As a kid, summer was one long stretch of opportunity. More time to play—yay!—but even better, more chances to make stuff. Popsicle stick baskets at Girl Scout day camp, Plaster of Paris plaques at vacation Bible school, clay doodads and woven plastic lanyards at my school's summer recreation program. Plus an imaginative assortment of creations my neighborhood playmates and I dreamed up, like costumes for our backyard circuses and hula hoop shows.
Back then, none of us needed tips on how to boost our creativity. It just came naturally in those early years, before we felt the need to justify time spent on such pleasant pursuits. Before we learned to fear criticism and failure.
I still see summer as an ideal time to pursue creative projects, and I guess I'm not the only one. The cover of the latest issue of Writer's Digest, billed as "The Creativity Issue," hooks readers with such headlines as "Train to Be Creative on Demand: 7 Ways," "Turn Your Inner Critic Into Your Greatest Ally," and "3 Artist's Techniques Every Writer Should Try."
Inspired by the magazine—and those summer breezes wafting through my open windows—I went on my own quest for ways to kick start creativity. Here are seven suggestions that appealed to me. (Sources are at the end of this post.)
Be a hunter-gatherer
Collect ideas, images, random thoughts, quotations—anything that catches your attention—and stash them where you can peruse them at your leisure. That place might be a pocket notebook, a file folder (physical or virtual), a drawer filled with paper scraps, a box on your desk or a bulletin board in your studio. Resist the urge to organize your collection. Random associations that emerge from the jumble just might trigger original ideas.
Speaking of random associations, you don't have to wait for them to appear, you can prod the process. On a blank sheet of paper, write down whatever words come to mind. The words can represent ideas, categories, topics or objects, or they may just be interesting in their own right. Randomly draw arrows between pairs (or groups) of words. Use the results to inspire a poem, a story, a collage or a painting.
I know—you got in trouble for doing this in school, but now doodling is in vogue. Witness the recent book, The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently, which posits that doodling is no mindless waste of time; it's a focusing technique that helped Einstein, Edison, Henry Ford, Marie Curie and other brainiacs innovate and problem-solve. Last year I got hooked on Zentangle and found it relaxed and cleared my mind, making room for new ideas. And by the way, daydreaming is also allowed—it's a pathway to insights, a 2012 study suggests, because it helps us tap into memory, even in the face of distractions.
If you're a writer, try your hand at painting. If you're a musician, write a story. Push beyond your comfort zone, and you'll exercise new creative muscles. In the process, you're bound to encounter other creative types and benefit from cross-fertilization. (For more on crossover creativity, see this blog post from last summer.)
Establish a routine, then break it
A regular warm-up routine—say, sharpening pencils, doing a few stretches, reading something inspiring—can be a wake-up call to your muse. But be sure your routine fits your rhythms. Maybe you're at your creative best first thing in the morning; maybe you don't get fired up until after midnight. Find your personal golden hours and make the best of them. That said, don't be afraid to shake things up from time to time. While routine can get you in the zone, monotony can turn you into a drone.
For years, my morning routine has been some combination of meditation, yoga, reading over breakfast, then buckling down on whatever writing project I have in the works. But lately I've been altering the pattern—sometimes taking my camera out on the back porch for an hour or so before breakfast, sometimes doing my yoga just before lunch, sometimes writing in the evening. It's amazing how refreshing those small changes have been!
Decisions, decisions—every creative project seems to require a slew of them. Should I start my novel at the beginning of the heroine's ordeal or midway through? Should I add one more image to this collage or take one away? The urge to make a choice and move on is powerful, but sometimes it's best to sit with the uncertainty as long as you can. As one of my writing mentors advised, "Don't be afraid to get in there and make a mess." Eventually, clarity will come.
Your creations may not be all sunbeams and rainbows—how boring that would be! But whatever you're creating, I hope the process brings you satisfaction and a sense of joy. For me—and I'm guessing I'm not alone—joy is the juice that keeps the muse amused.
What are you creating this summer? What are your favorite ways of summoning your muse?
"A Few Short Rules on Being Creative," by Thierry Dufay, HuffPost, August 14, 2014.
"18 Habits of Highly Creative People," by Carolyn Gregoire, HuffPost, November 15, 2015.
"How to Be More Creative," A.J. Jacobs, Real Simple.
"9 Ways to Become More Creative in the Next 10 Minutes," by Larry Kim, Inc.com, August 11, 2014.
"7 UP: These 7 simple exercises will build core strength in your creative muscles," by Gabriela Pereria, Writer's Digest, September 2017.
"The Benefits of Daydreaming: A new study indicates that daydreamers are better at remembering information in the face of distraction," by Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian.com, April 3, 2012.
"30 Tips to Rejuvenate Your Creativity," by Joel Falconer, Lifehack.
All but the first two images on this page are free-use, stock images.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.