Inktober is an annual art challenge in which artists make a drawing in response to a daily prompt.
Use prompts when you want to create something but you’re short on ideas. They’re a good way to overcome writer’s block. Once you get started, you’re far more likely to keep going rather than stare at an empty page.
Prompts ignite your creativity by taking the decision of what to write about out of your hands. All you have to do is respond.
I’ve been on a semi-hiatus and this seems like a good way to get back into writing. So I’m going to do this for flash fiction rather than pictures, up to 250 words. I’ll also add audio if possible.
Why don’t you join in for any or all of the prompts? Let’s go!
because done is always better than perfect
If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.
Do you have a zombie work?
It’s the one piece you can’t get right, a short story or blog post or novel that haunts your hard drive.
You’re stuck because you can’t figure out the right style of the gowns in your Imperial court, or your research on spring weather patterns in Kansas has led down increasingly arcane corridors.
You’ll publish or submit, someday. But it’s not perfect yet, so the world never sees it.
What Are You Afraid Of?
We’re scared to death to try new things because we think we have to get it right the first time.
Perfectionists often procrastinate. You believe if a thing’s worth doing, it must be done properly and nothing less will do. So you either rework and edit endlessly, or you don’t even start because you can never get it absolutely right. And you can’t edit an empty page.
You conceal these feelings behind strong psychological defences and sublimate them into pointless activity. But research isn’t writing. At some level, you know that and you’re disappointed with yourself.
At the heart of perfectionism is fear.
Fear of failure.
Fear of success, because then you have to do it again, leading back to fear of failure.
To overcome perfectionism, you need to understand your fear and master it. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is action despite feeling fear.
Courage is taking a deep breath and doing it anyway because your desire for something is greater than the fear of what might happen.
If you never challenge yourself to move past fear, you cannot improve or grow. In order to step out there and thrive, you’ll need to let some ideas go and embrace new thinking.
Start With The Bad Stuff
Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.
Fear is a basic emotion that we all understand. You fear humiliation and ridicule for getting something wrong. Perhaps you replay some old memory of being laughed at for a minor error, and that underlies your current avoidant behaviour.
There are two reasons why you should leave that in the past where it belongs.
- Everybody sucks at the beginning. Every author, actor, artist, or sports person you admire now was once terrible at their chosen discipline. They wrote awful prose, missed more shots than they scored, and forgot their lines on stage. But they carried on and used those early failures to improve over time. Nobody has a perfect score overall.
- People aren’t actually watching that closely. They are as consumed by their inner lives as you are by yours. Even if they look your way, they forget you the next moment as their own drama takes over. Though you might feel as though everyone is looking at you, they’re really not. In psychology, this is known as the spotlight effect. Knowing about the spotlight effect is liberating. It frees you to do whatever you need to do without the pressure of a supposed audience.
Act Like A Baby
Babies are the world’s fastest learners. From zero, they learn to feed, walk, talk, and live in a social unit, all within two years. They achieve this not by being perfect, but the opposite. They stumble, fall, stand up again.
They babble nonsense and parrot speech without understanding at first. Eventually, they achieve a level of competence that allows them to run, jump, and sing a nursery rhyme.
They don’t beat themselves up because they can’t yet recite Shakespeare. They simply chatter and listen to adults when corrected. Each time they repeat, they’re closer to the goal of intelligible speech.
You learned to speak, walk, and countless other complex skills in the same way. If you had waited to speak until you were perfect, you wouldn’t have uttered a word for years.
Cultivate a beginner’s mind. Understand that supposed errors are signposts back to the right path, and you’re much less fearful of your results. Judge not against some unattainable level of perfection, but against where you were last time you tried.
You already know how to learn and improve. Adjust your aim, and try again.
Less Isn’t More
That which we persist in doing becomes easier — not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oh, you say, but you prefer quality over quantity. People repeat this justification for low output as if it were gospel truth. It’s completely wrong.
In an experiment, students in a ceramics class were split into two groups. One group was told that they could get an A by turning in one perfect piece. The other group was told that they would be graded solely on the total weight of pieces produced, of any quality.
The results were surprising.
The second group produced a large number of extremely good pieces. They were liberated from the pursuit of perfection and given free rein to experiment without being penalised. I’d bet money they were happier with their work too.
Repeated practice increased their skills and confidence. They weren’t paralysed by over-analysis or worried about criticism. They did not fear the impossibility of lightning striking twice, because they knew how to create a storm. They were able to replicate good work because they understood what went into making it.
The more you make, the better you get. Quantity leads to quality.
Let It Go
Art is never finished, only abandoned.
Leonardo da Vinci
How much poorer we would be if Dali had refused to let anyone see his paintings, or if Michelangelo had obsessively chipped away at and repolished his David. Remember also that an artist’s most famous works comprise only a fraction of their total output.
Writers learn more from finishing one story than from starting and abandoning ten. You’ll learn where you wrote yourself into a corner, and how to figure your way out. You’ll learn how many plots you can juggle. You’ll learn what makes a good ending. And eventually, you’ll join up all those skills and move from conscious competence to unconscious competence.
In other words, you will master your craft and spend more effort on deciding where to put the ball than how to kick it.
At some point, you have to declare a thing finished and stop editing. The more refined your skill, the harder it is. You always feel there is just one more thing you could improve.
Let it go. Ship it. Publish, submit, and move on to the next thing.
That’s the secret; always have a next thing. Each piece becomes a little less precious when it forms a smaller part of your portfolio. You may still have your favourites and the ones you shrug over, but the whole collection is what matters.
Confidence comes from improvement. You know you can make another piece, and it might be even better than the last. And if it’s not, that’s okay too.
That is true creative freedom.
Simple tips for maximising success as a creative
I want to be a cat in my next life. Cats are great role models. A well-loved pet would be ideal, but since I’m a cat that’s not essential.
I can rely on sharp claws and keen senses to feed and defend myself. I carry myself with supple grace, accept affection on my own terms, and find the warmest spot in the house to sleep. Sounds pretty good.
But in this life I set goals and strive to exceed them. Sometimes that works. Today I’m tired and a little disheartened, because the reward for my efforts is unpredictable and I can’t figure out what’s worth repeating.
You’ve probably had days like that too. Days when endless hustle and failing forward feel like hitting your head against a brick wall, over and over. Days when it’s hard to believe in yourself and stay motivated.
Can you rediscover your appetite for the hunt? Can you be more like a cat?
A Numbers Game
Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts. — William Bruce Cameron
Comparison might be the thief of joy, but we still have to track our stats. How else will we know where we stand?
Looking at numbers drives you to a kind of madness. Whether you count views, followers, pounds lost or lifted, or revenue, numbers draw you in. The world shrinks to a set of digits that you then equate to your own value.
If they’re going the wrong way, heaven help you and the people around you.
Peak madness is achieved by then comparing those numbers to other people’s numbers. You inevitably come up short because you only look at the most successful — those who you hope to emulate someday.
But you want someday to be today. You want the bragging rights, the book deal, and the interview on a popular TV show — now. Hasn’t it been long enough? Probably not. It takes much longer than you think or want to build success.
Remember when you longed for just one fan or even ten reads? Other writers are still there, hardly out of the starting gate. You’ve moved past that, and as long as you keep creating you’ll move past your next milestone too. Perhaps there are other measures of your impact.
Views and reads matter to writers, but they don’t map exactly to engagement. Look at comments, however brief. Out of your whole audience, those who comment are the most engaged fans. They take time to read, vote, and then reach out to you.
Treasure your commenters. Reply and thank them for their time and interest. Make a connection. I won’t pretend claps don’t matter, especially if money is involved. But when you’re still some way from your next milestone, the smallest dopamine hit of approval is welcome.
Like No-one Is Watching
A flower blossoms for its own joy. — Oscar Wilde
There’s deep satisfaction in doing something well. Craftsmen of old spent time making sure the back of an object, though not usually seen, was still beautiful. You can turn a finely tailored jacket inside out and find no loose stitches or raw seams. Every part of a created object reflects the skill and attention of its creator.
Writing can be art, but it must always be craft. Your writing should be the best you can produce. Live by the Beyoncé principle: over-promise, over-deliver, and keep on growing. Standards vary from day to day, but should never be less than good. Make it good, then make it better.
How do you know it’s better? On your down days, take your latest finished piece and compare it to your work of six or twelve months ago. Look at those older pieces and see how they could be tightened and polished further.
The same applies to losing weight, getting fitter, or learning a skill. Look back at where you started, review your SMART goals, and progress becomes clearer.
There’s a long way to go yet, but you’re on your way so give yourself credit for the journey so far. Take a reward for effort, and keep going.
You want to be known for consistent high quality. Henry Ford said quality means doing it right when no-one is watching. One day, those eyes will be turned on you. Be ready.
No Shortcut to Greatness
A few years ago I bought a car from a doctor at the start of his career. He was selling the car to help fund his planned attempt on Everest.
Wait a minute. Mount Everest? He wanted to be an Army surgeon. He also wanted to climb Everest before he was thirty. Both goals required a ton of hard work, so he made a plan that matched his impressive ambitions.
Now imagine someone builds an elevator that goes to Everest’s peak. Almost anyone can book a ride and stand at the top. How impressive is that? Not very.
The fact is, we value what we pay for. And the reverse is also true; we don’t value what we get for free.
How does that connect with writing or whatever business you’re in? It means the hard work you do is integral to the payoff you get. The harder you work, the sweeter the reward.
Now you can reframe the work as building a bigger payoff. Giving your work both intrinsic and future worth carries you through the inevitable gloomy days when the wind dies in your sails.
Don’t drift in the doldrums when that happens. What you do when you’re losing is the measure of your character. Get out the oars and start rowing.
Riding Out The Storm
But this time you can’t row. You’re caught in a perfect storm; work, health, relationship or financial issues make it impossible to do more. You’re barely surviving as it is. What to do now?
Maybe you can’t lean in, but you can limit backsliding. Three things will help you.
- Harness the power of a tiny goal. Write for five minutes, exercise for ten minutes, meditate for three minutes every day. Set the bar so low you’re bound to win. The little wins accumulate to stop your sense of mastery from fading completely. Choose your goal. Mark a cross on your calendar each day you achieve it. Winning streaks have power.
- Work on strategic aims. Get into the not urgent but important box of tasks you mean to do sometime but haven’t yet. Watch a tutorial on that software you bought but can’t use. Do some digital admin; clear out old files that clutter your desktop, file your receipts, check your antivirus is up to date. Use the Pomodoro technique and work in fifteen-minute bursts. Finish one job before starting another.
- Focus on the goal. Picture yourself at the finish line. What will you need to get there? Do you need extra training or equipment? A goal is a dream with a deadline, so don’t spend too much time thinking. Planning is a prelude to action and not a substitute for it.
Dreaming With Eyes Open
Sometimes you can fake it till you make it; other times you can’t. When the fears of not good enough and you’re going to fail take hold, you’ll struggle. Struggle is an inescapable part of life, of daring to hope for better. Hold fast to dreams, but know that they aren’t enough to get you where you want to be.
‘The principle of moving forward, as though you have the confidence to move forward, eventually gives you confidence when you look back and see what you’ve done.’ — Robert Downey Jr
A cat doesn’t make a jump by staring at its feet all day. It focuses on the landing. If it falls short, it digs in its claws and scrambles up. Then it sits and licks a paw as if it exerted no effort at all to reach the target.
Keep moving, whatever you have to do, however tiny the progress. Look back only to remind yourself how far you’ve come already, then turn your eyes forward to the peak. It’s always uphill to the top.
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You’re doing better than you think
Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
How are your creative projects going right now?
When you start your book or your business, it’s both scary and exciting. Your motivation is high and you can see your progress.
Then you hit a wall, where you discover how hard it’s really going to be. But you pushed on, and now you’re in the middle somewhere. Maybe you’re questioning yourself, or maybe other people are feeding your uncertainty by pointing out problems or deficiencies – or by getting much better results than yours.
Whether it’s a day job or your side hustle, you’re working and planning and getting stuff done. But are you doing enough, are you seeing results, are you getting there – in short, are you winning?
More to the point, do you feel like you’re winning?
It can be difficult to know where you are when there are no maps and few signposts along the way. Some behaviours are markers of future success, as long as you keep going. You can use them to gauge your progress.
You look forward to doing your work
Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.
As a newly qualified doctor, I regularly worked 70-100 hours a week, with very little sleep when on-call. The long hours were difficult at times, but I loved my work. Learning new skills and doing something I believed in outweighed the fatigue – at least in the early years.
When you love what you do and can’t imagine not doing it, you know you’re on the right track. Stress and resentment come from slogging away at something you hate.
When the game’s worth it, you’ll put in whatever it takes.
You do the grunt work without complaint
Perhaps this is how you know you’re doing the thing you’re intended to: No matter how slow or how slight your progress, you never feel that it’s a waste of time.
Curtis Sittenfeld, The Man of My Dreams
Every job and activity has boring grunt work. Singers practise scales, gardeners pull weeds, artists clean brushes, and everyone does paperwork. Grunt work is repetitive and unglamorous. It also makes better skills and tools so that you can get on with the beautiful act of creation.
When you perform the menial tasks of your work mindfully, you elevate them. You see that there is really no difference between pouring concrete in a foundation that’s never visible, and carving a fine oak fireplace that will be admired. Both are integral to the finished house. Both deserve your care and attention.
How you do the small things is how you do the big things.
You’re focused on process rather than results
If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.
Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
Making stuff happen is hard work. You’re on the right track when you focus on what is within your control. You can produce, but you can’t directly influence how your product is received or how well it performs.
Steve Jobs said that real artists ship; and he implied that they make another and continue to ship. Nobody remembers Apple’s Newton PDA now. It failed, but looking back we see it clearly as the ancestor of tablets, touch screens, and more. Jobs stayed focused on realising ideas that were ahead of their time; eventually, the world caught up.
You have one job – execute your ideas using functional processes. Pay attention to your results and use them to guide the next iteration, but don’t get hung up on apparent failure. You might simply need to refine, repackage, and repeat – until you create an iPad.
Your win is out there.
You grow your skills
Anything is better than stagnation.
Arthur Conan Doyle
You know that experience isn’t measured in years but in growth. It’s not enough to write a thousand words every day. Those words must be better and more effective over time. To do that, you seek out feedback and opportunities to learn.
Successful people are not threatened by the skill of others, they’re inspired by it. You’re humble enough to realise that mastery is always out of reach, but striving for it gives your creative life meaning. And since teaching something is the proof of learning, you’re comfortable sharing your knowledge with others.
You are only in competition with yourself.
You reach flow states often
To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
Remember the last time you got so caught up in your stuff that suddenly it was dark outside, you’d missed dinner and three hours had vanished? That magical state of flow happens when you’re fully absorbed in something that is challenging and enjoyable.
While it can be hard to summon a flow state at will, take notice of how you get there. Then aim to replicate it as often as you can because
Flow proves you’re definitely doing the thing you were made for.
You own your identity
Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.
Yes, impostor syndrome is real and you’re as prone to it as anyone. But at some point on your journey, you’ve become comfortable with your title and status.
You stop qualifying it or hiding behind your day job, and one day you describe yourself as a writer, or entrepreneur, or artist first and wage slave second. Or if your paid job is your passion, you express that without shame.
Feeling secure in your own skin is a sure sign that you’re further on in your growth than you think. Don’t allow others to project their own fear of failure onto you.
It’s not arrogant or boastful to own and celebrate your successes, large or small.
On Your Way
Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose.
Leonardo da Vinci
Six behaviours show that you’re doing the right thing in the right way.
- You look forward to your work
- You do the grunt work without complaint
- You focus on process, not results
- You grow your skills
- You reach flow state often
- You own your identity
Success is never guaranteed; all you can do is shift the odds in your favour. Fortunately, that is within your power.
When you find the right path, keep going.
In a time of destruction, create something.
Maxine Hong Kingston
The world is on f*cking fire — Bill Nye said it so it must be true.
When your house is on fire you grab your prized possessions and run. But when the world is on fire, there’s nowhere to run. Faced with the constant stream of bad news, you could be forgiven for simply giving up.
What’s the point of your life’s mission when everything’s going to hell? Your tiny contribution can’t hold back an endless ocean of misery.
It’s so hard to keep going when you’re not succeeding like you hoped, so you might as well binge on ice cream or gin or Netflix.
What’s the point of creating?
A Day In A Life
We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.
We’re given only a limited time to make a life. Life has the meaning you give it, no more or less. Meaning comes from finding and using them to do your thing despite all the negativity.
There’s someone out there who needs your thing, right now. That could be entertainment, the tools to do a job, or a map to navigate heartbreak. They see themselves in your thing and it gives them hope.
I once wrote a scene in which two gay men argued about being their authentic selves. A woman sent me a long comment saying she wept, thinking back to the compromises she made in earlier life. She felt it was her story, and for a moment she was less alone.
Emotional connection transcends time, gender, or place. Without connection and authentic feeling we wither and die. That might sound a bit dramatic when you look at a blog post or poem you just wrote, but you can’t know the state of the person who receives your message.
Who knows what your creation could achieve?
The Small Stuff Is The Big Stuff
If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.
Think back to a time when you read something that spoke to you. There was probably nothing Pulitzer-worthy about the content in itself. Yet on that day and for you particularly, those words sparked a feeling or a memory. You felt as though someone reached into your chest and peeled away the layers protecting a soft spot.
You felt seen and heard.
Those words were written for you, even though the writer didn’t know that. Like a singer who shatters a glass with a high note, words resonate with a frequency that the heart answers.
Now consider all the myriad ways we struggle each day. We carry our pain and that of others. We try to live a good life. We try to be happy. But often we fail. That’s when we need help.
Create something that can help, even if you don’t see how. Offer perspective, advice, or encouragement. Share your tools, your story and your gifts.
Remind people that there’s always beauty and hope to be found, even if you have to dig through dirt to find it. Remind people that the sun is hidden behind dark clouds, not gone completely.
Once you put your creation out there it no longer belongs to you. It’s a child of your imagination, and it will make its own way in the world. Your job is to make it strong, and let it go.
Lives can be saved and hearts repaired by the smallest of acts. You might never know who you reach, but they’re waiting right now. Defy the darkness.
(first published 26 June 2019 by Publishous on Medium)
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The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.
Art is ugly.
Recently I watched the TV series Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year. Each week, artists are challenged to make a portrait of a live sitter, in public, in four hours.
The most surprising lesson is how often the interim stage looks like a failure. There’s nowhere to hide for the artists, who are interviewed as they work. Not infrequently they despair of pulling it together in time.
Viewers see the awkward proportions and clashing colours, and agree. It doesn’t look good.
And yet, in the end, beauty emerges. Sometimes it seems that the painting only comes to life with the final few brush strokes.
You might be agonising over the scattered, ragged appearance of your current project. You study the polished, glossy work of those you look up to, and despair.
But you’re missing a vital truth.
Not Great Yet
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.
R Buckminster Fuller
A few years ago I took up watercolour painting as a complete novice. I love watercolour, but I had a lot to learn about the process of producing something pleasing to the eye.
The interim stages of a watercolour are often confusing and unattractive. The colours are wrong, things are missing, it looks flat. For a long time, it seems to be all wrong.
But as long as the drawing is right and you keep going, it will turn out okay. If you work on it more, it might even turn out great. The essence of watercolour is layers. You have to be patient, letting each one dry before adding the next.
Each layer reveals a little more of the picture you’re aiming for. Each stage hints at the finished article, but is only a step in the right direction.
To make a finished article you need two things: a map and a defined endpoint.
Look at this example.
JK Rowling plotted one of the longest books in her Harry Potter series by hand, on paper torn from a notepad. No Scrivener, no Evernote, nothing fancy. She saved fancy for the ideas that powered her words.
Rowling had the end in mind, so she was able to endure the development phase where things didn’t look so pretty. Don’t be seduced and discouraged by picture-perfect workspaces and elegant bullet journals. Real work often involves getting messy.
A story, a painting, a child, or a life all have their ugly duckling stage. Have the end in mind. You need to keep faith with your project and keep moving forward.
Above all, do the work — but don’t show it until you’re ready.
It will be beautiful, but you’ll only see it when you get to the end.
(first published by Publishous on 12 June 2019)
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how limits can liberate
Want to strike fear into a writer’s heart?
Tell them to write a story about anything. No guidelines, no limits!
There’s only one thing more scary than a blank page – a blank page and a totally free hand.
That’s because we are easily overwhelmed by too many choices. But isn’t more choice a good thing?
The Tyranny of Choice
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
Suppose you want to buy a jar of honey. On your way home from work you stop to fill your car. The filling station has just two kinds of honey so you pick one, job done.
But if you go to a major grocery store like Tesco they carry thirty-seven kinds of honey. Now you have to weigh many more options. Do you prefer clear or organic or lavender honey? It’s all too much so you end up grabbing the closest jar – or nothing at all.
Researcher Barry Schwartz calls this choice overload. Choice overload leads to picking the default rather than consider options, decision fatigue, and choice avoidance.
Making a choice requires energy, and if you’re already tired or depleted from too many prior choices you’ll either avoid the choice or go for the easiest option. This is death to creativity.
Creativity is about connecting things, but it’s also about solving problems in novel ways.
Constraints help you innovate without having to consider every option.
My writing group has an exercise called Hot Pen. One person opens a novel to a random page, another chooses a random number, and the nearest noun or verb on that page becomes the one word prompt. We then have ten minutes to write a story based on that word.
Scary, yes, but the variety of stories is always amazing. It’s surprising how each writer finds a different angle within a very small space. How can you limit your options to release more creativity?
Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity.
Constraints are good for creativity and can be set up in different ways.
- Time – a deadline to force completion or a target to hit
- Subject matter – writing to a set theme or prompt
- Resource – limited budget, materials, or word count
Try these practical ways to get started.
- Setting time limits – the Pomodoro technique is essentially a rolling set of mini-deadlines.
- Using prompts as a starting point – try this random prompt generator.
- Work with limited forms like one hundred word drabbles or sonnets.
Once you’ve made a choice, stick with it. There will always be other options out there. Your job is to get started and then go on until the end, because only completed work can be edited, and only edited work can be perfected.
These techniques are useful to overcome inertia at the start of a writing session. Once you begin, you’ll find it easier to jump into your main project.
Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility – yet big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.
Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.
(first published by Publishous on Medium 5 June 2019)
Adulthood isn’t all that.
From the moment of birth, you’re taught how to behave and be accepted in the world.
Adulthood means submitting when life knocks off the corners and edges that don’t fit in your assigned box.
Adulthood means growing up, and growing up means forgetting all those ridiculous daydreams.
Your parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They taught you that success comes from hard work here in the real world, doing serious jobs. You took that lesson to heart, put your head down and became realistic about what you could achieve.
You forgot to look up at stars and sky, and wonder.
You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be. Society rewards conformity with peer and elder approval and punishes the maverick with exclusion and ridicule. Who wants to be that guy?
But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts during a boring meeting or long commute. Sometimes the sight of someone else living your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.
Deep down, you know something’s missing from your life.
No Dreams, No Wings
If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.
None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created by realists. Sure, when it comes to implementation, refinement, and exploitation, a concrete approach is essential. But concrete builds solid foundations. It does not let us fly.
Everything that exists in the world begins as an idea. An idea has no mass. It can be as expansive as your imagination. Ideas are limitless. Work must be done to manifest ideas in the real world, but dreaming is free.
Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement.To produce something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, and computers.
That’s how you’ll get to where you want to be.
Voices In Your Head
You can’t believe everything people tell you — not even if those people are your own brain.
When you decide how to behave in a given situation, the voices of caregivers and authority figures loop endlessly, and often unrecognised, in your inner conversation.
Your father no longer scares you so much that you never look him in the eye, but when faced by an aggressive manager that’s exactly what you do without thinking. And you wonder why you can’t assert yourself.
When you find yourself browsing painting sets online, an old art teacher whispers that you don’t have an artist’s eye. And you click away because that’s not for you.
Here’s the thing. You’re an adult — no-one is the boss of you. You get to decide how you act at all times, and you take responsibility for your actions.
At some point you need to stop blaming parents, caregivers, teachers or others in your past for how you respond to life now.
The past experiences and attached emotions that make up much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. Once you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you free yourself from it. That was then and this is now.
You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.
That’s when you truly grow up.
A Lost Child
The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Everyone has their share of bad experiences. You’ve been shaped by them to some extent. Now it’s time to turn the page and write a new chapter with new rules. Acknowledge what feels bad and let it show you where you need to find something better.
This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books such as these to guide your journey. Or you might need to let go of your old programming and try new ways, like Julia Cameron’s artist dates in The Artist’s Way.
We are all innately creative. It is possible to be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.
From Reality To Fantasy
Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.
Now you know that cultivating dreams is not only good but essential and nobody can tell you otherwise, it’s time to examine what that means for you.
Although dreams look very different on the outside, they can be stripped down to a small number of basic desires.
- Security: safety, stability
- Love: belonging, bonding, intimacy
- Esteem: respect, confidence, achievement
- Self-actualisation: spontaneity, knowledge, purpose, and meaning
Understanding your underlying drives will help you see whether different approaches to similar goals are right for you.
One person might value respect, another stability. The first is happier writing well-reviewed literary fiction, the other writes copy that sells. Their dreams might look like ‘my novel is featured in The Times Literary Supplement’ versus ‘I support myself by writing for others.’
Both are writers but their dreams lie on different paths. Our desires form a hierarchy of needs and we are happiest when the earlier needs are met before seeking out the higher ones. That might mean your dream is on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.
This visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it in the real world. I’m going to talk about writing, but it can be applied to anything you want to create.
Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. In the future, you’ve achieved your dream. What does it look like?
You’re typing on a new laptop in a cosy study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. You’re holding a copy of your book in Barnes and Noble. A bus drives past advertising the film of your book. At a party, you say confidently, “This is my latest project.”
Now zoom in on specifics. What are you wearing? Is the bubbly in your glass Prosecco or beer or mineral water? Use all your senses. Turn up the brightness and create a vivid picture.
There Are No Limits
If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish first in a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. It can only come true if you first create it mentally.
When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, fix it in your mind with an anchor. The anchor is a physical sensation. Linking the sensation with the vision makes it easier to recall. Pinch your thumb and middle finger together firmly while picturing your dream in all its multicoloured glory.
Practice frequently until you can recall the dream with ease, simply by pressing your thumb and middle finger together.
Great athletes use visualisation to increase their chance of winning. They have a clearly defined image of success, and that allows them to work towards it knowing that they are heading in the right direction. And the image can be a comfort when things are not going so well. The prize is still out there, waiting for you to reach it.
Where Are You Going?
It doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as the destination matters to you.
Once you have a dream fixed in your mind, you can check activity against whether it moves you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up chocolate because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside to make enough money to live on by writing copy.
Either way, you’re in charge. You own your decisions and their consequences. You stop making excuses. Your destiny is in your hands.
Go get it.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
Can you create your best work without inspiration?
Some prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing the search for it as an excuse for failure to produce.
Others swear by the eureka moment that hits while showering, compelling them to run to their keyboard still dripping so as to capture their brilliant insight before it fades.
Do you have to choose between 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, or can you have both?
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
Creativity and inspiration are not the same. They can exist separately or together. We’re all creative, but we’re not always inspired. You can make a cake or write a story by gathering your materials and starting. The result will be serviceable if you know what you’re doing.
Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.
Think about the last time you were truly struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were waiting in line or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction like you were possessed to change the story.
It’s hard to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, the essay unfolded or that you had a hunch, or you shrug your shoulders and say it just felt right.
The Ancient Greeks would say your muse had whispered in your ear. Science says your brain used near-miraculous processing to bring forth genius.
Neuroscience has shown that the creative act involves higher level brain activity. Ordinary pattern recognition steps up to a level where the brain can make new connections. That’s creativity – connecting things.
You can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.
Add a spark, and you shorten the process. The spark is neither necessary nor sufficient on its own. But allied to enough kindling and skill, your efforts can go into making a bigger, brighter flame.
Fire = kindling + oxygen + skill
Creation = spark of inspiration + kindling of ideas + skill
Now you need to make sure that inspiration can find you ready and waiting.
The Unsexy Path to Unlimited Inspiration
Whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory, the routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.
Every act of creation has process at its heart. Every marvellous work you admire is rooted in skills which are hard won and honed by repetition. So before you think about being inspired, you have to do the work of being able to do the work. Always.
In the beginning, forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. Check your progress with whatever measure you like, just be sure that you’re doing better work, not just more of the same.
The rules of writing (painting, photography, or anything you like) are boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the practice time so that when spark meets kindling, you’re ready.
Inspiration is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not.
Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns. Meditation may be useful but it’s not absolutely necessary.
Daydreaming, naming clouds, or watching a raindrop crawl down a window can all quiet the mind and allow new ideas to surface.
Some people get their breakthroughs while doing dishes or laundry. It’s a time to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, like doing morning pages for The Artist’s Way.
Others find mental stillness on the move. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.
Everything Is Material
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
If creativity is connecting things, make sure you have plenty of material to work from. You’ll have to sift through a lot of rocks to find that nugget of gold.
Get out from your routine and search out something new. Read something outside your comfort zone, outside your genre. Read non-fiction, look at architecture or a photography magazine. Read a novel you think is trashy and one you think is classic. Re-read the books you loved when you were twelve, or twenty-one.
Visit a museum and spend thirty minutes with a single exhibit. Examine it from all angles. Think about the materials and techniques that made it. Imagine it in your sitting room. Take a picture for later. Print the picture and sleep with it under your pillow.
Talk to people properly, by which I mean ask them about themselves and listen to the answers. We all have a tale to tell and some of them are fascinating.
Visit an unfamiliar place. This could be a new town or part of your hometown where you never go. If you live in a city, take the tourist bus tour and learn something new. Examine buildings, notice carvings and old facades. Sometimes all you need to do is raise your eyes to see much more.
A Marriage of Opposites
It’s a dull, grey world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be finished. We need both.
When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, make room for inspiration. Build your skillset so that you can realise new, bigger ideas.
Be curious, give your brain space to spark new connections, and always be seeking out new materials to feed it. If anyone can make this marriage of opposites work, it’s a creative person like you.
Go to it.