The alarm goes off. It is 5 o’clock in the morning. You reach over and turn the alarm off and tug on the string to turn on the lamp by your bed. You blink in the light and give your eyes a moment to adjust. You can’t decide if you want to read, write, or go back to sleep. Your brain is not fully functioning. You close your eyes for just one moment.
Then, the ideas start to stream into your mind. You reach for your notepad and pen and start writing them down. You just let your mind wander while you jot down the ideas. One idea hangs on. You start developing it and jotting down notes. You are still a little sleepy, but you are starting to get invigorated. The idea makes you sit up in bed. Now, you reach for your laptop. You start outlining the idea for a story.
We all have different creative processes, and we all face creative voids. Unfortunately, we are not trained to foster our creativity. We are trained to be action-oriented and to be ‘doers’. Sometimes this can kill our creativity. There are several ways that we can foster creativity at a time when creativity is not always rewarded or easy.
Finding Your Creative Space
We need time and space to create. That time and space look different for every creative person; it is up to you to figure out what works best for you. Some people have the luxury of a room of their own– that perfect room for creation. Other people work best when they are surrounded by others.
We need time and space to create.
Let’s look at the creative process of writing. Some people might go to a coffee house or a noisy bar to write. Some can write while other people are around, others need to be completely isolated. The same ideas apply to other forms of creating. Some artists work best in a studio full of other artists. Some need their own isolated space. It does not have to be an either-or proposition. Creatives may need one setting one day, and another setting the next day. The key is to find what works for you.
Several years ago, I decided the best way to develop my own creative space was to study the creative spaces of other intellectuals and creatives. I looked to writers, artists, academics, etc. and found pictures of the spaces where they worked and created. I noticed a few things from this exercise.
1. Creative spaces vary.
The creative spaces that I found often had nothing in common with each other. One space was a mess of papers and books stacked everywhere — on every surface, on the floor, etc. The next was neat and orderly. Another would only have a desk, a small table, a pen, and a pad of paper with a window.
Some were in converted garages, some were in spacious, bourgeois studies, some were desks crammed into the corner of a room used by the family. I found one that had converted a barn into a library/study/art studio (my dream space — I really connected with this).
Some looked like formal offices, others were mixed use spaces. Some artists had space to write, some writers had space to paint or sketch. Some had a television in their space, others did not. Some had computers, others did not. Others had record players, radios, etc. Creative spaces tend to be very different and very individualized.
2. Creative spaces have what the creator needs.
A good creative space has what the creator needs at hand. Again, I will use writers as an initial example. Some people like to write on a computer. Some need a desktop; some prefer the portability of a laptop. Some people like to write on notepads; others write in notebooks. Some people like to use pens (and people can get very specific about the type of pen), and some people prefer pencils. Some writers need coffee nearby, others need water or tea or something else. Some writers need to be able to sketch and doodle; some take a break to paint. Creative spaces need to have the innovator’s common creative tools nearby and available.
A caution is important here. Some people become so fixated on their space being set up just so and having to have their lucky rabbit’s foot with their lucky fountain pen, etc., that they cannot create unless the conditions are just so. This can actually inhibit creativity. You want your mind to be able to work in a variety of conditions. Sometimes the thing that is needed to foster creativity is a change in routine or a change in circumstances.
3. You can have more than one creative space.
You don’t need to have a single creative space. In fact, I encourage people to find more than one. If your creative spirit is just not there in your normal space, move to a new one. Go out and try something new — sometimes a jolt to the brain from a new experience is just what the doctor ordered.
Find Your Creative Times
In addition to having a creative space, we need to find the times when we are at our peak for creativity. Again, this is different for every person. Some people are at their creative best just after the alarm goes of at 5 o’clock in the morning. These people take an hour or two to create before they head off to work or school. Other people are better able to create in the evenings or at night. Again, this will vary from person to person.
Some people have the luxury of multiple creative times a day; others have to find and/or make time in their day. I look forward to the day when I can be self-sufficient enough to spend my entire day creating and innovating. I don’t know that this special day will ever come, but I dream of a day when I can sit back and breathe and find the space to create when it feels right instead of squeezing creative time into scheduled blocks. This definitely does not feel ideal for my creative process, but sometimes we have to make do with what we have.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Don’t just do what feels safe. Try something new, different, or challenging. Perhaps all three.
Often difficulties in creating and innovating come from too much routine. It can help to shake things up. Take a new path to work or school. Take a new form of transportation (drive every day? Ride a bike or take the bus). Stop somewhere new for morning coffee or tea. Switch from coffee to tea or something else. Have dessert before your meal. Take a mental health day and go do something you would never ordinarily do.
Don’t just do what feels safe.
Creativity can be fostered by doing something that gets us out of our comfort zone. This can go beyond just changing your routine. Travel to another country without the time to learn the language before you go. Use the plane ride to learn some key phrases, and then let the locals teach you. I once had a little boy correct my Japanese on a flight to Japan. He was adorable, and by the end of the trip both he and his father had done more for my ability to speak Japanese than years of study would have done.
Learn something new. Learn to paint, sculpt, rock climb, row in a crew, gardening, anything. Just pick something you have never tried before. Learn a new language. Learn two new languages. Read about things you know nothing about. Try canning jelly for the first time. Learn to cook if you have never cooked before. This doesn’t mean this becomes a permanent new hobby. I get grief from my family for jumping from thing to thing and never sticking with it. Guess what! That’s okay. I am challenging my brain in new ways by trying something new. I am forming new neural connections. I find that these times are often my most creative.
Do something that is a little scary to you. Rock climbing was terrifying to me. Then I tried it. It was FUN! Challenge yourself to do things that you feel are a little beyond your limits. Push those limits, then push them a little more. Your mind will thank you.
Read Across Genres
One of the best ways that I have found to foster creativity when I feel stuck (or even when I don’t feel stuck) is to read across genres. In my current “to read” pile I have a history book, a linguistics text on middle English, two biographies (one of an author, one of a monarch), two classic fiction texts, a French textbook, and a couple of books on composting and sustainable farming. I try to always have a selection of books from different genres to challenge myself and force alternate ways of thinking.
When you read across genres, your brain starts to look for connections that you would not otherwise make. Often, this has allowed me to see things in what I am reading that I would definitely have never noticed if I stuck to reading in one genre. If you want to spark creative thoughts, pick up a book that has absolutely nothing to do with what you are thinking about, working on, or interested in.
Another tactic that I learned while pursuing my Ph.D. was to read multiple books at the same time. I do make sure that those books are dramatically different from each other. When I need a mental break from one subject, I can pick up a book on another subject and shift my focus. This also allows the brain to form different neural connections that can foster creativity and innovation.
Let Yourself Be Bored
We feel the need to fill every moment with activity. Being bored is viewed as something negative. When a child tells their parent that they are bored, often the parent’s reaction is to tell their kid to go find something to do. This is not the best lesson to teach a kid. Instead, we should tell our kids “You’re bored? That’s great!”
I feel like boredom arises from a fear of not being on the go and not doing enough. Our culture encourages people to overwork and to engage in far more activities than they really need to. We shuttle our children from sports to music lessons to play practice to art lessons and on and on. We teach them that to be successful is to be on the go. Unfortunately, this can kill the space that the brain needs for creativity.
Fellowships and Collectives
There have been numerous writing and artist collectives. Creative minds are often attracted to each other. You should seek out other creative minds. Sometimes it can be beneficial to find those creative minds in different creative fields from your own. One of the biggest challenges that creatives can face is competing with each other. If you share your work with those who are creative, but who focus their creative energy in another area, you won’t be constantly trying to see how you measure up against them. Competition and jealousy can hinder the creative process and cause us to close our minds to important feedback and inspiration that we can draw from other creatives.
The Inklings of Oxford, the Bloomsbury Group, the Dymock Poets, the Algonquin Roundtable, Stratford-on-Odeon, the Factory, El Floridita — all were examples of fellowships and creative collectives. The Inklings included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and John Maynard Keynes, met in London to discuss their ideas. The Dymock Poets included Robert Frost and Rupert Brooke. These writer collectives met to discuss their ideas, read from their works-in-progress, and share in the creative process.
The Algonquin Roundtable included Harpo Marx, George Kaufman, and Dorothy Parker. At various times different New York City playwrights, actors, comedians, critics, and writers would come into a shared space to think and create together. Sometimes these groups just support each other. Other times, they inspired new ideas and new projects. The famous meetings of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris are another prime example. Sometimes just getting together with other creatives can foster the creative imagination and inspire a person to take their work in a new direction.
Another caution is warranted here. Some people use different social media tools to find other creatives and go to scheduled meetings. For some this could result in a great creative collective. For others, the group they join might not fit. Sometimes these creative groups arise organically, and we just have to let them. The key is not to close your mind to the possibility of discussing your creative work with others. Also — be open to constructive criticism. You don’t have to agree, but you should be polite, receptive, and respectful. If you feel strongly about something in your work, say so! But if you feel that way about every critique, it might be time to take a step back and think about how open you are to other ideas. You could be stifling your creativity.
A Last Note — Practice Self Care
One of the most important things that we can do to encourage our creativity is to take care of ourselves. Take some time to meditate. Do yoga. Go for a walk in the woods. Garden. Sleep late. Go to bed early and get up early. Eat meals. Eat healthy meals. Drink some water with your wine. For us to be creative, we need to take care of the most important instrument we have — our brains.
Sometimes occupying creative spaces can be dreadfully lonely and depressing. If we don’t practice self-care while we are engaging our creative sides, we can go to dark and dangerous places. Make sure you are taking care of yourself throughout the creative process. Your creative self will thank you in the end. Now go out and create!