Tag Archives: Creative seasons

Creative Recuperation

Statue by Anthony Gormley on the top of Blackwells Art and Poster shop, Broad Street, Oxford.

Statue by Anthony Gormley on the top of Blackwells Art and Poster shop, Broad Street, Oxford.

We just got back from a demanding time in Oxford, and after the difficult fortnight we have had, I find myself feeling emotionally as well as physically exhausted.  So when I found this post from Jamie Ridler this morning, I realised I had to make a concerted effort to have some healing time.

One of the hardest things to accept about our creativity is that it often comes and goes.  There are times of bounty, when the Muse is flowing and there are so many ideas coming into your head and out of your pen that you feel like you could get hysterical just trying to keep pace.

And there are the droughts.  The times when nothing new has come for months, and you feel like you may never paint or write or dance again.

One of the things that my ME/CFS has taught me, and continues to teach me, is to go with that flow.  There are times of the year when our bodies need downtime, and times when our tails are up and we are full of energy.  Any woman knows this from her menstrual cycle.

The trouble is that we live in a 24/7 culture that requires us to be ‘on’ seven days a week, twelve months a year, and our biology just hasn’t evolved sufficiently to keep up with that. (We’ve only had the lightbulb for a hundred years or so, remember?)  We simply can’t be  in action continually.  We aren’t machines.  We have to stop and rest.

Resisting that PUSHPUSHPUSH productivity mindset is a constant practise, but if you are intent on living a truly creative life, you need to take account of not only your own biorhythms, but also your creative rhythms.

It is time to be gentle with ourselves.

Because if we don’t make time to be gentle with ourselves, our bodies will remind us that we must in no uncertain terms – often with the red traffic light of major illness.

So this week, I am resolved not to make any particular demands on myself. I will be journalling, and watching some old films, eating nurturing food, and taking lots of naps.  Maybe I’ll even paint my toenails, which always cheers me up!  I am going to take it one day at a time and listen to what my body needs.  By doing that, I know my mojo will come back eventually.   I just need to give it some space.

Happy creating – or resting, whichever you need to do right now,

EF

 

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Take a Break

It probably sounds like a ridiculous thing to say on a blog about writing and creativity. You probably came here wanting to read about how to kick-start your novel or fanfic, not to be told to

HAVE A BREAK

Sometimes, though, it is just what you need.

Let me be clear here. I am not talking about those Creative Seasons we all have, ‘a time to write and a time not to write’, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes. I am talking about when you are in the midst of a huge creative streak, you are going at it hammer-and-tongs, lost in your story world, your painting series, or the new symphony you are composing.

These are dangerous times. These are the times when it is very easy to burn out.

Sometimes it is healthy for your Muse and you to have a break from one another. Just twenty-four hours or so. Nothing big. We aren’t talking rupture here. Just time to stand back. Take Stock. Take a breath.

Because we all need to take a breath.

(And if you have ever realised that you are so absorbed in a painting or a story that you have been holding your breath, you’ll know what I mean.)

The risk of burning out is a good reason for doing this. You might call it a ‘creativity detox fast’ or something like that. A short spell of time when you can recharge your batteries and see your work from a different perspective. Take a rest. Make sure you look after yourself. Breath. Eat. Move. See your friends. Remember you have a life.

Yes, you have a life outside your creative endeavour. You remember that?   The place where the emails have to be written, the laundry done, the cooking, the dusting, mowing the lawn. Remember that place? The one where you have to wash and brush your teeth, and sleep?

It is easy to forget real life when you are caught up in your creative surges. There lies the path to madness. Or at the very least, gingivitis.

This happened to me on Sunday (not gingivitis, I hasten to add!).

I had been writing pretty much non-stop for over a week. I had thought of nothing else. And then on Sunday morning, I woke up sick of myself. Sick of my own thoughts. Sick of the pile of dirty clothes I had to step over to get to my laptop. Sick of existing on gluten free fish fingers from the freezer (Tesco do reasonably good ones, if you are interested…)

There comes a time in every writer’s life when she has to tear herself away from her Word document and do the necessary.

I did the washing and the ironing, and went to the supermarket for fresh veggies. I did all those horrid, niggly jobs that had been floating about in the back of my skull all week, the things I had been putting off because I didn’t want to do them, and this time I had an excellent excuse (I was writing!!!!). I didn’t power up my laptop till late in the day, and even then, I kept my activity very limited. I didn’t think about my story world, forced myself to not think about it, policed not thinking about it very sternly. (Of course, the fact that I was sick of thinking about it helped.) I watched the film version of Oscar Wilde’s ‘An Ideal Husband’, which was delicious, and read a lovely book.

And for the first time in days, I felt relaxed.

Today, I have resumed writing again, relieved by the knowledge that the bailiffs won’t turn up at the door, as I have now put the cheque for the heating oil in the post. And I feel so refreshed. My writing is better for it too, I think.

Riding your wild donkey to finish your novel is all very well and good, but not if it comes at the expense of your health or your comfort. So be mindful when you are on a creative binge. Yes, ride the wave and enjoy it, but be aware that sometimes you can ride it even longer if you just stop to enjoy the scenery along the way, and do a little housekeeping while you are at it.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Journal Friday: Reflecting on Creative Blocks

paintbox

So, if you read my last post, you will know that I am increasingly drawn towards drawing and painting at the moment.  This is my current creative season and I want to honour it.  So today, no doubt, you will be expecting me to deluge you with jpegs of the beautiful pictures I have been creating.

Yeah, Right.

Nigel has been hard at work again.  I have produced the sum total of zero drawings in the last two days.  Yesterday I couldn’t even bring myself to go into the study to get out my sketchbook and paints.  The blank page suddenly seems terrifying.  I can’t even doodle.  How the hell have I lost the ability to doodle, for Gods’ sakes?

Bit not good.

This, my friends, is where the journal really comes into play.  I sat down with my trusty moleskine and pen, and thought about my childhood memories of drawing.

I used to draw all the time.  It was what I was known for, amongst family and friends.  I was never without a piece of paper and a pencil.  I made little books and illustrated them.  I wrote stories and illustrated them.  I wrote stories about my favourite TV programmes, like ‘Blakes 7’ (remember that one?  I had a terrible crush on Paul Darrow) and drew the characters all the time.  (If only I had known about fanfiction and fanart then!)  I was obsessed at one point with the Tudor monarchs, and copied their opulent portraits and clothes with fibre tipped colouring pens.  Then I got into the Ancient Egyptians, and copied their sideways style of representation.  I even copied the drawings of E.H Shepherd in the beautiful edition of Kenneth Graham’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’, which my father gave me – it was his favourite book.  And I painstakingly illustrated all my school work (except the Maths, of course, because that was too serious, which was probably why I was never any good at it.)  In other words, I spent hours absorbed in transferring images from my head onto the page.

What happened?  Senior school art classes.  Hours of drawing still lives of pots and pans. Teachers who made us draw boring subjects, and never gave us any information about technique.  I’ve learn everything I have ever learnt about art and how to use paint from copying, which my art teachers said was the worst possible sin.

(But I am getting ahead of myself, I’m supposed to be thinking about my childhood drawing.)

As a kid, art was my obsession, but it requires materials, and they were in short supply.  For paper, my dad bought home gash computer paper from work, the perforated kind that comes in a concertina, with holes along the edges, and with about the same handling quality as IZAL toilet paper.  I was occasionally bought coloured felt-tipped pens but in the 1970s they were rubbish, and the black ones were invariably dried out before they were even used.  At least 25% of the pens in the pack didn’t work within about two days of having them, and you had to conserve those that did with fiendish vigilance.  There were occasional gifts of watercolour pan boxes, but they were very low pigment, and anyway, painting in your bedroom is frowned upon by most mothers because it is messy.  And there wasn’t anywhere else to paint.  What I am trying to say is that I grew up yearning for those huge bottles of poster colour paint that stood on the trolley in school.  The thought of being able to just splash paint about willy-nilly was ridiculous.  My parents wanted to encourage my artistic side, but they didn’t have the disposable income or the mindset to invest in good raw materials for it.

The result is that the scarcity of my childhood has bloomed into a scarcity paranoia in adulthood.  As soon as I was earning, I went out and bought decent art materials, but then I couldn’t make myself use them.  I have drawers and boxes full of sketchbooks, pastels, inks and paint tubes that have never been opened because I still have the mindset that they have to be conserved.  I can’t waste a thing.  To the point where I can’t use a thing.

None of this would I know and understand, were it not for exploring it in my journal.  And in my journal have come the little glimmers of a solution, a plan to tackle my stuckness with baby steps so minute that I can fool Nigel into thinking I’m not even putting pen to paper at all!  Slowly and gently, I will con myself into the belief that making a tiny drawing is safe.  And then I will con myself into making a bigger one.  Until one day I will fulfil my dream of illustrating my own novels, and making huge abstract expressionist canvases like Rothko and Pollock.  But not yet.  To begin with, I will throw out everything I learnt in art class, scrunch up my eyes and begin again, as a child.  It will be hard, but I can do it.  I did it with the writing, after all…

Journal Exercise:

Are you also struggling with a creative block?  Is there something you used to do, and would like to do again, but are afraid to?  Perhaps you are just stuck and you can’t get out of your own way.  You probably don’t even know why.

Get out your journal and take a few deep breaths.  Close your eyes and let yourself fall backwards through time. Feel yourself become a child, doing that thing you loved do and don’t do anymore, whatever it is.  Immerse yourself in that memory.  How did it feel?  What was so satisfying, enticing, transcendently joyful or just effortless about it?  How did splashing paint on paper, sewing a doll’s dress or dancing to the radio help you express yourself?  Connect with the fun, the pleasure, the satisfaction.

Now write about it.  Take time to write out all you can remember about doing that creative activity, and take the memory from as early an age as possible.

Now take another deep breath and continue to write, this time about when you stopped pursuing that activity.  What happened?  What age where you?  Was there criticism from parents or responsible adults?  Or was it competition with other children who you regarded as being better at the skill than you?  Perhaps you reached puberty and decided that form of creativity was childish and no longer for you?  Or you felt you couldn’t go any further with it because you couldn’t make a living at it?  Whatever the reason, explore your memories of it.  Be as thorough as you can.

Give yourself some time to sit with these memories, to contemplate them.  Decide what aspects are still stopping you.  Are you, like me, fearful that your work won’t be ‘GOOD ENOUGH’ (thanks, Nigel), or still carrying that fear that there isn’t paper to waste?  Will doing this activity make you vulnerable in some way?  (If so, you don’t have to show it to anybody, just keep it for yourself.)

(If some major trauma is involved, it is wise to seek professional help.  A therapist is invaluable, and those who specialise in expressive arts or Gestalt might be just what you need.  Don’t suffer flashbacks alone as a result of this exercise.  Self care should always be the first rule of creative expression.)

Think about ways to ease yourself through these issues.  Maybe taking a beginners or taster course, where everyone will be fumbling about at the same starter level, could encourage you that what you make doesn’t have to be perfect.  Perhaps an online course that you can follow in private, and at your own pace (Alisa Burke has some brilliant art and sewing courses.)  Or you could buy some kids art materials and use them with your own kids (or borrow someone else’s for an afternoon).  Watch how kids are completely free of judgement when they make art.  They are just having fun.  You can, too.  (Actually, I think I may have to borrow some children and do this myself!)

Trust that what comes up in writing your journal is from deep within, an inner wisdom that will guide you back to your creative centre.  Above all, be gentle with yourself as your formulate your action plan, and give yourself as much time as you need.  You don’t have to become Picasso or Nijinsky overnight.

Happy Creating,

EF

Outflow: My Creativity Right Now

Picasso ceramicsWe are having a heatwave here in the UK, and I’m not very good in hot weather.  The result is that my brain has gone on strike, as has much of my body.  Which makes me think about ‘creative seasons’ and the Habit of Art.

My ongoing health problems taught me long ago to have peace with the days when I can’t do anything beyond lie on the sofa and practise my groaning. ( I’m getting quite good at groaning, I have to say.)  Chronic Illness is, however, a bit of an extreme way of forcing oneself to recognise one’s creative cycles, and not one I would recommend.

There are lots of creativity gurus who are adamant that turning up at the page, or the canvas, and making yourself do the work is the only way forward, and for the most part, I would agree.  But what do you do on the days, like today, when it just ain’t gonna happen?

Take note, that’s what.

I find my creativity goes in bursts, as I have mentioned before, and in recent years I have noticed that my writing seagues slowly into art in the summer months.  Writing is a great thing to be doing when the weather is cold and wet, and all you want to do is curl up in the warm.  In the summer, though, the urge to get out there into the landscape and experience the world is almost irresistible, as anyone who has ever worked through the summer in an office will agree.  Right now I am experiencing the difficult-to-ignore urge to paint rather than write.

And I am OK with that.

Yes, I am feeling a bit frustrated that I can’t settle to the writing projects I want to progress, but I can’t force it, or I will get resentful, and probably produce pages of complete drivel that I’ll hate later.  The urge to be creative is still with me, though.  It is just taking a different, more exterior form.  I want to draw, paint, decorate pottery, make cushion covers, garden, and bake cupcakes.  So that’s what I’m going to do – at least as soon as the weather cools down and my brain starts functioning again!

There is a tension between turning up to create and the creative seasons themselves, and the skill of a true creative is to be able to accept the difference between a) the resistance to sitting at the desk and working, which is procrastination and stopping oneself being all one can be, and b) the natural flow of creativity as it morphs from one season to the next.  There is much to be said for making yourself sit down to create every day, but using it as a stick to beat yourself with is not helpful.  We need to be aware of when our creativity transforms, and to trust it enough to go with the flow.  This doesn’t mean I am abandoning my writing for good, simply that I know that right now, that isn’t where my best work will come.

The image in my head to illustrate this is when Picasso discovered the provencale village of Vallauris and threw himself into the art of ceramics.  I have no doubt there were those who worried that his canvas days were over, but that was far from the truth.  Instead, he trusted his creative urges enough to know that ceramics was a road he had to walk at that point in his life.

So I am trying to emulate Picasso, and to be at peace with where my creative road is taking me.  It’s not easy, and Nigel has a lot to say about not having the gumption to get on with the novel, but frankly, STUFF NIGEL!  Lets get out in the sun, eat ice cream, and do creativity the way we need to right now!

Happy sun-bathing and creating,

EF

Why you need to Moodle

Today, I have been moodling.

Mooching.  Pottering.  Puttering.  Loafing.  Fiddling.  Wandering.  Pootling.

It looks like I am doing nothing very important from the outside, or at least nothing creatively productive.  But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Brenda Ueland, in her superb book ‘If you want to write’ (hardly bettered since it was published in 1938), calls creative revelations ‘little bombs’.

“You may find that the little bombs quietly burst in you when you are doing other things – sewing, or carpentering, or whittling, or playing golf, or dreamily washing dishes.” (p45)

“…So you see, the imagination needs moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.  Therse people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas…but they have no slow, big ideas.  And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.” (p32)

Ueland knew that we need to time to contemplate, to think and reflect, to be alone with ourselves, but also time to just let things percolate, soak in and mingle.  We may not look like we are working on our novel when we are washing up.  We may not even be thinking about it consciously.  But there it is, fizzing away behind our eyes, collecting connections, accumulating mass like a growing snowball tumbling down a mountain.

We are incubating miracles.

We need to moodle to charge our brains, to collect impressions, to drink from the well.  However, there is another reason to moodle.  What happens when the well is dry?

This comes back to self care, which I wrote about in an earlier post.  There are always going to be times of creative drought in our lives.  There will be times when life gets in the way, or when we are so busy dealing with our personal stuff that there is no energy left over to flow out into creation.

It is crucial to know that that is alright.  It happens.  It will pass.

And when these droughts occur, and to prevent them if you can, you need to moodle.  Have a nap.  Potter about.  Paint your toenails.  Fix that squeaky gate.  Go window shopping.  Give yourself a break, literally and metaphorically.  Resting will fill the well up again.

This is why I don’t really believe in writers block.  I think that either you are exhausted, or you are stopping yourself from creating out of fear.  If the latter is the case, you need to explore those fears, and work on them in your journal.  If the former, you need to let go of guilt, accept the creative season you are in, and lie around wiggling your toes until your brain is sufficiently rested, and finally ready to come up with a new ‘Aha!’ moment.

I urge you to read Ueland’s peerless book, whether you are a writer or not.  It is full of incredibly sensible advice for anyone who means to create.

I also urge you to take some moodling time this week.  Book it in your diary.  Tell the family to leave you alone in the bath tonight.  Go and lie in the park in the sun.  Not every expedition has to be an Artist Date.  Sometimes, its good just to refill the well.

Happy Moodling,

EF

On Process: Your Creative Clock

Ickworth Garden Temple - take a moment to reflect

Ickworth Garden Temple – take a moment to reflect

I don’t think I have ever read a book about how to write (and I’ve read a lot of books about how to write) that didn’t stipulate that writing first thing in the morning, as soon as you get up, is the best thing to do.

Excuse my “French”, but bollocks to that.

I am not a morning person.  Not in any way, shape or form.  I never have been, and I never will be.  In addition to this apparently genetic disadvantage (my mother is terrible in the mornings too), I suffer from a chronic illness which means I need about four hours to get going for the day.  My brain doesn’t normally come online in any meaningful way until about 11am.  And if I try to get going any earlier, I am totalled for days afterwards.

Writing first thing in the morning is never going to happen for me.  Its a biological impossibility.

Ask me about 9.30pm, though.  Yep, by then I am motoring!  I have suffered from insomnia since childhood, when I lay in bed making up stories in the dark to amuse myself while everyone else slept.  I think this is when I became a writer.  I am at my most creative in the hours of darkness, when my mind flies along, pumping out ideas and exciting images like Spielberg on speed.  I even dream in glorious technicolour.

And yes, I write during the day too, but mostly not before about 4pm.  I often have a big pulse of creativity between 4pm and 6pm that is great for finishing stories, and for writing blog posts, which is exactly what I am doing now – its 5.45pm and my brain is firing on all cylinders.

Ask me to invent something at 10am, though, and you are wasting both our times.  Ask me after 10pm and you probably couldn’t stop me with a sledge hammer!

We all have an internal body clock.  Some of us are naturally larks, and some owls.  If you are honest with yourself, you know which you are, when you function best.  You might be brilliant at doing advanced maths in the morning, or you might be better checking your email or dusting the objet d’art.

This doesn’t just apply to the hours of the day, but to your annual clock too.  I find I have a bit of a manic period in March, when the sap starts to rise and I can’t sleep at all because my brain is whirring so frantically with new ideas.  I actually get breathless!  By the time April comes in, I am mentally drained, and can barely come up with an idea for something for tea until July.  July is often my time for last bursts of activity on a project that needs finishing, the final sprint.  But during the summer months, I can safely say there are better things to do than sit inside with a laptop.

Once September comes in, I start to go into my creative cave, a kind of incubation period where I sit with ideas, mull them over, do my planning.  Then during the depths of winter I engage in my deepest writing, my most productive spells, when I can turn out 2-3000 words a day at times.  I find I draw best in the first half of the year, which to me is an exterior time, a period of surging energy.  The second half of the year is for going inside, for living with the images and tales in my head.

I’ve discovered this pattern over the years, observing myself and my creativity and making notes about how I am working in my writing notebooks.  Self reflection is something that helps your creative process and there should always be space in your writing notebooks, sketchbooks and journals for considering how you work best, and what you do when.  These things are important to know, because that way you can optimise your output.   I know, for instance, that there is no need for me to beat myself up in June when I realise I’m not writing.  That’s ok.  Its not the time to do it.  June is when I am out in the world, filling my well.  I know the time will come, and that the downtime in the summer is an important resting and refuelling stop.  Knowing when not to beat yourself up for not being creative is incredibly important for your self confidence and longevity as an artist, and for your mental health.

Writing Exercise:

Take out your notebook, journal or sketchbook – whatever is your creative workbench – and spend some time reflecting on when you have produced your best work, both in terms of the time of day, and of the year.  Do particular seasons have creative resonances for you?  Are the liminal times of dawn or twilight the moments when you come up with your best ideas?  Do you write or paint great stuff in the summer months, or when you are on holiday?  Are you stupified by the cold grey winter skies, or do they encourage you to look within for brighter pictures?

Make sure you take time periodically to reflect on this subject, as it will help you build up a clearer picture of your creative clock.  I like to do it at the beginning of each month, like a review, or quarterly, at the changing of the seasons.  The more you know yourself as a creative person in this way, the more easily you will be able to use your energy for your best work, and to avoid frustration and blocks.

Happy creating!

EF