One of my favourite books is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I think it’s one of the most useful and compassionate kick-in-the-proverbial-pants for any person who identifies as a creative. More a workbook and 12-week curriculum than a piece of non-fiction, The Artist’s Way provides a roadmap towards “creative recovery.” It’s a book for people who long to stretch a creative muscle they worry has atrophied, for professional artists who have hit a rut, for folks who feel too stuck in their perfectionism to take the plunge back into their art, and for those who don’t even identify as artists but are looking for permission to create.
I know that when I’m holding back on my own creative expression – be it through songwriting, writing, or just little fun projects around the house that satisfy an itch to make things – it’s usually a sign that something else is a bit off for me. Similarly, with my therapy clients, if we engage with their issues through creative modalities, the client may often come away with greater insights and also a much more hopeful outlook on them. My clients often report the benefits of returning to some kind of creative project between sessions, and often come to therapy in the first place because they are artists who are no longer creating.
If you identify on some level as a blocked creative (and in my opinion we are all, to some extent, blocked creatives), then I cannot recommend Cameron’s book enough. Meanwhile, here are three tips of my own that I offer to clients, and that I’ve found useful myself, for getting things moving during a creative (or just general life) rut.
- Write a poem-a-day. We don’t have to be writers to get something out of this one. In fact, it’s perhaps even more effective for folks who aren’t serious writers. Here’s how it works: for two weeks, commit to writing one poem a day. It does not have to be good. It just needs to be simple words put together to tell a story. You can take 5 minutes a day to do this, or labour over it for hours if you like. I recommend writing the poem by hand. I find this exercise effective because writing is such an inward creative activity, so if we’re feeling tender, it won’t expose us as much as, say, playing the French horn for half an hour every day. And yet, it does get our juices flowing, it gets us in a creative mentality, and it becomes a habit. When I’ve done this exercise, I’ve usually created my poem in the morning, and they’ve taken about 15 minutes to write. In some cases, I’ve created a blog where I’ve posted them at the end of each day, just to have some accountability. (I only shared the URL of the blog with three people who I trusted.) Most of the poems were either been about writing (so meta!), or about the smell of the coffee brewing while I wrote. The routine of it becomes like a sacrament. I recommend doing it daily for 2 weeks because it’s long enough to feel like a discipline, and long enough to feel a shift, but not so long that it’s overwhelming.
- Indulge in the dreamworld. Can you recall one thing from your dreams last night? One thing from your dreams in the past year? Carl Jung wrote that “dreams are the facts from which we must proceed.” Playing with our dream realm connects us with the place in ourselves where true creativity is born. For this exercise, pick one scene from a dream – as fresh as last night, or an old dream from years ago you still think about. Then take one action based on that dream: draw a picture from the dream; create a GIF about the dream; write a first-person narrative about the dream; or even act out something from the dream. An example of this: let’s say you dreamt about eating a cucumber sandwich on top of the Eiffel Tower. To act out some part of this dream, perhaps you can go grocery shopping to buy ingredients for the best cucumber sandwich imaginable (was it a crusty sourdough in the dream? Find that crusty sourdough!). Maybe, instead of heading to the Eiffel Tower to eat your sandwich, go to the base of your city’s great landmark (the CN tower for eg.), or maybe just put on a French beret and eat your sandwich at home. If you can be as playful about your dreams in waking life, then you can be assured you can be playful in whatever creative pursuits you fancy.
- Listen to an album. But, really listen to it. It’s so rare in our busy culture to listen to a complete album. If you can, dig up something you’ve never heard before – either in the CD bin at your local thrift store, or on your Apple Music or Spotify account (please don’t listen to music for free on YouTube unless you really really have to). Try to listen to it in a way that it will get your full focus. If this means going for a long walk in the fall leaves, or fold your laundry, or do some mending. Consider drawing, or writing free-flowing words if you find that connects you best to the music. Avoid conversations with others while you listen, and use the best speakers or headphones you have. Let the music shift you.
A note: the goal of these exercises isn’t to make the best art. If you’re a novelist, I know your next novel won’t get written by your listening to an album or acting out a scene from your dream. Rather, these are exercises to massage our creative brains and get them excited to play. You won’t be writing your novel while listening to that album, but something in the album may spark an idea for a scene you want to write. While hunting down that perfect bread for the best cucumber sandwich, you may sort out a plot issue you were stuck on for months. By engaging in our creative world, we’re giving ourselves permission to play, which a simple human right, a source of endless delight, a mental health booster, and the bread (pardon the pun) and butter of good art.
May we all feel the magic spark of creativity throughout our days, and throughout our lives. <3