Creative Freebies…and Pixie Dust

Artists, authors, cooks, inventors, and those of us in most other walks of life, if we get honest — we need access to our own creativity. We all get stuck, bereft of ideas, picking lint out of our navels and seemingly without hope of inspiration. But wait!

Recently I fell into a well of creative ideas… Like the Fountain of Youth, or the end of the rainbow, this is the place everybody wants to be, and I was astonished to realize I’ve been living on top of it. What I’m about to share isn’t exactly pixie dust, but for me, it comes close.

As far as I can tell, the two active ingredients of creative pixie dust are:

1) A deadline. Ever heard of NaNoWriMo? (National Novel Writing Month.) It’s the contest that, over the past several years, has spurred thousands of frustrated wannabe authors to get their own 50,000 word (!) novels written in 30 days. How? They had a community and a deadline.

Here’s what happened to me: Instagram. I made a commitment to post something at least daily until I had 100 posts up (at which point I’ll re-evaluate.) That’s a new piece of art every 24 hours to meet my self-imposed dictate. I am faithful to deadlines; it’s the benefit side of a trade-off with myself in which the drawback is a paucity of initiative. I have a lot of trouble getting into action, but once I’m in action, I tend to stay the course. If I didn’t have this particular character trait, I would just find a couple of buddies to hold me accountable. And I wouldn’t pick mollycoddling softies — I’d pick benevolent meanies who would hold my feet to the fire.

2) Ingredient #2: An archive. In my case, I had file folders in my basement, ones that were in my previous two attics, dating back to the 80s. What I found astonished me — folders full of stuff I’d never done anything with, terrific at best, merely cute at worst, but all of it acceptable and publishable. Some of it had never seen the light of day. Some was rough sketches that were perfect for a day’s worth of Instagram. I slapped it up.

I was flabbergasted at some stuff — I recognized myself at various stages, and felt I had time-traveled to various points of my life. My early efforts didn’t mortify me; some of them were downright nice.

I also saw that I’d had ideas I’d never known what to do with. There sat an envelope of drawings for an adult coloring book dating back to 1997, long before the craze. I had forgotten about them. I’m doing a coloring book now; I’m using four of those drawings.

You might not have file folders, but the essence of this part of the pixie dust is that somewhere you have an archive. It may be an cache of infant ideas in the back of your mind. For some, it’s notebooks. My friend Debbie has a stash of spiral notebooks full of her (admirable) writing. If her house catches fire and she has to choose one thing after the family and dogs get out, I bet it’d be an armful of notebooks. My Gramma Harris had a scrapbook of recipe clippings and notes. In the 50s, she won a new kitchen from Good Housekeepingwith her skill as a cook. Marvin’s dad had a garage full of mysterious bits of metal and plastic and grunge, in which he could find anything and with which he could solve pretty much any problem. It was a wonder.

I also have four drawers of picture files. My friend Jane Dippold swears by Google Images for art reference and ideas, but I am a firm fan of clipping magazines and hoarding the clipped images. I get ideas from them, as well as a visual memo of how to draw a gorilla or a spiral staircase. Suit yourself, but do something that works.

I see I’m getting away from the pixie dust. Because the point is: YOU HAVE IDEAS YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE. The salient lesson from my old files was: I’ve been sitting on a stack of inspiration and doing NOTHING with it. My approach when I needed an idea was to wait, pencil in hand, for lightning to strike. I only committed to paper thoughts I thought were a home run. But, as I toss stuff up on Instagram I find I get big reactions to ideas that I felt were weak, and weak reactions to some of my pet drawings.

I’m learning to give my fleeting thoughts, my incomplete thoughts, even my trite thoughts, a sheet of notebook paper. Sometimes they flower in front of me, sometimes they wilt, sometimes I let them sit like bread dough that rises, untended, on top of my refrigerator, for use later.

It’s ironic, because I’ve taught creativity. When I stood in front of a class — this usually happened when I coached 4th through 6th graders writing and illustrating their own books — I offered high praise for the student willing to volunteer an answer he/she thought was too dumb to mention. I gave two reasons: 1)the idea is maybe not so dumb, and 2)the best ideas are very often sparked by the “dumb” ideas. What I knew, but didn’t say, is that when kids and other creative people are in an atmosphere where they feel free to share their vulnerable, half-baked thoughts, all of a sudden everyone in the room is freed up, and creativity flows like hot lava down the side of a volcano.

I read about a study done years ago: a pottery class was divided into two groups. One was given the task of making one perfect and beautiful pot; the other, to make as many pots as possible. At the end of the study, the best pots…were produced by the side of the class aiming for high numbers. Perfectionism kills creativity.

I frequently draw this image when I do school workshops. It’s a good idea (intentional pun) to keep track of ideas that run through our heads, and keep them on file. I think we need to be kind to ourselves, to give our ideas the benefit of the doubt. Coax them out of the nether parts of your brain, don’t make fun of them when they emerge, and if you can’t think of a blessed thing to do with one of the little critters, make a note and hold on to him for later. He’ll come in handy.

There. That’s my recipe for pixie dust. Let’s all of us make some marvelous stuff with it.