Men Opening to Their Creative Selves

“Sad is a man who is asked for a story/and can’t come up with one,” begins Li-Young Lee’s poem, “A Story,” which describes the pain of a man who can’t respond to his five-year-old son’s request for a story. The poem evokes poignantly the emotional bind in which most of us as men find ourselves. The world has changed enough to demand a different masculine involvement. And yet, a great majority of men fall silent in the face of this demand, unable to recognize the tools we have at our disposal to respond.

In the course of participating in a weekly men’s group for more than 17 years, I’ve come to believe that creativity is the critical missing tool necessary for developing a personal, workable way of being a man in the world. It’s not that men are not creative. Most of us just don’t recognize our own creative skills and do not use them to shape our understanding of who we are. Ask a man to sing, to draw, to dance, or to tell a story, and chances are he’ll say something like, “I can’t. I don’t have a creative bone in my body.”

“For most men,” says Voice Male contributing editor Michael Kimmel, Ph.D., one of the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity, “creativity is antithetical to masculinity. And I think it’s because we are afraid. Men shut themselves down, put their hands to their sides, and sway to the music rather than dance, because they are afraid of what other guys will say about them. And it starts really early.”

Our entire social construct of masculinity seems to exclude creativity. At a recent presentation to staff and parents at a progressive public elementary school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I asked the participants to do a variation of the “Man Box” exercise by giving voice to their ideas of what are the socially acceptable qualities of men and boys. After a lively discussion, we had two flip-chart pages filled with adjectives describing inside-the-box and outside-the-box attributes of masculinity. Sadly, and tellingly, the word “creative” was nowhere on either of the pages.

Paradoxically, for much of human history men have dominated the creative professions and have actively prevented women from participating in them. “Real men don’t cook, but the great chefs are men. Real men don’t sew, but most tailors are men,” points out Dr. Kimmel. “We allow for professional creativity, but see it very differently in the mainstream.”

This paradox, in fact, provides a clue to the exclusion of creativity from the construct of masculinity. In “Locating Significance in the Lives of Boys,” the report from his qualitative study commissioned by the International Boys’ School Coalition, Adam J. Cox, Ph.D., notes, “The 11th and 12th years of education appear to represent a key fork in the road for boys’ creativity. A majority of boys allude to taking flight from creativity during these years, feeling as though they need to focus on ‘higher priority,’ outcome-oriented activities such as university preparation coursework and university applications.”

“All of the energy of society moves toward vocational independence for boys,” Dr. Cox elaborated in a telephone conversation. “Everything is focused on the notion of economic autonomy. A 16-year-old boy will say that one of the main things that makes a boy a man is his ability to support himself. That is a primary marker. So, quite naturally, when they begin to make their choices, they are moving toward what they believe is manly. That’s their idea of masculinity.”

In other words, except for those few who see creativity as important to shaping their vocational futures, boys begin to regard it as a luxury of childhood that has no place in a man’s life. And it is at this point that most of us start to constrict emotionally and spiritually.

“It is an essential loss of a part of yourself,” says Dr. Cox. “It’s a kind of fragmentation of your own selfhood and a suppression of something that’s very important. And this is a recipe for what many boys in the study describe as the unhappiness of manhood.”

If we abandon our creativity at 16, how do we find the words to tell our five-year-old boy a story when he asks for one, as the father in Li-Young Lee’s poem is called on to do? How do we respond with flexibility and ingenuity to the everyday challenges of life? And how do we adapt to a world of changing gender roles and economic realities?
“We have to de-gender creativity in some way,” says Kimmel. “The key is to help boys and men understand that it is a part of our humaneness to want to create. Every culture finds ways to express its commonalities. It’s one of the things that brings people together.”

Remarkable things begin to happen when men push past the prohibition against creativity. If you want to see it first hand, get a group of guys together and find a way to convince them to do the Hokey Pokey. They’ll groan and resist. Some will plain refuse. But once you start, new men will emerge right before your eyes. We’ve been doing it in our men’s group for years, and the sheer joy of being silly together never fails to bring out a fresh energy and a conviction that we are capable of magic. We’ve used that energy and conviction to sing, make art, play music, dance, and cook together. Most importantly, we’ve used them to support each other in becoming the men we want to be.

Out of this work has come the Children’s Arts Guild, the nonprofit organization that my group brother Mark LaRiviere and I co-founded with Jim Gaines, a friend in California who has also been involved in men’s work for a couple of decades. Our aim is to help boys, through the active exploration of creativity and the arts, to develop a personal concept of masculinity that does not require them to cut off from a vital part of themselves.

In the two years we have been developing Boys’ Arts Express, our core program, we have worked with groups of boys as young as six and as old as 15. We have worked with boys who attend public and parochial schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and with boys who attend one of the premier private schools in Manhattan. Everywhere, we have found common threads. Educators and teachers are concerned because they see boys failing to thrive academically and socially. And the boys themselves feel that they are misunderstood and marginalized—a disruptive force the adults try to contain and tame.

In our after-school programs, boys create self-portraits and portraits of each other. They dance, sing, drum, sculpt, build birdhouses, bake cookies, and make ice cream—among myriad other age-appropriate creative projects. They learn how to sit in a circle and listen to each other. They learn how to give each other the respect of honest, constructive feedback, how to resolve conflicts, and how to support each other.

We’ve found that as much as boys love to run around, play-fight, kick a ball, or just goof on each other, they are serious about finding ways to communicate with each other and adults in meaningful ways. They love big complex projects that test their ingenuity and skills. They want time and space to get to know each other and build a community where it is safe to show who they really are. They want to learn the skills necessary to explore their inner worlds and those around them. More than anything else, they want support from adults and peers to imagine the men they want to be and to find the courage and strength to become those men.

What we hope the boys are learning during their time with the Guild is that their creativity is an essential part of preparing for and leading an authentic, full-throated life as a man.

Alexander Kopelman is a cofounder of the Children’s Arts Guild, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping boys build social and emotional skills through active exploration of creativity and the arts.? A writer and social-change advocate, Alex lives with his family in New York City.