Monday, May 6, 2013

Sparking Creativity

Tomorrow, my second Skeet Bannion novel, Every Broken Trust, will be published. I'm super excited, and I'm also grateful for all the people who pre-ordered this book. The official book launch will take place Friday, May 10, at 6:30 p.m. at Mysteryscape, 7309 W. 80th Street, Overland Park, KS. If you're in the area, I hope you'll join me there. If not, I hope you'll take a look at Every Broken Trust at your nearest bookstore or online outlet. Librarian and book reviewer, Lesa Holstine, said today of this book, "Every Broken Trust is one of the best traditional mysteries I've read this year."

The final winner of my month-long blog giveaway is Diane Waddell. Diane, email me your postal address, and I'll mail your prize (a copy of the anthology, Feeding Kate, and  an elephant sculpture) to you. I hope you've all had fun with this contest as we've built up to the pub date for Every Broken Trust. And now, to today's blog post.

Sparking Your Creativity

As an artist and creative person, I can experience times when I reach down for ideas, for creative excitement, for images, and come up temporarily empty. These have usually been times that have combined lots of creative overwork and lots of business work—taxes, promotion, correspondence, contracts, freelance editing, etc. This kind of emptiness and feeling creatively dry can be terrifying, but I’m now used to it, and I know what to do to refill the well and spark new creativity. In these circumstances, it’s necessary to take time to do things to build up new creativity energy within you. So here are ten ideas to get you started.

 Journal Writing—This is the backbone of the creative life, especially for writers. I’m not necessarily talking about a daily diary. This is a notebook in which you write about what you see and hear, turning it into dialogue or sensory description. This is where you can work with writing prompts from books, workshops, tapes, and DVDs, your version of the pianist’s daily scales. Set a kitchen timer for a few minutes and do some freewriting to unload some of the chattering of your surface mind and move into deeper ideas.

Read Poetry—I’m a poet, as well as a novelist, but I’ve been surprised by how many commercially successful novelists I’ve met who say they regularly or occasionally read poetry as a springboard for their writing. It actually makes great sense because the poet deals in imagery, which is the language of the right (creative) brain.  I know that, whenever I read poetry, it sets my mind whirling with tons of ideas and images. I have come up with ideas for entire novels from reading a poem.

Read Something Very Different for You—If you always read and write poetry, check out a popular novel. If you’re a mystery reader, take a look at what science fiction writers are coming up with. If you read and write literary fiction, pick up a romance novel. Jog your mind from its habitual ruts of thinking and imagining. Stretch out of your comfort zone. Even if you don’t like what you read, it should still shake up your mind enough to start generating ideas, images, and characters.

Singlehanded Brainstorming—Most of us have been taught how to do and forced to sit through group brainstorming sessions before. Take those techniques and a sheet of paper with pen (or iPad or laptop), get comfortable, set a timer again, and start throwing out ideas at top speed. Same rules as with the group process. You can’t disqualify any idea, no matter how unrealistic. You want to generate as many ideas as you can as quickly as you can. Just list them down the page—or even use a voice recorder to capture them.  After the timer goes off, you can go down the list considering the possibilities you’ve listed. Look for possibilities to combine aspects of ideas. Write down any new ideas that get sparked by your consideration of the ideas already down on the page. Choose one or two promising (or least abhorrent) ideas and freewrite about them in your journal.

Making Lists—I love listmaking. Make lists of ideas, of characters, of backgrounds you’d like to use someday, of isolated bits of dialogue or description, of actions you’d like to see a character to take. My favorite is to write a list of scenes I’d like to read—exciting scenes, action-filled scenes, emotional scenes, surprising scenes, suspenseful scenes. They don’t have to have anything to do with any project you’re working on or any character you are writing or have written. They just need to be scenes you’d love to read—because scenes you’d love to read are scenes you’d love to write.

Visit a Museum, Gallery, Play, Film, Concert—We writers live and breathe words. Sometimes we need to get out of our heads and see or hear art that isn’t primarily word-based. It can be especially fruitful to go to a film in a language you don’t understand or an art exhibit of a kind you know nothing about. When we have no words to use to explain or understand what we’re seeing, our brains are kicked into another mode of functioning that can become quite generative. Wander around a gallery or museum and take in the colors and shapes. Sit in a concert hall or movie theater and let the music or film engulf you completely, washing through your brain. Come out seeing or hearing in a slightly different mode.

Draw, Paint, Knit, Spin, Sew—Even better than looking at art is making it. Sink your hands into clay or fiber. Splash ten different colors next to each other, taking note of the changes each new color creates. Feel the texture of the fabric, thread, yarn, fiber as you work with it to make something new. Take a penciled line and see what you can create with it. All of this also kicks in the right brain, the imagistic, creative part of us. Stay in beginner mind without worrying how “good” your art will be. This is—and should be—play, completely carefree and innocent.

Go for a Walk—Physical exercise is always a good thing for us sedentary word slugs, but even more important than its many health benefits are the creative benefits of simply moving your body through space. As you move around, your brain begins to get unstuck and to move, as well. A nice, long walk outdoors (preferably in scenic surroundings) can often jumpstart the solution to a creative dry spell. Sometimes a sterile period can arise from being overstressed. Walks are one of the best ways to counter such stress and relax the mind and body.

Arrange Flowers/Rearrange Some Belongings—In the Chinese art of feng shui, rearranging 27 items will start stuck soul energy flowing again. Moving belongings into new configurations, trying for a more pleasing pattern, has long been a cure for the blues and the blahs. We are pattern-recognizing and pattern-creating organisms. To change the habitual patterns that surround us charges us with new energy.  A smaller, simpler version of this is to gather or buy some flowers and assemble them into flower arrangements that please our aesthetic sensibilities. Spending a little time in creating pleasing, artistic arrangements of flowers or accessories will provide a creative boost to stuck energies.

Go to Lunch with a Creative Friend or Two—Everyone has one or more friends or acquaintances who are creative sparklers. Like the child’s fireworks favorite, they give off showers of sparks, or creative ideas, constantly. They are positive and upbeat and always focused on possibilities. Spending some time with them will leave you filled with ideas, energy, and excitement. It’s always worthwhile to give them a call and set up a relaxed lunch in a nice place. Rather than complain about how dry and sterile things are for you right at the moment, ask them what’s new with them and what they see as possibilities for the future.  As they take off shooting into the blue yonder, follow them wholeheartedly and build on all their ideas. You’ll walk away at the end of lunch with a big smile on your face and a bunch of ideas bubbling in your unconscious. Cherish these friends, even if they are unrealistic and immature. Their wild, creative energy is invaluable when your own has temporarily deserted you.

One or more of these ten methods should start your creative powers working once again. I’ve never had to go through more than a couple of these at a time to get my creative mojo stirring. Post this list near your desk, and don’t spend any time or energy bewailing it when a creative dry spell hits. Just reach for this and try whichever of these ideas looks most appealing at the time. If the first doesn’t completely prime your creative pump, move to another of them. Creativity never leaves, but sometimes it needs a spark to start the engine running again. So spark your creativity!


  1. Keeping a journal is very helpful to me. I started mine my first year of graduate school when my intro to counseling professor gave us an assignment to keep 7 daily journals. Each was to be in dialogue form between the student and another figure. One was with inner self; another was with the professor; one was a wise spirit (personally troubling for me given my own religious beliefs, but I had to come up with a dialogue or fail the class); then significant other... to a total of seven.

    The professor told us not to think about what we were going to write. She told us to just start with anything, and it would happen. It would find its way from our mind to the paper. It would be like automatic writing. No one believed her, until they did it.

    Everyone in the class stressed over this assignment more than any I recall, anywhere, for any written assignment. We all had to force ourselves to try. The odd thing was, that after all that angst, we found our dialogues happened. Somehow our hands moved, and words were written. Stories seemed to come from nowhere. Each person in my study group reported that it became easy very quickly.

    After that class, I never had a problem writing a term paper. I am now using my journal to dialogue with my characters, locations, objects, readers and others associated with my stories -- to engage them creatively in my mind.

  2. I like to combine No. 6 and No. 8 and go to the Kansas City Sculpture Park to write. I'll walk around and look at the sculptures then sit on one of the benches and write.

  3. Reine, I know. People tend to be very reluctant to write in a journal, but once you get them to do try it, they find it very useful.

    I'm so glad you're journaling to bring your characters and story alive. i often do that.

  4. Michelle, it's always good when you can combine two or three of the techniques. I'll bet you get a lot of good poems from your walks in KC Sculpture Park.

  5. Lately I've been taking photos while out walking Kendall. After a while it seems like my mind is so relaxed that ideas just visit me and bring me ideas about characters, and plot, even settings that I've been working on.

  6. Reine,

    Dicken was famous for his long walks, and he's just the top of the list of authors who have made walking a part of their creative process. You're seeing why so may have chosen to do this when you walk Kendall and take photos.