You know how it goes. You sit down at your computer and stare at the blinking cursor. You type a sentence. You erase it. You get a snack and drop crumbs all over your keyboard. You wait for the muse to show up, but she seems to be on vacation.
Maybe you’re stuck trying to decide how to start. Maybe you’ve written your characters into a predicament and you’re not sure how to get them out of it. Maybe you’ve finished a manuscript and are trying to revise it.
Or maybe it’s been so long since you flexed your creative writing muscles, you’re not sure how to do it anymore.
Here are my tried-and-true methods for tapping into that eternal wellspring of creativity inside of all of us. To quote Maya Angelou: “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
1. My number one creativity trick
This trick is pure magic, I swear. Here’s what you do: work for at least twenty minutes on your current creative project, even if it’s simply reading over what you’ve already written or attempting to brainstorm. This will plant the seed in your creative mind. Then go for a long walk by yourself. Do not listen to a podcast or call your mom. Music is okay, but silence is better.
At first you may find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner, or how the neighbors really need to mow their lawn, but at some point the creative project that has been simmering on the back burner will start to boil. You may hear snippets of dialogue. The first line of a new story might arrive. Or an idea for the second act of your novel may float into your mind.
Walking isn’t the only way to achieve this. A drive in the car, a bike ride, doing mindless household chores, as long as you’re not talking to someone or listening to someone. Heck, even a long shower can do it. Don’t actively think about your project while you’re walking/biking/folding laundry. Let your thoughts wander, and eventually they will wander into some new ideas. And if they don’t, at least you’ve gotten exercise and fresh air, or your house is cleaner.
A note about podcasts: For the longest time, I was listening to a lot of podcasts: while walking, while driving, while cleaning the house. Podcasts are great, but they fill your mind with someone else’s voice, someone else’s thoughts. The creative mind needs space to ruminate, to filter, to process; you can’t access your own ideas if you’re constantly listening to someone else’s.
2. Read something you normally wouldn’t
We all know the way to becoming a better writer is to read. But when we’re seeking to spark creativity in particular, we should read things that ignite our creative mind. And the creative mind loves variety.
So if you’re looking for inspiration, read something you normally wouldn’t, say perhaps:
- an article about a topic you don’t know much about
- something that challenges you or annoys you
- a book in a genre you normally don’t read
(I wrote some of my best poems when I was reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. For some reason, reading about science ignites my creativity.)
3. Do writing exercises
Some people hate writing exercises; they feel their creativity is stifled by being forced to write about a particular thing or in a particular way. But I argue that being given constraints forces your mind to be even more creative within those bounds. A little bit of scaffolding can be just what your creative mind needs to start building.
I used to do the NYC Midnight short story challenges, which are very prescriptive (you are given a genre, a character, a word to be included, a word limit, and a time limit). And I was always pleasantly surprised with what my creative mind came up with.
Some other places to find writing exercises:
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
- Naming the World by Brett Anthony Johnston
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- simply Google “creative writing exercises,” and I’m sure you’ll find plenty
4. Write “morning pages”
My next two suggestions are stolen directly from Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, but I’m going to be a little more loosey goosey with my instructions.
Julia Cameron insists that “creatives” must do three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness journaling every day, as soon as they wake up each morning. I’m amending this to say 2-3 pages of longhand, or 1-2 typewritten pages, stream-of-consciousness journaling, written whenever you have the time. I’d recommend sometime in the morning, but if mornings are too hectic, try at lunch time or right before bed.
The trick here is much like #1 – don’t try to write anything in particular. Literally write whatever comes to mind, even if it’s a grocery list or why you’re mad at your sister. Sometimes, getting that stuff out of your head can make room for other, more creative thoughts. I also find it’s helpful to ask myself questions: What do I want to write about? What is my character’s motivation? Then write down the first few answers that come to mind.
5. Experience new things
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends weekly solitary “artist’s dates” that feed your inner artist’s desire for sensory experiences: a museum, a hike, a crafting store, a concert.
I think this is a great idea, but I’m amending it a bit to say: all new experiences are food for creativity! Go places! Do new things! It doesn’t have to be alone (although alone can be good), and it doesn’t have to be fancy. In these pandemic times we are all spending way too much time at home, doing the same old things, and our creativity is suffering for it. The creative mind loves variety. We need to refill our creative wells from time to time.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money, and you don’t even necessarily need to leave the house to experience new things. Here are some ideas if you’re still a little squeamish about crowded museums, shops, and performance venues:
- Drive to a neighborhood you’ve never been to before and walk around. Let yourself get lost for a bit.
- Splurge on the download a new album. Lay on the floor for twenty minutes and do nothing except listen to the music. (I haven’t done this myself, but I want to. I think it would be good for me!)
- Take up a new hobby: drawing, crochet, the guitar. Teach yourself, take lessons, or find online tutorials.
- Go to an outdoor market (an art market, a farmer’s market, a yard sale, whatever you can find).
- Find a new recipe and cook something different. (Or, if cooking isn’t your thing, explore a new restaurant, food truck, or take-out.)
- Watch something you wouldn’t normally watch: a dance performance on youtube, an artsy movie, a TED talk
- Get a weekend air bnb somewhere you’ve never been. Stay on a farm, stay in a yurt, stay in a different city.
- Buy some new makeup and experiment with it.
- Go for a hike somewhere you’ve never been before. Make it a challenging hike and push yourself to do one mile more than you normally do.
6. Do a class, conference, or workshop
It’s probably not a shock that taking a creative writing class or attending a writing workshop can get your creativity flowing. Choose an in-person class or an online conference. Daniel David Wallace has a free story course in which the lessons arrive straight to your email inbox. And former literary agent Mary Kole offers small-group online writing-intensive classes with Story Mastermind. There are a ton of options out there — look around and see what suits you best.
7. Talk to people
We writers tend to be very private about our work-in-progress, and even more private when we’re struggling with our creativity. Admitting to writers block can feel embarrassing. But it happens to everyone. If you don’t already have a writing group, find or create one. Simply talking to other writers can do amazing things, for not only your creativity but for your mental health as well.
If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, talk to your fellow writers. Tell them where you’re getting stuck and ask them to help you brainstorm. Sometimes, simply talking out loud to someone about your creative project will get your mind re-engaged and help you come up with creative solutions.
8. Listen to people
Go sit in the park or coffee shop and listen to the conversations around you. Call up your grandma and get her talking about the old days. Ask your spouse or friend questions about their life and really listen. Not only does listening help with writing dialogue, but it can spark so many ideas about your characters, their motivations, and their stories.
9. Read old journals or go back to old projects
A few years ago I read my ninth grade diary, and as I did the idea for a novel about a freshman in high school began to form in my mind. Journals are full of feelings. They are full of thoughts and happenings we felt important enough to write down. In other words, they are incredible creative fodder.
As for old projects, get out that story you put away because you couldn’t think of how to end it, or that novel you know needs to be revised — looking at old work with fresh eyes may give you a new perspective and spark some new ideas.
10. Let yourself be bored!!
A bored mind looks to entertain itself. According to Neil Gaiman: “You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story.” Science has also linked boredom with creativity. Boredom leads to a wandering mind, and a wandering mind leads to new ideas.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to be bored in our world of the Internet and smart phones. So my challenge to you is this: next time you’re waiting in a long line, or otherwise doing something boring, instead of reaching for your phone, let yourself be bored. Just stand there and breathe and look around. It might be uncomfortable at first, but your creative mind will thank you for the chance to stretch its legs.
What about you? Do you have any tricks or tips to get your creativity flowing? Let me know!