Thursday, October 2, 2014

Seven Habits to Boost Your Creative Thinking this Fall


It may be the end of the growing season, as a garden article laying open on my porch table proclaims, but for many of us the fall carries with it the natural rhythms of learning, making it a perfect season of intellectual growth.  Fall is a time to refocus, to begin a new endeavor or close the year on a high note.  Where summer gives us freedom to explore, fall calls us back to ourselves.

As the semester gets underway, I see the first tendrils of confidence, and more importantly, permission, to experiment with creativity and risk-taking appear in my Creative Thinking & Problem Solving class.  The student’s earnestness to studying and honing their creativity, and the subtle adjustments and re-calibrations they make in the first few classes never fails to inspire me again and again.    

The tools and techniques we use in my class are not exclusive to the classroom, and are actually ideal for the everyday world beyond.  I thought I would pass on the inspiration and share a few of them that are excellent first steps for embarking on a new creative journey.  And if you are a seasoned creative, it is a great time to refresh and rejuvenate your own “growing season.”   

1. Get a sketchbook

Early on in one of my very early semesters of teaching Creative Thinking & Problem Solving, a student approached me at the end of the first class, the course material list in their hand, and asked, “How are we supposed to use our sketchbooks?  What if I am not good at drawing?”  It was a question that deeply humbled me. 

Sketchbooks have been a part of my life since I was first mark making (the earliest form of expression) thanks to my Mom and Dad.  In my life, they had evolved to become a place that I kept ideas, images torn from magazines, quotes, half-baked poems, mind maps, sketches, watercolors and just about anything that needs a home.  So when I discovered the term Common Place Book a few years ago, a book where ideas, writing, images, influences are all documented, I was elated. 

In my world, sketchbooks are for everyone.  Not just people who can sketch.  They are a vehicle for capturing ideas and living without lines.  Just the act of buying one can be liberating, let alone the power of marking up that first page.  Let go of perfection and embrace the ideas that you put down on paper this fall.  The good, the silly, the outlandish, and the ugly.  Once your ideas know you respect them—that they have a home—they will keep coming.

2. Cultivate an inner dialogue on paper (Morning Pages)

In The Artist’s Way, a book that I reference frequently here on The Paper Compass, and also use as a text book in my class, author Julia Cameron preaches the practice of getting up an half hour early to write by hand three stream of consciousness pages in a plain notebook.  She calls this ritual Morning Pages and while the idea of getting up a half hour early is painful, the act of writing out my fears, loathings, dreams and longings has been one of the most influential and beneficial habits that I myself took away from taking Creative Thinking when I was a student and reading Cameron’s book.

I have written about Morning Pages before, but there are two things that are important about them: One, that you do them.  No matter the time of day.  And two, that you keep them completely for your eyes only. 

I once had a student who confessed that he was both addicted to Morning Pages and fearful of his wife’s interest in them.  He found that the most private place to write them—and to hide them—was in his car.  I say that if the fear of writing your thoughts prevents you from embracing, what may be at first an awkward dialogue, then write them and shred them.  They are not for posterity or perfection.  The goal is to physically write “out” your thoughts.  To release the small minded things that clog our brains and occupy our mind.  In releasing them, you will find yourself with new mental space to think bigger and in new ways.    

3. Walk everywhere (or as much as possible)

Walking is creativity’s best friend.  As a creative resource walking allows us to do two things simultaneously: observe the world around us (also known as “filling the well”) and creates a physical rhythm, and visual distractions, that allows our subconscious to take over and do some heavy lifting—or, technically, “incubating” of ideas.

Even if your day is dominated by travels in trains, planes and automobiles, find the time to build a walking routine into your week.  Find a route that is safe, interesting and allows your mind to wander.  Amazing things are puzzled out and solved in the mind of an occupied walker. 

4. Take one hour a week for yourself (Artist Date)

Of all the exercises that you may undertake as a creative practitioner, this is one of the most enjoyable and difficult.  The Artist Date, another of Julia Cameron’s powerful “basic tools” from The Artist’s Way, is the weekly activity of doing something exclusively with yourself that you want to do (emphasis on want, doing the dishes and laundry—unless it is an emergency cleaning therapy session, does not count).  The challenge is that this hour (or two or three) of much needed creative restocking time (also known as play) seems to be something that can be so easily overlooked in our busy and demanding lives.  And that is exactly the point.  As I say to my students, “this is a chance to take yourself on a date.  Go to a restaurant that you are curious about.  Take yourself to the movie that you want to see.  Most importantly: don’t stand yourself up.”    

5. Develop a study plan

In last Monday night’s class, I shared with the students Todd Henry’s TEDx talk about developing a creative rhythm which can help you to be “Prolific + Brilliant + Healthy.”  For me, one of the most important recommendations I have taken away from reading Todd Henry’s book The Accidental Creative is carving out dedicated time every week to indulge yourself in the experience of learning.  The study plan is something that is (for obvious reasons) not as interesting to my students as it is for myself and to my fellow professionals. 

Being able to be a student relieves some of the pressure that rest on our shoulders (and minds) as adults.  When we have the mindset of advancing ourselves through the diligence of studying it humbles us in a good way, allowing us to see that the creative path is exactly that—a path.  It means we must learn along the way and give ourselves permission to not know everything or be perfect.   

A study plan can help you become an expert in your chosen field or it can be focused on something that you have always wanted to do: read all the biographies at the library; learn French; watch COSMOS; learn about String Theory; or even read a book a month on a subject that you want to excel at.

The only rule is to have a plan and to stick to it.  For me, my study time takes place on Sunday mornings where I read one chapter in a new-to-me book on the subject of creativity.  This also helps inspire my class prep, which I do later in the day.   

6. Pick one project

The creative mind draws ideas to it like moths to a porch light.  And just as the sublime beauty of the moths gathering, dancing, fluttering can be mesmerizing, as Creatives we become distracted, restless, and unable to focus when we have too many ideas.  We can become mired in a sense of pecking away at pieces of them but without really making progress. 

This fall, I encourage you to pick one project.  Just one.  (I know it is difficult, but it is worth it.) 
Pick a single project and set a realistic goal of accomplishment that you can check yourself against in January.

Like The Study Plan, the momentum is in the dedication of a repeated time slot in which to work.  Commit yourself (and commit to yourself).  And don’t fear the commitment.  The plan is to build up focus through a few months of diligent work.  This will create a solid habit to build upon as well as the sensation of finally being able to bring your unfinished projects to a point of completion or closure.

7. Give yourself permission

In the very first class of the semester, I ask the students if they can guess: what is the #1 characteristic of creative people?  They give great answers: risk taking, playfulness, rebelliousness…  but it is something that is both very simple and also deeply complex.  It is the self-perception of being creative.

So, I invite you to embrace yourself as a creative thinker this fall.  Give yourself permission to be creative, to take risks, to do something different and you will be taking the first steps toward expanding and rejuvenating your creativity.  Give yourself permission, and see what ideas come to you.  Discover what you have the ability to create.

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These are just a few of the many tips, tactics and tools that we explore in my class.  If you have an additional one to share, or a creative experience that resonates from reading the post, please share here on The Paper Compass.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Returning to Summer, Zero State, and Guarding Against Creative Burn Out


As it has every year, my summer officially begins with the conclusion of the Summer 1 Semester of Creative Thinking & Problem Solving which runs for six weeks beginning in late May.  In the final weeks of the intensive schedule, I find myself in a unique state of flow, brimming with solutions, next steps and ideas for my own projects—and, even more important, on the cusp of actually having time to work on them.  It is an exhilarating place.  I will go so far as to call it sublime. 

This is because the one thing that I almost always neglect to take into account every semester is how exhausted I am when I do finally reach the end of six weeks of working full time in addition to teaching twice a week on a subject that is my passion.  In the first weeks of July, I unfortunately, do remember.  It is The Post Semester Funk.  It is not the blues, and not the Mean Reds, but is somewhere in between and filled with a lot of internal dialogue “what should I do now?” “I don’t know” “what should I do next?” “I don’t know.”  Other symptoms include moping, staring off into space, not being tired but being exhausted, misplacing objects around the house, and a sudden lack of productivity that involves opening email and FB about 10 times a day looking for a distraction.  

I have come to be very respectful of the P.S. Funk because I learned the hard way after my first semester of teaching, that it is a sign that I am on the cusp of Burn Out, one of Creativity’s greatest enemies.  The good news is that all of the creative tools that author Julia Cameron teaches, and which I share with my students, become my path out of the Bog of No Energy.  I go for walks, I return to yoga, I diligently do Morning Pages (even if most of the time is spent staring out at the morning sky), I sit on the porch and flip through summer magazines, I watch brainless TV and enjoy it.           

There is an upside to being depleted.  “Just let yourself sink to the bottom,” my yoga instructor said to me in her kind voice as I lay in a flat mess on the floor of the training room, in a posture that could only be called Ready-for-Sleep, “let yourself get back to Zero State.”  I am not very good at Zero State, especially knowing that it is a place that is far away from the energy that I had when I promised myself I would bring All My Ideas To Life! only the week before. 

Zero State is part of the path to getting out of The P.S. Funk.  In it, I am able to see clearly the truths that I need to manage for as a creative.  Creativity is a process.  More importantly, it is a slow process.  From feeling like I am super human, I “come down” from class and realize that I can’t do everything.  Or at least I can’t do everything and sustain it. 

However, at this place, this Zero Point, when there is nowhere to go but up, my energy returns.  I begin to savor it and my personal moments of creativity that are not part of any greater purpose than expression.  I take on small projects like trying a new recipe.  I go on Artist Dates to my favorite haunts.  I gradually “work” my way back through morning pages and walks, from “What is the point?” to “You know, I’ve really missed writing for my blog” to “Today I want to write a blog post.”

So here we are.  It is summer.  The days are long and perfect for creativity.  They are good for daydreaming and doing.  I have decided to write spontaneously this year, so while there will not be any set Summer Challenges, there will be musings and new inspiration. 

Michael Boodro, Editor in Chief of Elle D├ęcor opens the summer issue with a beautiful little essay called “Summer Isn't What It Used to Be.”  He ends with a sentiment that called me back to the blog and to myself in my wonderful recovery from The P.S. Funk:
The season is never predictable, and no summer will probably ever seem as glorious as those we remember from our childhood, when it seemed as though it hardly rained and every night was full of fireflies.  But if sunny days and soft, lingering twilights seem more rare than ever, then we need to treasure them all the more when they do come along.
In creativity there are highs and lows.  Moments of exhilaration, moments of inspiration, moments of doubt, and moments of burn out and blockage.  Recognizing your own patterns of work and energy are important to nurturing yourself as a creative.  Learning your own symptoms of the beginning of what could be burn out before it sets in can help make you a smarter creative, allowing you to consciously choose to integrate the patterns and habits that allow you to rejuvenate your energy and creativity.

How do you nurture yourself and your energy after a big project?  If you have experienced burn out, what tools or tactics did you use to bring yourself back to a healthy state of creativity?  I would love to hear your own experiences or even your ways of rejuvenating yourself this summer here on The Paper Compass.