In estimation of snails and elephants

April 4th, 2008

There is a lot of show and tell about creativity these days. I understand the interest. Not so much now, when I can see and delight in my daughter for how colorful she already is, but in the earlier days of child-rearing when I was certain that someone other than me – a specially trained music teacher, art teacher, or storyteller – could do more to prime my daughter’s creative instincts than I could. I sought out those uniquely qualified people, I entrusted the both of us to their able hands, and my daughter and I got out of the house and enjoyed ourselves immensely. These activities were creative exercises, but they were not at all necessary to cultivating creativity.

I was doing it backwards. I thought of creativity as one of a myriad attributes to be managed; an aptitude to instill. Now I see creativity much differently. All children are creative and all adults are creative because life is creation itself. Spontaneous, dynamic, unpredictable, inexplicable and rich with inherent and inscrutable meaning. Creativity doesn’t always look like what we think it should look like, though.


The feeling that we lack creativity has given rise to a naturalistic movement – which could soon dwarf even Martha Stewart – giving us lush pictorials on creativity. Everything in displays of this kind defy my imagination: handmade, homemade, artistic, ingenious, and productive beyond human comprehension, or so it seems to me. After absorbing these images, soaking in a simmer of envy, disbelief and despair, I often feel my inspiration evaporate, more certain than ever that I am creatively disabled and DNA impoverished. I am, to be sure, no elephant among artists.

This is not at all the feeling I get after visiting at a certain address in Madison or resting under the blue sky in Virginia, each of which makes me feel right at home with my own kin.

And not so with Ginger Carlson, author of a new book called Child of Wonder. Ginger is an education consultant, teacher, speaker and mother who contacted me a little while ago and offered to send me her book. I instantly agreed for reasons of universal karmic indebtedness. Having plowed this tough turf myself makes me eager to pay back the kindness of strangers. Ginger’s work is full of practical, encouraging, well-researched pedagogy and sane advice for nurturing creativity in your children and yourself. And get this: not one of these ideas requires that I sew, knit, embroider or quilt; grow my own leeks; gather fresh gooseberries; keep small farm animals; make my own curtains; distress my own hardwoods; or hold a paintbrush in my nostril. Those are all clever and worthy ideas but they are ideas that I’m not likely to use today unless I twist them into a switch and beat myself back into my cozy snail shell.


Ginger covers many of the same bases but without an outcome-orientation. In other words, her take on creativity isn’t about how it looks, but about how it acts. Her approach to being creative is more than crafts. To wit, some of the unintentional Zen wisdom I gleaned from her pages:

“Let your child be alone.”
“Step outdoors.”
“Don’t ignore the wind.”
“Move your eyebrows.”
“Collect paper clips.”
“Don’t underestimate snails.”
“Question your agenda.”
“Say yes more often.”

In short, I liked Ginger’s use of the everyday and everywhere, the breadth of material and resources, which touch on all the ways we fear we will fail our children’s natural curiosity.

What I liked most about the book is that Ginger asked me to read it. I, for one, recognize that single act as a creative leap of the boldest kind.

And that gave me the creative opportunity to say yes.

Furthermore, she has inspired me to inch along all next week talking about creativity, during which I will make almost no apparent progress and few will call it pretty, least of all me.


  1. Creativity peeks into every corner.

    I look forward to a week of just what I need (again).

    The book looks interesting – thanks!

    Comment by denise — April 4, 2008 @ 6:23 am

  2. “beat myself back into my cozy snail shell” – don’t I know that feeling.

    I so appreciate this post, your perspective & Ginger’s (not to mention Georgia’s) on creativity as something inherent, ordinary even, and imminently available all around us.

    That list could well be a daily credo. I just might tape it to my forehead so that every parent I encounter can read this Zen wisdom, accidental or not.

    xo J

    Comment by Jena Strong — April 4, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  3. This reminds me of fingerpainting. Can’t really do anything with the result but it’s the process, the feel of it, that I enjoyed. Must do it again. Can (may) an adult fingerpaint without a child providing an excuse? Rhetorical question except I’m already trying to figure out a way to fingerpaint so that it’s frame-able art. Interesting. Never thought of creativity apart from outcome before. Thank you.

    Comment by Mary Ann (Moanna) — April 4, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

  4. I always feel inadequate around highly creative/artistic people. As though I got passed over when the universe was handing out that talent(or at least got the short end of the stick.) My biggest gift to my children has been to keep my mouth shut and let them discover their love. They never fail to surprise me 🙂

    Comment by Kristin H. — April 4, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  5. Oh Karen, thank-you for this!
    I see the glossy pages of “other people’s” lives and they look so lovely, peaceful, charming, as they sit their making finger puppets and eating organic home grown berries. They never seem to have screaming kids who just want to get dirty.
    Our “creations” involve Leo’s constant decoration making, which are pictures he colors and then cuts out and wants to hang on the windows and walls with tape. They are rather tacky looking, but they are bursting with life.
    I figure if I leave him alone and let him do his thing, he’ll find his own way to create, and have a blast doing so.

    Comment by bella — April 4, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

  6. You are one of the most creative people I know, and I’m the happy recipient of your efforts.

    Comment by kathryn — April 4, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

  7. Wonderful post Karen! Makes me feel like whistling happily while doodling all over the interior surface of my snail shell.

    Comment by verdunoisette — April 4, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

  8. Thank you my sweet friends in the Coloring Outside the Lines club. Bella, I’m jumping all over that tacky bandwagon right quick and all next week.

    Comment by Karen — April 4, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  9. I just finished spraying down my kid and my dog after an afternoon of making mud pies in the backyard. I needed this.

    Comment by Mama Zen — April 4, 2008 @ 10:17 pm

  10. Thank you Karen for your post and your ever-eloquence. Of course, it is all about the listening -to the snails, the elephants, the heart. You, and Georgia, are true listeners.
    I look forward to reading the coming week’s posts.
    Wonderers of the world unite!

    Comment by Ginger Carlson, author — April 5, 2008 @ 2:02 am

  11. p.s. Mary Ann (Moanna) – fingerpainted creations make fantastic wrapping paper, so make sure you save them for later. 🙂

    Comment by Ginger Carlson, author — April 5, 2008 @ 2:25 am

  12. fingerpainting and snails.
    and curly-headed maniacs leading us all back to
    words that don’t make any sense at all.

    Comment by Anonymous — April 5, 2008 @ 2:51 am

  13. Your post helped trigger one long forgotten memory over at Jilli Java’s. Thank you for reminding me what is really important.

    Comment by Kristin H. — April 5, 2008 @ 3:16 am

  14. I just came across your lovely and inspiring blog! Thank you for recommending Child of Wonder. It is good to be reminded to say “Yes!” more often. And yes, rethink our agenda. Stop and smell the roses. Stop and sing to the snails.

    ~J in Oregon (mama to 2)

    Comment by Anonymous — April 5, 2008 @ 6:20 am

  15. “Step outdoors.” “Don’t ignore the wind.” I’m happy to say that my son and I definitely do these things. Sounds like a great book.

    Comment by Shelli — April 5, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

  16. Thank you for these words of wisdom and insight. As someone who, too, gets totally overwhelmed and intimidated by all of the amazing *stuff* that’s out there (and, yes, at times even inspired by it, too)…it helped me to see your words in print and know that I’m not alone.

    Indeed, my times of comraderie with like-minded friends – or well-known family make me feel alive and in the moment. I also feel energized and alive by creating my own unique things and sharing them with the world. I don’t need to copy what others are doing, for my own version of things is one way the Divine can express itself in the world through me! (And how wonderful it is to see others blessed in the process!)



    Comment by lisa — April 6, 2008 @ 12:57 am

  17. Our dining room table (well, we don’t have a dining room–it’s our everything table) is unfinished wood so that our 5 yr old son can color it–so far he’s used markers, crayons, and glitter glue. He has pictures on the wall in almost every room of our apartment. ANd he and I sit in my cramped hall closet/studio and color together, sharing supplies and ideas.

    Creativity is in everyone, most people just don’t trust it or are frightened of it.

    But my real concern is that he’ll start school this fall and the education system will squash his imagination and expression–as if the art that matters any more is the ability to shade in bubbles.

    Comment by marta — April 6, 2008 @ 4:02 am

  18. I’m one of those artsy types who feels as if she’s not artsy enough — how insane is that?! I used to get jealous of other artists when I’d look at photos of their work in glossy magazines. But I am starting to take deep breaths, to step back when the judgments start flying around in my head. All of life *is* creative, and I can enjoy the creative efforts of others as amazing gifts to every one of us. I am starting to feel grateful when I see something that grabs my attention, makes me say “wow!” or smile or cry or shout. And I hope that my own creative endeavors will be a gift to life, as well.

    Comment by Judy Merrill-Smith — April 6, 2008 @ 4:12 am

  19. I LOVE that list of things that you aren’t being asked to do in her book – gathering fresh gooseberries, raise farm animals, distress my own hardwoods, and the like. I like that we can simply sit, listen, look at the world, and respond to it in ways that float our own boats. Thank you for bringing another book to our attention, one that sounds worthy of a good read. Sometimes it’s the unintentional wisdom that hits closest to home. Thanks again.

    Comment by GailNHB — April 7, 2008 @ 12:19 am

  20. What a well-written review! Being open to wonder is the start of all creativity, no matter what age.


    Comment by ©Hotbutton Press — April 7, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

  21. there is a lot of comfort and “your off the hook”-ness in this.
    loving that…thank you.

    Comment by jessamyn — April 8, 2008 @ 4:23 am

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