Peter Himmelman and the art of creativity


For the past few years, creativity has been all the rage — the study of it, the reverence for it, the widespread encouragement of it. Chalk it up to the idea that we’re living through a time when original thought in politics, pop culture and mainstream and social media is at a low point, but no matter what accounts for the current creativity movement, it’s clear that the world is crying out for every last one of us to innovate our way out of civilization’s various messes.

Yep, creativity is hot. So much so that “creatives” is now a professional designation, referring to that elite group of folks who make things out of thin, rarified air. But the truth is, everyone reading this is creative — as hearing specialist, surgeon and saxophone player Charles Limb puts it in the latest “The Mad Science of Creativity” special issue of Scientific American magazine, which includes instructive feature stories like “So You Want To Be A Genius,” “The Serious Need for Imaginative Play,” “How Cities Fire The Imagination” and “Why Creative People Often Seem Weird.”

“While I think creativity is amazing, I don’t put it on a pedestal,” Limb tells writer Alicia Anstead. “I view it as a very normal biological process that some people are able to take to extremely profound levels but that fundamentally is a basic requirement of human realization and how we advance. It infiltrates every aspect of human life. I don’t know that there’s an attribute that is more responsible for how we’ve evolved as a species than creativity.”

But focused creativity, the kind for which we use all the tools in our toolbox to make something out of nothing, is another matter. Every other hour, a new book or story on creativity in music, art, marketing, advertising, business or home life comes over the transom, and I devour every one I come across, looking for philosophical gems, inspiration and tips.

Most of the stories focus on the necessity of getting quiet and getting away from the routine of the rat race so as to listen to what’s inside. I couldn’t agree more. Exercise, mediate, motivate. Got it. Then what? What about when you’ve created something and you’re about to present your gift to the world with your tried-and-true “What have I got to lose?” leap into the show biz circus? What about all those creativity-buzz-killing trolls that live to say, “You stink. Why do you even try? Stop it. Go away.”

At that point, what you need is a pal like Peter Himmelman, who’s been there and back and will throw his arm around your shoulder and let you know that everything’s cool; it’s all part of the process.

“It’s an interesting evolutionary quirk that even though we are hardwired to abhor failure, we rarely get important information from our successes,” Himmelman writes in his new book, “Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas To Life.” “It’s the times we’ve come up short of our expectations that give us what is arguably our most important life lessons: Failure won’t kill us. Trusting this on a visceral level allows us to create the way we did when we were kids.”

Himmelman knows what he’s talking about. Around these parts, he’s best known as the 57-year-old founder of the popular Minneapolis band Sussman Lawrence (and one-time guitarist with reggae-roots heroes Shangoya). He’s now a Los Angeles-based author, musician, visual artist, Emmy- and Grammy-nominated television music composer and founder of his creativity-enhancing communications company Big Muse. “Let Me Out” is a thoughtful, funny and deep-thinking foray into one man’s journey with creativity.

“Part of what happens to us is, as we live, we experience more and more judgment, and for some people, that just shuts them down,” said Himmelman recently by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “We never get rid of the voice, and in the book I give that judgmental voice in our heads the name of MARV, or ‘Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability.’ The primitive brain alerts us to dangerous threats, a killer animal, but what happens is it doesn’t make the distinction between someone not liking our album and a raging puma. That’s the work that we have to do.

“The mortal aspect is if we make a record, or if we’re afraid of making that record, if we don’t take action on it, this MARV character is telling us that if we fail, we’ll be ashamed, which is true. Or, partially true. There’s nothing he says that isn’t somewhat partially true.”

Himmelman illustrates his concepts via various sources, through a variety of very funny and touching stories about his days as a budding rock star in St. Louis Park and via wise words inspired by his Jewish faith. Likewise, the creativity exercises that pepper “Let Me Out” are warm and instructive, regularly returning to the idea that the solution for overcoming fear is to take action — no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

That is, Just Do It. Practice your creation — alone or with others. Book studio time. Write a song. Play a gig. Paint a painting. Make love, food, a poster, a “to do” list. Anything that keeps the MARV voice at bay.

“One piece of advice is to take one miniature step toward your goal,” said Himmelman, who performs a solo homecoming show at the Dakota Bar and Grill May 23. “For example, a huge goal of mine has been to fly an airplane, and right before my book came out I wanted to test the veracity of my book so I’d know my whole book wasn’t just bull—-.

“So I did one small step. And just to show you how small … I walked toward my chair in my office with a certain amount of intention. That was my first step. That’s all I did. And from there, I sat. I got some flight times, I got a guy on the phone, all within two minutes, and within two months time I was flying a Cessna 172 Skyhawk over the San Fernando Valley.”

That spark of creativity is essential to moving forward. For the lot of us, Himmelman explains why:

“The best thing about being involved in the arts or some sort of creative endeavor is that it adds life to our life. It adds richness and depth,” he said. “I don’t want to bring up politics, but I think we’ve come to a place where people have just been run ragged and polarized and everyone’s angry, and one benefit of doing this is that when you’re really engaged in creating a thing of beauty or some kind of meaning, you become less angry, you become a more generous person, and God knows we need a few more of them.”


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at