It’s getting cooler now, autumn truly setting in as what’s left of summer fades away. Rain trickles down the windows. I stare out at the grey sky, and I don’t know what I’m doing or why.
I begin work.
Sometimes nothingness and oblivion are far more appealing than they should be. Have I had a good life, someone asks. I’ve been good. I’ve done good. Followed the rules. Not made a fuss.
I don’t know if that is a good life. If it is good for me.
I keep working.
It seems futile, shouting into the void, scratching symbols on the sand for the tide to wash it away. Hurricanes blow away human constructions, suck the very ocean from the earth. People talk feverishly of end times, booking places in the lifeboat of faith. They know they will be saved. All seems futile, all comes to an end, why not here?
I have not come to an end. I wake, and it is another day, and I go on working.
There are lean times, and times of plenty. There are droughts, and oases of green. There are things made of grey, and nothings made of black. There are places where all these co-exist, a Schrödinger dimension of ideas. My head is one of these places.
In the midst of death and endings, my fingers sprout new lives and beginnings that never were. I build word bricks into sentence walls and so construct whole cities of fanciful notions, airy and insubstantial and leaden. If I don’t spit them out they weigh me down and I drown in a sea of tears.
I must work.
Fly my pretties, out into an uncertain world of indifference and pain. Let me birth you one by one, sit gasping and bleeding in the road, then catch my breath and move on, never looking back. Another cuckoo grows within. I sleep, and life comes to me again with dawn. I rise, weary.
The work compels me.
If I have material or if I have not, it is the same. It is only the work, the creation, the what if spur in my flanks, that gives meaning to the day. I may turn my back, but it is always there.
You found an idea and arranged the words to express that idea before putting them out in the world.
You spent time and effort making sure you’re adding something new to the conversation.
You’ve chosen to share it with the world, but it’s still yours.
Except that the moment you pressed publish, you lost control.
No Strings Attached
We’re trained to be polite when giving and receiving gifts. We learn to navigate the minefield according to unwritten rules, and if someone fails to play the game right we call foul.
When you send your work into the world, you expect it to be received with polite thanks at least, and effusive gratitude at best. But you fear bad things will happen and you’ll be powerless to do anything about it.
Your work, that gift for the reader that you laboured over, gets ignored, thrown to the ground and trampled on, or taken apart until it is shredded beyond recognition. You’re angry, disappointed, and afraid to risk trying again.
You must try again and change your attitude to giving.
We’re all adults and we know that many gifts don’t hit the spot. It’s on the recipient to decide what they do with the gift, and as long as you gave in good faith that’s where your influence ends.
If you’re giving what someone might need or use, give it freely. Don’t be that person who gives money but dictates what to buy with it. Don’t be that person who gets huffy when you don’t bring out their gift every time they visit.
All you can do is put enough time and effort into making sure you’ve created your best possible work.
After that, it’s time to forget expectations and cut the strings.
Lightly Not Tightly
A busy road separates my house from the main residential area. My son, then aged nine, wanted to cross the road and cycle to his friend’s house alone. I was worried; a girl had been killed on that road shortly after we moved in. I was acutely aware of all the potential hazards. At the same time, he was growing up and wanting more independence.
I had several options at that point:
Keep him at home
Let him go but only with a parent
Let him go alone
Many factors played into this decision but eventually, he would have to face the world without me beside him. My job as a parent was to teach him how.
Two of the hardest parenting lessons to learn are how and when to let go.
Stories are like children. You’re responsible for keeping them safe while they develop and giving them the tools to survive. But after that, they’re on their own.
Your story belonged to you. Now you must find a way to set it free with a light heart, rather than holding on too tight. Then, like your child leaving the nest, you give your words and creativity room to grow and fulfil their purpose.
Random Acts of Connection
I know that books seem like the ultimate thing that’s made by one person, but that’s not true. Every reading of a book is a collaboration between the reader and the writer who are making the story up together. John Green
We write with a specific idea in mind, but that idea can spark many different connections in different minds.
Once I wrote a fictional argument between two gay men about authenticity. I received a long comment in return from a woman, married with children, who identified so strongly with one character that she was in tears reading it.
This was not the reaction I intended. But it told me that for one person at least the issues resonated, so strongly that she took the time to reply.
We write to connect. We can’t predict whether we connect or in what way, because each reader is unique. Each reader views the story through a unique lens shaped by personality and experience.
A story is different for everybody who reads it and the writer only owns the first version. The reader filters and changes your words, consciously or not. Their response has more to say about them and where they find themselves at that moment than the story itself.
The glory of a good tale is that it’s limitless & fluid; a good tale belongs to each reader in its own particular way. Stephen King
So consider your story a child of your imagination. Make it as strong as you can. When it’s ready, send it into the world. Your story is outside your control now, and that’s as it should be.
Every child must walk its own path. Every story must make its own way.
Whether people react to your words with delight, anger, scorn, or tears, you’ve done your job. You made a connection. The outcome is not your responsibility as long as the story comes from a place of love, and a desire to share and receive something positive.
That also means that every story has the ability to change someone in ways you can’t predict. Who knows what comfort you can give to a person who can finally say, “That’s me, that’s how I feel.” If you can do that, why hesitate?
That’s the true worth of a story – the possibility of learning, wonder, and growth for writer and reader. Accept this responsibility and use your powers for good.
Do you really need the elusive 1% of inspiration, or is 99% perspiration enough to get the job done?
Inspiration is one of those ideas people use to separate artists from the rest of the population. Popular culture shows an artist writing or playing or painting like a person possessed, forgetting to eat or wash in the process. They’re overwhelmed by the spirit of creation and must capture it before they lose it.
Perhaps as a reaction to that, many no-nonsense creators simply dismiss it. Show up, do your work, and you don’t need inspiration. Once you start, you’ll find whatever you need along the way. Prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing it as an excuse for failure to produce.
You might share one or other of these views. You may have been inspired and found the experience both thrilling and elusive to repeat, like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Or you get on with hitting your daily word count and find that’s more than enough.
But is it possible that both viewpoints are true?
Seeking The Muse
All the effort in the world won’t matter if you’re not inspired. Chuck Palahniuk, Diary
The Nine Muses of Ancient Greece were goddesses who symbolised arts and sciences such as poetry, singing, astronomy, drama, and so on.
Artists of the time called on their muse to bring forth their best work.
The idea of the muse as inspiration persisted into the last century, often personified as a woman who inspired a male artist. Sometimes an artist in her own right, she embodied an artistic concept for the man whose work often featured her as a model. Dali, Picasso, Rossetti, and Rodin all drew on their significant relationship with a woman, while Francis Bacon’s muse was male.
The muse reflected the artist’s vision while also challenging him. Her presence as model or sounding board encouraged him to push the boundaries, infusing his pieces with more energy and no doubt encouraging him when the results were viewed with confusion or disdain. Every movement that we now accept in art began with artists who dared to go further, risking the scorn of their contemporaries.
The muse shines her light on a new path and whispers in the artist’s ear, “That is your way forward. Be brave.”
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. Pablo Picasso
Creativity and inspiration are not the same things. 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 perfectly serviceable if you know what you’re doing.
But if you have inspiration, you can create something much more. Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.
Think about the last time you were struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were in the shower or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction, as though a billiard ball collided with you.
It’s impossible to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, 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 that it happened in your brain. Your brain is a collection of a trillion neurons and a quadrillion synapses, a self-regulating system capable of near-miraculous processing.
Put another way, you can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.
But 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 Power of Habit
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. Twyla Tharp
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.
If your spark drifts by and your eyes are closed, you’ll miss it. If you have no materials, or there is no oxygen, you won’t be able to use it. This is where a routine is your friend and constant practice is your teacher.
Forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. Put in the work to improve. 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) can be tedious and boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the training miles 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. Agnes Martin
Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns. You need to clear out the constant chatter of conscious thought. 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 in the shower. It’s a time for most of us to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, as in the morning pages of The Artist’s Way.
Some people move around. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.
A Chance To Dream
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. Jack London
A tired mind is a slow mind, barely able to cope with the familiar let alone come up with something new. Lack of sleep is so common these days that it’s seen as normal, but to be truly creative you need sufficient rest. The average is six to nine hours, so experiment and find your ideal. Work back from your rising time to find when you need to go to bed.
Find advice about establishing a good sleep habit here or here. It will lengthen your life and make it much more pleasant when awake.
The other reason to sleep more is to get enough REM sleep, the phase during which we dream. Often this phase occurs just before waking naturally, so if your alarm wakes you before you complete your sleep cycle you will miss out.
If you can remember your dreams, keep a notebook by the bed to write them down on waking. Sleep allows the conscious brain to rest and the subconscious to work without distraction. There’s some evidence this can result in more creative insights. Dream recall can be difficult to start but improves with practice.
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. Look up at 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 world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be realised. We need both.
When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, seek inspiration.
Build your skillset, sharpen your tools, challenge your capabilities.
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.
To depend entirely upon inspiration is as bad as waiting for a shipwreck to learn how to swim. To leave everything to natural spontaneity is as bad as to make everything the result of mechanical predetermination… perfection is the harmonious blending of the two. Francois Delsarte
Do you think creativity is a special talent that other people have but you don’t?
Do you long to make art, but feel you’re not a creative person? Have you lost your creative flow?
Then my free e-book Unleash Your Creativity is waiting for you. I believe we’re all innately creative and I want to help you find your artistic heart.
I know how hard it can be to claim the title of artist or creator. I know you’re busy. Like me you have work, family, and social commitments demanding your time and energy. But despite all that, you feel something’s missing.
I wrote Unleash Your Creativityfor you; a short guide to living a more creative life in the real world. In your free e-book you’ll find advice and exercises to guide you as you identify and start to follow your passion.
Whether you lack confidence, ideas or resources, there’s something here for you. You’ll also find more tips and ideas on this blog every week.
They say that everyone has a novel inside them. Maybe you know someone who is hard at work on theirs. You read their comments online or chat with them at an event. They tell you they’ve been working on it for a while. “How long?” you ask. They tell you it’s been several years so far. These perfectionists have laboured over this one piece for five, seven, ten years. And they don’t know when it will be finished.
Or maybe it’s your work that has limped on forever. 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. And so your great work sits on your hard drive and the world never sees it.
What Are You Afraid Of?
Perfectionists are often procrastinators. 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. Everything you really want is outside of your comfort zone.
In order to step out there and thrive, you’ll need to let some ideas go and embrace new thinking. We’ll look at how to do this next.
Everybody sucks and nobody cares
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.
Here are two reasons why you should leave that in the past where it belongs.
Everybody sucks in 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 do not 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 would not 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 is not more
While you’re slaving over one meticulously crafted blog post, searching tirelessly for exactly the right image and quote, I’m ramping up my output. One post every Friday was my first goal. Having reached that goal and with over 200 posts under my belt, now I’m aiming to post two or three articles every week. I don’t have time to agonise endlessly over a picture.
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.
Quantity leads to quality
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 freed from the constraints 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.
Imagine if Dali had refused to let anyone see his paintings, or if Michelangelo had obsessively chipped away at and repolished his David. How much poorer we would be! 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 let it go. The more refined your skill, the harder it is. You always feel there is just one more thing you could improve upon.
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 totality is what matters.
Confidence comes from improvement. You know that 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.
Ready to reclaim your creativity?
This free short e-book will show you how to stop letting limiting beliefs hold you back and finally start creating the work you’ve been dreaming of. Want your creative spark back? This is the guide for you.
Sometimes the ideas won’t come. You want to paint or write but you don’t know what. You started something and now you hate it. Or maybe you’re trying to get started again after a drought or forced hiatus. Like a stalled car, you need a little push to get going.
The Two Types of Thinking That Affect Creativity
The way we think has a great impact on creativity.
Divergent thinking creates possibilities. It gathers ideas and combines them in new ways. There is more than one answer to a question. And all ideas have potential value. Divergent thinking creates options using right-brained methods; imagination, visualisation, and intuition.
Convergent thinking solves problems. It considers, weighs and discards options, narrowing them down until the right answer emerges. Convergent thinking achieves results using left-brain methods; sequencing, logic, and facts.
We need both types of thinking to achieve a result. First, come up with ideas using divergent thinking, then execute an idea using convergent thinking. A brilliant concept is nothing without the techniques to make it a reality.
Judgement can wait
But choosing which idea to work on too soon can choke off possibilities. We tend to judge ideas and discard them without fully exploring them. So it’s vital to gather all your ideas without judgement first. It’s like mining a fine diamond; they’re not lying about on the surface. After digging through a lot of worthless stuff, you spot something with potential. Then you get to work cutting and polishing.
Creativity exercises are best done quickly to outwit the inner critic. Keep moving and let yourself be imperfect.
We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents. Bob Ross
1 . Get random
Having too many choices can lead to being overwhelmed. Because you could do anything, you end up doing nothing. Research has shown that we are more satisfied with our choices when options are limited.
Try letting chance dictate your next move rather than fretting over what to do.Then you can put your energy into doing, rather than frustration that you don’t know where to start.
Turn to a page in the nearest book to hand. Count the tenth verb or noun. Set a timer for ten minutes. Write a story or poem inspired by this word.
Do the same with a magazine, instead using the tenth picture as inspiration.
Go to Pixabay or Unsplash for photos. Use the first image containing a yellow object as inspiration.
This is a classic way to access divergent thinking. The idea is to generate quantity rather than quality. Concentrating on quantity leads your brain to think widely, past the obvious. Creativity sees new links between ideas or objects that were not connected before.
Keep asking “what else?” but do not ask “would this work?” For example, a Lego brick could be a doorstop. It doesn’t matter at this stage how effective that might be.
Most people can think of 10–15 ideas for a paperclip. See how much better you can do.
Write down as many uses as you can think of for a paper clip; a Lego brick; a small silver coin; or a teaspoon.
Pick an unusual use for an object and write a short story about it. Or draw it instead.
3 . Do the same job with fewer tools
Creativity blossoms within restriction. When we challenge our skills by limiting the available options, we have to find another way to get the job done. In other words, divergent thinking comes into play. That is the essence of creativity.
Artists, paint or draw using shades of only one colour. If you usually draw in pencil, try using ink. Set a time limit.
Writers, use a random first line generator like this one to write a one-page story. Sometimes this works better writing by hand; somehow it’s less daunting than the blinking cursor.
4 . Play in a different sandbox
To create we need to see the world in a different way. When we’re comfortable in one way of seeing, it’s good to mix it up. Maximise your creative muscle by trying something new, just as you’d train different muscle groups in the gym. You will benefit by finding new solutions and skills that you can bring back to your chosen field. That could be improved memory, attention to detail, or improvisation. And it’s fun to try something new.
Make something small, in a different medium.
Doodle your favourite animal, if you write.
Write a song or poem, if you paint.
Cook a meal using a new recipe or only three ingredients from your fridge.
Look at an object in the room for one minute, then try to draw it from memory.
5 . Move
The brain requires up to 20% of the body’s energy. That energy comes from circulating blood, and getting active improves circulation. Sitting or standing in one position for extended periods also leads to stiffness and even pain. Artists and typists are prone to repetitive strain injuries from small repeated movements.
Spending long periods inside in solitary activity can have a number of negative effects, from vitamin D deficiency to low mood. We need to take care of our bodies if we want to stay healthy longer.
Go for a walk and notice the animals. One of them will become a character in your next story or painting.
Wander around a gallery, craft supplies store or even a toy shop. Surround yourself with interesting visuals to spark ideas.
Running, swimming, walking or gardening are good ways to clear the mind and occupy the body with soothing repetition. This allows ideas from your subconscious to bubble up to the surface.
Just do it
The most important thing you can do to access creativity is to make more things, no matter how small or mundane. A new recipe, story, garden, doodle, or haiku all come from looking at the world, seeing new possibility and then expressing what you see in your own way. And that’s what creating is all about.
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.Art is knowing which to keep. Scott Adams
I’m stuck. Just forty minutes ago the words were flowing, full steam ahead. Now they’ve dried up. I stand, stretch, sit again. Still no words.
It’s time to follow my own advice. I say that writer’s block can be overcome*, so this is my opportunity to walk the talk. I resist the temptation to fall into a social media vortex. The weather is too hideous for gardening or a walk, so I head to the kitchen.
Flour, butter, sugar. The basic elements for baking are all there, and it is truly amazing how many variations flow from them. Like Lego blocks, they can build many things. I grab my trusty recipe for oat and raisin cookies.
Not enough butter, so I make up the shortfall with avocado oil. It’s supposed to be super healthy, and it ought to be at that price. Must have been feeling well off that day.
The recipe says raisins. I substitute mixed fruit and chopped ginger. Little changes make these cookies uniquely mine, raisin and oats and something else.
Creaming butter and sugar is repetitive and soothing. I can’t get this wrong and there’s no pressure of time. I sift the dry ingredients together and inhale the aroma of cinnamon, noting the random speckles of brown against white flour.
While I combine ingredients, the story problem simmers in the background. It’s meditative, this focus on a single thing. I lose the plot. I start clean up while the oven preheats. Blobs of dough sit unevenly on assorted baking trays. They’ll all taste great.
The aroma of baking is heavenly and I inhale deeply. The kitchen is quiet and tidy again. After hours of mental effort, turning the focus outwards and creating order restores calm. I feel more in control and the nagging voice of doubt recedes, because the cookies are a small but certain win.
And then the protagonist whispers, “I fell asleep on the train and now I’m waking up in Sheffield with a dead phone and no money. Help.” Oh yes, I can work with this. The next steps light up in my brain and I return to work energised, with tea and a warm, delicious cookie.
*No more writers block
Simple repetitive tasks are calming, approached in the right mindset. Step away from the keyboard. Let your subconscious work on a problem while you occupy your brain elsewhere. Engage all your senses and pay attention.
Limitations create problems. Solving those problems demands creativity.
Making something tangible is satisfying in a way mental work is not. Small wins help enormously on the way to the bigger goal. Enjoy your cookie.
In the developed world choice is king. The more choices, the better the world is working, and the received wisdom is that more is always better. Whole industries are built on finding and then expanding niches.
It’s no wonder that the protagonist of The Hurt Locker stood in the store when he returned from Iran, paralysed by too much choice. We’ve all done this. We rush into the store to find something for dinner, and we find ourselves overwhelmed, unable to choose.
FMI statistics show the average US supermarket carries over 42,000 items. In 2015 Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, carried 90,000 items, including 28 kinds of tomato ketchup. They planned to cut this to 60,000 to make shopping more efficient.
How often do we grab the first thing we see, or give up and get a takeaway meal instead, in a mild state of panic? Those tempting offers and discounts take advantage of our frazzled brains, already worn out by too many choices from the moment we woke up.
In his TED talk Phil Hansen talks candidly about his quest to “Embrace the shake”. Well worth ten minutes of your time. He talks about losing the ability and will to create as he wished, and how he overcame a creative slump that lasted for years. He vividly describes becoming overwhelmed by possibility.
For writers, this equates not only to the empty page, but also to absent parameters. “Write a short story/novel/poem about anything” sounds great, till we sit down to start.
If all paths are open, which one should we take? Perhaps your stomach is already clenching at the very thought. But there is a way forward.
Put some walls in place, and ideas can bounce off them, finding surprising ways to fulfil the brief. It’s not only true for artists, because we all have constraints. Problem solving is a key skill for life.
If there are no constraints, there is no problem to solve.
We happen on a brilliant solution not by waving a hand or throwing money at problems, but by understanding that we must transcend apparently fixed parameters. We use only what we have been given to find another way.
This is a great way to recover creativity. Or to overcome the dread of the empty page. Or to continue when we we doubt our ability to get going.
Here are some suggestions. The first and most important step is to suspend judgement, the endless chatter of this is stupid/no good/worthless. It’s just practice.
The idea is to move forward and get ideas flowing, so that the energy feeds into your current project. First you need to loosen your creative muscles, like an athlete warning up.
Look around you, and write 100 words on the first red or blue object you see.
Construct a main dish using only the items in your fridge right now.
Pick up a book, turn to a random page. Look for the first word that is a noun, verb, or adjective. Write a one page story using that word, in ten minutes or less.
I highly recommend Phil Hansen‘s talk, where he gives great illustrated examples. He tried some surprising things. One might just be the spark you need to get started again.
Limiting our fictional characters can also be a good thing. Give her a seemingly impossible situation, and then she must fight her way out. Put him in a literal or metaphorical cage, and see how he responds. It’s a great way of showing character.
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.
Big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.
I’m a big fan of Chuck Wendig and read his emails every week as he photographs tiny things, rants about politics, and talks writing, in very colourful words. In the post above he tackles the deep despair that can overcome you when the wanton f*ckery of the world seems too much to bear. (his phrase, not mine)
Creatives, especially at the early stages when it’s hard slog for little reward, can be tempted to give up. What’s the point we say, crying into our gin/ice cream tub/family pack of snacks? Nobody’s listening, it’s no good anyhow, the world is going to hell in a handcart and I’m powerless to stop it. My little story/song/picture/recipe/whatever is pretty useless as ammunition in this fight.
Chuck says, just do it anyway.
There’s someone out there for whom your thing is exactly what they need, right now. That could be entertainment, distraction, tools to do a job or navigate a heartbreak. They might see themselves in your thing and be inspired.
I once wrote a scene in which two gay men argued about being their authentic selves. A woman sent me a comment saying she had wept, thinking back to the compromises she made in earlier life, and that she felt like it was her story on the screen.
Emotional connection transcends time, gender, place. There is no better feeling for an author than knowing your words touched a chord with a real person.
You never know what people will take away from your work. Once it’s out there, it doesn’t belong to just you any more. Like a newly minted adult, it must take on the world on its own merits and find its place.
So enjoy Chuck’s take on writing, and keep creating. Don’t deprive the world of what you have to say, just because you got discouraged. Take a break and come back stronger. The world is awful, and it’s also amazing. Be part of the amazing.