This article was written by NUPSA Project Officer (and almost-author) Hugh Milligan.
It’s ironic that, when asked to write a newsletter article on the subject of creativity, I was struck immediately by writer’s block. Big fat nothing. I wracked my brains for the better part of an afternoon, and then (because wracking is hungry work) ate the better part of a box of Cadbury Favourites and watched Netflix for three hours.
“I’ll wait for the Muse,” I said to myself. “Something will come to me.”
Now, I do not specifically advocate eating a box of chocolates and binge-watching TV shows as part of the creative process. (A Mars Bar and an episode of Rick and Morty is usually sufficient.) But it demonstrates, I believe, the way we have long romanticised the Muse – and creativity itself – as a series of ‘bursts’ of inspiration, as though every artist and inventor were merely a lightning rod sitting idle in anticipation of the next great bolt from the heavens.
In reality, inspiration is far more complex than that, and we all find our flow in different ways. The Muse is capricious, as they say. While only experience can really tell you what works best for your own brain, here are five tricks I have found personally effective in coaxing out the Muse.
A gaggle of Muses, fawning about with Apollo.
1. Make a start
If you’re staring at a blank page, just waiting for the Muse to arrive, you’ll probably be there for quite some time. Creativity is only occasionally a bolt of lightning; more often it is a boulder atop a hill, waiting for you to push it until it gathers its own momentum.
I published an article in July in which I argued the importance of just writing when you start out, even if it’s garbage at first. The purpose of this is to warm up your brain – to get the neurons firing and to lubricate your imagination. You put ideas on a page, good or bad, and let them swim about; eventually, they mesh into other, better ideas, and then more pop into your head, and more.
Even if you have no bearing whatsoever at first, you can always write something. Free writing is an excellent habit to develop. I finally began this article by free writing my own thoughts about creativity – the times I felt I was creative, the times I did not, and so on. I wrote about the nine Muses, their names and origins (since I’m a Greek mythology nerd), and about the hazards of trying to digest a box of Cadbury Favourites as an almost thirty-year-old with a waning metabolism.
Much of that original material is now gone, but it gave me a concept, and the five tips you’re currently reading. The Muse came to me only once my brain was in that flow state, already engaged in the act of creation.
Steven Pressfield, in his book, The War of Art, expresses this idea quite beautifully:
“When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favour in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
Muses dancing. It’s a hard life, really – you couldn’t pay me enough to do it.
2. Do something else
Making a start is important, but so is knowing when to step away for a while. A few weeks ago, I was working through the second draft of my book – tidying up some chapters and completely re-writing others – when I hit an infuriating obstacle. Essentially, there were two major plot points in my narrative that I could not properly reconcile; both were absolutely necessary but only ground against each other, no matter how I structured them.
Eventually I realised that remaining there, hunched over my laptop and typing/deleting as I got angrier and angrier, wasn’t helping at all. So I went and did something else. I played some games and got chatting with a friend online. I made dinner. (Well, ‘made’ – I put a container in the microwave.) Then I lay on my bed and listened to music for a while. And when the solution still didn’t present itself, I slept on it.
Our subconscious mind is a remarkable machine. Even when we put aside a problem and move on to other tasks, it quietly continues to examine that problem and chip away at it in the background, looking for a creative solution. We never really stop thinking about it; in fact, we do our best brainstorming and problem-solving without even realising it, particularly when we’re sleeping.
This process is called ‘incubation’, and the trick to it is knowing when you’ve worked hard enough at a problem and gathered enough information to step back, let your subconscious kick in and do its thing. That comes with practice and experience, and a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
But it’s worth it. For when the answer is found and it surges back into our waking brain, we experience that rare and incomparable bolt of lightning. That burst of inspiration. That kiss from the Muse.
The author, hard at work.
3. Do something physical
Okay, so this tip is really an extension of the previous one. But physical activity has proven invaluable to my creativity, and I believe it warrants its own mention here.
The fact is, I am not an especially healthy person. Obviously – I eat whatever I can defrost, can’t go more than half a day without dessert and play Heroes of the Storm for hours at a time. Chances are I will never run a marathon or deadlift anything heavier than a cat, but nevertheless, I make sure to carve out time in my day to exercise, almost as much as I do to sit and write.
This is because physical exertion – the kind that leaves you sweaty, panting and exhausted – does something thoroughly wonderful to your head: it empties it. When you’re pushing your body in some way, your attention is drawn to the aches and pains, your heart rate, your breathing; it’s much harder to worry about some abstract problem when you have a very real and immediate one to focus on.
As a result, I have found that exercise is the very best way to encourage the incubation of creative ideas. Some of my best breakthroughs have come to me while locked in an elbow plank, or walking along Honeysuckle, or even just around campus. And I’m not alone. Authors like Dickens were famous for taking long walks about town to get their juices flowing.
It doesn’t need to be an hour at the gym (thank god); I have a morning regimen in my living room that involves a skipping rope, resistance bands and a Wii Fit balance board, and that’s enough to get me in a mindless state. Like every other step in the creative process, find whatever works best for you.
‘The triangle’, a key component in the creative process. Hemingway did the triangle every day, I’m told.
4. Consume other ideas
Your subconscious, as I mentioned before, is a brilliant incubator for ideas – but only when it has a steady supply of information and creative stimuli to work with. The best sources of these will depend on the discipline you’re working in, but they needn’t necessarily be directly related; don’t assume, for example, that the inspiration for your next great architectural design will come only by observing other buildings.
The novel I’m working on incorporates science fiction, Greek mythology, whodunit, thriller and black comedy, so I absorb an absurdly eclectic mélange of books, articles, movies, games and TV shows. Whenever I get hooked on something, I identify the parts of it I love the most and squirrel them away in a notebook or my laptop/phone. And as more and more pieces collect there, I play with them. I fit them together and see what happens.
Alas, I cannot reveal my current narrative in any detail here, but suffice it to say that there are sassy robots, shifting continents, corporate conspiracies, debauched celebrities and ancient goddesses scheming behind the scenes. I’m sure that, when people read it someday, it will remind them of different things they’ve seen and read, but never entirely, and never in the same fashion. Inspiration never comes to us in a vacuum, but is a spark we find in something else that fires our imagination.
Author and poet Austin Kleon is a great proponent of this. His best-selling book, Steal Like an Artist, espouses the idea that no creative work these days is purely original; rather, the best artists and creative thinkers take little pieces from the things that resonate with them and work them together in new and inventive ways, giving them new life. It’s an amazing book by the way, and well worth reading.
This does not mean, of course, that you are free to plagiarise someone else’s work. As Austin writes, there’s ‘good stealing’ and ‘bad stealing’. Be creative, not derivative.
An example of ‘bad stealing’.
5. Use writing prompts
I mentioned free writing earlier as a way to get started when you have nothing but a blank page, but it’s not for everybody. If you need a compass to orientate your thinking, writing prompts can be a lot of fun.
My colleague Ellie recently brought me back a book of prompts from San Francisco – 642 Tiny Things to Write About – which contains such doozies as, “You’re divorcing your spouse. Rewrite your wedding vows,” and, “You call in sick and go to a nudist beach and run into your boss. Describe the scene.”
Even a quick Google search will pull up thousands. “They’ve painted a circle on the floor in the blood of the goat they’ve just sacrificed, and the chanting seems to be summoning something. This escape room is getting out of hand.” (That one’s on Reddit, surprise surprise.)
Again, creative writing is an excellent warm-up for your brain, even if you’re working on your thesis. The aim is to get into that headspace, to summon the Muse; you can write whatever you need once you’re there.
Some prompts are lighter than others, of course.
And that’s it! As I said at the beginning, I’m not an expert in this field. I’m not a psychologist, neuroscientist, personal trainer or life coach. I’m just a guy that reads a lot of Wikipedia articles in bed.
As a writer, I would love to tell you that I am creative on command and gloriously productive every time I sit down at my laptop, but that’s just not the case either. The creative process is complex, whimsical at times and personal always. If you have any success with these tips, or if you have some of your own, let me know in the comments section below!
And if the advice I’ve given here seems to contradict itself in places, well… the Muse is capricious.