"Pencil Dancing: New Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit," Mari Messer

Pros: Gobs of fantastic detail; incredibly inspiring; deliberately silly and non-pretentious
Cons: Err, maybe some abused metaphors?
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 6/25/2002

I felt a little residual silliness reading a book on creativity. I guess I have the idea of learning about creativity linked in my mind with froofy and ridiculous seminars advocating that you do really strange things which just make you feel dumb, instead of helping you be creative.

Okay, so maybe this book is a little froofy. But by the end of it, that didn’t feel dumb at all.

A BIG book on creativity!

When I ordered this book I expected it to be smaller. How much useful stuff can you write on the subject of creativity, anyway? Apparently quite a lot, as it turns out. This book is a good 281 pages including index, a meaty hardcover with 39 (really – 39!) chapters, an introduction, a “how to use this book” section, and an afterword. There’s so much material in here it could keep you busy for years. It took me a good 6 or 7 days to read this book, at least three times as long as it takes me to read most others. Every day I found myself taking multiple pages of notes on things I didn’t want to forget or lose track of.

The book is divided up into major sections (8 of them), all but one part containing five chapters each. Every chapter ends with a page of exercises, experiments, projects, and research that you can try out and play with, and there are many more suggestions within the chapters themselves. In the margins you’ll find cool quotes by various people (this seems to be a standard feature of many writing-related books).

Who’s this book for?

Anyone! No, really. It isn’t aimed specifically at any one sort of person. Not writers, not painters, not carpenters. Neither beginners nor the experienced. It’s of particular use to people who want to “live the creative life,” as it were, but it has quite a bit to offer anyone who wishes to use creativity in their work, personal life or hobbies.

So what’s it got, anyway?

Part 1 – Creativity 101: Practicing the Basic Steps: Want to know what “hurry sickness” is? Want to learn to capture butterflies (err, creative ideas) on the fly? Do you still need to learn that it’s okay to get things wrong the first time out? Then this section is a wonderful place to start.

Part 2 – Polishing Your Powers of Observation: Here you’ll learn to just notice, really notice, the things around you. Even better, you’ll learn why this is important. Plenty of people will tell you to learn this in order to improve your observational skills, but Ms. Messer delves much deeper into the psychology of “devoted attention” and the benefits that can be derived from it. Learn how to see like an alien, experience “the creative point of view,” and pencil dance with talking rocks.

Part 3 – Creating With Your Whole Self: Here you’ll read for a bit about the relationship between our creative and logical minds (in Ms. Messer’s wonderful metaphor, the cow and the racehorse), and you’ll learn a bit about how to get them to work together and in the right amounts and times. You’ll find a few thoughts on memories and creativity, including a method to help you recover, value, and use your memories in creative expression.

Part 4 – Losing Your Logical Mind: Ms. Messer contends that the place for the logical mind is not at the very beginning of the creative process, and she helps us find out how to let go of logic until the right time comes to bring it back in. She talks about playing, collecting useless information, visualization, and curiosity. “Practice without purpose.”

Part 5 – Freeing Your Creative Elves: Next Ms. Messer addresses inspiration. Why it’s like ice fishing, how you can expand your creative comfort zone, why ridiculousness is handy and useful, and how you can learn to take risks – one step at a time.

Part 6 – Befriending Your Beasts: Here you’ll learn how to spin straw into gold, face the giant squid of confusion(!), and finally – learn to tame your inner critic. Not beat down, not destroy, but work with in an appropriate manner. You’ll also learn a bit about difficulties, detours, distractions, and even doldrums. (How’s that for D-words?)

Part 7 – Creating From the Inside Out: Here the beginners in the crowd will be delighted to learn that they have a head-start on those of us who must unlearn what we already know. You’ll learn when and how it’s most helpful to get criticism on your work – and when and how it isn’t. Then you’ll discover the value of being weird.

Part 8 – Dancing With Your Creative Spirit: Finally Ms. Messer discusses the value of a sense of awe and wonder. She leads us through practices to calm our minds (what psychotherapist Eric Maisel would call “hushing the mind”). She leads us on a quest to find our vision, and explains why creative people are like talking dolphins.

Okay, sounds interesting. Does anything in this book suck?

One of Ms. Messer’s strong points is also a vaguely negative point – metaphor. All sorts of things are expressed in terms of really weird, extensive, and ongoing metaphors. Frankly I think this is great, because it gives us an idea of just how creative and weird you can get if you try. It does get a little ridiculous (I suspect deliberately so), which might tweak your sensibilities a little if your inner critic is raging. (But then, perhaps that’s the point.)

Who wouldn’t love the giant squid of confusion, though?

Some of the exercises are a little weird to those of us who aren’t entirely comfortable with (or convinced of the value of) letting go and having silly fun. Just read the book through, try some of the less weird exercises if the others bother you, and gradually work up the nerve to try one or two of the others with the curtains drawn and the door locked. I think it’ll be worth it! It helps that this book is not pretentious and doesn’t take itself seriously. Many things are fun when silly that are dumb when approached with too much seriousness.

My only other note is kind of an odd one. When Ms. Messer discusses the “doldrums of creativity,” I was never sure from what she said whether she was discussing depression, burnout, both, or some fraction of each. I think it would have been best had she concentrated on burnout, since the psychiatric factors that go into depression really can’t be addressed in a book on creativity. Maybe that’s what she meant to do, but it wasn’t clear from what she wrote that this was the case.

Wow, so much good stuff! Was anything truly outstanding?

The giant squid of confusion!

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, there are several things that particularly stick in my mind:

Honesty: Ms. Messer is honest about some of these lessons being not only tough to learn, but difficult to remember. She isn’t shy about explaining the times when she’s fallen down.

Examples: Ms. Messer uses lots and lots of interesting examples from her life, her students’ lives, and various famous people’s lives. These really make the principles she discusses come alive.

Detail: There’s plenty of detail in here to help you find your own way. If one suggestion doesn’t work for you, hopefully another will. Just keep reading!

Lists: Where possible Ms. Messer puts helpful principles in list form. She doesn’t use this as an excuse to avoid detail – she simply uses it to make things easy to come back and find when you need information on a particular aspect of creativity. It also helps to keep the book from simply being a swath of text, breaking things up a bit and making them visually more interesting and easy to read.

Sheer helpfulness: I’ve learned a whole lot in here that’s been directly applicable to how I live my life, how I work, specific projects I’m working on, how I deal with people, how I let other people deal with me, and so on.

A good heart: The discussion of criticism, constructive criticism, and their place in the creative process has convinced me to be less harsh and critical in my judgment of others’ work during the creative process; I now understand much better how such harshness can damage the enthusiasm that is central to creativity.

I honestly cannot recommend this book enough. If you’re a writer, a graphic artist, an executive, a dancer, an architect, a baker, or anything else, this book could make your life happier, richer, and definitely more creative!

Before I read this book I had forgotten what it was like to have so many ideas for material to write that I constantly had to carry a notebook around with me to catch even a fraction of them. I got halfway through this book and I had to make a trip to the drug store to pick up some pocket-sized notebooks to catch the sheer flood of ideas! It’s hard to give the book a more glowing recommendation than that.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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