Why Creativity Requires Both Playfulness and Discipline

Inspiration is wonderful, but it doesn't go far on its own. In this post, Grub Instructor Ben Berman explores the push-and-pull of inspiration and productivity.


Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free ride hasn’t met my five-year-old.


Whenever it’s time to walk home from some outing she will start to deflate like a football in New England and will refuse to take another step forward until I hoist her over my head and onto my shoulders so that she can bounce up and down as we walk home, picking leaves off the trees or pretending that she’s in a marching band and the side of my head is her drum.


I, on the other hand, have no choice but to suffer through her glory, my back tightening as she breaks out into her favorite dance moves.


And none of the old women who coo as they walk by even notice me. All they see is an adorable little girl flossing and offering the queen’s wave, as though she’s just floating magically in the air.


I am convinced, of course, that this is a metaphor for the creative life.


Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility, writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. There is no question that a playfully light attitude is typical of creative individuals. But this playfulness doesn't go very far without its antithesis, a quality of doggedness, endurance, perseverance.


I often see this play out in the relationship between Curious Me and Serious Me.


Curious Me is relentlessly interested in new ideas, pursues them like a dog that has just smelled the pee of another dog, like a toddler pulling every toy out of the bin.

Serious Me, on the other hand, spends half his time cleaning up all the sentence fragments and half-finished ideas that Curious Me has left littered about.


There are some days when this relationship is a beautiful example of opposites attracting. After all, these paradoxical traits are essential, Csikszentmihalyi goes on to say, as creative individuals… contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an "individual," each of them is a "multitude."


Or, as Stephen Dunn writes in his poem, The Stairway, “the architect knew / that over the years he’d have to build / other things the way others desired, / knew that to live in this world was to trade / a few industrious hours for one beautiful one.”


But there are other days when our paradoxical traits do nothing but bicker, as though they’re auditioning for yet another reboot of The Odd Couple.


Part of the problem is that Serious Me gets so frustrated by the clutter of messy ideas that he can’t tolerate Curious Me’s incessant desire to play.


But Curious Me also tends to take Serious Me for granted. On the rare occasion that my five-year-old willingly agrees to leave the playground, she demands a pony ride home.


And if, God forbid, Serious Me ever has to slow down to stretch, Curious Me starts making snide comments—like my seven-year-old, who told me the other day, you might look strong but really you’re just a big stew of dumplings.


But writing a book is a long and arduous journey and if Curious Me hopes to make it to the end, she needs to remember that creative people, as Csikszentmihalyi writes, are well aware that they stand, in Newton's words, "on the shoulders of giants."



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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

See other articles by Ben Berman
by Ben Berman


The Writing Life


Fiction Poetry

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