Creativity is not a light switch. Unfortunately, you can’t just turn it on when you need it and then flip it back off when you’re done. Sometimes it feels more like a weather system that blows into town without much explanation. Then, just as mysteriously, it heads back out to sea. So the question for me is, what can I do to foster more of these visits? What actions can be taken to encourage creativity to make more house calls?
With a new year starting to unfold, now is probably a good time to revisit some of the habits that help stimulate our imagination.
As straightforward as it sounds, in my experience, simply showing up every day to do a little work is the single most effective way to keep your creativity percolating. What you do during that time will, of course, vary according to your own practice, but I think it’s critical to take small daily steps in the direction of your larger goals. Simply reminding the muses that we’re available is always a good first step. It’s like being a gardener, to borrow a phrase from Spanish painter Joan Miró. You plant the seeds. You till the ground. You reap the harvest.
Bear in mind that you don’t need to spend hours at a time at your desk to feel like you’re making progress. Even as little as 10 or 20 minutes a day can feel significant if you, in fact, make that time count. You might consider working first thing in the morning before the obligations of the day begin to creep in. Also try to avoid looking at email or your phone before you begin as well as while you work. In my own experience, I’ve felt a deeper connection to my unconscious in those first few foggy minutes after waking, prior to the world demanding my attention.
Another way to stay focused is to use the Pomodoro Technique, named for the tomato shape of the kitchen timer. The idea is simple. You work for up to 25 minutes — an achievable amount of time to concentrate — and when you’re done, that’s it. You walk away. You keep the distractions at bay by limiting your exposure to the defeating sounds of the lizard brain, those interior voices that want you to give up.
Sometimes we can become so obsessed with those thoughts — like constantly comparing ourselves to others — when all that effort could, in fact, be used to make stuff. I know that’s been true for me. In his book “Keep Going,” Austin Kleon reminds us to ignore the noun and just do the verb. Don’t worry about “being a photographer.” Just make pictures. Make them every day. We are what we do. And “pros,” says photographer Chase Jarvis, “go to work whether they’re inspired or not.”
An additional benefit of maintaining a daily habit is that the stakes remain considerably lower than if you work only once a week. This way, there’s no pressure to be perfect every time you open Premiere Pro or head out with your camera bag. It’s just another day at the office. Some will be inspiring, and some won’t, but the consistency will bring you closer to completing your goals.
Finally, another habit I’ve found effective is to make yourself accountable. For me, this means telling people my plans. So here goes: In 2020, I’m going to finish the play I’ve been working on for the past two years and then produce a staged reading. Having announced it to the world, I now feel an obligation to follow through. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to backtrack and explain. Note that when revealing your plans to others, it’s not always necessary to be specific about the actual content of your work. Often it’s better to let that brew in private, especially if you’re still in the middle of making it.
“In the end, we’re just practicing,” I wrote on the MediaStorm blog back in 2014. “When we press the shutter or splice the edit, we’re just practicing, waiting for those rare moments when we collide with the world in some beautiful and unexpected way. Until then, we practice and we prepare. Because today just might be that day.”
And I hope it is. For both of us. ■
Eric Maierson is a freelance writer and two-time Emmy-winning video editor and producer. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Ellen, and their two dogs, both rascals.
Illustrations by Julie M. Elman, a professor at the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University, where she teaches design.