How do you foster inspired creativity? And how do you know when you’ve had a good creative day?
Is it when you have finished a wonderful painting, written 1000 words, or worked out the ending to your dance piece?
Or is it when you spent four hours in your studio, puttering around, seemingly accomplishing nothing?
“It’s always a mistake to equate productivity with creativity. They are not the same. In fact, they’re frequently at odds with each other: You’re often most creative when you’re the least productive.”–Austin Kleon, Keep Going
The Paradox of Creativity
There’s a paradox here. Which is good news, because it likely means we are close to a deep truth. One of my teachers says, “When paradox is here, Divine is near.”
The paradox is that both of the following are true:
1. Focusing on quantity over quality generally produces more and better art.
2. Productivity does not equal creativity. And vice versa.
Quantity Over Quality Produces More of Both
Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way advises artists to make a deal, as follows: “Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.”
It can be profoundly helpful to invite yourself to just make a bunch of art and stop judging it. Setting goals like making a small painting a day or writing 500 words a day for 30 days can be incredibly motivating and energizing.
Focusing on quantity rather than quality frees up your muse, your inner artist, to experiment, take risks, try new things, be bold, wild, silly, and most of all, not be self-conscious. It allows you to get out of your own way and discover your voice and subject matter, to loosen up enough to let your creativity flow.
But if you watch like a hawk to see if what you are making is any good while you are making it, you are likely to freeze up and be unable to create at all.
By focusing on creating more art rather than “good” art, you allow yourself to get unstuck and start making things. Pretty soon, some of that stuff will likely be good. And, it feels good to be making things!
Creativity is Mysterious
The other half of the paradox is: Productivity and creativity are not the same thing. Creating is not factory-line work. We cannot measure it by how much we make on any given day, or week or year.
Creativity is mysterious. (There’s the divine aspect again!) So much of it happens in the shadows, in the subconscious, while we are asleep or driving or working on something else. Much of it grows beneath the soil of our awareness.
And then it bursts into bloom. Thomas Edison was famous for napping in his office and coming up with his best ideas while doing so. It took James Joyce seven years to write his masterpiece Ulysses, and he began work on it eight years after he penned the initial idea for it.
Are There Any Bad Days in the Studio?
One of the great revelations of my own creative life happened one winter when a friend rented a small studio with an upright piano for me, so that I could write music. (I was incredibly poor at the time and could not afford such a thing myself.)
After work each day, I would go to the studio for two hours. There was a couch, a lamp and the upright piano in the room. Some days I was so tired from work, I would sit down on the couch and fall asleep. Some days I would sit at the piano and write music. Some days I would draw pictures of my inner gremlins (those nasty buggers who criticize and condemn me and are afraid to create) in my journal. Or I would play through what I had written so far, or just noodle around on the piano or stare out the window at the black night sky.
Initially, I thought the good days in the studio were the days when I wrote the most music, and I felt really guilty about wasting my friend’s money when I fell asleep on the couch or didn’t have much to show for myself.
But over time, I came to see that I could not be sure what constituted a good day or a bad day in the studio. Sometimes when I lay down and rested, I would wake up with an incredible idea. Other times, that idea was still germinating, and it would come out days later. Or I just needed rest, so that I could be creative on another day.
Pretty soon it became clear that a good day in the studio was any day in the studio, no matter what I did. Mind you, this was before the days of cell phones. I had no way to distract myself in this studio, since it also wasn’t connected to where I lived. All I had was my journal and the piano and my music implements and that couch.
Getting Into Your Studio Is Winning the Creative Battle
If you are in your studio or wherever you create (at a café, outdoors in nature, at your kitchen table, in your car while waiting to pick up your kid), if you are in your creative space and doing anything remotely related to your creativity—including napping, doodling, reading inspiring things, tidying up your space, looking at old art of yours, researching ideas, listening to inspiring music—you are having a good day in the studio. You are being creative.
The whole battle is getting in the studio, entering your creative space and time. Once you have done that, you have won.
Could you abuse this idea and endlessly avoid actually making art? Probably. Our inner resistance in wily and will use whatever means it can to avoid the scary, challenging endeavor that is art-making.
But it’s not likely that you will be able to avoid making art, if you do the following…
7 Steps to Inspired Creativity
- Make a space for creating and put your creative materials in it and whatever inspires you and/or invites you to creative play.
- Remove all unnecessary distractions from it, especially the phone and anything that alerts you with notifications/intrusions.
- Go into that space regularly with the intention of having creative time, what I call “studio time.”
- Have a small, or large, creative project or goal. This can be anything. You just need some focus, something to funnel your creativity into.
- Stay there for an allotted period of time that works for you— half an hour, an hour, two hours, four hours, regardless of what happens during that time.
- Abstain from judging how you use the time and what you do or do not create. Trust the process. Trust yourself.
- Keep showing up.
Keep an Open Mind and Heart
Let yourself spend your studio time leafing through art books or comic books or birding books or whatever inspires you, or playing with materials that are not part of your “main” art form—for instance, making little figurines out of Playdoh (remember, art is play!)—or writing in your journal, or whatever happens.
Let yourself also wade into making art in whatever your desired art form is. Make inroads on your goal or project with an experimental, non-judgmental mindset. Let’s just see what happens.
Do these things and you will find yourself not only making art, but enjoying it and feeling inspired!
Be curious and open. Explore and enjoy!