This post is the first in a series on, what I call, The Creative Thinking Tool Kit. The tools themselves are a series of essentially low-key activities that, when practiced routinely, can have a big impact on creativity. Their purpose is to both cultivate a habit of nurturing creativity and to bring our attention to the present with a sense of curiosity. Individually, they can spark ideas, but used in sync they become a natural spring for creative thinking. I have listed ideas for applying or practicing with the tool at the end of the post.
In her book The Artist’s Way, on recovering personal creativity, author Julia Cameron calls the exercises and experiences that restore or create new memories, “filling the well.” Having just returned from vacation time spent visiting with my family as well as some places both fantastical and hauntingly familiar, these phrases were on my mind.
Traveling, or even a new experience, is one of the most powerful tools for creativity. Traveling is like a feast within the desert of routine that many of us hold ourselves to in order to “Get Things Done” (a phrase I find myself using with troubling frequency.) While vacation time or traveling may not be frequent, it has a huge impact because it allows us to do two things: break for an extended period of time the current pattern of our everyday living; and take in many new experiences to call upon later.
Traveling, in the sense of a trip, vacation or journey, takes us out of our routine and causes us to look and interact with awareness. Time feels different on vacations, usually because many of our mile-markers of habit are removed, such as watching TV or listening to a radio program at a certain time. More importantly, time feels different because we are focused on the present and the experience unfolding in front of us. As Cameron writes in The Artist's Way, “Our focused attention is critical to filling the well. We need to encounter our life experiences, not ignore them.”
This kind of awareness is something that comes naturally to children, but is something that as adults we must cultivate, because we’ve picked up habits and adopted preconceptions over time that, on a reptilian-brain-level, have helped us survive but have also made the world a much less surprising place where adventures are usually a monstrous inconvenience. Traveling takes us out of that mindset, especially if we set out open to, or in search of, new experiences, and causes us to see things from a fresh perspective. This is where “filling the well” comes in.
In the space of the last six days, I went from an existence comprised of what seemed like an endless volley of emails and a series of meetings that defied the natural laws of time as governed by my Microsoft Exchange calendar, to sitting next to my sister filled with unabashed delight as we watched a mermaid show at Weeki Wachee State Park. That same day, on our drive north we discovered a winery in the vast wilderness of route 19 on Florida’s gulf coast and impulsively stopped for a tasting. The last days of the trip were spent revisiting the coastal islands of Georgia where we’d vacation and visit my grandparents during my childhood. So many things were different there, but others remained wonderfully the same as I remembered.
I arrived home tired, but feeling refreshed. Satisfied. Filled with new experiences to share with others, to spark my curiosity and imagination. The best part is that I don’t have use them right away. That is the importance of “filling the well.” The memories and experiences are there for when I need them, whether it’s in bringing an idea to fruition or just to sustain me until the next time I can “get away.”
Applying & Practicing:
· Put a vacation or trip on the horizon: Whether it is the trip to Paris that you’ve always dreamed of, or a day trip to a new local within easy reach via car, train, or boat, save the date on your calendar for time to get away. Not only does this give you something to look forward to, but it helps to make it real. Goals that are written down are 80% more likely to happen than the ones that just exist in your head.
· Cultivate a sense of mystery: As it’s been established in this blog, I am a huge fan of Nancy Drew. The girls’ mystery series has always entranced me with the way that the way that adventure lies in wait around every corner. When you are Nancy Drew a mystery can find you when you are shopping for a dress or walking to the post office. I have found that even on the most boring day, reminding yourself that even small journeys can become big adventures or lead to new ideas.
· Get away: This winter I’ve written about what todo when you are in the dark a.k.a. "stuck" and the importance of incubation in the creative process, that both touch on the value of walking away from an idea or project that is stuck. “Getting away” is a very powerful action that puts you back in control of the idea, especially if you use that time to “fill the well.” A walk around the block can, if badly needed, be as inspiring and refreshing as a trip around the world. Try and bring both to your life to nurture your creativity.
· Don’t wait until the well is dry: “Filling the well” is something that should be done on a routine basis, and not just when you feel like you need an emergency vacation. As Cameron notes, often ideas “dry up”–especially when the work is going well and we use them quickly. The more we replenish the stream of images and experiences we have to draw upon, the smoother and more consistent the creative process has the potential to be.