How to be Creative

St Ceciia, John William Waterhouse

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Last week, I wrote about the workshop I went to at the School of Life on How to Have Better Conversations. I also listed and expanded further on some of the key strategies I took away with me from that workshop. Today, I thought I’d do the same with the very first workshop I attended at TSOL Perth, which is the How to Be Creative Workshop.

The How to Be Creative workshop was a class that I really, really enjoyed. I felt completely refreshed and revitalised after the class and left just itching to get creative in so many different ways. During the class itself, I took a heap of notes and found myself nodding my head at a lot of things our facilitator touched on, and I thought I’d share some of the key points that really struck a chord with me that night.

Make creativity an Everyday State of Being:

Although F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works are come highly commended as timeless classics, I have to admit the first time I picked up a copy of The Great Gatsby, I wasn’t too impressed. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly sympathetic or likeable, and found the plot uninteresting. Later, when I reread the book again, I found a lot more to like about it. But what really drew me to Fitzgerald, more so than his books, was the way he lived his life in the zeitgeist of the Roaring 20s and his devotion to his literary ambitions. In How to Write Your First Novel, literary agent Ann Rittenberg and author Laura Whitcomb have touched on aspects of Fitzgerald’s life that any aspiring writer would do well to follow: he wrote constantly and sought out other fellow writers to discuss their work; he was vocal about his ambitions, telling friends such as fellow author Edmund Wilson that he wanted to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, and he read the works of other successful writers in an effort to assimilate their craft.

In short, Fitzgerald lived a life where, for him, writing took centre stage. He spent the bulk of his time writing and reading and he socialised with other writers and discussed their craft; in a sort of precursor to The Secret, he initiated ‘the law of attraction’ by vocalising his ambitions over and over again until they came true. He didn’t wait around; he went after what he wanted and seized it by the throat.

I remember reading somewhere that the reason drummer Travis Barker covered himself from head to foot in tattoos was so he could never get a normal job and so, with nothing else to fall back on, he had no choice but to play music, which was what he really wanted to do. I’m not suggesting aspiring writers, musicians and other creatives go to the extreme as he did to achieve their dreams, but it’s always worth reminding ourselves each day of what’s really important to us and how much better off we are building a life around our passions, rather than a life to fit the mould of what societal norms expect of us.

 Allow Yourself Time to be Creative.

When our instructor asked the workshop if anyone ever felt guilty about taking time out to be creative, most of us put our hands up. Creativity is so often seen as a soft touch compared to other fields like science, engineering and medicine that humanity degrees are often referred to as ‘toilet paper roll degrees’ (I have one of those!) and creative pursuits, whether they be professional or just for fun, are often viewed as inessential and superfluous. Such is society’s view of creative pursuits that most of the time, those of us who actively set time aside to be creative often feel guilty and find ourselves apologising for doing so. What makes the guilt even worse is when you’ve said no to social engagements and left chores undone in order to buy yourself a couple of hours of precious creative time, only to find at the end of it that it feels as if you haven’t actually produced anything worthwhile or financially viable. But hang on a sec, let’s look back at what you did in those two hours and what really came out of it. Was it really wasted?

The Internet can be a real thief of productive time; however, there have been occasions when I know the time I spent surfing the ‘net, looking up articles and research and stories, are an important part of the creative/brainstorming process for the stories I write. Still, because it’s all just research and I haven’t actually produced anything (as of yet) with all this time I’ve spent, I often feel as if I’m being wasteful and idle. Often, once I’ve done researching, I haven’t yet formed a clear idea of what usefulness I could possible get out of all this research, but the information is still there in my head, incubating, simmering, waiting to be assimilated and turned into something useful, only it takes time to do so. And in that time before I’ve come up with anything concrete, I often feel guilty and wasteful. Similarly, if I’ve spent a few hours writing and editing and still find myself mired in the Hell of Draftwork with still no clear way in sight out of this mess, I question if I’ve actually done anything useful with my time.

But that’s not true at all and people are beginning to realise that. In the Australian Financial Review, Rachel Nickless wrote about the importance of setting a little time aside to do nothing everyday because that’s when we’re at our most creative and are able to come up with our best ideas. Nickless isn’t entirely wrong there – the ideal figurehead for this piece of reasoning is Isaac Newton who famously came up with his theory of gravity while lounging idly under an apple tree. (Interestingly, Nickless begins her article with an anecdote about a friend who bought a little 15-minute timer from the School of Life designed to ensure you switch some time off daily from the usual obligations of life to focus on what’s really important for you.) YA author Kristin Cashore has also noted this in a post she wrote on her blog, commenting that her writing process involves spending “a lot of time staring into space.” (I was immensely relieved when I read that because I find myself doing a lot of that too – just lying around on a sofa, letting ideas coalesced, trying to think up plot lines. And then I feel guilty because it feels like all I’m actually just doing is that – lying around.)

Creativity is a process, and in truth, while all this time spent researching, practising, writing, editing, dreaming and brainstorming might feel at times shitty and useless, looking back, it really does all add up as hours spent honing my craft. If I haven’t spent all this time writing bad drafts, I would never have learned how to write a really good piece. So go easy on yourself during the creativity process, understand that realising your creative potential requires time and commitment, and be sure to leave space in the process to dream, to learn, to experiment, to research, to create, to set your ideas into motion and also to learn to…

 Embrace Failure.

This workshop could not come at a better time as I had been feeling particularly burned on writing and was wondering if I would ever be able to produce anything good or was just wasting my time. On the day of the workshop, I even found myself wondering if it was worth it attending the class or if I should spend that precious time working on my writing, which had taken a major downturn in productivity in recent weeks. In the end, I did go to the workshop and was extra super glad I did!

One thing we discussed at the workshop was embracing failure in the creativity process and what strategies we could use to cope with these moments of disappointment and failure. You can bet I made sure to take plenty of notes on this! Strategies which our instructor suggested include:

Not judging our ideas too soon: We need to give our ideas time to ripen and develop. Sometimes, that means having to go away and do something for a little while and to take in other ideas and forms of inspiration before coming back to our original project. This can be frustrating, especially in today’s society where we place so much importance on instant gratification. A lesson to be taken here would be the old fable of the tortoise and the hare, where the virtues of patience and perseverance are prized over speed and instant results. I know I always get frustrated whenever I have to shelve a novel for a little while and go away and do something else and come back to it later, but when I finally do come back to it, I know it was worth it letting it sit for some time because now I’m able to look at it with new eyes and see just what I needed to do with it.

Changing the way we think about our failures: Our instructor had a great suggestion for changing the way we think about our failures. Each time we hit an obstacle or pothole, he urged us to revise the phrasing of our inevitably negative thoughts to a more positive one. For example, instead of thinking, “This is too hard. Everything I write is crap and I’m never going to be as good as some of the writers/artists out there”, to instead remind ourselves, “It’s not easy, but I’ll just take it one step at a time and see where I go with this.”

Know that everyone has to start somewhere: One of my favourite bloggers is Garance Dore who started out by giving herself a year to fulfil her dream of becoming an illustrator. She lived on the French island of Corsica, far away from the cosmopolitan hubs of Paris and New York, so she decided instead to put her work up on a blog. “At that time,” she reminisced, “I didn’t even know if I couldn’t even draw.” When I first came across Garance’s site, she had already gained international recognition as a fashion photographer, illustrator and blogger. I read her story of how she first got started with interest and went back to her very first posts on her blog – the sketches she put up. There was definitely something in them but it was also clearly the work of a beginner. But she persevered. She drew all day every day and continued to post her work up on her site. And soon her sketches got better and better and she soon began to gain some recognition… and the rest is history. The moral of the story? No one is an expert right away and it’s only by constant practice (and lots of failures) that we eventually achieve success and talent.

Go with the Flow: Our instructor also advised us to forget about the goal and just go with the flow, which is something I’m trying my best to work on right now. I remember when I was a teen and I could write for hours and hours, even into the early hours of the morning after a big night out. I really enjoyed it and I didnt’ think about whether my writing was good or bad – I just wrote and my ideas constantly flowed. Writing was also my relaxing time. These days, I worry too much about whether my writing would be any good or if it would ever be published to the point where writing sometimes feels like a chore and I often find myself thinking, “Na, I’m too tired, I won’t write today.” I then find myself thinking wistfully of those days where sitting down at the computer to write at night was akin to reading a favourite book before I go to bed, and that’s something I really want too work on recapturing again.

Question the Obvious.

Creative people are often described as people who think outside the box, are imaginative and who see things differently from the way other people do (or at least, they’re not afraid to express the different ways in which they see the world). In a similar way to my earlier notes on the How to Have Better Conversations Workshop, this means you should always be ready to question the obvious. Rediscover your natural childlike curiosity, think of the skills and ways that make you unique, seek to think outside the box and apply that to your work. Creativity is always something subjective and the one thing you don’t want to do is to try and please everyone because that is sure to be a creativity killer. Instead, dare to be different. Experiment. Keep pushing yourself and your limits, and you’ll soon find that the old cliche is true – everything is limitless.

Build Skill Sets.

Design blogs are a favourite haunt of mine, especially when it comes to designers talking about how they’ve gotten to where they are right now. One common thread I’ve noticed is how a lot of these designers, including Amanda of Wit & Whistle whom I’ve had the privilege of interviewing in my Conversations series, have talked about how they grew up always knowing they wanted to do something creative but were afraid of not being able to make a living off their passion. What a lot of them ended up doing was taking up graphic design as a course in university so they would always have something relatively stable to fall back on. Back then, the blog trend was just starting to take off and what a lot of these designers also found was that the skills they learned in graphic design was what enabled them to create these beautiful websites where they were able to showcase their artistic endeavours and gain a larger following than they otherwise could have.

There is always more than one way of getting to your destination. Creating is a constant process of learning and developing and improving, of building up a wide range of skills, both in relation to our chosen craft and otherwise. So, say if you’re a writer, read and write widely; try your hand at writing in a variety of genres; master your grammar and spelling (which are, as Stephen King says, the tools every writer needs in their toolkit), write poetry, ads, articles and nonsense writings. If you’re a painter, try different forms of painting, from oils to watercolours to working upon a variety of canvases. Paint in colour. Paint in black and white. If you’re a sculptor, try sculpting with a variety of materials, from stone to clay to plasticine to mesh. Try anything and everything. Just keep learning and improving.

 Build Your Creative Community.

That night at the workshop, as we sat around in a semi-circle, talking and brainstorming exchanging ideas, I found myself filled with the excitement and joy of just being creative all over again. I realised then that this is how I felt whenever I went to a writer’s group or met up with people with similar interests, where we would spend hours just sharing ideas and thoughts about our various works or works-in-progress. I also noticed that when I was asked to think of a time when I felt at my most creative, I immediately thought back to the nights on which I’ve just attended my writer’s group and how I’d make the long drive home after, just bubbling over with ideas that I committed to my laptop the moment I got home.

Just as studies have shown that people trying to lose weight tend to be more successful if they surrounded themselves with likeminded health-oriented folks, rather than friends who instead urged them to ‘forget the diet and have some more cake’, building a network of creative connections and surrounding ourselves by other creatives can go a long way towards supporting and encouraging our ambitions and dreams. You could join a community online or in person at artist centres or artist groups. You could seek out other professionals in your field and talk to them, asking them if they have any advice or words of encouragement. Or you could just get together with a couple of friends who are creatively inclined and organise Creative Nights or Creative Coffee Dates where you could spend the time discussing and sharing your work and passions. The possibilities are endless and only you can decide where your limits lie.

This is a rather long post (as are mot of my posts, I’m afraid) so if you’ve stayed with me until the end, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this and that it was of benefit to you – and thanks for reading!!! Now get out there – and go be creative!


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