I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been struggling with creativity over the past year. Sometimes it feels like my mind is a great cavernous void, and every single creative thought I pluck from it a rare gem. I sit upon these gems like a dragon guarding her hoard, afraid to relinquish any of them for fear I’ll run out.
I’m not a creative person. I’m not saying that to put myself down, but because it’s been true for as long as I can remember; I’ve never had the rich imagination that my writer friends possess. One of my deepest, oldest fears has always been that I simply don’t have the creative ability to write a novel.
But creativity, like any other skill, is a combination of talent and effort. Perhaps I lack the innate talent, but that doesn’t mean I can’t practice and improve my creative abilities. And I’ve learnt over the years the things that help and hinder my ability to create. And even the most talented still struggle at times; at some point talent alone isn’t enough without work.
Whether you consider yourself a creative person or not, it’s been a difficult year for creativity for a lot of people. I’m sharing these suggestions as much for myself as for anyone else, because these are the things that I know help me to be more creative.
I’m going to talk about this mostly from the perspective of writing, particularly my fiction writing, as that’s something I’ve been really focussing on and very much struggling with over the last year, but creativity isn’t bound into neat boxes and I think much of it applies across different formats.
I’ve been really struggling with reading over the last year. Half the time I can’t focus well enough to pay attention to what’s going on, and the other half of the time I’m comparing whatever I’m reading to the book I’m writing and finding my own work coming up short. I read far, far less in 2020 than in any year since, I think, the year after I graduated from uni. I studied English Lit and after four years of set texts I went through a period where I didn’t read much at all.
Most of what I did read was re-reading old favourites. I can name a single series that was new to me in 2020 and engaging enough that I kept thinking about it when I wasn’t reading and ploughed through it in a couple of days.
That’s very rare for me. Normally if I’m enjoying a book, I can’t stop thinking about it. I daydream about it while I’m doing chores and race to pick it up after work.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the most important source of inspiration for me as a writer isn’t one I’ve availed myself of much over the last year.
But the reading slump is a positive feedback loop. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets. First, I fall out of the habit of carrying my e-reader about the house with me. It stays by my bed, picked up for a few pages before falling asleep and set down again ten minutes later. Then I start putting off all the books I want to read the most, afraid that I won’t enjoy them. I have books from two of my favourite authors on my e-reader that came out in September and October that I haven’t even tried to read yet, because I’m so scared the Great Slump of Doom will ruin them for me.
When I do read, I can’t focus. I have to keep dragging my mind back to the page and it becomes an effort of will rather than an escape. So I stop reading as much, choosing Netflix instead of books to wind down in the evening.
Sometimes, though, the only way out is to push on through, which is exactly what I’m going to start doing. I have a terrible habit of setting lofty goals and failing to stick to them, so I’m just going to start with this: 10 minutes of reading per day, at some point before I go to bed. The second part of this is important, because nothing sucks the soul from a story faster than only reading 10 minutes a night while half asleep after I’ve gone to bed. I’ve always read in bed before falling asleep and I don’t see that changing, but it’s something that has to come in addition to reading during the rest of the day. I’m also hoping that if I tell myself it’s just 10 minutes, then after 10 minutes I’ll be past the hump of starting, and find myself reading for longer.
Alongside this, reading is not the only source of inspiration for writing, particularly reading fiction (which is always what I’m thinking of when I talk about “reading” as an activity). It’s important, too, to find inspiration from other media. Which is why my advice to anyone else struggling is to not only immerse yourself in examples of your own creative medium, but to expose yourself to others, as well: photography, music, art, even non-fiction books and programmes can help spark those creative connections. The book I’m working on is fantasy, and Ruth Goodman’s books and the Historical Farm TV series have been invaluable for me in terms of the everyday details of the world building, while Peter Gundry’s music is always good for putting me in the right mindset.
If you, too, are struggling with creativity, seek out inspiration in a wide variety of formats. I often find that immersing myself in works that are more removed from what I’m writing helps with, I suppose a sort of subconscious creativity, as I’m not consciously comparing to my own work and instead I’m simply enjoying it. Sometimes that means reading non-fantasy fiction, but it can also be browsing historically-inspired photography on Instagram or listening to fantasy-inspired music.
Try something new
I think with the year we’ve had, it can feel like inspiration is hard to come by. Personally, one thing I’ve really missed has been going places, particularly castles and other old places. I’ve struggled with photography over the last year because I haven’t been anywhere exciting to photograph, and because I write fantasy that’s inspired by history, I’ve always found visiting places like castles and palaces and soaking in the history to be tremendously inspiring.
But we can use these constraints to our advantage, too. I may not be able to walk across the courtyard of Stirling Castle or stand on the esplanade at Edinburgh Castle, but I can visit any time or place I like through books, documentaries, and podcasts.
Likewise, while I can’t photograph the stunning landscapes and beautiful architecture that drew me to photography, I’ve had more of an opportunity to practice other photography. I’m off work next week and I’m planning to take some photos of the clothes I’ve made over the last couple of months. I have had certain shots pictured in my mind for months now and I think it’ll be a lot of fun in an entirely different way from photographing an old castle.
This brings me to the other way that trying something new can help. A year ago, I had never picked up a sewing needle for anything more ambitious than re-attaching a button. Now in 2021, I am devoted to making instead of buying any new clothing. I’m still very much a novice sewist, and it’s such an incredible experience. I am allowing myself to make mistakes, knowing that things won’t be perfect and instead committing to learning and growing.
Of course, you could argue I’m a novice writer and photographer as well. I’ve never published anything, and one look at my Instagram feed is enough to tell you my photography is far from skilled. But these have both been passions of mine for so long that I place much more pressure on myself to do them well. I’m okay with mistakes in my sewing because I’m just proud of myself for making these things myself, whereas I’ve been slowly drawing away from Instagram over the last couple of years because I’ve always been disappointed in my pictures.
And that’s where trying a new hobby can be so helpful to creativity. Because there’s no pressure to do it perfectly, I am free to experiment and to simply enjoy the process. I think sewing also helps because it’s physical rather than mental, allowing my mind to wander and daydream. And unlike housework, it’s something I enjoy and get excited about doing, so I can spend several hours at a time sewing, listening to music, and daydreaming about my novel.
Let your mind wander
I started knitting when I was in high school. I have vivid memories of sitting cross-legged with a book on the floor of my childhood bedroom, my toes curled round the bottom of the page, knitting and reading at the same time. Every time I turned the page I had to stop and start my knitting, losing my rhythm every time I started to build it.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t read while knitting very often. More often, I did one or the other at a time, letting my mind wander while I knitted and purled my way through a project.
When I picked up knitting again last year, it became an activity I did in front of the television. When I’ve been struggling to concentrate, as I often have this past year, I can find myself unable to focus on a book, but when I sit down to watch telly I keep picking up my phone. Knitting gives me something to do with my hands so that I actually pay more attention to what I’m watching.
I don’t think this is a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s become the case that any time I’m knitting, I’m watching telly. I never simply pick my knitting up and let my mind wander anymore.
This applies to so many other things, too, that just in the last 10-15 years have become activities during which I require mental stimulation. I never eat at my table unless I’m sharing a meal with my husband; otherwise I take my plate to my desk or sit on the sofa in front of the telly. When I’m waiting for my eggs to boil or pasta to cook I pick up my phone and scroll through the news.
I think we often think of letting your mind wander as a bad thing. After all, I spent a good chunk of this post whingeing about how difficult it is for me to concentrate on reading anymore. But allowing your mind to wander is crucial to creativity, and in fact the inability to do so is something that harms our focus. We’ve lost the art of being bored, because there’s always a phone or computer or telly to offer stimulation. And I think boredom is crucial to creativity. It allows us to focus for longer periods of time, but it also gives us space to mull over half-formed creative thoughts.
In recognition of this, I’m going to think twice before turning on the telly or a podcast or audiobook when I’m knitting or sewing. I don’t intend to never do these things, but I don’t want to go to pick up my knitting and then feel like I have to find an audiobook to listen to or a TV show to watch so I don’t get bored.
I’m also going to make more of an effort to eat my meals at my table. I honestly hate eating at my desk or on the sofa. I find it awkward trying to reach the keyboard or mouse to scroll with a plate in the way, and there’s always the danger of spilling all over my lap when I eat on the sofa. I just do it because I feel compelled to seek some sort of mental stimulation while I eat, and that’s not doing my creativity any favours.
Set attainable goals
The final thing that I find helps with creativity is to set attainable goals. The attainable part is very important, in my experience, because often what’s difficult for me is just starting, and if it feels impossible then I won’t even start. I have so, so many blog posts half-drafted on my computer, or even just narrated in my head, that I have never sat down and actually written. Often what happens is I start drafting a post, then when I come back to it later I see all the flaws and don’t want to share it. I probably have more posts that are 90% finished but have never been posted than the number I have actually shared here.
Which is why I’m setting a goal of posting here three times per month. I’ve settled on three posts a month because I’ve found that setting a specific schedule doesn’t work for me; I put off posting when I want to and then let that nearly-finished post lie fallow, because by the time it’s time for another post I’ve picked it apart to pieces. If I’d gone with four times a month it would be too easy to settle into a weekly schedule, but with thrice a month I’ll be more likely to post when I want to. It’s frequent enough that it will force me to actually sit down and record the thoughts swirling round my mind, but infrequent enough that I won’t be putting out subpar writing in a rush to complete it.
Some final thoughts
I hope some of what I’ve shared here is helpful for anyone else who’s been struggling to be creative lately. I’ve given specific examples of what I’m doing partly for accountability (particularly the thrice monthly posting – you’ll know if I don’t!) and partly in the hopes that it will give you some ideas for things to try yourself.
It’s easy to think of creativity as some kind of innate talent that some people have and others don’t. And to an extent it is, just like everything else. But I also remember how in Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how we’re all creative, and I try to hold onto that when I feel like I have all the imagination of a slab of granite.