Charles Johnson on creativity and self-liberation

Charles Johnson Quotation

“I think we liberate ourselves through creating.” ~ Charles Johnson

Last week my husband and I took Amtrak’s Hiawatha service from Milwaukee to Chicago to spend a day at the Newberry Library.

On the first part of the journey, I read an interview with author Charles Johnson, whose novel Middle Passage won the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction (“Charles Johnson Reflects on His National Book Award-Winning Novel and More,” by Robin Lindley, Writer’s Chronicle, February 2017). I had thrown the magazine in my tote bag and flipped to the first article, not knowing it would be just what I needed, when I needed it.

For the rest of the train ride, I looked out the window, occasionally taking video with my phone, and thought about creativity.

How some people seem born to be creative.

How creativity is in their bones, in their breath, in their soul.

How easily a creative calling gets confused with public acclaim and success.

How we hesitate to admit the creative vocation, even to ourselves, especially if we don’t have creative products deemed worthy of a life of creativity.

How Viktor Frankl wrote that creating a work is one way to discovery meaning.

How living a creative life is about, most of all, openness to all of life’s experience.

How by not accepting a creative life nor actively exposing ourselves to creativity in its many forms on a regular basis, even—and perhaps especially—when life feels upside down and sideways, we betray our very selves.

“If you love creativity, then your work naturally makes you learn about other creations and how other people have done it. So you want to expose yourself to as much art as possible: black, white; east, west; past, present. You expose yourself to all kinds of art and you learn—and grow constantly in your craft—because you’ve seen all of these creations that are our human inheritance.” ~ Charles Johnson

“Solving a problem by depicting it visually or in a story is how I live my entire life today. I can’t imagine living a life in which my mind is not engaged in creative problem solving.” ~ Charles Johnson

See also

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Grown-up gifted kid

Like so many other fans, I have caught Hamilton fever. I’ve read the Chernow biography, listened to the soundtrack dozens and dozens of times, watched video interviews, tuned in to podcasts, and am (im)patiently waiting to see the musical in person next month. And while the music and production are addictive enough, just as fascinating is the story of its creator: Lin-Manuel Miranda.

By John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ( [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
For many years, much of my writing and speaking work was about the lives of gifted children: who they are (which is difficult to describe in words), common myths and misperceptions, what makes them feel and act differently from their age peers, the challenges they pose for parents and teachers, and, most important, the intensity many of them experience every single day. I taught at an elementary school for highly and profoundly gifted children for a time and also served on the board of directors for SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted).

Even before learning on 60 Minutes that Lin-Manuel Miranda attended Hunter College’s public school for intellectually gifted students, I recognized in him the intensity inherent in many gifted learners. This gifted intensity can be easy to see but hard to define and even harder to embrace fully, especially in children. It is often palpable, changing the energy level in a room. It is a need to know and to understand that transcends textbooks and classrooms and grades. One gifted young adult I know, for example, teaches himself advanced-level math, in addition to his other studies, by watching MIT math lectures on YouTube. Not all that unusual, you might say, but he watches them at 2x normal speed, usually while doing something else. He remembers it all and—this is important—thoroughly enjoys the process.

Sometimes gifted intensity is channeled into school and traditional learning, but often it manifests in other ways and includes a need to create. Lin-Manuel described on 60 Minutes his school experience and the path toward finding his particular lane in life:

“You know, I went to a school where everyone was smarter than me. And I’m not blowin’ smoke, I, my, I was surrounded by genius, genius kids. What’s interesting about growing up in a culture like that is you go, ‘All right, I gotta figure out what my thing is. Because I’m not smarter than these kids. I’m not funnier than half of them, so I better figure out what it is I wanna do and work really hard at that.’ And because intellectually I’m treading water to, to be here.”

“…I picked a lane and I started running ahead of everybody else. So I, that’s the honest answer. It was like, I was like, ‘All right THIS.'” ~ Lin-Manuel Miranda

The gift of the kind of school that Miranda attended is that intensity of experience is the norm, not the exception. While he may have felt out of step intellectually with his age peers, he knew there was something out there for him and felt safe to pursue it. Submitting to his intensity made him feel less, not more, out of place.

You can see this intensity when Miranda and other cast members performed recently at the White House and in his longer interview with Charlie Rose (included later in this post). Gifted intensity is the opposite of blasé. It is nearly always turned on. It is ruled by the child’s interests and drives, not the wishes and expectations of parents or society. It has an affective or emotional component, which many people do not expect. And it can be exhausting and confusing for everyone, including the gifted themselves.

The following documentary trailer for Rise: The Extraordinary Journey of the Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted (produced by the Daimon Institute and P. Susan Jackson) includes one young woman explaining the intensity of her emotions:

“I spent quite a few years in kind of, almost a rejection of my emotions, just because I feel them so strongly. You can’t even convey how strong they are, but if you could physically represent them, they’d move mountains.”

In an interview with Charlie Rose, below, Miranda talks about the emotional and empathic aspect of writing Hamilton:

Here’s the tricky part for parents: The vast majority of gifted children will not write ground-breaking musicals or find a cure for cancer or win a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. Creative and intellectual success on a public scale is often seen as a hallmark of giftedness, but it is in no sense a necessary component. Most grown-up gifted children’s intensity will be invested in day to day work, hobbies, family, and life in general. The goal is to help them understand and embrace their intensity rather than to be ashamed by it.

The important thing is that if your child has the intensity of experience you see in people like Lin-Manuel Miranda, use that recognition as a way to accept gifted intensity wherever you find it, to nurture it rather than try to hide or subdue it, to help children to understand their intensity—while sometimes challenging even for themselves—as normal. Thinking more, feeling more, seeking more are all normal for them. (As a bonus, parents often discover during this process that their own intensity has been neglected or hidden for far too long.)

Having just a few adults who really get and celebrate gifted intensity can make all the difference. When our son was about seven years old, he took a science fiction writing class through a local College for Kids program. The class was taught by a university English professor, James Hazard, but was not necessarily meant for intellectually gifted students. When I arrived at the end of the first day, Professor Hazard took me aside and said, “Your son is very intense.”

Oh, no, I thought, as I braced myself for what would come next.

But he continued, his face breaking into a grin: “It’s wonderful.”

A slightly updated version of this post appears at Psychology Today. Header image photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Wreck Your Creativity

Take chances, make mistakes, get messy! ~ Ms. Frizzle, The Magic School Bus

  • Student-wrecked journals
    Student-wrecked journals
  • Hole-y wrecked journal, Batman!
    Hole-y wrecked journal, Batman!
  •  Turn this page black (using items found in the world).
    Turn this page black (using items found in the world).
  • Turn this page black (using items found in the world).
    Turn this page black (using items found in the world).
  • Blank page
    Blank page
  • Draw something based on the moon.
    Draw something based on the moon.
  • Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
    Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
  • Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
    Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
  • Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
    Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
  • Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
    Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Use this space while dreaming outside.
    Use this space while dreaming outside.
  • Cover this page in lines that you find.
    Cover this page in lines that you find.
  • Blank page
    Blank page
  • Cover this page using only items found in the outdoors.
    Cover this page using only items found in the outdoors.
  • Cover this page using only items found in the outdoors.
    Cover this page using only items found in the outdoors.
  • Fill the entire page with words you see on your adventures.
    Fill the entire page with words you see on your adventures.
  • Blank page
    Blank page
  • Cover this page in circles that you find.
    Cover this page in circles that you find.
  • Write down all the street names in your immediate vicinity.
    Write down all the street names in your immediate vicinity.
  • Find a piece of cardboard in the next five minutes. Tape it here.
    Find a piece of cardboard in the next five minutes. Tape it here.
  • Blank page
    Blank page


An important part of creativity is giving ourselves permission to be messy and imperfect. By the time we are adults, however, we’ve often been trained in the art of avoiding messiness and mistakes. School in particular rewards playing it safe rather than taking chances.

Another aspect of creativity is the habit of recording our ideas and experiences. One of the ways that I try to encourage a more playful approach to notekeeping for engineering, business, and nursing students is to assign as a creative thinking “textbook” Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal Everywhere. Smith’s various editions of Wreck This Journal—part creative journal, part sketchbook, part writing prompts—have sold over 3 million copies. Read more about her in the TIME magazine profile, “Meet the Woman Trying To Save Your Kids from Their Screens,” and on her website.

In the past, I have asked students to keep their own creative journals as a way to practice the art of paying attention, but many of them seemed stuck or intimidated when faced with so many blank pages. Smith’s journals are small (Wreck This Journal Everywhere is small enough to fit in a coat pocket), fun, and full of delightfully unexpected prompts designed to trigger connections with the world around us.

While not every student warms equally to their journal, most appreciate the chance to get class credit for doodling, sketching, daydreaming on paper—activities they have often been told are a waste of time. They get full credit for the journal, which is part of their class participation grade, as long as they use most or all of the pages (they don’t have to follow the prompts, but most do) and clearly get into the spirit of the assignment. Many tell me afterward that they have recommended the journal to their friends and family and that they plan to continue the journal habit themselves.

The photos at the top of this post are a few examples.

Lessons on Play from a Betta Fish

Recently I made a small change in my work that has resulted in an unexpected giant step in everyday enjoyment: I began to listen to music for a good chunk of the day, most of the time through headphones attached to my phone that also allow me to take hands-free calls.

I’m not sure when or why music had become an occasional treat, saved for the car or when I had nothing else to do, rather than an integral part of my life, but it had. Not until I was watching our betta fish this morning did I realize why music makes such a big difference. Music is a form of play.

Why Play Matters for Creativity

Consider what these creativity experts have to say about the importance of play:

Dan Pink, bestselling author: “The best way to get in touch with your inner child is to take it outside for some play. So go back to school… or at least, back to the playground. Visit a schoolyard, take a seat on a bench, and watch how the real kids play. See if some of their sense of wonder and curiosity penetrates your adult immune system.” (from A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World)

Tina Seelig, Stanford professor: “Simply put, when you play, you are having fun. When you have fun, you feel better about yourself and your work. And when you feel better, you are much more creative and deliver more.” (from InGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity)

Tim Brown, IDEO CEO and president: “Kids are more engaged with open possibilities…. when they come across something new, they’ll certainly ask, ‘What is it?’ Of course they will. But they’ll also ask, ‘What can I do with it?’ And you know, the more creative of them might get to a really interesting example. And this openness is the beginning of exploratory play.” (from his TED Talk “Tales of Creativity and Play“)

Lessons on Play from a Betta Fish

Fun doesn’t have to be complicated, and it can occur wherever we are. Here is a photo of our new betta fish’s heater. Notice the narrow space between the heater and the tank (and how Mr. Darcy, never missing a beat, is keen on figuring out what I am doing):

Aquarium Heater

Now watch how he uses that space to create his own playground. Round and round he goes, for several minutes at a time. I was lucky to be able to film a few seconds before he noticed my presence, which would have immediately broken the spell. (In case anyone is wondering, the Renoir card both gives him something to look at and hides his food jar so that he’s not constantly begging to be fed—bettas are smart fish!)

Music transforms my usual workspace into a similar playground, making everything else more fun and opening me to possibilities I wouldn’t normally notice.

Where and how do you find or create fun spaces in your workday?

Creativity Boosters for Writers

As we come to the end of our series on Getting Serious About Writing, I want to share some ideas for ways to enhance our creativity that have nothing to do specifically with writing. The point of creating a writing life is that our everyday choices support and enhance our writing for the long-term. After all, writing is about so much more than words.

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry, for publication or for pleasure, these suggestions will boost your creativity on and off the page.

Be willing to fail. By now, most of us know that failure is an inherent part of the creative process, but taking the next step from knowing to allowing ourselves to fail is not always easy, especially for perfectionists. We can start with baby steps that may not even involve writing, such as cooking and serving a new, complex dish that we are bound not to get right the first time or learning a new sport or hobby that requires that we expose ourselves as beginners.

Design a creativity-friendly work space. Within our available budgets and space we can recreate our work areas in ways that inspire rather than hamper our ideas.  Especially important is to have all of our writing tools—books, paper, pens, computers, whatever else we use—within easy reach rather than something we must “get out” each time we decide to write.

View constraints as creativity enhancers. A bare-bones writing environment, on the other hand, can also be good for creativity, as can time constraints. See Ben Chestnut’s video “Creating an Environment for Creativity and Empowerment” for more about the value of subtracting time from the creativity equation.

Learn something new. Dan Pink calls it “symphony” and “border crossing.” Tina Seelig uses the term “cross-pollination.” What they both are referring to is making connections between unrelated fields or topics to come up with something new. If you were an English major, broaden your horizons by reading some physics. If you are a technical writer who usually enjoys non-fiction,  a mystery novel or some poetry.

Dare to be complex. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found that creative people often have complex personalities—they can not easily be pigeonholed as introvert or extrovert, for example, or disciplined or playful. They allow themselves to be whatever they need to be for the creative work at hand. If you normally think of yourself (or others think of you) as being the far end of one of his ten dimensions of complexity, make a point of “tryout out” another way of being.

Make friends with routine. Csikszentmihalyi also reminds us that routine is not the enemy of creativity. Far from it. Having a routine frees our mind from having to make dozens of time-sucking decisions—what to wear, what to eat, when to eat, when to exercise, whether to exercise. Those questions are already answered so that we can use our thoughts for more creative work.

Allow yourself to play. Having a playful attitude helps to loosen inhibitions and drive innovation, not to mention we have more fun! Making time in our day for games, humor, and other forms of play (when was the last time you made homemade playdough—for yourself?) a valuable investment in our writing life.

Pay attention. Tina Seelig, author of inGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity, explains that paying attention—simple but not always easy—gives us valuable knowledge we would otherwise miss and fuels our imagination. We can get better at paying attention “by actively looking at the world with fresh eyes, by seeing the ‘water’ in your environment, and by capturing your observations.”

Believe in your own creativity. Another of Seelig‘s reminders is one that many of us overlook: In order to be creative, we have to believe we can be creative: “Your beliefs are shaped by the language you use, and the language you use is shaped by your beliefs.” What is your personal, internal narrative about your writing and your creativity, and how can you change the words you say to yourself?