[This is part of a 2-part series on Tending Your Creative Fire and how to get yourself started creating each day. If you missed part 1, you can find it here.]
As artists, we all know the horror of the blank page (or blank canvas or the equivalent in whatever medium you work in), that gaping void waiting to be filled with brilliance, if only you knew how to begin.
So how do you begin?
Have a Familiar Entry Point
Having a regular way that you start your creative time can be a tremendous support to overcoming the blank page/blank canvas syndrome, and it will decrease your resistance to getting started.
For instance, if you are working on a novel, you might begin your creative time each day by rereading what you wrote the day before. And then, have decided in advance what scene you will be working on that day.
As a dancer, you might have a particular warm-up you always do. When I dance, I begin by lying on the floor for quite a while, stretching and rolling around. I need to make strong contact with the earth, the base for all my dancing, before I move into the upper levels and become more active. Knowing this is where I begin, I enter the studio and lie down and begin. I don’t have to wonder where to start.
As a poet, I usually begin by reading several poems by other poets. This helps me shift into a musical and alive use of language and sparks my imagination for what’s possible in a poem.
Then, I usually follow that with a writing prompt (a word, phrase or topic to write about) and do a 10-20 minute freewrite, using that prompt, to get the words flowing. (If you do not know what freewriting is, I highly recommend you read Natalie Goldberg’s now-classic Writing Down the Bones, and familiarize yourself with this extraordinary tool for writers.)
These two short activities—reading a few poems and doing a freewrite—help me to prime the creative pump. I don’t always begin in this way, depending on what I’m working on, but I always have this simple practice to fall back on, and it’s how I most often begin.
Use Creative Games and Playful Activities
I have various creative games and exercises to bring me into a more inspired state in an inviting, open way that often yields profound work.
Playful and inviting are touchstone qualities for entering into creative work.
Creativity is play, at its heart. Unfortunately, as artists, we often forget this, to our detriment. We turn our creative play into hard work.
We approach it as work, partly because that helps validate the activity in our minds and the minds of others. American culture, grounded in the Puritan work ethic, and many of our contemporary first world cultures, tend to revere work and think of play as frivolous. But approaching our creative activity as hard work is a sure-fire way to make it less appealing in the long run, and hence generate more resistance to doing it. And I believe, it is ultimately not true to the creative spirit.
Small challenges and assignments are also incredibly helpful. As are larger projects you can work on over time. Limitations or boundaries actually set our creative imaginations free.
As a painter you might decide to begin each painting session for a month by making a quick 4” x 4” painting in 20 minutes. Or you might allow yourself only certain colors. Or you might always begin with a still life sketch. If you get bored with your assignments after a while, change them up.
The dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp in her wonderful book The Creative Habit has an exercise she calls “Do a Verb.” She expresses with her body for several minutes a single verb, such as “twist.” This gets her moving and thinking creatively.
Collect a Treasure Box of Generative Ideas
Here’s an idea: Create an index card box full of creative prompts and draw one out at random when you begin your creative time. Then, do whatever is on the card. Come up with a batch of your own ideas to get you started. Ask friends for other ideas. Write them down. Collect them.
Or, choose a regular way to enter your creative state, a routine, a habit, a practice, and stick with it. Perhaps your regular way is drawing a card from your treasure trove box and doing it.
What matters is what works to get you started. Few things are more daunting than the blank page or blank canvas or stage with no idea where to begin. Have a way to begin and know what it is before you enter the studio that day. You might leave yourself an assignment at the end of the previous day’s work.
Collect some fallback methods or exercises that you can rely on. Ask other artists what works for them to get started. For me, when all else fails, I revise earlier work. No matter how uninspired I feel, this always gets me into creative engagement, and it moves my work forward.
How will you begin the next time you enter your studio? What helps you get inspired and flowing?
Use some or all of these as they work for you.
- Decide in advance how you’ll begin the next day
- Start with something small and easy
- Think playful, inviting or inspiring
- Experiment and see what works
- Consider creating a regular warm-up practice, a habitual way to begin your creative time
To your creative fire,