At the start of this year, I promised myself I’d write a blog every week – this week, it nearly didn’t happen. I had a few things buzzing around my brain that I could write about, but each time I wanted to start, nothing seemed to be sparking any useful sentences – I’d type a few words but then get tumbleweed blowing through my brain instead. So frustrating.
So in the spirit of writing what you know (!) I thought I’d turn my problem into a solution, and blog about what to do when creativity fails you. Here are 5 practical things you can do to find that elusive creative spark!
These should work whether you’re doing creative writing or report writing; if you’re making something (a painting, a sculpture, a theatre production); or have a hit a hump in the road for a work project. If you ever feel like you’re banging your head against a wall, try giving these a go – and let me know how you get on!
1. Just start! (And accept that it’ll be rubbish)
This can sometimes be much easier said than done, but just starting can sometimes be the only way to crank things up. Tell yourself it’s going to be AWFUL, and that’s ok. Give yourself permission to fail. Once you have something, you have corners and pillars and obstacles to ping off from, ricochet between, and duck under and through. It will help. Just forgive yourself for being rubbish (and no one else needs to ever see it!)
As playwright Samuel Beckett said “Fail again. Fail better”, and he managed to create the odd good thing.
2. Just stop! TAKE. A. BREAK!
Walk away, close the computer, put down the paint brush, leave it be. But, here’s the thing – you need to do something else, something active to get out of your head. Resist the urge to hop on social media and have a scroll! Take a walk (my best way out of a creativity crisis), do the washing up, dust behind the radiators, take a shower. Doing something active will help your brain relax and take pressure off the problem in hand. Often, that’s when an idea will hit. (I wrote about why this happens a few weeks ago if you want to know more!)
3. Ask a kid
Get a different perspective – children are great for this, as they may respond in a completely left field way, and help you see the problem with fresh eyes. Ask them a question linked to what you’re doing: ‘what would you say if?’ ‘how do you feel about x?’, or ask them to look at what you’ve already made and just say what they see, ask them what it reminds them of, or what they would add next.
Here’s the key: don’t think of it as a judgement on your work! Park your ego. They are looking at a work in progress. Listen to what they say, and accept their opinion – don’t try to justify the decisions you’ve made already.
Many times I’ve got half way through a rehearsal process and felt a bit stuck, so I’ve invited children to watch what we’ve made, and then asked them questions: what was happening there? What did you understand from…? Why is x doing that..? What they say in response often either unlocked a problem I’d been pondering, or helped me stop worrying about something I thought was a problem. Either way, seeing it through another’s eyes was incredibly helpful. Sometimes they spotted things that I’d missed that were absolutely glaringly obvious. It made me feel daft to have a 5 year old point out my mistake, but I’d simply got too close to what I was making to see it clearly. In some productions, their insights were so fundamental to the process that I credited them as my Assistant Directors.
If you don’t have another person to hand, you can get a similar change in perspective by altering the ‘rules’ of what you’re making. So, if you’re trying to write a poem, what happens if you draw it instead? Or write it in a 3 act structure, like a story – give it a beginning, a middle (where a crisis happens) and an end? If you’re writing a story, try swapping the point of view it’s being written from – pick a minor character and write from their viewpoint. If you’re painting, turn it upside down, or remove the colour and put it in black and white. None of the material you produce in this process needs to survive into the ‘finished’ piece, but changing things up might just unblock something.
4. Limit your options
Sometimes creative blocks can come from having too many different ideas. Too many possible paths to follow can make you freeze. If your brain feels overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to settle first, try clearing some space; limit the possibilities. First, do a brain dump. Spend a few minutes jotting down very brief notes on all the ideas in your head – don’t worry about getting the detail down, flashes of thought are all you need. Set a timer, 5 mins is enough; it’s just a way to remove some of the noise from your brain. Keep hold of that list – but put it to one side, and for the moment just pick one idea. I find it most useful to pick the idea that feels small and simple. The tiniest idea on the list. Get down your thoughts on that, don’t stress over it (it’s ok if it’s shit!). Next, look back at the list, and find another thing connected to that idea – keep building from there. Group things together if needs be. Take one path at a time, you can come back to the other paths later. The most useful thing you can do in any creative process is edit. So it’s great to tackle something off road, to go down cul de sacs, try two wheels instead of four, jump on a skateboard for a mo – all of it will help you find the right journey eventually – but remember that it’s ok to throw any of those things away.
5. Hunt it down
If in doubt STEAL. Well, not exactly – but go hunting for inspiration. Finding images or quotes relating to what you’re thinking about can help you make new connections. Take a sideways jump into what you’re doing by switching up the medium. When I start work on a new production I collect images that remind me of the story or the characters in some way – I steer well clear of googling other people’s productions, but I might search particular themes, words or ideas that the play prompts, and collect the related images that strike a chord. I scrapbook them, along with quotes from the play, I jot down thoughts as they come and try not to over analyse what I’m writing, knowing that it’s just a place to begin. Try not to worry about being original – the thing you make will be new to you, and that’s all you need. Copying is bad, stealing for inspiration is GREAT. Be a creative magpie, collect the shiny things and transform them into something new.
And finally – as a wee bonus! Why not look back at Bumblebee prompts?! I write them specifically for the books they are sent with, but all you need to do is change the specific stimulus. Try applying them to something different, a switch up is good for the brain!
Good luck! No one ever said creating was easy…but I hope some of these ideas will help the cogs to turn.
Full disclosure: in the writing of this blog, I used numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5! They are officially Bumblebee tried and tested. If I had a rubber stamp, I’d use it.
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With love and creativity,