Category: Inpsiration

Your creative treasure chest

Creative block is a topic I keep revisiting because my thoughts on what it is and how to overcome it are always evolving. Creative block is an umbrella term which includes, but is not limited to, creativity fatigue, artist’s block, and the more well-known writer’s block. I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts on the topic, from people who have experienced it to varying degrees, to people who write about how to overcome it, and I’m still none the wiser on why it happens. What I have learned is there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to solving such dilemmas in creativity. The reasons for creative blocks are subjective, thus the solutions and/or steps to overcoming blocks will also be subjective. The key might have something to do with our own expectations and the solution might require forgiveness.

Lately I find myself in a period of low production. I hesitate to call my current state a “block” because I didn’t stop creating; my imagination is always active and engaged. What I am lacking is motivation. Creative motivation, at least in my case, is mostly intrinsic. Meaning, external motivations, such as financial or other rewards figure very low on my list of reasons for creating anything. They’re nice, but not necessary.

Once I would have agonised over this low level of production. I would have berated myself for it, told myself I was being lazy or defeatist, which could then have led to weeks of pointless self-flagellation. I feel comfortable admitting to this because I know it’s a common theme when it comes to creative flow and most of us have subjected ourselves to this at least once. These days I know the tap hasn’t been turned off, I’m just refilling the reservoir. What is still daunting, though, is that there’s no timetable. I can’t schedule the downtime or the (hopefully) inevitable reboot of the motivation to produce. Even after decades of being a creative and experiencing fluxes in levels of creativity, I can’t give myself an estimate on when this era will be finished. Will it be days, weeks, or months? All I do know is this as a new permanent state of mind.

What is helping now is redefining what counts as a creative outcome and tempering my expectations of myself. Jotting down ideas and making (even ugly) scribbles is still an act of creativity and one which I am content with for now.

Thinking deeply about not much

I am a deep thinker. I enjoy mulling over things I’ve read, heard or seen. But more than this, I love visualising, inventing and reflecting on scenarios or scenes to write and paint. It was said when I was a child that I had an “over-active imagination” and I was a daydreamer – sometimes by teachers in school reports. “She needs to apply herself” was a common refrain in those reports, but there was also an expectation I’d grow out it. Daydreaming was considered puerile and a waste of time. I think a lot of creatives can identify with this.

I didn’t listen. No matter how many times I got in trouble for looking out the window too long or not hearing all of the question, I would sneak away to the corners of my mind and explore. I still love being in my own head and it serves me well in the downtimes.

I wrote a lot of the ideas down over the years and kept them to remind me what a rich resource the human mind is. In this way the ideas, no matter how good or bad, will always exist in a library of potential. They can never be failures while ever they remain there. So I keep them and they keep me. If I could generate income from all the notions alone . . . well, I’d make a modest income because not all ideas are created equal. Some ideas are scaffolding for much bigger ideas, others are nutriments for embryonic projects. Most, though, are fragments of ideas whose function is really just to beget more ideas and to keep the creative furnace burning. There will be many of broken pieces and castoffs, and that’s ok. I am whiling away the hours doing the important work of procrastinating.

Refreshing your imagination

Sometimes you just need to let it happen and trust that your mind is incubating.

Where once it was widely seen as a character flaw, and even an act of avoiding responsibility, procrastination is now finding a niche for itself in the creative process. Procrastination can be seen as a form of creative incubation. It can give you a much needed distraction from the pressures of a project, and importantly, allow time to digest ideas, or mull over problems and solutions without over-thinking. Procrastination is an important state of mind and one we all know how to do intrinsically. Best of all, you don’t need special tools. You might feel like you’re engaging in fruitless daydreaming, but the mind knows where it goes.

Creative people are creative all the time, even when we don’t feel like we are. I have started to envision creativity as a chest filled with treasures. And it is always full. Frustratingly, ownership of the chest doesn’t guarantee me permanent access to the goodies within. Sometimes the lid closes, sometimes I just see a jumble of seemingly useless glitter, sometimes the jewels just aren’t my cup of tea. But there is always something in there. If I can’t identify the objects or I see nothing that interests me, it’s time to close the lid and go and bake. Or read a book, watch documentaries, make sketchbooks, or spend too many hours on Pinterest. The point is to stop looking so hard. Maybe look at something else for awhile. Procrastinate, refresh the imagination.

The act of envisioning the chest might itself be a pathway to breaking down whatever barriers are holding you back. After all, creativity begets creativity.

Doodling matters

I have a small confession: I am self-conscious about doodling, but I really want to do it.

I can approach many illustrations or paintings with a degree of confidence, but the thought of making a page of doodles makes me balk. Not because I am prejudice against doodling, but because I was convinced I couldn’t do it; that I didn’t possess the skill or imagination to do even a passible job. It is a shyness I’ve found difficult to overcome.

What do I mean by doodling?

Sunni Brown, a creative superstar and author of The Doodle Revolution, which I am currently enjoying, rejects the dictionary definition of doodling as absent-minded scribbling and defines it as “making spontaneous marks (with your mind and body) to help you think”. This definition suits me better too and does go some way to demystify the act.

As much as I love getting lost in tight drawings, becoming engrossed in the fine details of a complex illustration, they can be rather stressful and time consuming. They require a particular state of mind and while they are challenging, they don’t necessarily challenge me to expand my drawing skills, nor do they utilise my expertise in daydreaming. They can be predicable, which is convenient, but lazy.

I picked up Sunni’s book in order to help me overcome my shyness, but it is also helping me redefine my attitude and expectations about doodling. It’s also helping me discover where some of that shyness came from. Unfortunately I grew up in an era when doodling in your exercise book was considered vandalism. These same adults pushed the notion that drawing was only for those with “natural talent” to be executed at appropriate moments in appropriate formats. Basically, doodles were ugly, unsophisticated and a waste of time. Even if I never adopted that belief about other people doodling, I felt I would be judged for my clumsy scribbles and no one would take me seriously. Fortunately maturity has a way of, not only changing the way you see of yourself, but also the way you feel about how you’re seen by others.

In other words, other people’s judgements aren’t my problem.

So I’m going to doodle and daydream.

I started out doodling just with a black fineliner and a black coloured pencil for shading, but felt I was boxing myself in using only one colour. The idea is to be loose and spontaneous. So I tentatively started adding colour without really caring about the consequences. I hope it will be filled with rainbow flavoured connections by the time I’m done with this notebook.

Kermit would be proud.

Good art days and art expectations

I feel like I have’t had too many good art days lately – those days where reality comes close to meeting expectation; when more things go right than go wrong with a piece of art; where you can put down the pencil, pen or brush and be satisfied, even a little bit happy, with the marks on the paper. This is probably because I generally prefer do a lot of detailed art and am always pushing myself to refine and achieve a certain level of work. But art, like most things in life, can become unfulfilling when the frustrations outweigh the positive outcomes. (I hesitate to use “failure” and “success” here as they are both subjective).

Here’s the wonderful thing about the creative mind though: it’s incredibly flexible. There are no parameters save for the ones we set ourselves. With that in mind, I decided to set aside my very limiting expectations, and just have fun. The only rule was that the process was more important than the outcome.

Below are three postcard-sized bits of art that didn’t turn out as expected, but I like them anyway. Mostly my goal was to test some new watercolour paint, use up some scraps of paper and jog my creativity. I had some idea of what I wanted to achieve, but decided it was best to remain flexible about the outcomes. Initially, the top card was meant to be some sort of watercolour blob creature in watercolour, to which I was going to add pen and ink on top. It ended up being a bunch of weirdly misshapen critters that I didn’t know were there. You have to love the brain’s ability to detect patterns in chaos. I especially like the gorilla on the trike on the far right.

The second card was going to be a blob bee, but ended up being a blob-hippo-rabbit-thing. I can also see a rhino-rabbit-thing. Finally, the card on the left was always meant to be a rainbow lorikeet, inspired by the noisy many around my neighbourhood at the moment. I was going for an even more loose looking blobikeet, so I didn’t expect it to look like a bird, much-less a lorikeet. I don’t mind how any of them turned out; they were never meant to be accurate or detailed, rather just a chance for some creativity that didn’t demand much input from the inner over-thinker.

I had a good art day. It was playful, enjoyable and pleasantly surprising. A good art day happens not when my art expectations are met, although those days are important too, but when I accept the unexpected.

Make ink and see what happens

In this day and age computers are kind of hard to avoid. I saw my first computer when I was about nine years old. It was a Commodore 64. In those days all you could do was type and print using a dot matrix printer and play rudimentary games. Even then I knew I wanted to write and could see the benefit of typed notes, because I hated my own handwriting. At 12 I commandeered my mother’s typewriter and started hammering out page after page of stories. By 16 I had my first computer, which was given to me by my uncle because he knew I wanted to be a writer and my current electric typewriter had kicked the bucket. It was a time when home computers were still relatively rare so I felt pretty grown up. The computer was bootable from a compact floppy disc and I remember having to insert one disc to boot the operating system and a second which contained all my files. I only had a finite number of space for saving the screeds of writing I was doing every day after school. I was in heaven. Most of the time I would scribble out notes on paper in my own shorthand scrawl, and then type them in long form, checking for spelling and grammar as I went. I have never been without a computer since, but I always kept a free-form notebook too. I now realise those notebooks were where the real magic was, not the pages of printed matter. My notebooks were dogeared, messy and organic, with its pasted clippings, and folded and half torn pages. Nevertheless, at the time I was embarrassed by them and kept them to myself; eventually I threw almost all of them out. Whatever remains is still hidden in boxes of ephemera in the garage.

This way of working served me well when I was younger – I could handwrite for extended periods of time without much fatigue, and most of my essay’s for university were handwritten before they were typed. After graduation I worked as an editor and proofreader for a medical research centre, where everything was digital. From then on it was easier to forgo the notebook and surrender to the speed and efficiency of the computer. I suppose that is one of the computer’s greatest attractions. Unfortunately, quick and easy isn’t necessarily creativity’s best friend, complexity is.

The digital world can be a trap if we let it.

It was only when I took up art that I returned to hard copy notebooks and sketchbooks and rediscovered the magic of the pen. I still don’t keep as many handwritten notebooks as I used to, though I carry a small one with me in my handbag and keep one on my desk for story notes. Nowadays I rarely use paper for doing drafting bigger art pieces. I use Procreate first or a similar app because it saves on a lot of paper and for the very appealing undo button. I keep gigabytes of information in databases, folders and storage devices, all easily searchable and accessible with a few clicks. Admittedly that is one of the greatest appeals of having computers – no untidy filing cabinets or masses of paper, and everything is at your finger tips. It’s all very easy and convenient, but I have to admit, all those files and folders and fancy apps don’t spark joy quite like a book of hand-drawn scribbles or handwritten notes. I’m not an either/or kind of person and believe in balancing digital and analogue, but sometimes I need to rest one and favour the other. This week I decided to rest the computer and show up with my pens and pencils to my notebooks and sketchbooks. Somehow brainstorming feels more organic and thus more gratifying with a pen. It’s a good way to refresh the creative reservoir.

When you have a piece of paper and a pen/pencil and your imagination, you have everything you need. It’s just the three of you. No distractions, no complications, nothing to click. Just make ink and see what happens.

A universe of ideas

As a child, at least as early as I can remember, I believed ideas were absorbed from the universe, that our brains were receivers, picking up on the tangible experiences and events of real beings who lived beyond our solar system or in another dimension. What it meant, basically, was that somewhere in the universe there were elves, gnomes and dragons, but also vampires, werewolves and trolls. In my mind Middle Earth was a real place, which Tolkien had the honour of viewing remotely and the genius of portraying in exquisite detail. I don’t know where this notion came from or how I developed it, but I was so confident with this idea I never questioned it; I always had a conveyor belt of ideas rumbling through my mind and I couldn’t comprehend how my small mind could create it all. As an adult I now realise the hypothesis was quite ingenuous. It couldn’t work. Consider all the half-baked or silly ideas any of us has ever had – the universe would be a mess, with half-baked beings and silly scenaros.

I’m still fascinated with where ideas and innovation originate, but I’m now further away from understanding it than I ever was as a child. I want to understand, but do I need to in order to continue “receiving” ideas?. In my wanderings around the internet, trying to gather information on theories of the origin of ideas, I came across the wonderful Ted Talk by Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert. I read Eat, Pray, Love when it came out and enjoyed it, and I recall seeing this talk ten years ago. It resonated with me then and it still does today. In the talk, Gilbert discusses the almost “paranormal” feeling of the creativity process and so it seems appropriate the talk here.

If Elizabeth Gilbert is right, and we “just need to show up”, then I’ll keep showing up for however long I can.

The Sense of Wonder

Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.

Albert Einstein

The sense of wonder is a theme that comes up often when I read about creativity or biographies and memoirs of creative thinkers. Awe and curiosity drove Albert Einstein’s scientific and philosophical thought and led to some of the most inspired insights in our understanding of the world. He understood the importance of a sense of wonder and advocated it often. Leonardo Da Vinci definitely possessed a developed sense of wonder. His skill in artistic rendering were matched by his enthusiasm for observation and note-taking, which themselves inspire a sense of wonder in modern readers.

A sense of wonder is not only the feeling of being amazed at something, it is a whole body reaction, which can bring on goosebumps and shudders, leave you breathless or speechless and lead to feelings of reverence and even a sensation there is a magical quality to the experience. D.H. Lawrence described the sense of wonder as the sixth sense, “the natural religious sense”. There is little doubt humans have been experiencing the sense of wonder for many thousands of years, at least. We can see it in prehistoric rock and cave art, in the architecture of the ancients and in their writings. It is why we still cherish those ancient places, ruined though many of them are. Consider the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; this list has been around since antiquity, despite the fact that only one is still standing – the Great Pyramid of Giza. Modern lists of wonders of the world include both human-made structures and natural wonders, but they have much in common with those of antiquity: they awaken in observers to a sense of curiosity, awareness and delight. The feeling is magnetic and in this we are still very much like our ancestors who lived millennia ago.

Many years ago I visited Newgrange, and was quite enchanted by the place. However, not everyone felt so enamoured. Some visitors complained the site lacked authenticity and that it had been ruined by modern interpretations and aesthetics. I had a degree in archaeology and palaeoanthropology and had read up on megalithic sites in Europe, but even I wasn’t sure what an authentic Newgrange was supposed to feel like, after all, we were all 21st century tourists, with sensitivities and expectations specific to our time and world views. I had suspended my expectations before arriving at Newgrange, but I began to feel as if I was being naive, romanticising the experience. Yet as I wandered around and through the monument, a sense of wonder and curiosity kicked in and I began to enjoy the experience without micromanaging it. While others questioned the guide on the ugliness of the facade, I gave in to reverie. I understand that some people felt no connection to the monument, or indeed the surrounding area, but does that mean connection is impossible for others? Newgrange, like many ancient monuments, is a commemorative place, but it doesn’t mark a single moment in time or represent a single person. It is a place with special meaning for people in the past, and though we might not agree on the nature of the meaning, we are predisposed to honour it. It’s human nature. The fact that Newgrange has been part of the Boyne River valley landscape for over 5,000 years is enough for my unpretentious sense of wonder. For me it’s about continuity, and a confirmation that we are part of something greater than ourselves. The sense of wonder is an intuition that engages the mind, but it’s also an affirmation that there are still mysteries in the world. A great many things would not be possible without it. The sense of wonder begets creativity.

On the summit of the precipice, and in the heart of the green woods . . . there was an intelligence in the winds of the hills, and in the solemn stillness of the buried foliage, that could not be mistaken. It entered into my heard and I could have wept, not that I could not see, but that I could not portray all that I felt.

James Holman
From A Sense of Wonder: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts