When my now teenage son was younger — about four years old — he had a tendency to tell wild tales. One day I picked him up from the babysitter, they asked me how bad the car accident was and if my (now ex) husband was okay. I had no idea what they were talking about. My son told them this wild tale after he was dropped off about him and his dad getting into an accident on the way to the babysitter that morning. There was no accident.
Children are incredibly creative souls. They can make up stories without thinking twice, and often those stories are fascinating tales. As we progress further and further into adulthood, that creative ability seems to get harder and harder.
I remember some of the tales I created as a child. We had a really neat program at school called Young Authors. I participated every year that the program was available. One year, I wrote a book about a haunted house. This was probably the first or second grade. The teacher gave us pages with the handwriting lines on them and space above for illustrations. I carefully wrote my story in my awful handwriting. I illustrated my book with drawings on each page.
That book won awards. They had a special program at the local library, and my book was on display for others to read. I represented my school at a ceremony. I remember this so vividly because I remember how much fun the process of putting that book together was. I really enjoyed the creative process.
As an adult, I sometimes struggle to create. I can get very frustrated when I am trying to work on my writing, my sketching, and my painting. I think that as adults we sometimes try to force the creative process to fit deadlines and timelines rather than letting it evolve naturally. I have found some techniques that have helped me to reawaken my inner creative child.
Return to Your Inner Child
Sometimes it helps to let your inner child take over. For example, one of the things I have started doing recently when I feel like there is no hope for my creative process is to walk up the street to the park and swing on a swing. Just sitting there swinging and letting my mind wander does amazing things for my creative side. I just have to remember to take my idea notebook with me to jot down the thoughts that come. Not all of those thoughts are great ones, but I write them down anyway. Sometimes they lead to other great ideas (but if I don’t have my notebook I forget them before I get home — my memory is not what it once was).
One of the things that works best for reawakening creativity is to ask: What would I have done when I was a kid? When I was a kid, I would take a book and go outside to read. We had this really neat tree (I don’t remember what kind of tree, and it has long since been cut down) in the backyard. It was an incredibly tall tree and the branches reached down to the ground. The way they grew, they arched out and down to the ground, so there was a perfect place to crawl under the branches and hide. There was a small opening just big enough to crawl through on one side, and just enough room to sit against the trunk and read. This was one of my favorite places to hide and read. I am looking for similar haunts to hide and read today.
Other times I would climb a tree and sit and read in the branches. My daughter enjoyed doing this as well. I remember going to pick her up from school when she was in sixth grade, and I would find the girls all perched in the branches of the trees in the schoolyard. Their backpacks would be tossed on the ground near the trees. When do we stop climbing and exploring?
Think about the things you did as a kid. Think about the games you played, the places you hid, the stories you created. How can you harness that creative energy as an adult?
When do we learn to fear the things around us? One of my most pervasive fears is a fear of failure. Where did this fear come from? One way to reawaken creativity is to work to overcome your fears.
Working on overcoming your fears puts your brain in new territory. You are on the edges of your experience, and you are challenging yourself to do something new. I spent some time last fall reading books about creativity and innovation. At the time I was still a college professor, and I was trying to figure out how to encourage my students to use the creative side of their brains instead of memorizing what they read and regurgitating it to me. In one book that I read I learned that pushing your brain into this unknown but familiar territory causes you to build new neural connections faster. This can result in different neural pathways that allow you to build skill faster, but they can also help you think in new ways.
Make a list of your fears. Be honest, and just brainstorm the things you are afraid of. They can be silly; no one else is going to see your list. Now pick one thing off the list at a time and start working on conquering that fear. Get yourself to the edges of your comfort zone. Find that space where you have awareness, but you don’t fully have the skills developed. Now push to develop the skill.
Find a Teacher
A lot of our creative process comes naturally when we are kids. Other elements are fostered by the great teachers we have had. In my previous article I talked about how teaching to standardized tests and use of standardized curricula can kill creativity. There are still those rebel teachers out there who deviate from teaching to the test or using standardized curricula. They foster creativity, imagination, and innovation in their students. Find someone like that.
Sometimes when we seek to reawaken our creative side, we need some guidance. Maybe you are tiptoeing into new territory that is on the edges of your skill set. Having someone to help you challenge the edges of your experience and expand that experience is the best path forward. Find a teacher to teach you a new instrument. Find a teacher who will force you to learn new skills on an instrument you have played for ages. Take an art class in a medium you have never tried before.
I have one caveat here that I have found is particularly true for writing teachers. Find a teacher who won’t enforce unnecessary rules. If a teacher has a “formula” for writing the perfect article, novel, etc., run the other way. While these formulae work for many people to write a lot, that writing is not always the best quality. You can tell the books that have followed the formulae provided in short how-to-get-your-novel-published classes or similar classes and books. They certainly follow the formula, and publishers do publish them. They are all boringly familiar to the reader. Challenge the formulae and create a work that is innovative. Who cares if it doesn’t sell a million copies. It will be YOUR creative work. If it is good it will get published even if you don’t follow the formulae.
Another note on finding a teacher is warranted. Some of my favorite teachers are dead. I learn from them by picking up their books and reading. I try to learn the lessons that are between the covers of their books. Jane Austen has a lot to teach us about character development. Alain Robbe-Grillet has a lot to say about rich description. Ernest Hemingway can teach you one narrative style while F. Scott Fitzgerald had a completely different narrative style. Study them. What made their work different? Why are both writers so intriguing? Study Italo Calvino for how to grab the reader’s attention on the first page (for this, I highly recommend his book, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler). Reading a book of letters, a memoir, or an autobiography can also allow you to learn from a teacher you would not otherwise be able to connect with. I have learned a lot from Stephen King’s On Writing, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Selected Letters volume, and Virginia Woolf’s lecture from A Room of One’s Own (which I write about here).
Find a teacher, and always search out opportunities to learn. Try to expand beyond your current experience and skill set. This will give you creative material, but it will also provide new neural pathways for your creative self. You will start to make connections you would not have otherwise made.
Don’t Worry About the Writing “Rules”
I have read many books on writing. These have included volumes on outlining and planning my novel, character development, world building, creating villains, character arcs, plot development, and so on. The books that have been most helpful are the ones that trigger your creative side by providing new tools for the writer toolbox. These do not tell you that there is only one way to write fiction. They give you a range of options in how to proceed and let you pick the best ones. The best books ignore the rules.
We all know there are a variety of rules for the writer. There are rules for the structure of a good novel. There are rules for grammar. There are rules for developing good character arcs. There are rules for flow and plot design.
Your creative side needs to throw those rules out the window from time to time. Sometimes we need to just create and forget the rules. Save the rules for when you are editing. When you write with the rules constantly in your head, you are limiting your creative spirit. Just write! Let your imagination take you where it will. I often see people classify themselves as plotters or pantsers. Why not be a little of both? Plot when you need it, and when you feel your creative well drying up pants a bit.
One thing that is working well for me in my current work-in-progress is to sit down and just write what comes to mind letting the story take me where it will for a bit. When I run out of steam on that, I go back and re-read what I have written. I highlight what is good. Perhaps I could find a trusted beta reader and ask them to highlight what intrigues them in what I have written. Then take those sections and use them to launch another freewriting session. Let them spark the story. Leave the other bits behind. Keep doing this process until your work has generated some momentum and follow that momentum. Ignore the rules. Save the rules for the editing process. This will allow your creative side to take the lead on creating. The rules can drive editing.
The No-Judgment Zone
One final thought is important in reawakening creativity: stop judging yourself. When you are creating, stop comparing your work to others. Stop asking if you are following the rules. Stop judging what you write. When you are in the initial creative process, it helps to just create. Save the judgment for the editorial process. Don’t share your work with others until you are ready for judgment. When you are still creating, stay in a no-judgment zone.
Nothing kills a creative process faster than the judgment demon on your shoulder. That demon hangs out and tells you that your writing will never be good enough, and sometimes, by extension, that you will never be good enough. Throw that judgment demon on the floor and stomp him with your steel-toed boots. When you are creating try not to re-read and judge your work. Save that for when you are in the editing process.
Reawakening your creative spirit is a challenging process at times. I have learned that the results are worth the challenges. I have also learned that by challenging myself in some of the ways discussed here has been a very rewarding process. My quality of life is much better as a result of getting out of my comfort zone, challenging my fears, and behaving more like I did as a child. Now, I am off to find a tree to climb. I hope you find trees to climb, trees to read under, and adventures galore.