Want to be More Creative? Be curious.

One of the best things you can do to become more creative is to be curious about the world around you. Let things grab your attention. Be interested.

When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it

Csikszentmihalyi – Creativity – the Psychology of Discovery and Invention,  p348

All the most creative people I know; writers, artists, song writers are interested in what’s going on around them. They people watch, they visit places old and new because those places interest and excite them. They note down the things that other people write, say or present in their art because it makes them think or moves them in some way.

And as Csikszentmihalyi says, don’t just notice it, follow it. Get obsessed. Write it down, take photos, make sketches. Think. Find out more. This is where a journal comes in really useful. A cheap notebook will do. Maybe you have a weird notebook fetish. That’s OK.  I like ones without lines. I’ve been the same since I read the epigraph to Farenheit 451,

If they give you ruled paper, write the other way

Take that notebook everywhere. This is your friend, your creative journal. Note down ideas, describe places, record things people say, jot down books you want to read, lyrics that inspire you, weird facts from Wikipedia.

This week I’m doing just that. I’m working on a novel at the moment and the scenes, characters and plot are coming drip by drip. I’m jotting down the things I’m interested in: woodlands, the blitz, local history. I’m also noting down anything else that interests me.

My son’s been learning about Beowolf and Grendel at school. I looked at parts of the saga with him. Boy, there’s some stuff to be curious about there – but that’s the sort of thing I get curious about – myth, legends, folklore, landscape.

What’s your thing? Find it and follow it. Don’t let go.

Stay curious.

 

Have You Found Your Creative Mojo Yet?

In the last post I wanted to explore how mindfulness could help the creative process. I’m a writer and I was finding my creativity a little sapped. Whenever I sat down to write (and it wasn’t often enough – I’ve been very good at procrastination lately) I found my writing a little stilted and awkward. I felt as if I was trying to mine each word from my subconscious and it was slow, painful and clumsy.

I needed to find another way. I needed to find my flow, that feeling when you’re so in the moment of creating, that the words/art seem to come from somewhere deeper. It feels effortless. You feel connected to your art.

creativity requires focus

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way uses a technique called the morning pages. You write three sides of A4 everyday. It’s not journalling as such. It’s pure stream of consciousness writing. It’s a great way to free up your creative side and to find a looseness in your creativity that might be lacking. She advocates doing it every day, just letting the pen meet the page for those three sides of paper and ignoring the inner critic. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. It doesn’t even matter if it makes sense. You don’t read the pages back. You either put them in an envelope and file them a way or turn the page and forget about them. It’s purely about the activity, the doing it. It’s not about the end result. After two to three weeks you will find you feel more creative, looser. I can guarantee it works. I’ve used this technique many many times.

I was interested in taking this practice further. Could the same process be used for visual art? Could you do morning canvases for example?

At its simplest, it is mindful creativity so I don’t see why not. I think the morning pages are still an essential tool in our repertoire of being more creative but I think we can expand on that.

This was my idea for constructing a creative mindful process:

  1. If you are new to creating in your chosen medium and the whole thing terrifies you. Try this. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said ‘I have a great idea for novel/story/book, but how do I get started?’ There is only one way. I suggest sitting in front of the keyboard (canvas/sketchpad/notebook) and just doing it. Set a timer for 30 minutes to begin with. Open up a blank document (or pick up your pen, paintbrush, pencil or whatever) and just write (draw, paint etc.) for those 30 minutes. Do not stop to think. Just meet the page. One word after another or one line stroke after another. Keep going. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. Just keep going.
  2. If your mind wanders or you freeze, don’t worry. It’s natural. Just return it to the action of writing, putting one word in front of the other, one brush stroke after the other. It doesn’t need to look good, make sense. It’s just the process of creating that you’re interested in.
  3. If you find yourself criticising what you or doing or wanting to give up, recognise the thought and let it pass. Just another leaf in the stream passing below. Observe. Let go. None of it matters.
  4. Soon, you will learn to just enjoy the flow of creating. Keep setting the timer for 30 minutes when you create. I recommend you do this every day for at least two weeks. What you’re doing is creating a creative habit. Once you’ve got that creative habit going, try expending the timer to 45 minutes, then an hour. One day you will sit down to write, draw or paint and you will suddenly realise you’ve been at it for two hours or more but it felt like minutes. Congratulations – you’ve made a mindful creative habit!

So how did you do? Reading back, I realise that number 3 is easier said than done. How do you simply let go of your inner critic?

In answer to that, there’s a couple of important things to bear in mind. Some attention needs to be paid to where that inner critic comes from. Whose voice does it have? Where in your past does it originate? Pablo Picasso famously said,

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

It requires a little digging. Was there a teacher who said you weren’t really a writer or said your drawings didn’t look like X or Y? Was it a parent who was well-meaning and trying to  protect you who said you were wasting your time and you should be focusing on proper pursuits that would earn you money? Once you can recognise where the inner critic originates, you can mindfully acknowledge it, thank it for trying to protect you but firmly remind it that its wrong.

We’re all good enough to express ourselves. Everyone has a unique perspective on the world and a voice that should be heard through their chosen medium. There is no good or bad art – only art that one person prefers over another because it resonates with their unique world view too.

The other element in letting go of the inner critic is repetition. With repetition and practise, it becomes habit. You will find, like meditation and mindfulness – the more you do it, the more control you have over your thoughts.

That’s one thing that people mistakenly believe about creativity – that by being more creative they will lose control. I used to have that fear. I felt as if by being creative I would lose the control and order of my rational mind. The thing is that creativity actually takes an awful lot of focus and practise. There’s nothing sloppy or dangerously wild about it all. It’s about finding the confidence to not to worry – to focus on the thing you enjoy – the pure act of creating.

Cultivating a Mindful Creative Process

In the last post I talked a little about how being forced to start this project off slowly had made me anxious. My westernised twenty-first century mind had wanted instant results, had wanted the project to get off to a flying start, on time and on schedule. I soon realised that having to start things a little slower than I had wanted was actually a gift. It made me slow down and think more deeply about what I wanted out of this project and how to give the readers something useful and considered.

This week, I’m interested in discovering how mindfulness can help me be more creative, how slowing things down, being in the present and just enjoying the flow of creating could make me more more creative.

Instinctively, this goes against the grain. We are taught that to be more productive we have to be increasingly busy, we need to have plans and goals, to constantly strategise and think ahead. Mindfulness teaches us that these things only serve to make us more stressed, less productive and more anxious.

At mindful.org, a brilliant resource on all things mindful, the authors talk about what mindfulness is;

‘We all have the innate ability to be present, composed, and to pause before we overreact to the challenges of our busy lives—and that’s the ground of mindfulness.’

Essentially, it’s about creating space for yourself to breathe to think and pause – not to be in a constant reactive state, and to do so without judgement. This is an interesting point for creativity, because one of the most important things you can do to free your creativity is to turn off your inner critic.

It sounds simple doesn’t it? But it’s not. We are conditioned from an early age to criticise ourselves and the art we create. Other people – caregivers, teachers and friends may all mean well by offering us their criticisms of our fledgling creativity or question why we are doing it but what they don’t realise is that they are adding their voices to our already overcrowded inner criticisms. All those questions and doubts; why are we bothering? will we be good enough? what will others think? They are simply adding to the negative noise in our heads.

To cultivate mindfulness we simply bring our mind to the present moment. Our minds naturally wander. It’s not something to fear or be irritated by. All we need to do is bring our wandering mind back to the present. The more we do it, the easier it gets. Another part of mindfulness is letting go of self-judgement. Just as with a wandering mind, we acknowledge the judgement and simply let it pass. I always like to think of these thoughts as leaves passing in the stream beneath a bridge; we simply observe and let them pass, over and over. And what is more in the present than our own breathing? So we use our breath as the point of refocus. We bring our mind back to our breathing. For a fuller explanation, have a look at the fantastic guide to mindfulness on mindful.org

So how does this relate to being more creative? How can this help in my writing, for example?

I believe that mindfulness can help us get into the flow state of writing or creating—that point when you are so engrossed in what you are doing that you forget everything else. The creative process is the breath. It is the thing that we tune our mind to. We forget exterior thoughts, we forget self-criticism, we let go of the inner critic and we create for creating’s sake. There is no end goal, there is just the joy and flow of creating. At times like this, when we are creating it feels as if the art, music, words are coming from somewhere outside of ourself. We feel inspired. These are magic moments and what every creative person strives for.

I believe that mindful practise in creating makes better creativity and better, more free creating, in turn, makes us more mindful and healthier.

Cultivating a Mindful Creative Process

  1. If you are new to creating in your chosen medium and the whole thing terrifies you. Try this. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said ‘I have a great idea for novel/story/book, but how do I get started?’ There is only one way. I suggest sitting in front of the keyboard (canvas/sketchpad/notebook) and just doing it. Set a timer for 30 minutes to begin with. Open up a blank document (or pick up your pen, paintbrush, pencil or whatever) and just write (draw, paint etc.) for those 30 minutes. Do not stop to think. Just meet the page. One word after another or one line stroke after another. Keep going. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. Just keep going.

  2. If your mind wanders or you freeze, don’t worry. It’s natural. Just return it to the action of writing, putting one word in front of the other, one brush stroke after the other. It doesn’t need to look good, make sense. It’s just the process of creating that you’re interested in.

  3. If you find yourself criticising what you or doing or wanting to give up, recognise the thought and let it pass. Just another leaf in the stream passing below. Observe. Let go. None of it matters.

  4. Soon, you will learn to just enjoy the flow of creating. Keep setting the timer for 30 minutes when you create. I recommend you do this every day for at least two weeks. What you’re doing is creating a creative habit. Once you’ve got that creative habit going, try expending the timer to 45 minutes, then an hour. One day you will sit down to write, draw or paint and you will suddenly realise you’ve been at it for two hours or more but it felt like minutes. Congratulation – you’ve made a mindful creative habit!

This week I will meditate every day (there’s a useful meditation on the same website), using a mindfulness technique from mindful.org and I will try to create and write mindfully. I will let go of my inner critic and forget the worries about the end product of my writing.

I will report back at the end of the week on how things went and any thoughts I had on this week’s practise. Why not join me and be mindful in your creating this week? Let me know how you got on and leave me a comment.

Happy Creating!

Image Credits: ElisaRiva (Pixabay Creative Commons License)

My First Creative Baby-Steps of 2018 – How Did I Do?

My Year of Living Creatively did not start with a bang. It didn’t even start with a fizz or pop. No, 2018 has begun very slowly. The main reason (and yes, I know it sounds like a pathetic excuse!) is that I had flu. I’ve not been this ill in a fair few years and ended up not being able to do more than sleep for the first few days of 2018. Luckily, I had already started the ball rolling with the first week of plans.

If you recall, in my last post, I had planned to restock the creative well which was running very dry at the end of 2017. Drawing inspiration from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way I intended to binge on art in the hope of finding inspiration and reigniting my creativity.

In particular, I wanted to:

  • Read some non-fiction to gain inspiration

  • Visit an art gallery

  • Listen to a new album

  • Watch or re-watch a film

Feeling as I did, I was dubious that I would find any creative inspiration, let alone complete a single one of these actions. However, a couple of days ago I finally felt well enough to attempt one or two so I went ahead and treated myself to a new album of music. Unconvinced that listening to an album would get my creative ‘mojo’ flowing at all, I reluctantly bought a copy of an album I’ve had in my iTunes wish list for a while now – Rachael Dadd’s After the Ant Fight. I studiously plugged in my headphones and began to listen…

After the first bars of the first song, my fingers were itching to write in my creative journal (another essential tool I’ll talk about in the next post). I had all sorts of ideas concerning journeys, jigsaws and loneliness (the creative mind works in mysterious ways!)

I haven’t yet had time to visit an art gallery but will fit in in some time soon now I’m feeling a little better. I’ve had time to flick through a few books on the history of witchcraft and witch hunting in England, and that has been quite interesting. I’m currently writing a novel that needs some research in this area and reading around the subject I’m working on always seems to spark ideas that go off on a tangent. They may end up in a song or poem.

It seems then, that taking the time to restock your creative well is well worth the effort. I think I’m going to build it into my schedule on a regular basis this year.

Listening to music, in particular, reignited my imagination. Indeed, I was reminded of the quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,

‘If music be the food of love, play on’

Maybe it should be re-imagined for the purposes of the blog?

‘If music be the food of art, play on’

One thing that has emerged this week, is that starting things slowly caused me some anxiety. That’s interesting and casts some light on the creative mind and pressures of the twentieth century. I wanted to get it all done, be inspired at that moment. I think this is faulty thinking a little reminiscent of black and white thinking that I was taught was incorrect while studying Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. You cannot force creativity. You shouldn’t wait for it either; you can create a creative habit (again—I’ll talk more about that in the next post) but it cannot be forced in the way that we expect instant gratification these days. There’s an organic quality to creating that shouldn’t be spoiled by beating ourselves up about not meeting deadlines. Sometimes in letting something slip a little, we actually discover something new or see things in a different creative light.

In the next post, I’ll examine this in more detail. For now, see you soon. Happy Creating!

Ditch the New Year’s Resolutions, Create and Be Happy Instead!

Happy New Year!

I just googled ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ and, of course, was immediately bombarded with adverts for ‘New Year, New You’, ‘Go on a diet and your life will be wonderful’ and the ‘Join a gym and you’ll be immediately more successful/attractive/superhuman’ nonsense that exists in cyberspace.

Interestingly, it appears that people are getting wiser to the shame and guilt based advertising so diet companies are frenziedly re-branding. Don’t believe the hype eh?

In this first week of A Year of Living Creatively, you will be relieved to find out that the plan for this week is not to give up anything. That’s right. No giving up. No instant new you. No denial or self flagellation. January is already far too depressing as it is.

Instead, this week, I’m going to indulge. I’m going to binge on art. What does this mean? It means that between now (Monday) and next Sunday I’m going to binge on art, books, film and music in order to restock what Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (Tarcher/Putnam 1992), calls the ‘well’.

‘In order to create, we draw from our inner well…If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant or blocked.’ (Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, 1992, p20)

If I’m honest, my well is running dangerously dry. There may even be a rusty supermarket trolley and a dead rat at the bottom. It needs some serious attention.

This week, I’m going to restock it via a massive art binge. In the past, when I’ve been writing fiction or music, I’ve found inspiration through other people’s art. Through the process of listening to music, flicking through a book or looking at art, feelings, memories and ideas are stirred. They’re not always instantly usable in their own right but safely harboured, the ideas simmer away until they can make connections with others in novel and unexpected ways. Then they can begin the process of taking on a new life of their own.

However, without the initial inspiration, the well will remain dry so here’s the plan…

  • Visit an art gallery (We’ve got the fabulous free Graves Gallery in Sheffield)

  • Listen to a new album (Remember mix-tapes? They were great for restocking the well. Bring them back! For now, iTunes, a good independent record store or a friend with a mean CD collection will have to suffice)

  • Pick up and thumb through a book that takes your fancy (I like to use non-fiction history, mythology, folklore, nature books for this. My whole novel ‘The Mermaid Pool’ started life years ago as a little snippet lodged in my brain after reading Wreckers by Bella Bathurst)

  • Watch or re-watch a film or drama.

Part way through the week, I’ll check back in and post about how I’m getting on. I’d love you to drop by and let me know what you’re up to too.

Until then, Happy Creative New Year!

A Year of Living Creatively

 

Why a year of living creatively?

I’m guessing that, as you’re here, you may be thinking of beginning some creative endeavour. You might be thinking of writing a novel, taking up painting, having a go at poetry, maybe song-writing or ceramic art.

Whatever your creative endeavour is, I can guarantee one thing. You’re feeling a little scared.

Creating something feels dangerous. It feels as though we’re taking a risk, and so, we encounter fear. Fear of failure, fear of laying ourself bare, fear of criticism. All of these feelings are natural and understandable. However, thousands of artists, writers, poets and musicians create every day. So how do they do it? How do we get past the fear and live more creatively?

I write fiction and I play bass in a band, so I already create to some extent. So why the need to be more creative? Although I continue to write fiction and my writing is tighter, better than it has ever been and the music is going well, I feel an edge of constraint to my creativity has crept in. I’m less experimental, less free than I used to be. It’s as though now I am better at understanding the rules of my creative endeavours, I am constrained by them.

This year, I’m going to attempt to free up that creativity and live more creatively as a result. This year I want to rediscover the flow and joy of the first draft and make more writing, more art, more music. I’m going to share it all via this blog because I want others to join me on the journey. That’s right—I want you to participate in the same adventures and I want you to let me know how you get on. I think we can learn from each other. After all, creativity does not exist in a vacuum.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states in Creativity—the psychology of discovery and invention (Harper Perennial 1997) individual creativity is only

‘a link in a chain, a phase in a process. To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or Albert Einstein discovered relativity is a convenient simplification.’

All of us require an intellectual and social network to stimulate our thinking, to feed and reflect upon our creativity. There’s no getting around this—we need to get out of the garret. We are more creative together.

Therefore, I’m going to try something new each week. It might be a new tool or technique to open up my creativity. It could be anything from the sensible and sublime to the chaotic and crazy. I’m going to draw upon the experiences of other creative people (living and dead), philosophy, science and psychology, ancient (and not so ancient) western and eastern traditions.

Each week I will share with you what I’m trying to do and I’ll also share the experiences, emotions and thoughts that the week brings.

So that’s it…why don’t you come along for the ride? Whether you’re a novice or a novelist, I think you might learn something about being more creative too.

Come join me in a year of living creatively!