Creating in the Midst of Chaos

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Leonard Bernstein

War in Ukraine. Climate change. Two years in a pandemic. Division. Anger.

The world feels scary, out of control. Creating something may feel like the furthest thing from your mind. But it can be a balm.

Many studies have linked the benefits of creativity to positive mental and physical health symptoms—from healing trauma to lowering blood pressure. But when the world feels overwhelming, inertia can set in. Call it writer’s block, call it media saturation, call it whatever you want. In moments like these, we can remind ourselves that we don’t have to create masterpieces in order to heal, soothe, or calm. Just create.

The benefits of the creative process

It’s easy to get stuck in self-criticism and imposter syndrome when creating. Like when you’re inspired by something on Pinterest, get the materials for a craft project, and once finished, your project looks like… well, like a craft project, all popsicle sticks and glitter glue that a four-year old could have made.

Unless you’re making something to sell, it’s ok that it looks like a homemade craft project. If it has a future, you’ll rework it, edit it, practice, whatever you need to do to make it ready. But the simple act of creating is what gives you a dopamine hit—that brain chemical that makes you feel good.

Creating as self-care

Creating concentrates your focus. Much like meditation, it can allow other thoughts to drift past without anchoring. I had a tangible reminder of this during the pandemic. In 2020, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—a community writing event every November—was not only eight months into the pandemic but also right in the middle of a highly stressful U.S. presidential election.

NaNoWriMo 2020 started on a Sunday. News and panic swirled and consumed everything. It was a warm day in Texas, warm enough to take my laptop outside, sit at the patio table and write. I had struggled to plot my story (hello, distraction!), so had a hard time getting started. But I was determined. I slowly tapped the keys. Then picked up steam. A couple of hours later, I had written 5,000 words.

When I closed my laptop, I had a smile on my face. I felt lighter and brighter. The simple act of creating blocked out everything else, sent those happy chemicals to my brain, and made me feel better. What I wrote was… well, it wasn’t great. But it wasn’t supposed to be. I could fix it later. In that moment, all that mattered was the creating, not the outcome.

Redefining creating

I’ve heard people say they’re not creative. I don’t buy it. Rather, I think we have too narrow a definition for what it means to be creative. Do you like to cook or bake? Knit? Weld? Woodwork? Arrange flowers? Make paper airplanes? Color? All of it is creating. You don’t have to be William Shakespeare to be a writer. You don’t have to be Michelangelo to be an artist. Everyone has something to create. It’s in our human DNA from the first cave paintings. Creating is humanity’s attempt to make meaning of their world—however it manifests.

Sometimes starting small can be the gateway to expansion. Lead with curiosity. Sometimes I make excuses that I don’t have time—too much work, too much house stuff, family matters. But I can also waste a lot of time staring at my phone. Ten minutes coloring soothes a lot more than doom scrolling. I don’t create a masterpiece—or even anything that I would hang on a wall—but I can create something pretty and colorful and block out the world for a few minutes and recharge.

I remember years ago at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, a group of Tibetan monks spent days creating intricate sand mandalas, focusing and pouring the sand with precision. When they finished, they erased it and started over. I went every day (I worked nearby) to watch them. The entire point was the meditation of creation.

Creating as a way to build community

I’ve written previously about how important my writing community is for both support and improving my craft—and for helping it feel like less of a solitary endeavor. For many of us, though our families may cheer us on, they can’t drill down to the heart of the craft or commiserate when things go off course—like getting stuck on a plot point or the frustrations of querying for a literary agent. My writing group is made of women who are right there alongside me (as I am for them) at every point of the creative journey. My critique group helps improve my craft both through reading my work and our discussions.

As humans, we are drawn to create. Now we know that the very act of creation provides a range of benefits. We all hope we create masterpieces, but the process of creating something is in and of itself a triumph of humanity.

Photo credit: Steve Johnson/Unsplash

Published by katezerrenner

I write non-fiction environmental work, mainly climate change, energy, and water, with a heavy focus on policy. I also write historical fiction. In addition to writing, I work as a policy advisor at the State of Texas. Previously, I spent over a decade at Environmental Defense Fund, where I led EDF’s multi-year campaign to influence and enact state and national energy and water efficiency policy. I led the state legislative team, testifying before the US Congress and Texas Legislature. Prior to joining EDF, I worked at the U.S. Government Accountability Office analyzing U.S. action on climate change and the voluntary carbon offset market; SAIC, on climate change projects for the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and U.S. Department of Energy. I have a Master’s degree in International Energy and Environmental Policy and Economics from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a Master’s in Comparative Politics from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and a Bachelor’s degree in European History from the University of Texas

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