finding your inner creativity: 8 strategies Katherine Boutry
Although I am directing a Creative Studies initiative at West which focuses on creative problem solving, often in teams and in business or educational settings, (Big “C” Creativity), I would like to take a moment to discuss what the experts call “small c” creativity, or the kinds of intensely personal creative projects that yield both the amateur and the professional enormous life satisfaction. I am a big believer in the cultivation of personal creativity as an aspect of overall well-being. Research shows that creating things makes us happy. So why don’t we do it more often?
I would like to explore some of the common blocks to creativity in our lives. I am also a big believer in providing two things: practical advice and motivation. I aim to give you some strategies for expressing your inner voice confidently in a creative way.
What Is Inner Creativity, Anyway?
Inner creativity is the voice that is true to you and feels authentic. It is the part of you that wants to be a creator, that wants to be heard. It’s okay—you can say it out loud. How many people want to be creative? Writers, singers, actors, painters? Doesn’t that feel good? Finally admitting it out loud? Hi, I’m Kathy and I want to be creative. No judgment here. You are safe.
This kind of vulnerability and exposure takes a lot of courage, and it is what creatives do all the time. They draw on an inner well or resource. Ralph Keyes, the author of The Courage to Create: How Writers Transcend Fear, suggests “We all have secrets locked tightly in an inner safe. Writers must unlock that safe and risk letting its contents creep onto the page.” This applies to all creatives. The painters must risk dripping her shame onto the canvas, the musician into the soulful, vibrating note, the dancer leaping into the air and trusting she will be caught. If you have not felt the presence of that inner well, do not despair. It’s there in everyone. You just haven’t given yourself permission to access it yet.
We all have an inner voice begging us to create. We just have to get quiet enough to hear what it has to say. The fact that you are reading this article is your creative soul’s first sign. You are taking care of that voice that said “I need some time for me. To get away from demands and responsibilities and to nurture my creative body and my soul,” and it’s an excellent sign. It means that you loved and respected it enough to listen to its quiet plea.
Listening to Our Weak Spots
So often we’re told to “push through” the pain, keep going, “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and ignore whatever it is that’s bothering us or concerning us or obsessing us and “soldier on.” That’s because “Pushing, pulling, going, soldiering, ignoring” does work—but only for a limited time. Not in the long run. I’m going to tell you to do the opposite. Indulge in what’s bothering, concerning, or obsessing you. Don’t shove it down. Surrender to it. Wallow. But do it with a pen, a paintbrush, or a piccolo in your hand.
How do I do it?
1. MAKE TIME
The first thing you have to do is find time for this. Although there are a lot of amazing classes, dates, meals and movies to be enjoyed, fit in fifteen minutes daily and budget it. Make a contract. Pencil creativity in the same way you would any of those other things and stick to it. If it helps, ask a friend to make you accountable. Check in with each other. Find the time of day in which you feel most productive. No point trying to create just before bed if you fall asleep every time. In the afternoon, I’m too low energy to create, so I recharge my batteries then and fill up the creative well with conversation, reading, nature, or meditation (more on that in a sec). Know this about yourself. Once you’ve found your best creative time (and this may take some experimentation—hit or miss, saliva strings on the keyboard)—start by making space.
2. MAKE SPACE
You do need physical space in which to create, maybe not a whole room of your own, as Virginia Woolf suggests, but at least a place where you won’t be disturbed for a time. But don’t fixate on the physical space. The most important artist’s studio is between your ears. I’ve done some of my best writing on a laptop in a noisy mall food court. Stephen King wrote novels balancing a children’s desk on his knees in a laundry room. If you are motivated, you can be creative almost anywhere people won’t talk to you. But what is truly indispensible is mental space. Both astrophysics and creation myths embrace the idea that the entire universe was born ex nihilo, out of nothing. This is no coincidence. It is the condition under which creation occurs. Emptying the mind of clutter is a tremendous cure for the creative blocks that happen when we allow the critical voices and “shoulds” into our heads. We need to make mental space because our minds are full of thoughts, a lot of them critical, disempowering and paralyzing at their worst, and at best distracting. This is the opposite of the non-judgmental, unselfconscious, open-hearted curiosity you need to foster in order to be creative and focus on your art.
So how do you make mental space? One way is through meditation.
Simply sitting still and getting quiet for fifteen minutes a day has profound effects on our bodies and minds. I will write on creativity and meditation in a future column, but suffice it to say, the research (1000+ studies) tells us that meditation has not only physical benefits, lowering high blood pressure and the risk of heart attack, but that it also improves our mental function and makes us less reactive and more creative. It does this by clearing the mind of the thought-clutter, helping us to focus, and to prioritize. I recommend trying the practice for a few weeks. You will see the benefits immediately. Note that if the idea of sitting still seems impossible, you can practice an active meditation where you focus on movement in silence: doing yoga, walking on the beach, running, etc. are good choices. The effects will be very similar. If this feels foreign to you, another way to create mental space is through writing Creativity Pages.
Julia Cameron, author of the wonderful book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity describes a powerful practice she calls “Morning Pages.” She suggests that we start our creative practice by dumping our thoughts onto the page. And we don’t stop until we have filled up three pages. (I will be happy if you do two). If, at the end of two, you feel ready to move into your creative project or different writing, go ahead. If the flow is still there, continue. There is no hard and fast rule about this except that you have to do it every day. The pages are embarrassing and journal-like and negative and self-pitying often, but they allow us to dump whatever is distracting us from creating into a safe storage place where we can access it later (or lock it up and throw away the key).Unloading is exactly what it sounds like. It frees up our minds. This emptying of the mind of to-do lists and grudges is essential. Now you can create freely with permission to be terrible and self-indulgent, and that’s the point. These pages are not for public consumption and you do not ever have to read them again. Just doing them serves their function. And you can free yourself of the self-consciousness that kills creativity.
If you have trouble writing the Creativity Pages, you can use prompts to get you started. Some days you may need a prompt. Other days you may be able to write your Creativity Pages immediately and get to creating for you.
Use Prompts to Warm-Up your Creative Efforts
You can create (write, draw, sing, sculpt, basket weave, etc) to a prompt right away.
In Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg suggests two of my favorite prompts:
a. “I will die in Paris, on a rainy day…It will be a Thursday,” by poet Cesar Vallejo. You can change the particulars any way you want: “On a roller coaster, howling with glee.” “In a Laundromat, choking on a chicken bone, staring at the linoleum,” you get the idea. Write, paint, draw or dance it out.
b. What kind of animal are you? A moose, a bison, a giraffe? A lion? Or my variations: what fruit/color are you? What kind of architecture are you? What type of landscape are you? Desert prickly pear? Lush rain forest?
c. If it works for you, repeat the exercise thinking about your lover, your best friend, your grade school archenemy, your mother. This can free you from self-consciousness (and give you great material for characters).
d. Note, once you get into the creative process for real, always keep a list next to you. On this list goes all of the things that you have to do as they occur to you when you are creating. This list is where you write “Call Aunt Marietta!” or “Pay the Gas bill!” “Refill fire extinguishers.”- and the great advantage of this is that it allows you to keep creating and not jump up and pay the gas bill or check your emails (and just answer that one email and then look up three hours later and it’s time to pick up the kids or make dinner and oh well, you’ll pursue your dream of creating tomorrow). It also allows you to jot down ideas for other future projects as they often occur when a creative is in the middle of a challenging project. You can refer to this list later and it has no emotional charge—it’s very useful.
Henry James was right when he said writing was a job you have to show up for, and to show up, you have to sit at your computer or have pen and paper in hand for a few hours. The same is true of creativity.
3. MAKE A LIST
What’s your priority? Narrow in on the project you want to complete now. (Meditation and Creativity Pages are enormously helpful vehicles for answering this question and listening to the inner voice that tells you what’s important to you and how you want to be remembered). Follow your gut about the feeling you get when you think about your different projects. If you feel like you SHOULD write that stats report, but you keep sketching a design for an outdoor garden, go for the plants. If you promised yourself that you would write the next great American novel, but that book of poetry is really what’s calling to you even though you know it might be more difficult to sell— write the poetry anyway. None of us knows what will sell EVER and anyone who tries to tell you they know is lying. If you write that book of poetry with passion and heart, readers will respond. And isn’t that the endgame, folks? Success follows us as soon as we stop chasing it and focus on enjoying what we are doing.
4. MAKE A SHIFT
Shift your perspective—you are no longer an X (fill in the blank with your day job)—you are a creator of X (fill in the blank with your current project— wall mural, afghan, interpretive dance, star chart, screenplay, memoir, etc) and you are that 24/7. Give that role priority in your life. How does that feel?
And as a creator, you need to be alive to the world around you. No more autopilot. You must be alive to the universe because that is your source material.
In order to be a good creative you need to be an excellent observer. I want you to start thinking like a creative: snap a pic of the vertical garden. Jot down that snippet of great conversation you overheard outside the Taco truck for use in dialogue later. Imagine the kind of life the telemarketer currently harassing you leads. As creatives we must be alive to the drama in our everyday lives. A possible fix for that plot problem hits you in the checkout line? Write it down. You’re on call all the time now and it’s when you least expect it that the solution to your creative quandary or your next great idea will suddenly pop into your head. You need to be listening to that voice. Keep a pad and pen in the car so that when inspiration hits you at a stoplight and there are no Starbucks napkins available, you don’t lose that brilliant insight.
5. MAKE PEACE WITH SHAME
As a creative you must be prepared to be emotionally vulnerable. We might think that as creative we need to be perfect since we are sharing with the world, but exactly the opposite is true. No one wants to hear about someone who never had any struggles and succeeded at everything the first time out of the gate. We hate that person. Brene Brown’s great book Daring Greatly talks about the enormous benefits and courage it takes to be vulnerable in situations where we think we need to present a strong façade. She debunks that myth and suggests that it’s more human and more endearing to reveal your flaws. Others never judge us for them nearly as harshly as we judge ourselves. The same applies to creating. It feels tender, raw, unbearable at times, but the truth is that others are so wrapped up in your story, they aren’t judging you, they are marveling at your courage in sharing. Matisse said “Creativity takes courage.” Your best work will be full of you. And so what? Let’s say you are that young child who suffers abuse in the novel, or the embarrassing character who’s jealous or greedy. They certainly aren’t going to judge you for it—they’re going to feel compassion for you, and less alone in their own lives. And I guarantee that the creative process will be healing for you. Do you think you’re the only person who’s ever felt shame? Melville called true writers ‘divers’ --those brave enough to plunge deep inside and show others the sunken treasure or horror they found. And the beautiful part is, these tender spots are not only universal, I guarantee they are exactly the moments that will make your creative output memorable and meaningful to others.
6. MAKE ART:i.e. MAKE UP SOME STUFF
Maddeningly, the opposite of #5 is simultaneously also true. Staying true to the Truth often means lying. Don’t get so hung up on remaining faithful to the details of what really happened “in real life” that you forget to make art. “It really happened this way,” or, “it really looked exactly like that”—unfortunately doesn’t always make for compelling art. This is an unfair truth of life. You must distance yourself enough from the facts in order to create a work of art. The details ultimately do not matter so much, and some well-crafted invented details are better than our faulty memories anyway. Otherwise, you risk trucking in stereotypes. What you must remain true to is the emotion of the experience. This is where absolute truth is essential.
If you need help with this practice of making art out of real life or are emotionally stuck to what really happened, try doing your Creativity Pages in different characters’ voices.
You might also try pulling some archetype cards to inject some differences or nuanced dimensions into your characters if they are too stuck in the past or act as ciphers for a particular idea or “type.” Caroline Myss has a great deck.
Also, you might try changing peoples’ names or genders to get you out of a rut.
Or you might pin up a famous actor to “play” your character as you write. It’s hard to write a cliché when you change up some of the facets. Other helpful ways you can be sure you are “making art” rather than just recording facts:
Don’t edit or judge yourself as you go (Avoid the trap of “What would grandma think of that sex scene/nude drawing?!). Just disappear and record your creativity.
Use unique details.
Don’t come into the work with a message or plan. Don’t try to teach your reader/viewer/audience anything. Just share a resonant creative moment with them.
Watch what unfolds and keep injecting conflict. This is the opposite of what we want in life. Conflict, movement, tension, dynamics, force and gravity, these are all different ways of saying the same thing: art needs some kind of push and pull and the suggestion that change is imminent. Conflict takes many forms: personal (bully), societal (racist town), inner (damaged self-image), environmental (Pi at sea in an open boat with a Bengal tiger), fate (terminal illness, meeting the love of your life too late when you’re both already married, etc)
Keep your inner voice safe until you just can’t wait to show it to someone. Then you are ready. You think-
7. MAKE AN ENTRANCE
Let’s say you have created something you love in a way you recognize as coming from your inner intuitive voice. Now you dress up your new creation and show it to the world—preferably a trusted group of creative buddies, friends, mentors, etc. some in your field. These need to be people you trust to be honest but not hurtful, constructive and genuinely happy for you. These cannot be people so bitter about their own lack of success that they are determined to bring everyone else down with them. Sometimes you find this out the hard way. Therefore, you must cultivate the skill of developing your inner strength when you hear feedback. Sharing our work is part of the process of being creative. Emily Dickinson stashed her poetry under the bed, but even she sent her poetry out to a select few. Even if you don’t want it, you are going to get feedback. You might leave your sketchpad out in the living room, or someone peers over your shoulder. No matter what, you cannot let the feedback destroy you. Sometimes I think this is the hardest part of being a creative. A negative comment can derail you if it’s delivered by someone who does not know how to be constructive. This is when you must call on all of your inner resources to listen to your inner creative voice that will either say—“yes, there is a germ of an idea in that criticism that will make the work better. I see the point of that.” Or your voice will say “Thanks, but no thanks.” And move on. Take what serves you and leave the rest. This requires listening to your inner voice with a very keen ear because even great writers, artists, and readers sometimes give bad notes because they didn’t understand your vision, or they didn’t get enough sleep, or they’re falling in love and it pains them to consider your creation about heartbreak. You need to find the inner strength to dismiss notes.
Another irony of life is that sometimes the critic who is unsure about his or her note will deliver it with even greater and more convincing intensity to cover up for his or her own failings or bias. This is when your inner voice is most important because no matter who’s giving you the note- and it could be a great composer, diva, dancer, artist, producer, network or your lover—you always have the freedom to say no. Also sometimes critics are in disagreement. That’s often a good sign. You can’t always please everyone. Rely on this inner voice when you are choosing between future projects as well. Follow your gut and your natural inclination. Our bodies are so much wiser than our heads sometimes. If you find yourself continually resisting a project or a critic, honor that.
8. MAKE A MUSE
Let’s end on an exercise that helps with strengthening your inner creativity.
There were nine muses in Greek mythology for different forms of creativity. Love poets had Erato and comedians had Thalia. Calliope for music. St. Clare for television writers (I kid you not; she saw visions projected on the wall of her Medieval cell). Think up an archetype muse for your creativity that you can invoke when you start every day and whenever the going gets tough.
Close your eyes. Think of a famous person living or dead, a mythical figure, god or goddess, or creature, someone who inspires you to be the creative person you always dreamed you would be. Or think up an historical or famous figure who is the perfect guide for your current project. Or make up your favorite muse from scratch. Name him or her. The muse of ________. How will you invoke him or her? What will your ritual be every day for two weeks before you sit down to create? How will you welcome in your inner voice and prepare your mind to listen? Clip out a representation of this muse and post it above your creative space so you can look at it and recall yourself to your purpose. Tweak the practice until it is a ritual that triggers your inner voice that it is safe to come out and play. Then sit back and watch the creative miracles unfold.