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2021: Celebrating The Writers' Greenhouse
10 YEAR anniversary!

Friday, 27 August 2021

How to feed your creativity

When I designed the Starting Points course, I decided it was vital to include an introduction to creativity as well – not just at the outset but to run that throughout the eight-week structure. I was thinking of students who might be entirely new to creativity, who might need permission to "squander" time like that, who might not yet know how those seemingly unrelated activites feed our creativity, who might be so habituated to efficiency that they accidentally cut out of their lives the exact stuff they need for their writing. So alongside the whistlestop tour of types of creative writing, I put together a whistlestop tour of essential creative practices to give my students each week, as "Creative Activity vouchers". Actual little vouchers, on coloured card, that they could tuck in their purse or pocket.

What I didn't expect was what an amazing boost this would give me, every time I run the course. As any good teacher would, I give myself a voucher too and carry out the same activities across that week. Suddenly, my life and my creativity blossom. I thought I was pretty decent at maintaining my creative practices... but what a tonic those vouchers and that little extra commitment are!

A selection of my creative activities from a past Starting Points course

On the surface, none of the activities have anything to do with creative writing and most of them seem an indefensible use of time. (That's why I made the vouchers: to help people defend that time.) Efficiency is the enemy of creativity, though. Firstly, to be efficient, you have to be doing something you've done before. I can make a very efficient dinner if it's something I've made twenty times before. A new recipe or a new technique is going to be slow and kitchen-chaos. Doing anything new is "inefficient". Secondly, efficiency relies on routine - you know what you need to do, you rattle through the steps in the right order, you walk the route home you know, and so on. It's efficient, but after a while it becomes stultifying, even deadening, as routine slowly dessicates into a rut. And thirdly, efficiency depends on stamping out that "loose" time. Walking home? Catch up on a work podcast! In the shower? Yell your shopping list at Alexa! Waiting for a friend? Whip out your phone and clear some of those emails!

Efficiency is not a bad thing. I'm unbelievably efficient in my admin time and my hosuekeeping – so that I can spend the rest of my time more fruitfully. But you can't be creative and efficient at the same time. If I'm writing or creating a course or a workshop, the clock-watching stops. Idea-time doesn't get measured. And of course, in the inevitable creative paradox, the less "efficient" I try to be while creating and the more "inefficient" I allow my creative practice to be, the easier the ideas come, the faster the insights leap.

Even more joyfully, the same things that feed our creativity are also the things that make our lives more relaxing, more interesting, and more fun. I remembered that in the nick of time this past April. I had two weeks off, barely able to leave the house much less go on holiday anywhere, and my partner would be working the whole time. I thought, "Oh, I'll just write for two weeks," and then I pulled myself up short. I already knew I was both dog-tired and creatively starved by a long year of pandemic. So I figured, "Physician, heal-thyself" and, using what I teach in the Starting Points course, brainstormed a wildly various list of possible activities for myself, for my staycation.

On the eve of my first Staycation day, I jokingly wrote an "itinerary" on Facebook, holiday-brochure style. The next day, I found having that little plan already set out was hugely helpful. So I kept on with it, the evening before or that morning each day, while my Facebook friends indulged me and cheered me on. Here are four of my Staycation Itineraries:

I tried to make sure that each day included something outdoors and physical, something cooking-based (one of my favourite ways to relax), something new, something I hadn't done in ages, and something where my mind was left to float, whether in its own stories or into an audio drama: in short, variety. I also felt that a bit of effort was necessary. I really was tired enough that without making a plan and making an effort, I could've spent the two weeks drinking endless coffee and scrolling through my phone. But that's not rest, that's ennui. Refreshing rest does, oddly, take a bit of effort. It's the same effort, I reasoned, as when you're on actual holiday and you do bother to look up opening times, to go see that ruin, to climb the hillside to see the fires, and so on. And knowing myself, I made extra sure that I didn't overplan the days: most of the "activities" were about 20 minutes max, with plenty of time to stop for coffee in a "pretty little coffee shop" (the kitchen island). So those were my principles: variety; a bit of effort; not too strict / packed. I also had a fourth principle: I didn't map out two weeks of projects, I only planned one day's "itinerary" at a time, with that initial brainstorm to refer to.

I had a frikken brilliant time. After the two weeks, I felt completely rejuvenated and bubbly. And lots of the little activites I'd returned to hung around in the weeks and months after, continually enriching my days. Some of what I'd done was extremely useful (the gardening). Some, pretty mystifying. (The covered boxes are very pretty, and completely mystify my partner, who kept asking unhelpful questions like "What are they for?" They're still in the conservatory, very pretty, and empty.) Some of it was useful (learning to make pies) but with time pressure, would have been absolute hell. The point was giving myself the freedom to play. Sometimes playing means we're allowed to do stuff badly or we're allowed to do purposeless things. Sometimes, playing means allowing enough time: without the pressure of time bearing down, everything can feel like play.

I've returned to the subject of time repeatedly, but you don't actually need swathes of time to feed your creativity. The Creative Activity vouchers are each for one hour, for that week. That might be an hour in one chunk. It might be two half-hour sessions, or three twenty-minuters. It might be ten minutes a day each day except class day. And yet those brief sips are enough to be transformative. Within the classes, I try to allow a bit of time to think about each activity in advance – a couple minutes of brainstorming, loosely coming up with ideas rather than Assigning Tasks To The Week. A menu, not a schedule.

If you need a creative boost – if you're feeling a bit humdrum and low, if you missed out on your holidays with that rest and fresh stimulation, if you want to feel more bubbly and blossoming again – how about a Creativity Project? You can even name it, Bond-style, Operation Creativity. Set yourself a month, or eight weeks, or twelve weeks: something clearly defined, because that clear definition helps galvanise you to do it. Give yourself an hour a week, divvied up as you please and as suits your life. Brainstorm a variety of things to do, as many different things as possible. Decide what you're doing a week at a time, or a session at a time, not everything in advance, to keep that lovely element of surprise. Join forces with your writing group if you have one, to inspire and encourage each other, or report to indulgent friends, like I did with my staycation. Keep adding to the brainstorm throughout: more ideas of fun things, new things, silly things. And little by little, feel your joie de vivre bubble back up and your creativity increase.

If you want the external structure of the Starting Points course, that will give you a Creative Activity voucher each week, as well as, each week, a different type of writing, a writing skill, a starting point for ideas, and a writing maxim. It's running online with posted materials, so it's open to bookings from anywhere in the UK, and is one evening a week for 8 weeks. The full course details are here and the booking deadline is 21 September.

And whether you're freestyling your Operation Creativity or on the course, if you want an indulgent listener to cheer you on, I'm all ears! (And if you're happy to go public, the comments are open.) After all, what could be better for creative ideas than hearing all the cool little things other people are getting up to?

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