Raised by exceptionally creative parents, I grew up believing that anything worth doing is worth doing as creatively as possible. I also grew up with the understanding that anything could become artful if we make it so. I observed that to be true whether my mother was painting or rearranging a bookcase or my dad was writing advertising copy or slicing vegetables to present on a tray in the most colorful way.
When I set out for graduate school, I expected it to be a place that would welcome creativity. But in my first year of my master’s program, a professor wrote in the margin of my paper, “Don’t try to be so creative.” At the time, I was 22 years old, hungry to be noticed and praised by professors whom I knew would eventually become my colleagues. So her comment stung. It also felt wrong and off base, but I swallowed it and moved on.
I transferred to another program for my doctorate, one that was known to be edgier and more progressive. And there, during my defense of what was the equivalent of qualifying exams, two women professors who claimed to be feminists fired a question at me and then were dismissive when I began with “I feel …” in response. In their eyes, that was an egregious error for which I needed to revise some of what I had submitted. Once again, I intuited that was wrong on many levels, yet I let it go and kept my eyes on the prize: a Ph.D. in sociology.
Now, at 52 and a tenured full professor, those comments seem foolish and more of a reflection of other people’s insecurities than anything about the merits of my work. But such comments are also damaging. In my own particular case, they cut to the heart of what my work was and still is all about: public sociology aimed at rethinking the relationships between emotions, identities, power and social structure. I was never interested, and still am not, in maintaining the status quo.
Aware of the reward structure in academe, I made decisions, consciously and even unconsciously, to jump through the hoops I needed to. But I also worked to retain the courage I had to be creative and to feel—even when I knew I would have some colleagues who resisted and rejected it. In this article, I will explore the ways in which it is possible—and rewarding—to forge a creative life as an academic.
A Radical Act
What is creativity? It is usually defined in terms of imagination and innovation and especially related to the production of artwork. Yet creativity is not necessarily about art per se but is a quality of being artful. It’s not about creating a masterpiece but rather how we make and weave meaning and richness into our days. Being creative means possessing curiosity, the ability to observe keenly and a passion for innovation to move about in space and time in new ways. It means trying something different, which requires us to take the leap to trust our intuition so we can play in the unknown.
Why should we strive to be more creative? In academe, as teachers and scholars, we need to teach and write in ways that reveal a depth of interpretation, that demonstrate meaning making, that forge connections, that push the boundaries of existing modes of thought and that play with new questions and ideas. When it comes to teaching, for example, we might create a new course that invigorates us as teachers. Such new preparations breathe new energy into teaching and keep us engaged as lifelong learners, an important thing to model for students. Over the past eight years, I have created three new courses for our sociology curriculum: Sociology of the Body, Sociology of Food and Sociology of Love—and each was transformative for my teaching and my own writing practice.
Unfortunately, however, I find it paradoxical that in higher education, of all places, many faculty members often report feeling stifled or deadened when it comes to creative practices. One would think academe would be one of the more open arenas for nurturing creativity. But as we know, formulaic and status-quo constructions generally prevail for what makes scholarship and pedagogy good enough for us to achieve successful annual reviews and to ascend the ranks through tenure and promotion.
It saddens me tremendously to hear so many people in academe, including several of my important mentors, confess that they can’t wait to retire just to finally write the sort of stuff they want to write. Living and working suspended like that is so conditional and constraining; it functions like a choke hold on our inner creative life. I couldn’t bear to wait that long.
Thus, I’ve come to regard the reclamation of my own creativity as a radical act. It’s a way of being more present in my life and work and responding to the urgent and important inner whispers that insist I be more creative today—not decades from now in retirement.
I have found that the best way to anchor more deeply into that mind-set is to borrow energy and momentum from another arena of invention. When I attend concerts, I think about the habits, routines and practices of the musicians. And I am always curious and energized to hear about others’ seemingly mundane daily rituals that pave the way for creativity. Witnessing others’ creativity can jump-start our own.
For example, over the past two years since my mother died, I have been unpacking boxes of her paintings and printmaking. I’ve been blown away by how vast a body of work she produced and inspired by how she kept at it, constantly taking new risks and trying again. In the mornings, after having a double espresso, I have found myself going into the guest room, now turned art gallery, and caressing the nuanced details of some of the pieces. Sometimes I take photographs of them that I pair with fresh flowers or with the work of a favorite potter—playing with colors, shape, light and form—and then share them on social media.
Invariably, people ask if my mother and the potter created work in tandem because of how much their art complements each other. I explain that, no, in fact, I just noticed the parallels and decided to photograph them together. It is in the act of making such visual connections and juxtapositions that I feel a high of creative and playful synthesis, and I find that it propels me to want to sit down to do my own writing.
Creativity involves imagining new ways of seeing, sensing and being. Another simple way I do that is to look around a room in my home and find an object, meditate for a moment on its functions and then consider what else it might be used for. The simple act of repurposing an object changes my relationship to it and keeps things fresh. When I get stuck, I try to pause and reflect on times I felt most in a creative flow state, and I call up a multisensory picture of that experience to revisit it for the qualities I most need to tap into.
Issues of Time and Space
While we in academe must grapple with often overwhelming institutional demands and constraints, it is still possible to craft a creative dossier. For example, for those of us committed to being creative public intellectuals, the issue becomes one of educating colleagues about what we are doing and why it’s important. At my university, where I work in a multidisciplinary department of social sciences and humanities, and where faculty members from disciplines all across the university make up the tenure and promotion committee, I crafted a personal statement for my file that captured my intentionality around public sociology and the ways it is a legitimate and firmly grounded part of my discipline.
We’ve also all seen how the pandemic has changed how people conceptualize work, space and place, and we can use that to creatively rethink how we offer and manage our time for tasks such as office hours. It might be possible to conduct them outside in fresh air and sunshine, or to do a walk-and-talk session with a student on campus. Or perhaps we can offer phone appointments while walking or biking. The spirit of these ideas is not to amplify multitasking, but rather to consider ways we might be able to give back to ourselves while we are supporting others’ success and growth. The point then becomes not about adding more but about how we negotiate our time and workload in ways that prioritize creative spaciousness.
Similarly, much of the service being done across campuses is unpaid labor for the purpose of institutional maintenance. We might want to create our own service opportunities. For example, years back, a colleague and I created monthly evening events related to gender issues and invited the entire campus community. No such thing had existed before on our campus, and various campus leaders at the time appropriately recognized that endeavor as a meaningful and special contribution of service.
This issue of time and space extends to scholarship and how we negotiate that to be productive. We’re limited by blocking beliefs that if only we could have endlessly unfolding hours and days, we would finally be able to write and publish more—that until it is perfect, we dare not submit our work yet, and that we probably don’t know what we’re doing anyway, given the impostor syndrome so pervasive in academe. But that mentality of “if only,” “when” and “not until” ramps up our self-expectations and fear and holds us back from taking creative risks. It also feeds into a mentality of scarcity that runs counter to a creative life.
We must also make room for our creative endeavors by prioritizing them and not becoming overwhelmed or sidetracked by other demands. I’ve learned that if our initial gut instinct is to say no to something, it is best to say it or to say, “I’ll have to think about it and get back to you,” and then return with the no. Some colleagues will bear down in meetings with intense praise and pressure to get us to agree to something. It’s OK to say, “Thanks for thinking I’d be good at this, but if you need an answer right now, it will have to be no.” In my mind, I picture the famous New Yorker cartoon where a man on the phone looks at his calendar and says, “How about never—is never good for you?”
Our personal lives, too, offer us endless opportunities to be creative. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests daily walks, writing morning pages every day and taking a creative excursion as regularly as possible. Contained in that model is the need for rituals, structure and an openness to being creative. I’d add that being in friendships and intimate relationships that nourish, rather than squelch, our creativity is essential.
In the three-ring circus that is the life of a faculty member—juggling the demands of teaching, scholarship and service—it is advantageous to approach our responsibilities as creatively as possible, as doing so will enhance work-life balance. Often, when we drop down into the most creative oasis within ourselves, we are able to experience unleashed freedom, timelessness, flow and energy in ways that life looks light-filled, colorful and more spacious than ever before. If we begin this new academic year with the fervent belief that we deserve to engage in the vitality of cultivating more creativity, and if we follow that with intention and action, we can start to transform our work and our lives significantly for the better.