I’ve had my fair share of mortifying moments, but I’d never heard the term creative mortification until I happened upon it in author Peggy Orenstein’s newest book, Unraveling.
While others were making sourdough during the pandemic, Orenstein learned how to shear a sheep, spin wool, dye wool, and knit a multicolored sweater with rustic, waxy yarn. When it came to sketching a pattern, however, she froze.
“My husband can draw. My daughter can draw,” she writes. “But… I freeze. I can’t even doodle. I have what turns out to be creative mortification around drawing.”
I could relate all too well to Orenstein’s mortification, in my case with regard to performing. While in elementary school, I stood proudly in the front line to perform a group gymnastics routine, even though I’d missed an essential practice. I didn’t discover until the song was almost over that my routine was not in sync with everyone else’s.
My cousin and his friend ridiculed me, letting me know that I’d ruined the whole thing. To top it off, they pointed to my protruding belly and laughed. I stood there, feeling crushed and painfully exposed in my black and yellow bumblebee leotard. Needless to say, I never performed in the front row (or wore that leotard) again.
I don’t think many of us have escaped the shame and embarrassment of a creative experience where we put ourselves out there only to encounter a less-than-uplifting reception. Sometimes these experiences cause us to keep going, inspire us to try even harder. Sometimes, they stop us in our tracks for good. Studies have shown that creativity enhances our sense of well-being, making it an important part of our everyday lives. Fortunately, there are ways to embrace creativity once again after the experience of mortification.
What is creative mortification?
Psychologists define the term creative mortification as “the loss of one’s willingness to pursue a particular creative aspiration following a negative performance outcome.”
In other words, when the experience of sharing your creative work with someone whose opinions you value is so harsh and critical, you lose the joy of creation. It was coined by professor and author Ronald Beghetto, an internationally recognized expert on creative thought and action in educational settings, who recounts his own experience of creative mortification:
As a high school student, my father passed away and for some reason I started writing poetry. I got encouragement from my English teacher to continue to write and started thinking that maybe I’d be a poet someday. In college, I took a poetry seminar and submitted a packet of poems [to my professor]. He responded to them by saying, ‘You know, this might be good if you want to be a Hallmark card writer, but you’re no John Keats.’ Keats was my poetic hero at the time. So I put my poetry pen down and haven’t picked it up since.
Beghetto’s main inspiration for this term, however, was his father, a brilliant inventor. “I remember how my dad, who actually had a couple of patents, would share his ideas with the family and be ridiculed. After a while, he just stopped sharing his ideas. He didn’t file any patents after that. He really didn’t have a place to go with his creativity. As a kid, I felt that my dad’s not being able to creatively express himself literally destroyed him.”
What defines a mortifying moment? “There is a potential window where you might or might not have the resilience to withstand criticism,” says Beghetto, who was also influenced by James C. Kaufman, author of the forthcoming book The Creativity Advantage. “What I found in the initial exploratory study is a particular shame, which is really an indictment of the self coupled with the belief that you can’t get better.”
In essence, the experience of shame in individuals who possess a fixed mindset is what leads to creative mortification. Stanford professor Carol Dweck defines a fixed mindset as the belief that talents, intelligence, and abilities (like creativity) are set in stone, whereas a growth mindset involves believing they can be improved and developed.
“If my poetry professor had said, ‘Let me show you a couple lines that have promise,’ or ‘Let me show you how to improve your poem,’ that would have made all the difference,” says Beghetto.
Not only can negative reinforcement lead to creative mortification, excessive praise can, too. Kaufman calls this creative mollification. “American Idol is a great example of this,” he says. “You see these people who think they’re really great. Their family and friends all tell them how wonderful they are. If they get absolutely normal feedback [from the judges], it will feel like mortification because they’ve constantly been told they’re amazing. All of a sudden, they’re getting, ‘Well, you’re fine.’ That can potentially be just as devastating.”
A broader view of creativity
Many of us have the impression that creativity is limited to the arts—dance, theater, painting, literature—but it actually touches most parts of our everyday lives, since the roots of creativity are problem-solving and innovative ways of thinking.
Creativity is defined by scholars as the production of something both novel and appropriate. “If anything new qualifies as creative, then the term loses its meaning,” says Kaufman. “Suppose the person you hired to repave your driveway covered it with salami—that would be original, but inappropriate.”
Many of us have been raised to believe we’re either creative or we’re not. Even after writing a number of New York Times bestselling books, Orenstein held on to the belief that she wasn’t creative. “I didn’t feel like I was a creative person. I felt that despite writing for a living, which most people would consider a creative profession, I was somebody who needed a pattern when I knitted. I needed a recipe when I baked. I’ve never written fiction. And I can’t draw.”
“Whether we’re artists or not, being human means being creative, which takes away the idea that there are some people who are creative and some who aren’t.”
Through writing her most recent book, however, Orenstein realized that she’d been expressing a fixed mindset. “How many times did I say, ‘I can’t do this. This is too hard. I’m never going to get it’? And then about three-quarters of the way in, I realized all of a sudden that was the point. I had to reckon with my creative mortification, think about a growth mindset, and re-embrace the beginner’s mind.”
Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Extended Mind and the Science of Creativity newsletter, believes that all humans are inherently creative. “Whether we’re artists or not, being human means being creative, which takes away the idea that there are some people who are creative and some who aren’t.”
If we’re all creative, the only difference is in the form that creativity takes. Together, Beghetto and Kaufman formulated the Four C Model of Creativity, spanning from mini-c (subjective creativity) and little-c (everyday creativity) to Pro-C (professional) and Big-C (creator). Most creative activities fall into the first two categories, from cooking dinner for friends to playing with Legos or teaching your dog a new trick.
“With a lot of deliberate practice, you can reach Pro-C or expert-level creativity. It’s when you start making some type of impact on the field, even if it’s very small,” says Kaufman. “Beyond Pro-C is the Big-C, or the creative genius, which many people gravitate to when they think about what creativity is. Paul McCartney is a good bet, since his work has already survived about 60 years.”
How to reawaken creativity
If early experiences have left us detached from our own creativity, how do we rekindle healthy creative growth?
First and foremost, we need to get back in touch with our intrinsic motivation for being creative—the internal joy and fulfillment that inspires us to create in the first place. “There’s this kind of Goldilocks balance, if you will, where creativity is really about doing something you enjoy and want to spend time pursuing. When you practice, you naturally get better at it,” says Beghetto.
Murphy Paul reminds us that creativity begins with play. “Seeing, having fun, doing things for pleasure without so much goal orientation [helps rekindle creativity],” she says. “Creativity really blossoms when you lift the pressures we put on ourselves and give yourself permission to play and experiment.”
Wonder Seeker author Andrea Scher recommends practicing mindfulness, a natural complement to creativity. “When we’re in this very open place of presence, our heart is open, our eyes are open a little wider… I think that when we’re in our creative flow we are also in deep presence. We’re also in a state of intimacy with what we’re creating.”
When the experience of creative mortification has locked one door for good, try opening another one. Orenstein still doesn’t draw, but she does play guitar and sings, knits, and, of course, writes.
“Recognize that creativity is something we can all do and love, whether it’s baking or messing around with test tubes or playing basketball, something that gives you that kind of joy,” says Orenstein. “I think the point is that as humans, we need creativity, maybe not to survive, but to thrive, and we need creativity for joy and enrichment. And it doesn’t have to be anything that anybody else knows you do.”
While I’m not about to perform gymnastics in a bumblebee leotard anytime soon, I am planning to learn to garden this spring, and am braving the rewrite of a middle-grade novel, my first. Facing rejections from potential agents did, in fact, feel mortifying–but ultimately my sense of purpose overrode that of failure. In the end, I’m writing for myself and my sons, and believe that practice does fuel growth.
In the words of artist Henri Matisse, “Creativity takes courage.” That, and the willingness to fail and then get back up again.