It finally happened to me, like some sort of initiation or rite of passage into the realm of being a “Real Writer.” My friend asked me a version of that question we’re all supposed to eventually get – where do you get your ideas from?
We were talking about A Work of Heart, and being a contributing editor for Enchanted Conversation, and signing on as a contributing writer at Fairygodboss, and launching my newsletter, and trying to expand my audience, and get my stories out there, and just do more writing. “You’ve really been doing a lot,” he observed, “do you have a process to keep finding new ideas?”
I laughed and said something about just trying to meet my deadlines.
I’ve thought about that conversation more, and I think everyone doing creative work does have a process, whether they think about it or not. For me it involves managing my time, my energy levels, and making room for a lot of different input.
These are the key things I’ve come to think about in terms of protecting my creative pool.
Get enough rest.
This is probably the most basic one. The idea of the stressed out, neurotic, starving artist is wrong. A person I know once lamented that he would never be able to create great art, because he was too happy in his marriage. But the idea that suffering and struggle leads to greatness, or is a prerequisite for it, is just nonsense. Recall your Maslow’s, and let’s move on from that. Creating anything takes enormous effort, and in order to produce good work, safely, you have to be well rested. I aim for eight hours of sleep a night. I rarely get that, but it’s my goal, and I often come reasonably close to it. Our bodies – including the brains that come up with our art – can’t function at full capacity when they’re tired. Lack of sleep makes us irritable, distracted, slower to make connections, and worse at coming up with novel ideas. If you’re nurturing your creative pool, the science tells us 8 or 9 hours of sleep a night is ideal.
Take care of your body.
Eat well, eat often. Eat food that is healthy and gives you the nutrients you need, and eat food that tastes good and is enjoyable to eat. Go for a walk, if not every day, then most days. Most resources will say that 10,000 steps is the ideal minimum number of steps your should take in a day. This isn’t actually scientifically determined, but was set because it’s an auspicious number in Japan, where the first wearable pedometer was popularized. I was never reaching 10,000 steps in my daily life, so I lowered my goal to 6,000, and once I got that pretty consistently, I recently upped it to 7,000. If you don’t have wearable tech, you can download a good pedometer app. I like Pacer. Move and stretch. Do what you need to in order to feel good and comfortable inside your skin. Self-care is essential to making art.
Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and increase creative problem solving. I do this most days, but this is another one where I don’t really follow the “recommended daily dose.” Sometimes all I’ve got is five minutes, either before work or before bed. But I make an effort to include meditation in my life, and when I’m being consistent with it, I notice myself feeling less stressed, less reactive, and better able to focus. I like the Stop Breathe & Think and the 1 Giant Mind apps.
Morning pages come from from a book called The Artists Way, and are described as three pages of stream of consciousness writing, written long-hand, immediately upon waking in the morning. This is something I’ve tried to do, on and off, for years, and it never stuck. Staying in bed to write either made me fall back asleep, or feel like I was wasting time. But this time it has. I write at least 750 words on my computer with my morning coffee. I use the 4thewords game, log in and get my word count, and get my gold star each morning in the form of in-game rewards for doing the work. Like with meditation, this daily mind clearing exercise makes me feel much more prepared to tackle the day, and often brings up new perspectives and ideas I hadn’t considered until I saw the words in front of me. It’s a space to work out story lines and jot down ideas before I forget them, or write down weird dreams that may be mined for inspiration later.
I read articles about fairy tales and mythology, archaeology, arts and theater, biology, space, work-life balance, the economy, writing. I’ll skim through anything that looks remotely interesting, and read and further investigate those topics that grab me. I’m usually reading several books at once, in the same range of topics, and a variety of fiction lines my shelves. All those topics and ideas bumping up against each other are bound to produce some novel perspectives, or a point worth pursuing. I reread favorite books, and I don’t ever make myself finish reading something if it’s boring me. That’s valuable time I could be reading something else!
Watch stuff, do stuff
I watch TV and movies and documentaries. I look for good and engaging stories, however they’re presented. I go see plays and hear music when I can. I play a lot of games. I try to say yes whenever my friends suggest doing something new. Living is required for making up stories about living.
Spend time with people
I am lucky to have friends and family in my life who are interested in a wide variety of things, who know way more than I ever will on their subjects, who are passionate about the things they’re doing, and excited to talk about it! We talk about the things that are not my thing, we talk about shared interests, we talk about writing. We play games, and go to trivia. Play is just as good for you, and just as important as going outside – consider laughing with your friends the mental equivalent of forest bathing and fresh air.
Accept that sometimes it doesn’t work
Sometimes I’m tired, sometimes crazy random stuff happens, sometimes I’m incredibly busy. Sometimes I’ve peopled too much and need to hide away. Those times are not really great for creative thinking. In the wise, wise words of my five-year-old niece, “sometimes I just need chocolate and a nap.” I’ve learned, and am learning, to accept that sometimes I don’t have anything to give and put on the page, and that’s okay. Because I keep doing the things I do to fill up that creative pool, and it comes back, and I get four or five ideas at once, or maybe just one that really needs a lot of work, but I’m still writing.
Some common writing advice says to make yourself write every day, no matter what – stay up late, get up early, and sit in front of your computer, even if you just sit there for two hours. It’s all about discipline, the line goes. I say go outside, take a walk, eat some chocolate and take a nap, stream your favorite reruns, read a poem, get lunch with your bestie. We all have so much going on in our lives, juggling relationships and day jobs and creative work. Be good to you, and come back to creating from a place of joy and fullness, not watching the clock until you can leave.