Creative practice is more than creative thinking. It’s daily development, self-care, and personal accountability. Deepening our practice takes time and patience. Yet, the results of a creative practice are well worth the effort. It bolsters confidence, restores resilience, supports happiness and broadens vision.
Below is a short list of the methods I’ve heard time and again at readings, during my MFA years, and read in countless interviews. They’re methods I use to develop my writing, and they have the added benefit of expanding my gratitude for and connection to the world.
Go somewhere you know. Your backyard, your neighborhood, your town. Notice what your eyes have missed. Hear the sounds you usually tune out. Take your time and as best you can, remain open.
This can be surprisingly difficult, even painful for those of us who can’t seem to find the inner stillness to fully observe. With practice, it can be life-affirming, creatively inspiring, and a useful tool in clearing the mind of obsessive thought.
Mary Oliver walked the same woods on the same island for decades. She used this experience to write some of the most beloved poetry of our time. It’s my belief that repetitive tasks distract our brains just enough for exciting synaptic combinations to take place.
“Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.”
— Mary Oliver, from “The Ponds”
Go somewhere you haven’t been. That museum you’ve been curious about, the neighborhood that borders yours, even the next closest city. Get out of your comfort zone and familiar surroundings to shake up your perspective. You’d be surprised what even an afternoon in a new place can do to fill the creative wells.
If you can’t go somewhere in the world, go somewhere digitally. Read a random Wikipedia page, scroll through a hashtag you don’t follow on Instagram, google a combination of random words and see what happens. You cannot know what you’ll learn from reading about bovine health beforehand, but many poets I know have written some of their best work because of a random digital encounter.
All of these simple, fun actions will challenge your mind to shift the space in which thought takes place. Much like a writing prompt, when we use our talents in new ways alchemy is possible. Of course, we also need to develop our talents, and we can’t develop what we haven’t begun.
2. Let Go
Writing poetry can be awkward, scary, impossible. It doesn’t start like this. Most poets become poets because they spent some part of their life happily scribing poems into a notebook. We all come to our talents through joy— the joy of creating. While many emotions and experiences may fuel us, most people are driven to do and do well. However, sometimes when we try to use our talents in the larger world, anxiety can take over and impede action.
I know this all too well, and if it wasn’t for a wonderful professor instructing “don’t get it right, get it written” I may never have pushed through my initial awkward despair. Once I learned to turn off my inner editor, my work became more whole upon drafting, I took greater risks, and I found more enjoyment all aspects of my work.
Many other anxieties can come into play once the work is made — submitting, promoting, or just sharing work with a friend can all seem impossible. Not to mention the insanity-inducing issue of imposter syndrome! But the fact of the matter is: you will create nothing if you don’t try. Something is better than nothing, right? Just as I can’t revise a poem I haven’t written, you can’t hone a creative process that doesn’t exist.
If you’re new and feeling lost about beginning your creative process, allow me to suggest that you:
3. Record Your Process
You probably come up with hundreds, if not thousands of ideas every week. I’ll bet that you are extremely creative (I mean, you clicked on this article, right?) However, if you’re not keeping track of your ideas, you’re making it more difficult to create something groundbreaking.
Poets are advised to carry something for writing things down. Some use mini notebooks, others their phones and some have been known to write on their forearms.
I’m obsessed with documenting and witnessing. Because I’m obsessed, I shamelessly record in any way that’s available. This has been a huge boon to me. I use whatever is at hand: send myself a text/email, record a voice memo, write into my phone, write on the backs of receipts or other scraps, write into a cute notebook, less cute notebook, big notebook, tiny notebook, take pictures with my phone, and even ask my partner to “remind me later to write about the falling rock caution signs on the highway.”
Now, I’ve been recording for decades of my life, so at this point, I have developed a method that works very well for me. My point here is that when the go-to method fails, don’t hesitate to find a viable option. Flexibility is key. Nothing is worse than defeating yourself before you start.
Once you begin recording, you can begin taking time regularly — weekly, monthly, quarterly — to hone your ideas. I schedule time for revision and let my ideas and poems sit until that time so I can approach them from a fresh perspective.
4. Let the Emotions Live
So much of the culture I was brought up on is exactly what doesn’t work for me creatively. The ruthless-and-detached-go-getter-gets-the-win type of shit, no thanks. Call me what you want, I have A LOT of emotions, and I’m not afraid to feel them. All of our emotional worlds are unique ecosystems of kinetic, transitioning feelings, which is perfectly normal. Yet, our culture often tells us to ignore, deny, or hide what we feel.
Poets, on the other hand, live in the universe of feelings. One could say that poetry is feeling brought to life in language. Developing a vocabulary for feelings and witnessing our feelings to ourselves not only makes us feel more validated, it actually enhances our empathic abilities. I can’t think of a single career for which empathy isn’t a critical soft skill.
And for some of us, empathy is a critical skill for doing our job. How do we fully imagine our audience, ideal customer, or user experience without understanding the depths of the human experience? How do we understand the depths of human experience if we can’t understand the depths of our own?
“The way poetry revealed itself as meaningful was gradual, like learning a word or phrase for the first time and then suddenly seeing and hearing it everywhere afterward — making you wonder if it had even really existed before you stumbled upon it — but making your life and worldview that much richer now that it had been found.” — Nova (Lebohang Masango) as appeared in the July/August 2015 issue. of Poetry.
Finding a safe place to explore your inner world is the first step. A personal journal or morning pages practice can be a great start. Also, don’t be afraid of reaching out to a counselor. Mental health professionals have deepened my experience in life — not just when I suffered from crushing anxiety as a teenager, but also when I struggled to find meaning during a career change.
And once all of this begins to feel like it’s flowing, don’t forget to:
5. Do Something Completely Different
There are poets who seem to live entire lives outside of their work: William Carlos Williams was a physician, Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, John Donne was a cleric. Their “other” work was not just influential but critical to their creative growth. There are many contemporary examples. Layli Long Soldier is also a visual artist who recently constructed these incredible quilts with paper and copper. Alicia Jo Rabins is a musician, and she plays an impromptu soundtrack on the violin when she reads from her newest collection Fruit Geode. It’s amazing. She is also a Torah teacher. Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a photographer. On the way the two practices interact in her artistry, she says in an interview at the Four Way Review,
“ Intimacy is also something I often think about in relation to both poetry and photography. The intimacy I might share in a photograph is neither identical nor lateral to the intimacy I share in a poem. Both forms engage different threads of the gaze. These forms are often contradictory in relation to the acceptance or rejection of the gaze. The shapes of the gaze in either medium are relative to my content and intention. For me, any attempt to answer this question only provokes questions. Who is the We? How do we, as individuals and public citizens, understand, maintain, and define ‘literacy’?…Photography’s functions are not identical to poetry’s processes and forms. Perhaps poetry and photography are fraternal twins.”
Poets collaborate on projects with friends and strangers, a long-standing poetic tradition that includes forms like Renga from the Japanese literary tradition and Exquisite Corpses. Whole books of poems have been written collaboratively, like Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton have written 3 books collaboratively, and Matt Rohrer and Joshua Beckman published Nice Hat. Thanks. with Wave Books. Then there are poetry collectives, like the Dark Room Collective, that while not necessarily collaborating on the same poem, collaborates on the mission of making art and building a community of poets.
Doing something outside your area of expertise staves off the stagnating effects of tunnel vision. It makes you grow in surprising ways. An added benefit is that it creates a deeper sense of completeness and connection with the world and your community.
I hope these tips help you explore further, develop connections and create boldly. Drop me a line if you have any questions. I’m here to share.