Lori Wolf-Heffner

Historical Fiction Author
Exploring Creativity by Exposing Yourself More

Exploring Creativity by Exposing Yourself More

Engage With Your Art Form

Theatre guru Trevor Copp has a bowl of theatre tickets, roughly 1,200 of them. The bowl makes its stage appearance when Copp judges the Ontario Drama Festival (formerly the Sears Drama Festival): it contains one way of exploring creativity, and he has a reason for placing this bowl under the limelight at this moment.

The bowls contains the tickets of all the theatre shows he himself has seen. Copp tells the students, “There’s three things that we need to become great creators. We need to study the work, we need to do the work, and here’s the third one that is completely inadequately done: we need to see the work. […]”

He then adds, “These tickets did more for me than my master’s degree did, more than all this other stuff I did. This is actually the work right here. This seeing pieces over and over again.”

Copp founded Burlington’s Tottering Biped Theatre in 2009, a professional company emphasizing original, issue-driven, and highly physical work. He has been a professional actor, dancer, director, choreographer, educator, theatre devisor, and arts advocate for over 15 years, and his work ranges from classical to contemporary, performing in over 30 cities nationally and internationally and at numerous professional theatre festivals. His TED Talk, “Ballroom Dancing that Breaks Gender Roles,” has received almost 620,000 views on the TED website at time of writing.

Develop Creativity by Experiencing Creativity

Copp has built a meaningful, sustainable life out of his love for the arts, and he’s learned a few things. Being creative doesn’t mean just producing: you also have to join the conversation.

“You can get a degree in theatre without seeing a play. It’s just this thing that’s baffling to me,” says Copp.

I’m going to say it now, and you’ll hear it from me again, and Copp will say further down in this blog post: being creative isn’t some random talent that some are born with and others aren’t. We all have it, but you have to engage with it, and one way of doing that is by taking in others’ creative endeavours.

So, if you think that young artists are exposed to thousands of hours of creativity that you as a working adult just don’t have time to engage in, think again.

“The thing that I absolutely rail about,” says Copp, “is the lack of student artists attending art. The lack of young actors seeing acting, the young dancers seeing dance.”

Afraid of the Negative?

Seeing other works not only feeds your ideas, but by helping you discern what you do and don’t like, you’re learning more about yourself. The reason I returned to part-time grad studies this year was to be forced to read things I normally wouldn’t read.

(That includes Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, but having to force my way through that monstrosity of a book is teaching me about craft, storytelling, character creation…all of it…not to mention persistence.)

As you see various artistic works, some will speak to you, some will not, just like Grass’s writing absolutely does not speak to me. That’s okay, and that’s part of the conversation you need to engage in. I believe that society in general is losing the art of meaningful conversation, which includes respectfully explaining why you don’t like something. This isn’t your grandmother’s meatloaf we’re talking about here, this is art, in the broad sense of the word.

Neil Gaiman on Arthur

If you have kids, you probably watched Marc Brown’s Arthur at some point in time. Did you see the Arthur episode with Neil Gaiman? Sue Ellen, the cat, is at a book signing. Neil Gaiman asks her if she’s a writer, but because she writes and draws, she doesn’t know where she fits in. He tells her about graphic novels, something he’s also done, so she reads one and becomes inspired to work on one herself. As she begins exploring creativity, she creates a story.

Her friends don’t understand her work, though, and she becomes discouraged. Gaiman consoles her, saying that her friends are clearly interested in her story, even if they don’t understand it or even like it. She takes his advice to heart and continues creating.

In other words, her work has begun a conversation, but it could only happen because she engaged in conversation first, both literally (by talking to Gaiman) and figuratively (by reading a graphic novel, something she’d never heard of before).

(If you want an easy book to read about developing your own voice, read Arthur Writes a Story, by Marc Brown.)

But You Don’t Have to Publish

Sue Ellen likely hopes to publish someday, but you don’t have to. Ever. You can create your own art (painting, dancing, composing, drawing, whatever) in your own private space, where no eyes will ever cast their gaze upon it.

And that’s totally fine!

But in order to help you develop your sense of who you are and how your voice sounds, you need to expose yourself to others’ art and let it touch you.

Vulnerability and Art

Of the works that speak to you, some will really hit you, sometimes in surprising ways. In my experience, that “hit” is to my most vulnerable spot, the spot I need to open up in my writing so that it’s Lori the Author writing and not Lori the Copywriter.

“We’re in a culture that doesn’t sit you down and make you look at your vulnerability and make you ask questions about it,” says Copp.

Opening up your vulnerability in your art doesn’t mean you have to let out your deep secrets. This isn’t Catholic confession we’re talking about here: you’re exploring creativity. Therefore, it’s about opening up the parts of you that are scared to come out. This will likely never be one massive explosion of exposed vulnerability: it’ll be a trickle.

And again, that’s okay!

Encourage that trickle by returning to your art and seeing if you can notice where you’ve closed up and need to open yourself. I notice it in my work where I suddenly have my protagonist move into a scene that doesn’t naturally flow with the story.

“We have this incredible facility for healing,” says Copp, “and that facility, I think, really comes about for the people who are creating and continue connecting themselves to their [artistic] work. If you’re just technical and talented, and you ride on that, you won’t go through that journey.”

Exploring Creativity Isn’t a Crap Shoot

As I keep emphasizing, creativity isn’t some random talent you’re either born with or aren’t, and Copp sees things the same way. In fact, he feels that people born with a strong talent in a skill often misconstrued as creativity can actually fall into a trap that hinders their creativity.

“I think that our cultural assumptions, that someone who is born with an artistic talent is creative, is faulty,” he says. “That they were born with grace and flexibility and balance, all those things, none of that makes them creative.”

Again, just because some people are born with certain aptitudes does not make them creative. You have to explore creativity, not just replicate it.

“The fact that you can land a quadruple [pirouette], good for you. That doesn’t make you a creative person,” Copp emphasizes (like I do).

“I think highly talented artists have this danger where the talent skips the part where their work is in dialogue with their actual life, with their emotional, spiritual, intellectual life. It can skip all that because they’re too talented.”

Two men in ballroom dancing positions, with a tuxedo jacket on a mannequin behind them.
Jeff Fox (l) and Trevor Copp (r) in First Dance, produced by Tottering Biped Theatre

Copp’s own biography is a case in point: he went into theatre first for personal development. Born with an identical twin, Copp grew up so close with someone that he didn’t always need to express himself; he and his twin just knew what the other was thinking. Once he hit adolescence, though, he realized that the rest of the world didn’t communicate the way he and his twin brother did, and he had to learn to bring himself outside of himself.

In other words, studying acting was never about an inborn skill he had.

“I pride myself on being an untalented performer. In school, I was never the lead, never got the awards, I never got any of that. I was just a person who was like, ‘I think this is how I want to grow up.’”

Creativity = Art + Life

For Copp, his real life and his onstage life had to match. For example, Copp used to find it difficult to express anger in real life, and that transferred to the stage: he couldn’t act angry, either.

“I don’t know how to do something onstage and not do it in my life,” he says. “I associate creativity with forcing yourself to lock those two together: ‘What’s happening in my life, what’s happening onstage, how do I make sure that the two are in correspondence?’”

So, if you’re holding back on exploring your creativity because you believe you don’t have the talent, then erase that belief from your head right now. Instead, replace it with joining the conversation.

That might mean going to a local church that offers noon-hour concerts, or attending more art or live theatre shows, or joining a book club. You’ll learn more by this extensive exposure than you ever could if you’d been born with the artistic skills you’re trying to cultivate in your own life.

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