I grew up hungry to do something creative, to set myself apart. I also believed creativity was magical and genetically encoded. As early as the age of 8, I began sampling the arts, one after another, to see if I’d inherited some gift.
Eventually, I became a journalist. For many years, I told other people’s stories. I was successful, but I rarely felt truly creative.
The first hint I might have sold myself short came in the mid-1990s. In the course of writing a book called What Really Matters, Searching for Wisdom in America, I took a five-day seminar on how to draw, led by Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
When Edwards peered down at the self-portrait I had drawn on the first day, she smiled. My artistic development, she told me gently, seemed to have been arrested somewhere around the age of six. This was, she hastened to add, no evidence of lack of ability, but rather of training.
From an early age, we’re taught in school to develop the logical, language-based, rational capacities of the left hemisphere of our brain, which is goal-oriented and impatient to reach conclusions.
The left hemisphere gives names to objects in order to reduce and simplify them. One nose is like another, for example, so when we’re asked to draw one, we retrieve the symbol we have for “nose” from our memory, reproduce it and move on.
The right hemisphere, by contrast, is visual rather than verbal. It’s capable of seeing more deeply and subtly than the left, immersing itself in what’s actually there, in all its richness. Once you learn to do that, Edwards told us, drawing what you see is, relatively speaking, a breeze.
Sure enough, by the fifth and final day of the workshop, I was able to produce a self-portrait that was undeniably me, and surprisingly realistic. After several months of practice, I was able to draw myself with a significant degree of skill, and even expressiveness. I had effectively begun to learn a wholly new and non-verbal language.
But what did that have to do with creativity? Turns out, quite a bit.
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