Creativity is fickle. It comes and goes at will, bursting bright ideas into your orbit at precisely the wrong time. When you don’t have a pen, when there’s a crisis at work, when you’re knee deep in essential admin.
You get some time, find a pen, open the laptop and – nothing. Those pictures that danced through your head in a kaleidoscope of potential brilliance have shaken themselves into dust and your imagination is a shattered shell of ash and scrawled crayon.
Just me? I suspect not. When I became GvL curator I asked DoG reading friends what they would like to see covered. And someone asked about creativity, specifically kick starting and then maintaining that creative spark.
So you have a shiny new year ahead and a bucket of bright new resolutions that includes doing something creative. Great. Where do you start? Well, you don’t need much to be honest. You just need to find your creative sweet spot – an amalgamation of comfort, routine and having filled your creative toolbox with the things you need to keep you going.
For this article I’m focusing on writing – it’s what I do and I have a number of ways of kicking my own backside to get going. I would love it if people commented on their own creative processes, methods that work for them – both for writing and for other pursuits like drawing, photography, gaming etc.
The toolbox. I picked that expression up from Stephen King’s excellent On Writing – the one book on writing I would recommend to anyone thinking of stepping into the writing vortex. There are many books out there dedicated to creative writing, filled with great exercises to get you thinking and developing – but I’d suggest checking these out in your local library to find your best fit before purchasing.
King posits that we see our own personal toolbox as something that needs care and craft – read widely, learn grammar and expand your vocabulary, and have the physical means at hand at all time to write notes, stories and ideas down. Find the best form you can to express your ideas in a way that works for you – and your reader. I agree with this – but I also think that sometimes it’s best not to overthink it, but to grab a pen and just get started to see where it takes you.
The muse. King is my muse, along with a snifter of Neil Gaiman. I love reading about creative journeys and I enjoyed the story notes in Gaiman’s Fragile Things more than I liked the actual stories. Both he and King pick up ideas from the most mundane places and run with them. For King it may be a car in a ditch behind a garage, for Gaiman it could be a spark found reading myths and legends and letting his imagination roam – and just look at the glorious results of that in The Sandman and American Gods alone.
Baseline inspiration. Use those you love for inspiration. When in a block I often take one of my huge volumes of the collected works of Poe or Lovecraft from the shelf. I select a story at random, read it and then pick out two or three of the main story points or characters that interest me. Then rework them as an exercise (while being very careful to label them as such so I don’t plagiarise). Cheap, effective and keeps me reading and looking for the nugget of gold at the heart of the original story.
Neil Gaiman used a similar method to write short story The Problem Of Susan. He took a character from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books who was given a very abrupt resolution while everyone else tinkled off to Heaven, and gave her a future (albeit a rather weird and slightly kinky one that is definitely for adults). Gaiman wrote this story after a period of serious illness in which he’d been unable to write – it helped him kick start his own creativity and ended up in Fragile Things.
Embrace the Fan. Fan fiction is nothing to be ashamed of. Well, it is to blame for the Fifty Shades franchise – but hey, that made a lot of people happy! I started writing in my teens – and a large part of what I wrote was Robin Of Sherwood fanfic. Appalling to be sure, but there I was having fun romping through the green wood shooting up bad guys and obsessing over Nasir. It got me thinking, had me romanticising and led to me developing a sense of who I wanted to be as a writer. There are dedicated communities of fanfic writers online across all genres (including some very interesting romantic liaisons that once read can never not be imagined).
Unleash that crush on your keyboard. Those daydreams about Rob Stark/Zoe Saldana painted green that you pass your time on public transport with? Write it out. The beauty of writing fanfic is that the framework of the imaginary world has already been set and you can develop your skills within that comfort zone.
Procrastination Nation. Hands up, who procrastinates? I could stick both hands up here and it wouldn’t cover my expertise in this area. Give me a deadline and I’ll deliver on the dot. Give me open space and I’ll dance about the flowers, pick daisies and simper over butterflies until the cows come home, doing zilch.
Walk it off. Getting off my backside and going for a walk works wonders. Plot points resolve themselves, storylines come to me as I wander about wondering about the lives of people whose footsteps echoed down the same paths many years before me. The first short story I ever sold came from dog walking down a row of old fisherman’s cottages and picturing the lives that were lived there. It clears the head – and I often find cake at the end of my creative rainbow.
Buddy up. Writing buddies can be invaluable. I joined a writing circle two years ago – it’s free, informative and has given me a brilliant group of friends who keep me going and remind me that it’s good to finish one project before the butterfly mind skips off to play with its new obsession. I have drafted a novel I didn’t even know I was going to write in this time, born from the monthly prompts we do in our sessions.
Embrace the Twittering. The writing community can be very supportive. While political hellfire and disdain may rain down in certain parts of the Twittersphere there is still a great deal of positivity to be found in the writing community. If your muse is on there consider following them. I take great solace in Joe Abercrombie wailing about dragging his novel drafts out word-by-word, line-by-line – and he is also very funny. Search the hash tag #amwriting and find interesting people. Interact. Come say hello to me at @Gingerdolly. See me procrastinate using a small dog as a prop!
In all seriousness, linking in with other writers whether in a physical group or online is a great thing to do. Be prepared to put in what you expect to get out of it – be open minded, fair spirited and give structured, positive critique when asked for it. Celebrate each other’s achievements, commiserate the disappointments.
Escape the herd. It is fine to be a lone wolf and use creativity as a means of expression just for you. I did this a lot when I was younger. I had a period of stress when I couldn’t express myself in writing, so I created a private blog of images that said how I was feeling that day. Every day for six months. I deleted it once I moved on but it allowed me to express the frustration and sadness I was feeling that I couldn’t do elsewhere.
Audio-Visual inspiration. I storyboard ideas using Pinterest, storing images for short stories and novel scenes that I need some inspiration for. I wanted to include an Edwardian gentleman’s club in a novel – somewhere I’ve never experienced. I collected a series of images of room décor, drinks, furniture etc. to help inform my writing. Create your dream cast list – I confess, Jared Leto features rather a lot on my ‘Interesting Faces’ board!
I also create playlists specific to my writing – my current one featuring songs themed on angels and devils. This helps focus my mind, and the repetition becomes a mantra that plays into the writing process.
Finally, if one form of expression isn’t working for you, try another – write poems, doodle cartoons, take pictures. Have some fun. Something might just click. And remember there are no rights or wrongs to expressing yourself creatively. Follow that muse wherever they chose to take you.
Interesting people, prompts and challenges can be found through the following links:
BBC Writer’s Room has some great resources and opportunities as well as examples of scripts.
The Open University has a free Start Writing Fiction Course available here.
New Writing North provides reading and writing support, has a network of groups to support young writers and runs annual writing awards, as well as collating writing news including submissions call outs, local courses and competitions in the north of England.
New Writing South provides support to the writing community in the south of England.
Writers HQ has information and some free courses that you can try, here.
Tim Clare hosts regular free podcasts aimed at getting people writing in short bursts when they have time. Check them out here.