Photo of two people paintingLaura B. McGrath is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at Michigan State University. Follow her on twitter @lbmcgrath

A few weeks ago, I asked complete strangers to write on me with markers. I had no idea what they would write, or if they would write anything at all. But write on me they did: on my arms, back, and shoulders, they wrote a collective poem, and then I made that poem dance, twirl, and do push-ups. It was a powerful experience, for me and for the poet-strangers. Perhaps most powerful for me was the realization of how good it felt to be creative, to lay my research aside, and to let my imagination wander and play.

Of course, to suggest that research and creativity are somehow opposed to each other is false. Creativity fuels good research; your ability to imagine a new research problem, to create a study, or to approach concepts or texts in innovative ways is part of what makes you a good scholar, and likely one of the reasons why you find academic work to be so satisfying.

But how often do we give ourselves the space to be creative, especially in the hectic world of graduate school? How often do we let ourselves step away from our research and turn our imaginations loose on another sort of problem? I’ll answer for myself: not often enough. This semester, I had the opportunity to step outside my research area and flex my creative writing muscles as a Writer-in-Residence at the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum at Michigan State University—hence, the markers. I realized through this process that extracurricular creative stimulation is important to my mental acuity and general well-being.

And there are lots of good reasons why I felt that way. Creative thinking and expression can have a variety of benefits for your health, your decision-making ability, your critical thinking skills, and even your love life. Here are a few ways and reason to add more creativity to your life:

1. Reduce Stress and Anxiety. As graduate students, the idea of taking time away from writing or the lab in order to play the piano or attend a dance class might seem overwhelming, even stress-producing. In fact, several studies have shown that participation in the creative arts can actually reduce stress levels. A 2010 article in the American Journal of Public Health reviewed the relationships between engagement in the creative arts and health outcomes, showing that listening to and playing music, as well as movement-based creative expression can decrease anxiety and stress, while restoring emotional balance.  Writing can improve physical health and help your immune system to function. It seems to me that an hour at the piano or at the barre is an hour well-spent.

2. Embrace Constraint. Famous writers have suggested that constraint can enhance creativity. Think about Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story, just six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Sometimes, embracing our constraints can unleash creative potential. I think it might work the other way around, too. When we learn to see constraints as an opportunity to be creative, I think we might learn to embrace and welcome all of the constraining challenges that grad school throws our way- a small budget, a long commute, a discouraging job market— as opportunities for personal growth, to be faced with equal measures of creativity and gumption.

3. Enhance Your Research. Creativity is a higher-order thinking skill, at the tip-top of Bloom’s Taxonomy; developing your capacity to think and act creatively is a way of developing your intellect, not a “time-out” from your academic work. Additionally, several studies have demonstrated that daydreaming (or meta-awareness) can also improve problem-solving abilities. Allowing ourselves the freedom to daydream and developing our creative minds might, in fact, helps graduate students to reinvigorate their research; applying the benefits of creative participation to our research could provide a new lease on life, or a new way of thinking about an old problem.

It’s important to recognize that our lives as scholars are already incredibly creative; we get to develop new ideas, make new arguments, and explore new terrain in our fields. Take some time to allow yourself to explore new venues of creative expression, both as a method of personal care, and as a method to keep yourself mentally sharp.

And fun: definitely, for fun.

Want to jumpstart your creative life? Leave a 6-word short story or memoir in the comments below, or tweet your story using the hashtag #GHCreate

[Image by Wikimedia Commons user Fortunechicken, public domain.]


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