished. Why don’t you go ahead and affirm someone today?

Do you notice what’s missing from this list?

Money. There was only one post out of more than 100 that only indirectly talked about money. It seems that happiness in life isn’t derived from money. It is derived more from the people who walk with us on this journey, the events we share, the work we get to do, the health with which we are blessed, a God who gives it all, His beautiful creation, and being affirmed for a job well done.

What’s making you happy today?