What is creativity? Mostly, the term is used in the context of imagination, when original ideas culminate in the creation of an artistic work, or something that is considered new, worthwhile, or useful to humanity in some way. The term is thrown around in many different contexts, none more irritating perhaps than in a corporate setting where it’s often used to describe so-called innovations that are really just a rehashing of the same old junk we were looking at yesterday.
The truth is creativity is a shy, elusive creature that evades any rational explanation, and appears in different forms to different people. Much like the Sasquatch, you can spend a lifetime chasing it (and come this close to touching it), but in the end, all you’re left with are blurry pictures of some unidentified blob behind a bunch of branches. Try as you might to describe your encounter, you have to know… none of your friends believe you.
As difficult as it is to accurately define creativity, we know that it’s not the exclusive domain of people working in creative fields, like artists, or musicians. In reality, creativity has a lot to do with problem solving, answering questions, and resolving conflicts. The creative drive is just as likely to sneak up on you in the middle of a grocery store, as it is to show up in the throes of passion, or in the moment you put your brush to canvas. And just like that… it can disappear as quickly as it came.
For an artist, nothing compares to being in the creative flow. When that surge of energy takes over, you feel like you could just keep painting, drawing, or building that massive toothpick-and-glue installation for days on end without taking a single break. In the moment, you may believe this intense creative connection couldn’t possibly run dry, but at some point, your brain (and your body) is going to take a well-deserved break… whether you like it or not.
You don’t have to be an artist to experience creative burnout. Staring at a blank canvas, an empty page, or even your boss’s incredibly deadpan expression can be an equally scary experience, and while you’re mid-sentence trying to come up with something clever, that’s exactly when you realize your creative spark has checked out… maybe for good. And while it’s off partying in Cabo, or frolicking in a Hawaiian waterfall, you’re left holding the short end of the stick.
I should know; some of my own creative blocks have lasted for months on end, and although most people find ways to work through them, they can undermine your confidence, and leave you humbled and questioning your abilities.
I say… thank the blank canvas, embrace the empty page, and kiss your boss square on the lips, because here comes a golden opportunity to get out of your own way. Whether you’re an artist, a creative, or just someone looking to attract more of The Muse into your life, there are ways to brush off the cobwebs and jump-start the process.
The all-knowing body
One of the best ways to get out of a creative funk is to interrupt the processes that aren’t working, to get out of your head, and into your body. Take a brisk walk around the block, throw a ball with your dog, run up and down a flight of stairs, have a tickle-fest with your kid, hang the laundry out to dry… whatever it takes, as long as you physically remove yourself from the activity and the environment where you hit the proverbial wall. Do your best to breathe, to enjoy your physicality in the moment, and let it all go for a while. The body is intelligent, and it has ways of communicating its displeasure, especially if you’ve been pushing too long and hard. If you’re drawing a blank and can’t seem to get out of the fog, your body may be trying to tell you that you’re on the wrong path. You could simply be overtired or overstressed, or it could be that you don’t really believe in the idea you’re trying to develop. Doing something physical can stop you over-intellectualizing, leaving you refreshed and in a better creative state. “Putting a pin in it” doesn’t mean you’re lazy, or that you’re giving up; it just means that you very wisely decided to stop hitting your head against the wall.
Fire the editor
A terribly destructive habit for creative people is editing at a too early stage. If you keep cutting ideas down as they are forming, they will never reach their full potential. Consider that we evolve and learn through trial and error, and creativity is no different. Who cares if something looks or sounds completely ridiculous at first? In the early stages, you should be experimenting, brainstorming, getting it all out in broad strokes, and generally falling on your face. A good analogy might be to think of a figurative artist trying to find the lines when drawing the model in front of her. If she edits her work too early, she’ll never be able to accurately isolate the shapes and volumes that will eventually form the figure. When you censor yourself during the creative process, you’re working from a place of fear (fear of judgment, fear of failure) and the result is half-truths, and manipulated outcomes. Editing should only come into play when a concept is fully fleshed-out. Then and only then can you allow the ruthless critic to come out.
The practice of art, even for non-artists, can provide immense benefits and open creative doors you never even knew were there. If you find that you’re fresh out of ideas, and are feeling generally stagnant or uncreative, letting loose and making a huge mess with paint, ink, or some other medium can be extremely liberating. Invest in a tarp to protect your floors, get some student-grade brushes, some acrylic or tempera paints, a pad of sturdy paper or inexpensive stretched canvas (or a roll of canvas fabric), and go to town! Get your hands dirty, push that paint around, and above all, don’t try to make anything look “real”. This is a perfect opportunity to be a kid again, and the best part is, if you don’t like what you end up with… who cares? You can recycle canvas by covering it in white Gesso, and start all over again, or keep going through that art pad. There are no rules! You can invite your spouse or your friends to join in, and you know your kids are going to be all over that… so, what’s stopping you? Finger painting isn’t just for five-year-olds… why do they get to hog all the fun?
At times, the formal practice of art can be very rigid, and it’s not unusual to become overly concerned with form or technique. This applies to many other disciplines, but the main issue here is that we forget to have fun. Striking a balance is key, and we have to remember that staying loose is just as important as developing the technical side. When I see that my students are getting into a funk or hiding behind that one thing they do very well, I might throw them for a loop and lead them into somewhat uncomfortable territory. This is good for the brain, but it can also be pretty funny. Opposite Day means putting aside the things you take refuge in, and doing stuff that’s very unlike you, without any expectations as to performance, or outcome. For example, if my personal preference is to draw or paint, I might work with a lump of clay at the potting wheel, something I’m not particularly good at. At the end of the session, I imagine I’d be covered in gunk, wielding a collapsed vessel or some sort of ashtray thingy so heavy it could double as a murder weapon. But the goal is to relax, and have a good laugh at yourself. This can be incredibly freeing and might bring out the kid in you, the person that used to be judgment-free. So if you have a tendency to work small, go big; if you are very neat and detail-oriented, try action-painting and make a huge mess; if you like muted tones, pick outrageous colors; if you’re trying to solve mathematical equations and your brain is melting, try teaching yourself “Seven Nation Army” on the guitar. Do something ridiculous – something you know nothing about, and for once, enjoy not knowing.
Work through it
Creativity has a life of its own; it can be nurtured, cajoled, even coaxed, but it can’t be forced. This is one battle you cannot win with brute strength. You can however trick yourself by working through it. When drudging through creative molasses, one technique writers use is to just… keep writing. The content doesn’t matter; you could be writing the same nursery rhyme over and over again, or jotting down every random thought that pops into your head, as long as you continue to write throughout the work session. Think of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining; perhaps his obsessive, repetitious typing of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” was simply a way to escape writer’s block… although he did end up frozen solid in a maze — but hey, he had other issues. In all seriousness, this method goes back to the body’s intelligence; at some point, your brain will realize that you mean business, and you’ll eventually come up with something much more interesting. This works for artists, too. Even if you’re playing Tic-tac-toe on the canvas and your marks look like jibberish, just keep the body engaged in the process; something will eventually “pop”.
Write it down
While we’re on the topic of writing, journaling can be an excellent way to get the juices flowing. If you are the introspective type, keeping a diary can loosen that creative muscle, especially if you are able to keep your writing spontaneous. This is more about emotional expression, and describing your feelings in the moment, which can help restore the creative connection. Sometimes when we are creatively blocked, it’s because there are too many thoughts and too many concerns floating around in our minds. If you find that your thoughts are running wild and stifling your creative process, a good way to create a little space for the spark to return is to itemize all the things that are making you anxious. While you may think that looking at a long list of things would cause even more anxiety, this is actually a cognitive exercise that allows us to externalize all the random, unresolved thoughts that are calling for a solution, or at least some form of classification. Think of it as physically pulling these “thought-objects” out of your mind, one by one, and putting them on paper. Jot down every last “to do” task, plus anything that has you concerned or worried, from a doctor’s appointment, to having to make a car payment, to not knowing what you’ll present to a client next week… and when you think you’re done, keep going, adding even the smallest, most insignificant things. This exercise allows you to see your thoughts for what they are, and externalizing them can give your mind a much-needed breather, allowing fresh ideas to form.
Embrace the creativity of others
Creatively tapped? Mentally exhausted? Can’t think of a good idea to save your life? Perhaps it’s time to turn the focus outward. Going through a dry spell doesn’t mean you should sidestep all creative activities and binge-watch every British cop show on Netflix… well, OK, if you really want to. But a better use of your time would be to surround yourself with people and things that exude creativity. Visiting galleries or museums can work wonders for whatever ails you. Pay particular attention to those pieces you find ugly, jarring, or irritating in some way; there’s a reason they do, and viewing them might just knock something loose. Remember, comfort and complacency are the enemies of creativity; don’t make the mistake of only seeking what suits you. Putting your brain through its paces and experiencing something slightly off, foreign, or different is a great way to jolt yourself back into the game. Spending time with creative people can also be very uplifting; seeing how they think, and how they approach the creative process can open your eyes to new ways of doing things. Going to a concert, seeing a play, or a dance performance can be equally inspiring. It’s all about making an emotional connection, and immersing yourself in creative energy. A word of caution though: focusing on others isn’t a license to compare the sizes of your creative drives; the point of this exercise is to see that creativity is still out there. If you can acknowledge that, then the possibility of tapping into its source exists for everyone, including you.
Set the mood
Building an environment that is conducive to creativity is a lot harder than it looks, and I daresay, both a luxury and a necessity for creative types. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford studio space, and it’s not always possible to take an entire room to yourself at home. However, if we understand that creativity is fickle, and that it comes and goes as it pleases, then we have to do what we can to provide an environment where it can flourish. The key is to figure out what makes you feel energized, open, and ready to work. Is it fresh flowers? A shrine? Music? A certain type of light? Your creative space should be your own, even if it’s just a closet — and being there should make you love what you do. When I was younger, finding that perfect album or tune was always key to a productive creative session. Lately, I just want the sounds of life – the wind, bird calls, a running fountain, even children playing in the distance… as long as it doesn’t involve music. Some people seek unfamiliar settings or work outdoors, others create retreats at home — no cell phones, computers, or distractions of any kind. The point is, only you can figure this out; what motivated and inspired you ten years ago may no longer apply. If you’re not sure how to set the mood, then you owe it to yourself to experiment. Do you work better at night, or early in the morning? Are you collaborative? Do you need to work alongside another person, or in a group, or do you prefer the company of your cat? Just like your brain needs space to allow creative thoughts to flourish, you also need an appropriate setting in which to pursue creative activities.
Listen to your gut
There are so many ways to nurture the creative process, but the most important thing is to listen to your gut. Take what works for you, and discard the rest. The best way to approach this kind of lull is to understand that creativity is like a river, at times gushing, at times drying up. It will eventually replenish but in the mean time… it doesn’t hurt to do a little rain dance.
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