Have you made a New Year’s Resolution to be more creative? Are you at a bit of a loss on how to make it happen? Have you already broken your promise to yourself?
If you’re like me and the rest of humanity on Planet Pandemic, you’ve been forced to reassess how you spend your time, over and over again. Last November the US hit a record high for the number of people who quit their jobs, at 4.5 million. Monday the US hit a global record of a million people testing positive for COVID in one day. People are reassessing how much risk they’re willing to face, how much compensation they’re willing to accept for their efforts, and what life is all about.
And a lot of us are committing–or recommitting–to the creative life.
But if you’ve ever really tried it, you know that it can be difficult. In fact, it can seem impossible. Maybe only the weirdness of this global pandemic has made it seem possible by cutting out of your life so much that gave it meaning, purpose, demands, and distraction. Maybe you lost a lot–a career, a loved one, a home–and you’re ready now to do whatever it takes. Well, it does take the sacrifice of something big, such as all your unborn children, as I wrote about in “Can You Make Art and a Living Too?” For some of us, the pandemic made that sacrifice for us.
They say you are what you eat, which, given cell biology and physics, is literally true. However, what concerns us more here is the equally true adage, you are what you do. A writer writes, a painter paints, and when I read David Eaglemann’s Livewired: the Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, I learned exactly why that’s true.
If you want to be someone more creative than you are now, you need to spend time, probably every day or at least a few times a week, actively engaged in that behavior, pandemic or no pandemic. Take it one hour at a time, one day at a time, and take care of yourself and others. Here are some suggestions:
1. Schedule Time for Creativity
- Yo Yo Ma and Serena Williams don’t just randomly wander over to their tennis racket or cello, they know from 9 to 1 they’re doing it. They don’t schedule anything else. I put it in my planner and in my calendar and if a doctor, a friend, a family member, wants to see me during that time, I SAY NO. I don’t even pick up the phone or answer a text or email during my writing time. Most writers write in the mornings, and maybe, if it’s possible for you, that’s when you should schedule your creative time too. Doing your creative work first has a way of making it your #1 priority. As John Cleese says, blocking off that time also protects your mental play space (if you do nothing else, watch that strangely un-funny video–Cleese is dead serious, and he’s right). Creating first thing in the day also puts your brain in the habit, trains your neurons, this is what we do at this time every day, and guarantees you won’t be in phone-call brain or tidy-up brain or YouTube brain. Creativity is very much a state of mind. My husband, who’s a software engineer, comes out of his office after hours of coding looking bewildered and says he “has code-head.” If you want to BE a creative writer, painter, musician, you need to grow your own “code-head,” and you do it by using your head creatively for a significant block of time the same time every day.
2. Keep a Journal
Julia Cameron is the goddess of helping you cultivate a creative brain. I bought her book, did her twelve-week course, and have to say, if I’m ever falling out of the habit, I automatically resort to the practices I learned from The Artist’s Way, which definitely includes what she calls “morning pages.” I even incorporated a version of morning pages into the writing courses I teach, and my students swear by them. You can tailor the journal to your needs. Variations I’ve taught are the Nature Journal, the Writing Process Journal (a metacognitive exercise), and the Reading Journal (which I’m doing right now). Handwriting in a journal is a mental and kinesthetic exercise, an easy, simple way to train your brain, tell your neurons, we are creating right now. The journal forces you to notice detail, to puzzle through problems, to surprise itself, to dream, to complain, in every way to talk to itself about life, art, and its relationship to life and art. You’re collaborating with yourself. If you’re a writer, there’s the added benefit that when you write in the journal, you’re writing. The language centers of your brain are doing their calisthenics.
3. Learn Something New
Artists will tell you you need to fill the well. One of my MFA professors used to recommend we “learn something new every year,” whether it’s fly-tying or a new language or the history of dye manufacture. You don’t have to enroll in a course, although it helps, but you can read books and articles on the subject, join an online community, and if it’s a skill maybe invest in some of the gear involved. Sometimes it’s best to learn about something directly involved in your creative work. For example, if you want to photograph birds, you could study bird behavior, listen to a podcast about gift-giving crows or the insanely mischievous birds of prey called caracaras or the surprising long-standing love affair between humans and pigeons. Sometimes the truly daring thing to do is learn something completely unrelated to your creative life. You’ll be most successful if you give yourself a distinct project or a goal and deadline or enlist a partner so you don’t give up when it gets hard, which it will. When I wanted to learn more about animal cognition and behavior, I found a friend who did too, and we started a podcast, which forced me to learn about animals, but also audio editing and a whole lot more. Sometimes your effort to learn something new will become something tangible, such as my study of animal behavior became This Animal Life or my husband’s desire to learn tiling became our new bathroom. Your project could fill your Instagram or bring you new collaborative connections, such as mine brought me the authors I interviewed and our graphic artist, Sarah K. Martin. However, above all, learning something new will round you out, expand your brain, and give you inspiration and material for your creative life. It’s best not to look for gains, though. Do it for its own sake. I have no idea how the podcast did or didn’t “pay off.” If nothing else, learning something new frustrates you, humbles you, and takes the heavy responsibility of expertise off your shoulders, freeing you to become playful and open-minded again.
Writing is a lonely business, and I’m an extrovert. When I moved away from university communities, I missed having fellow writers to knock ideas around with me. You need people who can challenge you, supplement your knowledge and experience, inspire you when you’re full of doubt and despair, who can commiserate when the going is just awful. I needed a community of people who weren’t just starting out, but were in the same boat I was in, maybe had a promising book or two, and then life got in the way. I started reaching out to other local writing professors who’d commercially published and asking them if they knew other professional writers. I also joined and participated in local writing communities. Little by little, I was able to cobble together a group of professional writers, and we’ve been meeting once a month now for the last twelve years. Of course, since the pandemic, we now meet by Zoom, which has allowed us to include writers from all over the country. I think of it as a reverse 12-Step Program–we’re all creativity addicts, and we keep each other addicted. Here’s some excellent advice for how to find your tribe, how to find like-minded creatives, and how to find creative people in your town.
If you have other ideas about how to become more creative, we’d love to hear them. My sister sirens at The Gloria Sirens are a collective of creative women and often collaborate with each other. We get together at least once a year for what we call a “Siren Summit,” we have a private FaceBook Group, and we meet weekly via Zoom. A number of us are poets, authors, creative educators, and public speakers, and we are driven and hungry but very human. We’d love to connect with you.
- writing is an act of courage;
- all stories are worth telling (especially women’s stories);
- as an artist you deserve to be paid for your work;
- as women you deserve equal representation in the arts;*
- as our readers you deserve support, acceptance, community, and encouragement;
- when we create a safe and supportive space together, we cultivate courage, dignity, and innovation.