Ep 5 - Multipotentialites and Creativity, a conversation with Melissa Dinwiddie


Hi, it's Thomas. I'm continuing to explore the concept of multipotentiality and in this episode, I have a conversation with author and creativity instigator, Melissa Dinwiddie. and we talk about what it's like to be creative when you have so many different interests. I learned some new things in this conversation, and I think you'll enjoy it too.

Music Credit: 

Reflection Flow by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2018 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/doxent/58328 Ft: Javolenus, Rocavaco, Siobhan Dakay


Links for this episode:

Melissa Dinwiddie - melissadinwiddie.com and creativesandbox.solutions


Books mentioned in this episode:

The Creative Sandbox Way, by Melissa Dinwiddie

Refuse to Choose, by Barbara Sher

The above are affiliate links.


Thomas: Hello, and welcome to the Creative Shoofly Podcast. I'm Thomas Beutel. This podcast is about my creative process and one thing I've found is that I really get in my way a lot when it comes to making art and being creative. I want to do this podcast because I know it will force me to think more deeply about creativity. I'm hoping that doing this will push me and challenge me to create better art.    

Thomas: Hello, Melissa. How are you doing?

Melissa: Hi, Thomas. I'm doing pretty good today. How about you?

Thomas: I'm doing great.

For my listeners, this is Melissa Dinwiddie. She is the author of one of my favorite books on creativity. It's the Creative Sandbox Way, Your Path to a Full Color Life. Melissa's art includes drawing and painting, calligraphy, singing, dancing, music loops, animation, stage improv.

And I'm sure there are a lot of others.

Melissa: It's kinda, it's kind of neat hearing them listed out.

Thomas: Melissa, I've been thinking a lot about, and learning a lot about this concept of the multipotentialite.  And you refer to it as passion-pluralite, which I love the term because it really gets to the core of the way that I see it. And that is having lots of different passions. 

And one of the things that I've been wondering about, and the reason I wanted to have this conversation with you is about, how do passion-pluralites stay creative when they have so many passions?

Melissa: I like the way you asked the question, because so often what happens for people who have lots of different creative interests is we get paralyzed and we end up doing nothing because I think what a lot of us do is we feel like, well,  if I pick one of my creative loves, then that necessarily means that I'm saying no forever to all of the other ones, all of my other loves.

And so, it feels like you're killing all of your darlings, and that of course, that's paralyzing.

And, and so you either, it's kind of like this black and white thinking makes you feel like you either have to do all of them all the time, or none of them. Which is like somebody is holding a gun to your head.

Nobody's actually holding a gun to anybody's head. 

But I remember a moment. I was in my mid-thirties, maybe early thirties, and I was living in an apartment. And I remember I was, I was going out of my mind because I think at the time I was taking fiddle lessons. I pulled out my Viola after 28 years and I was playing viola, I might've been, I've been borrowing a violin at the time. I can't remember, but I was taking a swing fiddle lessons again, or, you know, for, for seven years and years and years playing violin again, or voila whichever one.

And I was sewing. And I think I was signed up to take like a couture sewing workshop or something, and I had a calligraphy business and that was really important to me.

And I think at the time I had gotten, I think this was right at the time when I was starting to get into jazz singing, or I hadn't been before I was getting into jazz singing, but I was doing a lot of singing.

And I was, I can't remember all the other things that I was doing, but it was just like, there's so many things that I was trying to do at the same time.

And I was going completely bonkers. I mean, there was no way I could do all of them.

And I suddenly had this realization that, it seems so simple now looking back at it. But it was like, this epiphany, it was like this light bulb moment when I realized, "I do get to do everything, just not all at the same time."

And it was like, bing!

And so I thought, I thought, okay, okay.  I know that I can’t limit myself to one because I'll be miserable. Cause I've tried that in the past.

For years, I had thought to myself, if only I could just focus on one thing and become, you know, like the best at that one thing, then I'd be happy, but I could never do that cause I couldn't be happy. I would get bored and I would just be miserable.

So I knew that one was not the answer. So I thought, well maybe I could pick two, and that, no, I knew that that wasn't going to work for me.

So I thought, okay. Maybe, maybe I could limit myself to three.

And I was in my kitchen and I looked at my stove and it was, you know, a typical traditional stove that has four burners.

And it occurred to me that there’s a reason that your typical stovetop has four burners. 

I mean theoretically one could make a stovetop that had, say 20 burners. Or a hundred burners. I mean, you couldn't really fit a hundred burners in a typical kitchen, but let's imagine that you had a stovetop that had 20 burners on it.

Your typical person, chef, let's say, cook. There's no way that you would be able to keep track of 20 dishes, whatever, pots on a stove. With 20 burners, you couldn't keep track of all those pots.

But four, you can actually kind of manage, you could have, I don't know, pasta boiling on one pot in the back and a sauce simmering on another pot in the back and something else,  I don't know, another, a pan of something cooking on one burner on the front.

And then the front-right burner of the stove that I happened to have in that apartment, the knob said high-speed, it was the high-speed burner. It's the big one. And it cooked hotter than all the others. So guess where I did most of my cooking? It was the high-speed burner.

And that's the only one that I could be actively like holding the pan and moving it around and stirring it. Cause I have two hands, that's the only one that I could actually be actively engaged, cooking, at that moment, but I can have other things simmering at the same time.

And so that became my metaphor and.

And I thought that, you know, maybe I'll, I'll try that. That seems like that might work for me. I could have four things going on my metaphorical stovetop at any given time. And I really liked that metaphor a lot because I could also have things in the refrigerator and in cupboards.

Thomas: Right. Ready to go.

Melissa: Ready to go and I can move pots around. We talk about putting things on the back burner and you can move pots from the back burner to the front burner at a moment's notice. And I could take a pot, put a lid on it and put it in the fridge at any moment and bring something out of the fridge and put it on the stove at any moment.

And I could pull ingredients out from the cupboard and pour those into another pot and put that on the stove and swap pots out.

So that has been a really useful metaphor for me. And I call it the stovetop model of life design. So I can have four pots on my stove at any given time.

And, you know, four sort of areas of adoration as it were, where I'm, you know, really putting a lot of energy into those sort of pots. And there's one thing that at any given moment, there's only one thing that I can actively be doing and really focusing my active attention on at any one moment.

Thomas: It’s a beautiful metaphor. I really like how you narrate this metaphor, because...  well, for one thing, I totally identified with you when you were describing how you were doing your swing fiddling and, calligraphy and all the other things that you were doing all at once.

I felt like, yeah, that's me all the time.

And then you also mentioned about only having that one thing that you can go deep into. And to me, that’s sort of that cultural thing that says, "Here, just have this one main burner, the high-speed burner, and that's all you get."

Melissa: Right.

Thomas: Our culture sort of, tries to impose that, or at least tries to say that's the best way. And for those of us who know that we have so many interests, that just doesn't work.

Melissa: No, it doesn't work. I think it was Barbara Sher who wrote Refuse to Choose. She hypothesizes that this idea that we're only supposed to have one big thing that we specialize in, and we're not supposed to be passion-pluralites. We're not supposed to be Renaissance souls. She calls people like us, she calls us scanners. I don't really like that term, but that's what she calls us.

She hypothesizes that this started with the cold war in the West, at least that’s when people were encouraged to really specialize down in, into the sciences and math.

And I don't know if that's the case or not, but if you look back, Benjamin Franklin was a Renaissance soul and,  you know, Thomas Jefferson and a lot of people that we look at as sort of cultural icons  were passion-pluralites, and that was considered to be a really good thing.

And not like this weird, like flaky thing that it's kind of considered to be now.

Thomas: [I tend to think that it kind of started with the Henry Ford production line where everybody was like, okay, you're going to do one thing. And then a lot of companies took a look at that and said, “Oh, how can we apply that production line to everything?”

Melissa: Yeah.

Thomas: You know?  I want to go back to the burners though, because... and also something you said before about,  saying no and saying yes. 

Recently I had an opportunity… a friend of mine asked whether I would participate in an upcoming art collective show.

And of course my answer was, "Yes!" My answer is always yes to new things.

And it forced me to basically clear the stove top completely.

I had to take a lot of stuff that I had simmering and I was working on the stuff that I had in front of me.  It was really like, putting all that stuff away in the refrigerator and in the cupboards, it really was like that. And I sort of made the decision on a dime.

Now I have a process where I review, every Thursday, what I want to do, for my art. I review it every Thursday and, and write a, sort of a weekly plan.

And that sort of keeps me aware of  what's on the stove for me. And so I'm wondering if you also experience this... if you experience saying yes a lot to things.

Melissa: Oh, yeah.  I am challenged to say, "No." That, I mean, that's, that's sort of a leading edge for me, as they say.

Thomas: Oh yeah. that. I know that feeling.

Melissa: But when you were talking about saying yes, and having to clear the decks, having to clear your stove top, that reminded me of when I wrote my book, The Creative Sandbox Way.

I realized I had a goal of finishing the book by the time I turned 50.

And when I suddenly realized. Oh, shoot. If I'm going to keep that commitment to myself, that means I have like three months to do this. I suddenly realized that I was going to need to clear a lot of my sort of day-to-day activities that I was doing. I was going to really have to change my schedule around and get rid of a lot of the things that were taking up my time if I was going to get the book done.

And so I like, for example, at the time I had this kind of little competition with myself to see how quickly I could build up an Instagram following. I created a brand-new Instagram account around calligraphy and I was just making little calligraphy videos every day, just to see how quickly I could build up this Instagram following.

And. You know, I thought, well, maybe I'll maybe I'll build a, sort of a side business, sort of a side hustle around this. And start doing calligraphy courses and stuff like that.

And I realized that had to go.

Because it was taking, I don't know, an hour or two every day to, make these videos and post them out and stuff.

So boom, immediately gone. That was it. I had no time for that. I had to get this book done.

So, you know, that was just one example. And, you know, I needed to spend four hours a day working on this book and there was no way that I was going to be able to get it done if I was spending time on Instagram or anything else.

Thomas: I find that's the beauty of deadlines, right? Deadlines are one of the things  that  can get us focused when in reality we want to go everywhere else.  I know for me that I feel bad when I'm working on one thing and I'm not working on all those other things I want to work on.

I have that sort of down feeling. You know, it feels good to be working on one thing. And I am making progress. In fact, now I have a  book that I update every evening. I call it my completion diary. And I write down what I completed that day.

And then I have a little stamp that says COMPLETED! And I go and stamp it, you know? So there's actually a physical motion  to seeing that I'm completing things. So that feels great.

But I still have that regret in the background's like, well, I'm not working on that. I'm not working on that. And I'm not working on that.

But that's the beauty of deadlines. Deadlines have that lovely way of focusing our minds and allowing us and  giving us the space to actually finish things.

Melissa: Yeah, absolutely. You know, very little gets done in my world without a deadline. But what you just said about the, of this sort of regret that you feel when you're working on one thing and you feel good about getting that done, but sort of regret that you're not getting something else done. I really resonate with that.

And, you know, Thomas, I will be at say one of the retreats that I lead. In the non-covid times, retreats that are in-person and I spent five days and I'm off and I'm, you know, with people that I'm so enjoying being with, and I'm making art and out walking on hikes and laughing with people and just like, my favorite time of the year and it's wonderful.

And I feel like, Oh my gosh, I want to be, I just want to live here. I don't want to go home. It's wonderful.

And also at the same time, I'm missing the things that I'm not doing, while I'm at the retreat because when I'm at the retreat, I'm not able to have my regular, you know, I don't know workout routine. I'm not able to be with my cat.

I'm not, if my husband's not at the retreat, I'm not able to be with my husband.

I'm, you know, there's so many things that I'm not able to do when I'm at the retreat. If I, you know, I used to go to jazz camp every year and spend eight days making music and singing, and I would feel like, Oh my gosh, I never want to leave.

I want to be here all the time. I love being able to dive into my music and just really focus on that. And also I'm not making any art. And I really miss making art. I'm really frustrated that not making any art while I'm here. And also, I love that I get to dive into my music.

So yes, it's both things at the same time.

And you know, there there's a community of applied improvisers that I'm part of. And right now during the time of COVID, we have every Friday an open space on zoom that I participate in.

And when during the non-COVID times, there's an annual in-person world conference somewhere around the world.  And where there is as part of the conference, there's an open space section of the conference where the participants lead and create the sessions and you choose where you want to go.

And. Anyways, it's kind of magical.

And one of the principles of open space at the applied improvisation network is, you've heard of FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out?

Well at the applied improvisation network conference and at these open space events on zoom, we talk about COMO: Certainty Of Missing Out.

Cause you can't clone yourself.

These events are not recorded and you are going to want to go to many of the sessions. You can only go to one at a time. That is the way it is. And there, you are going to miss out.

That's the reality of life. That's the reality of being a human being. That's the reality of the day space, time continuum...

Thomas: Yep.

Melissa: ...as it is right now. Yeah. And so, you know, we talk about embracing the COMO, embrace the fact that you are going to miss out and just lean into it and be where you are in the moment.

Really enjoy it. And then wherever you are in the next moment, really lean into that.

Embrace the COMO that yes, you are missing out on the other thing and just be where you are right now. And if you don't want to be where you are right now, leave, go into the other thing.

Thomas: I mean, you have choices.

Melissa: [Yeah. And which is hard.

Choices are hard.

It's easier not to have choice. We don't like not having choice, but having a lot of choice is hard.

And I mean, that is, what's so hard about being a passion-pluralite because we have so much choice. It makes our lives, you know, gives our lives, that extra layer of challenge that, that we have to learn how to manage.

Thomas: And I would also say it also gives us a certain sparkle

Melissa: Oh, yes, absolutely.

Thomas: There something about being passionate in itself. That is, that is so sparkling.

Melissa: I mean, I wouldn't choose to be any other way. I love being a passion-pluralite. It also drives me crazy.

Thomas: Yeah, I know.

Melissa: And yes. Um, I, I love it. I mean, I love having so many different things that I love and it's challenging. I won't lie.

Thomas: I want to ask you something related to improv. 

So I've been to several of your in-person Sunday retreats and also online retreats. And you do some improv exercises at the beginning.  The purpose of which is to get out of your head,  and one effect is to help your gremlins go away for a little bit.

And one thing that I found that it also helps me, is that sometimes I get so hyper-focused on an idea or thing, or in an interest that it blocks out everything else.

And so one of the wonderful effects that I experienced when we do these  improv exercises, that it helps break that as well. 

And so I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to that, about how it seems to me that doing these exercises before you start a creative endeavor is really helpful because it scrambles the brain, or it clears the brain in such a beautiful way  that it opens up more creativity when you actually sit down and start.

Melissa: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

I think we have a tendency to get kind of stuck in our ruts, you know, stuck in our patterns our ways.

Think about a horse on a trail ride. And they kind of fall asleep as they're walking along.

I went on a trip. I went on a cattle drive many years ago on the big Island of Hawaii, actually on a working cattle ranch, you can pay, I dunno, it was something like 150 bucks or something. It was not cheap.

And you, they put you on a real working horse. And they assigned him to you depending on your level of skill of horseback riding, and they instruct you to not let your horse follow another horse. 

If the horse starts to follow another horse, then it will kind of fall asleep and it will get into that, like we're going on a trail, right, duh, duh, duh, duh, plodding along.

And they do not want the horses to do that. They want the horses to be awake and they want you to lead the horse across that. You're just on a field. You're out there on this like wide-open field. And they tell you, “Okay, now we're going to start trotting.”

“Okay. Now those of you who are more advanced, you're going to take your horse into a canter,” and stuff like that. And it's very rare that you get the opportunity to do just kind of run wild with a horse.

Usually, if you're like a tourist, you go on a trail ride and you're just plodding along and super boring.

And that's like, that's what we want to do with our brains. Our brains are used to them plodding along like a horse on a trail. Right?

We don't want to do that. We want our brains to not know what's coming next so we can think of something unexpected, right? And I mean, this is what we want for our creativity.

Our creativity... creativity is by definition something that hasn't been done before. If it's been, it's unknown. If it's been done before, it's not creative.

That's, you know, by definition you're doing something that's been done before, it's not creative, by definition.

So we want to treat our brains like those horses. We want to take them off the trail out from behind the other horses, so it doesn't get into that trail ride rut and the improv games are kind of doing that same kind of thing.

It's like jolting the horse. It's like yanking the reins and going, Nope, we're going this way. Nope. We're going that way. Nope. We're going this other way. Nope. We're turning you around. Nope. Okay. Now we're taking you into a trot. Nope. Okay. Now we're taking you into a canter. Nope. Nope, no, we're stopping. Nope. Now we're going this other way.

That's exactly what they're doing.

Thomas: And it has that, the wonderful effect of just waking the brain up.

Melissa: Yeah.

Thomas:  And getting it out of where it was. And that's what's so that, that I'm finding so useful for me in those exercises is like, Oh, now I can, now it can be much more open to whatever may happen creatively.

Melissa: Yeah, absolutely. My favorite ones are the ones where if I feel like my brain has just kind of been. Fried a little bit

Thomas:  Yeah.

Melissa: Because I so in present time, like I'm, I'm out of the, whatever I was thinking about before. You know, whatever, whatever I was ruminating on, it's just gone.

I'm so like, wait, where are we? I'm like, I'm like, I'm trying to figure out what, what we're, what, what we're dealing with in this moment of improv craziness.

I was so fully present.

And that is where we want to be. When we're working on something, you know, some creative project. We want to be fully present.

Thomas: I do have a practice every morning.  It's basically a daydream practice that I do right after I meditate.

So I do a breathing meditation, you know, 10-minute breathing meditation every morning,  which helps by the way.  For the letting go process. Right?  It's very useful for, we were talking before about, about having regrets about not doing this and that. And so meditation in itself seems to help a little bit along those lines. 

But in the, in my dream practice, I find that I am most successful if I close my eyes. And just let everything drift away, including like even myself. I just, I sort of tell myself I want to drift away completely, so that I'm in nothingness.

And that seems to be the most successful way for me to attract wonderful, crazy, silly, stupendous ideas, which then I write down. Once the ideas form and they appear, I write them down in my bullet journal.

I'm wondering though, if there's something that I can do, even in addition to just closing my eyes and trying to disappear. I'm wondering if there's maybe a, I don't know. Improv sometimes it's a little hard to do just by yourself.

Melissa: You know, the closest thing to improv that I do is my doodle practice.

And I mean, I was, I haven't been doing it consistently lately, but I did for a few years, every morning, a doodle practice. That really, I mean, it is improv because I start from nothing and I just… I like to talk about letting my inner four-year-old inhabit the tip of the pen and I give my inner four-year-old free reign to do whatever she wants to do.

And, you know, I also talk about how we all have fear of the blank page.

And the way that I deal with fear of the blank page is I just make it un-blank.

And how do you make an un-blank?

You just make a mark and it doesn't matter what kind of mark you make, because once you make a mark, it's no longer a blank page.

Now you can have fear of the mark, but you can't have fear of blank page anymore.

So, whatever you got, we all have that pristine journal that somebody bought you, or that you bought yourself on a shelf sitting somewhere or that beautiful piece of watercolor paper that you're afraid to touch because you're afraid you're going to ruin it because it's so pristine and you're waiting until that time that you have such time as you're good enough to, you know, to, to put pen to paper or paint to paper.

And you're never going to be good enough. So you're never going to touch that journal or that piece of paper.

And I say, pull it out! Make a mark on it!

And then your inner four-year-old is inhabiting the tip of that pen or that brush or whatever you're using, your pencil or whatever.

And let her play. And let her or him just... now her job is just to play.

And your job, your sole job is to be vigilant and watch for gremlins. And those gremlins are going to appear, just like your breath, just like your thoughts are going to appear as you're breathing, as you're doing your breath meditation, and every time your thoughts appear, you notice them and you let them go.

And every time your gremlins appear you thank them for their concern, and you send them off to get a pedicure.

That's it!

So your inner four-year-old is inside the tip of that pen and just responding, just reacting to that mark. However she wants to.

And your job is to let her have free reign and to watch for gremlins thank them when they appear and send them off to get another pedicure.

And that is the practice.

Thomas: I'm going to try that actually, I'm going to try, because it never occurred to me that that is really an improv practice that can help clear the mind, but it, I can see how it is.

Melissa: Yeah, it's um, it's so related to meditation to me. 

And it is improv because you are... it is completely improvisational. You start from nothing, you are responding. You're making an offer. Improv is all about offers and building on offers, accepting offers, and building them. The shorthand in the improv world is Yes, And.

But we're not necessarily literally saying yes, we're accepting the offer and building on that offer.

And an offer can be in the world of improv when you're on stage, an offer can be anything, somebody walks on stage and does something, or they say something and your job is to accept the reality of what they just endowed. And to build on that reality somehow.

And with your pen and your paper, or your paintbrush and your paper, or canvas or whatever it is you're working on.

Or if you're, if you're, you know, playing your guitar, it's the sound that you made with the guitar, whatever. Your job is to accept that, whatever just happened, whatever mark was just made, except that.

That's the reality.

You're not going to cross it out. You're not going to erase it. You're not going to... your gremlins might say that sucks. You're not going to accept that. You're going to thank them for their concerns. They're just trying to protect you, send them off to get a pedicure, protect your inner four-year-old. 

And so this is the reality, your inner four-year-old made a mark, and now your inner four-year-old is going to, you are accepting the reality of that mark. Your inner four-year-old is going to respond to that market in some way and build on it.

Thomas: I want to ask you about a variation on that. And that is once you start drawing and once you start making a mark, there's a variation where you don't lift the pen. Where you just keep going. 

I started doing a little bit of creative writing and one of the things that I'm doing is once I start writing, I don't stop. Like I don't, I try not to, I don't stop to think or to edit or to criticize or critique what I just wrote.

And I've been finding that very useful in, in sort of breaking through and finding new ideas in terms of creative writing. And I've also noticed that in sketching and drawing that sometimes that is useful because you allow yourself to accept whatever the mark was. Even if, the Mark didn't land where you wanted it to land, you just accept it.

Melissa: Yeah. I love that variation.

Thomas: Well, that's cool. I'm going to try this. I'm actually going to sandwich this (doodling) between my meditation and my daydream practice. I'm going to sandwich doing this to see specifically to see how it affects my daydreaming and see what kind of ideas show up. 

Because sometimes some days I come up with 10, 11, 12 ideas that get into my journal, and some days it's like one or two.

And you know, there are reasons for it, whatever they are. My mind is present or not as present as it could be. 

But I'm always looking for ways to be more open, particularly when I'm giving myself that luxury of having, I usually give myself 20 or 25 minutes to daydream.

That's a luxury and I really like it. I enjoy it.

And the ideas that I've come up with are just crazy and wonderful. 

I'll be curious to see how this turns out. How it affects that practice.

Melissa: Yeah, I'll be curious too.

Thomas: And I'll be sure to post all my stuff on my Instagram feed. Of course. I mean, if I'm going to doodle, I might as well post it.

Melissa: Oh, yeah, definitely.

Thomas: Well, Melissa, this has been a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate that you took the time today to have this conversation with me.  I hope that it resonated with you.

Melissa: Well, I appreciate you inviting me. I always enjoy chatting with you, Thomas.

Thomas: Well, thank you. And thank you so much for listening to this podcast. I really appreciate that you took the time to listen. I hope there was an idea or two that will help spark your creativity.

 And I hope you will join me for the next episode of Creative Shoofly. Until then stay safe and stay creative.


Podbean App

Play this podcast on Podbean App