Exploring Creativity with Elizabeth Johnston
Just before Christmas, I met with Elizabeth Johnston at a restaurant to discuss creativity.
This was a great topic because Johnston has the Own Your Creativity site, where she leads a “memoir in a month” challenge every November.
She also works as a self-actualization consultant and story coach. Access her skills for success programs to help business leaders at http://www.elizabeth-johnston.com/.
To listen to her “Own Your Creativity” podcast episodes, go to https://ownyourcreativity.podbean.com/.
Do you find creativity is a collective or individual activity?
I think that creativity comes from the individual but is informed by the collective. And then after it’s shaped by the individual and goes back into the collective.
It seems as though there’s some kind of fluidity. I think that the best thing is that it goes back to the collective and that it starts a conversation or adds to do it and then it comes back.[00:01:20] Perhaps a lot of times people do things and it just falls flat and it doesn’t get any response and that speaks to the really important part of marketing yourself. Today you really need to get out there and make connections with people. [00:01:48] So when you’re marketing yourself and what you do, it isn’t a solo activity. It’s important to really engage other people and get them involved with what you’re doing. [00:01:59] You can’t create in a vacuum. You can’t be successful in that no one is successful by themselves. It’s a very interactive thing to do to be an artist, to be a writer but also just to be a human being.
Creativity needed to build relationships[00:02:16] Yeah yeah I know it’s interesting because creativity as a facet of life is almost giving out a vulnerable side of you as well and I think that is part of making relationships is. So in many ways, people are creative just to have a relationship with someone. Yeah. [00:02:44] I love just creating by myself and then sending them out into the world, but I’ve found that I wasn’t growing as much as I wanted to that way. [00:02:53] So this gives me an opportunity to hear both sides of my business help the other side evolve.
Introverts versus extraverts[00:03:00] Yeah. And at the same time, it helps you evolve. It is so interesting that you say that you’re an introvert. I never would have said that about you for as long as I’ve known you. And this is kind of surprisingly several people that I would say are introverts and they identify as that. I don’t know what the deal is. Maybe introverts are really good at putting on that facade. [00:03:30] Being a social introvert, I actually love it when I’m with people but I get energy from being alone, so that’s the difference. [00:03:36] I’m a very social introvert. There’s no reason for you to know that’s that’s what I was like. You can’t tell from someone where they get their energy from. [00:03:44] That’s what the introvert-extrovert thing is about. [00:03:47] So that’s why most people wouldn’t recognize because I’m not afraid to talk in public and all those things that people think of me associate with introversion, I don’t have them so because I have this so. [00:04:08] Right. And so you just need time alone time to recharge to your batteries. Yeah. [00:04:13] Yeah I don’t I don’t get power from other people. [00:04:18] I get power. I certainly need time alone every week to recharge. [00:04:19] Yeah. I think well maybe I’m an introvert too. [00:04:30] Do you consider yourself though. Or have you always considered yourself an extrovert until this conversation? [00:04:37] Well I just never really put myself into either camp. I just didn’t find that they were really helpful categories for me because I do oscillate between them. It depends on the context and whom I’m with whether I feel introverted or extraverted. [00:05:01] I guess what I like to have my own space. I do like to be on my own and think of things and go to a café and write in my journal.
Writing in Cafés[00:05:15] You write in a café? I don’t like it. [00:05:19] Wow. Do you find it odd to read in a public space then? [00:05:22] She said no. So I don’t mind. I mean I can read anywhere. I can read in a café. [00:05:28] I know lots of writers who have done it that way but I just find it distracting. It’s not the noise that I find distracting but it’s the fact that I might see someone. I’m not completely into my work. I’m actually in the space. [00:05:41] Yeah well that’s why when I’m writing in my journal, I make sure that I go to a cafe where I’m not going to run into anybody. [00:05:49] At also for me, that kind of writing doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere, but it might. [00:06:01] Or I know I’m working on a project and I just want to go someplace else different and just explore that one idea. [00:06:11] So so for me it’s not really the place where I do a lot of the heavy lifting of the writing process. That always stays in my office where I can concentrate. So do the larger chunks, I do that at home base.
Creativity and Success Skills
I started the podcast two and a half years ago because I wanted to explore how creativity manifests itself in other people’s lives. So I talked to all sorts of people in all walks of life. Not just typical or stereotypical artists and drummers or creatives or that. I talked to philosophers, business people and everyone in between.[00:07:22] And it was an extension really of my teaching. I teach creative writing. I’ve been teaching creative writing, screenwriting and all other types of writing for about twenty-five years now. And I also teach a University Course Skills for Success and it’s mainly to help students to get back on track with their academic goals. But what I’ve realized over the years is that a lot of them fail out of their programs or don’t have the motivation to show up for their lives because they’re not passionate about something. They haven’t activated that creative core of themselves. [00:08:11] Oh wow. So in many ways, it’s like a class about helping them discover their creative core. It really is. [00:08:18] And and it was interesting to me that that’s those two things converged because on the face of it like creative writing and time management and putting a schedule together, but I realized that it’s so important to have that organizational ability because when you create a schedule and set out a goal and action plan, that’s the container for your creativity. That’s what’s going to hold your dreams. [00:08:53] It’s way easier to be creative if you have a structure that you’re already building with. If you have to create your structure, you spend it sort of like, how we have a level of will power a day, I think we have a level of creativity in a day too. And if you’re creating all sorts of minor things, you don’t get the chance to actually think deeply. How can you build passion without deep thought?
Boredom and Creativity[00:09:24] Actually I talk to James Clear just recently for my podcast and he has a new book called Atomic Habits and he has Habits Academy and in one of his chapters, he says that in order to become successful, you have to fall in love with boredom. [00:09:48] Wow. That is a fascinating idea because if you aren’t bored, you can’t actually create out of nothing. [00:09:59] And and boredom or not being 100 percent occupied is a way of lying fallow. You need to have that kind of time where you do get bored and then you think OK enough of this, I’ve got to find something that’s going to excite me. But also what he says is that he has come up with words because a lot of what you’re going to get to where you need to go is going to be repetition. And so like if you’re going into the Olympics or whatever, you have to do a lot of situps. You have to find a way to love the boredom and love the repetition. That’s part and parcel of your success. It goes to consistency and regularity and routine and time management and schedules. [00:11:17] But if you’re busy creating, how can you possibly be bored? But I think that’s because, after so many years of using a creative muscle, I don’t actually when I have time alone and thinking, I no longer think of it as being bored. Whereas I remember as a kid being bored all the time. [00:11:35] Yeah. [00:11:36] So I think it depends on what you view as that word. [00:11:49] and having downtime time and recharging your battery and all that stuff, which some might say is being bored. And I think that with the generation that I’m teaching, they’re around their cell phones and checking so every moment is filled with something that gives them immediate gratification or immediate depression when they check their phones and nobody’s texted me in the last three seconds. [00:12:25] Yeah. No, I didn’t think about that. The truth is I have two kids one who’s 23 and one who is 19 and it’s true, they look at their phones a lot. [00:12:42] But I don’t see it so different. As for the only thing that’s really really different.
[00:12:47] Remember all those lines we had to stand in being bored and talking with everyone around you, they don’t have to do that anymore. They can actually be entertained even when they are in that kind of situation.
Creativity and socializing[00:12:57] But I remember being at their age on the phone all the time. Socializing is important as a teenager. [00:13:05] Oh my goodness. I was on the phone in the kitchen for hours on end. [00:13:09] There were three girls in my house so my parents had a time limit for the phone. The buzzer would go off and we had to get off the phone and all of us thought that this was the cruellest thing ever. I don’t know how else we would share. Because all of us wanted to be on it for the whole time that we were doing something else. But I don’t know with. [00:13:36] That don’t need to do that. They all have their own cell phones. If they want to talk to people they just pick up their phone. [00:13:58] Which I guess means if no one answers it is harder. I wonder if we are at a stage where they’re going to have to learn how to be alone and how to be bored. How to be comfortable with nothing. [00:14:22] That is the hard part. And then it’s usually when there’s nothing…unlessyou’re in a very good place, you get all those things that come up and tell you how rotten you are.
Mindfulness and Creativity[00:14:37] Yeah well the negative self-talk is rampant with the students that I teach. We try to teach mindfulness and meditation. It’s challenging for them because they have to separate. themselves they have to sit there and say oh gee all these thoughts are floating by and I’m not my thoughts and I don’t have to identify with them. They are so caught up in all of that negative self-talk that its hard for them to engage. And so so we had a class last week and a guest speaker came in and talked about mindfulness and ran through some exercises and a lot of them said, “oh it didn’t work for me.”. [00:15:31] They have this knee-jerk thing. If it doesn’t happen instantly like a ping on your cell phone, then it’s not viable. [00:15:40] So I guess you’ll have to try an exercise later in the term in a different way to see if they can connect because mindfulness is so much deeper. It’s so important. If you want to create excellence, you need mindfulness first. Otherwise, you’re not able to look at what you create from an interior voice because it’s what you need to become an editor.
Fear to be Seasonal?[00:16:31] But speaking about publishing about being a writer, I think some people would be really afraid to have a seasonal life. There’s an idea that you throw yourself into a career whatever it is and you keep on doing it maintaining it, and that as soon as stop talking about it or tweeting about it, then no one will remember you. So how did you get over that fear of scarcity that if you only work for half a year, that somehow that would work? [00:17:08] I think that probably because I was so involved in my shoulders and because I did two projects that sort of gave me entire summers off for four years in a row, that I almost had a seasonal life before really having a seasonal life because I did when I did the Ulysses Hiking guide for two summers in a row, the kids were either camping in Ontario or hiking or cycling in Ontario, and the Trans Canada Trail too.. [00:17:40] It turned out to be four summers that I took off. We were forced to do research that was doing the work for the winter. It was the research part of those projects. [00:17:55] Because I was travelling I would set aside the different projects that I would have that year and that sort of got me into the habit of having a distinct line from both sides. But I didn’t register at that time as a seasonal life. I just registered for the summer as the kids were off school and this is how they can do their research and smarter of trying to make family life with life work together fun. [00:18:26] So I think that’s probably how it evolved. That actually for me when I finally decided to tell people I have a seasonal life, I had already been doing it for two or three years. I was already doing farmers markets. So I was trying to integrate all the things I did with each other. As soon as I decided to do my podcast, I realized that oh my God this seasonal life is actually Canadian. It actually connects all together. But it was not planned that way. It was almost created after the fact. [00:19:05] So it was very organic.
Food and creativity[00:19:39] So now you are part of the co-op and you grow your sprouts and. [00:19:48] We have an aquaponics system at the Greenhouse and we have the farmers’ markets and now I’m putting together a catalogue for people to be able to buy food… basically our goal is to make it possible to eat locally all year. So I’m doing projects to try to make that happen [00:20:05] So I’m just fine because that’s how I started growing my own sprouts–red clover and broccoli and mung beans and lentils and beets. I started doing that a few weeks ago mainly to actually save a bit of money. But now that I’m doing it, I actually feel that I’m more intentional with my time and the food that I’m eating. I really believe that the food we eat fuels our creativity and I’m just so pleased with myself that I have always potentially had these sprouts through the whole winter now and I know where they’re coming from. [00:21:15] And it gives me more of a sense of control over my own food and I didn’t expect that and I didn’t expect to feel more part of the natural world at the same kind. [00:21:33] While you’re doing something that we’ve been doing for you so you’re connecting to what humans are meant to do I think. I think it’s fascinating what you start to trying to eat…even if you don’t do everything like experts, you’re still eating what you produce, so it feels like a connection to our ancestors. [00:22:25] I always say in my grandmother’s time, there were no GMOs and they didn’t use pesticides so everything was organic. So I really feel like I’m connecting with that whole history. And also when I’m making a sandwich or something, it’s like, oh I grew that. And my friend grew that. So there are so many things that are grown from my hands or the hands of people that I know.
Local Economies and creativity[00:23:03] One of the things we talk about with the farmers market–one of my neighbours was saying, so do you just have people selling things? No, what you’re actually doing is eating locally but you’re also creating the opportunity for these people to create their own businesses and be financially viable. [00:23:32] You are basically creating an economy right around you so you can see exactly how you are helping and how their business evolves. So yeah it’s really like the Kombucha people are distributed everywhere. [00:23:48] we had the woman who did our bakery the first year start her own business. So you really see how people develop their own abilities and creativity. They expand their creativity to bigger spaces and than they have a chance to actually use it and be appreciated. For me, a market is more than just local food it’s also local appreciation. [00:24:12] And like you say, it’s this space where creativity can flourish. [00:24:19] So yeah everybody there is either making or growing what they sell. So almost everybody you meet has a hand in what they’re trying to sell so it gives the person buying it an opportunity to feel like they’re part of the creative process too. They know that this person will change what we produce according to what people tell us. So you actually see how your influencing people around and you. [00:24:52] We have one woman who makes small magnets for the fridge that are pies. As people were looking at them, they said they wanted pumpkin pies. And then they said they wanted apple pie, so she made apple pies. [00:25:09] You could actually see every week as she was bringing in new collections from the people who mentioned things the week before.
Discovering Canadian Roots[00:25:25] Are you Canadian and if so, what does that mean to you? [00:25:29] Yes I am a Canadian. was born in Ontario and I moved here to Montreal about 25 years ago. [00:25:42] It’s a complicated question. I’m the first generation to be born here. [00:25:52] So my grandparents came with my mother after the Second World War, they came here. So it never really felt like I had roots here in Canada. They were somewhere in Europe but I don’t speak Polish and I never met any of my relatives except one great aunt she’s Russian and she came over to visit us she couldn’t speak any English but she also wouldn’t speak in the house to anybody because she thought that Russians have microphones. All I remember from her is that she would sit in our house or trailer and just be sewing mending all the things that we don’t mend any more Selling sending all the things that we don’t mend anymore. [00:26:44] I consider myself Canadian but kind of like a rootless Canadian so that’s why I felt it was so easy for me to move to another province and one where I didn’t speak the language. [00:26:58] People were saying “are you crazy. You don’t speak French. You. I don’t know but it’ll all figure itself out. And it did. But surprisingly when I moved here, that’s when I found out that I actually have Acadian roots and New Brunswick and that we go all the way back to Brittany in the 1500s. So that’s why I moved to a French province. Somewhere in my DNA, I knew. [00:27:26] Maybe we are related. [00:27:35] And you?
Connected Country[00:27:37] I am unapologetically Canadian, but for me, it’s the local. seasonal and community-based. [00:27:52] It’s really interesting to see how when I ask that question, what people tend to bring up changes how I feel as well. Like I interviewed someone who was part of the Banff Forum and that’s a group of young people trying to create what the next Canada will be like. [00:28:20] So in many ways, being Canadian is being connected. It’s a very collective country. It’s a federation. I love the fact that it’s a federation. Every single province is supposed to be its own thing and we’re stronger together. [00:28:42] I just think that those kinds of ideals are in a real place to try and get the whole world to be more connected together.
About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.