If you do creative work in your personal or professional life, there are good days and bad days – not to mention weeks, months or even years. Sometimes, you feel full of inspiration, confidence and love for what you do. But other times, you feel completely the opposite way – uninspired, doubtful and disillusioned with your work.
When you’re going through one of these dry spells, the experience can be agonizing. You might find yourself hitting your head against a proverbial wall over and over again. In your darkest moments, you might even feel tempted to give up on your work.
In times like these, you need to find a way to keep going – and that’s what the book, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad, by Austin Kleon is all about. Austin gives wide variety of tips and techniques for re-sparking your creativity when it flickers or fades, along with ways to keep the flame alive and get your creative fire roaring.
Let’s start with a healthy dose of realism. No matter how many tricks you put up your sleeve, you’re always going to experience ups and downs in your creative work. You can promote the ups and mitigate the downs, but your creativity is still going to ebb and flow. You can influence it, but you can’t control it.
What you can control is whether you show up for your work, ready to receive the current of creativity that comes your way, regardless of its strength. It could turn out to be a mighty rush or a pathetic trickle, but either way, you have to be there in order to harness it as best you can. And you have to keep doing that day after day, metaphorical rain or shine. After all, there’s no chance of having a good work day if you’re not having any work days at all!
To make sure you show up for your work, there’s a time-tested solution that’s been the key to many creative people’s success: establishing a daily routine. Yes, that means following a work schedule. But it can also mean having certain habits and rituals that help you get into the mood to do your work.
There’s a wide range of possibilities. Sylvia Plath wrote early in the morning, before her children woke up. Franz Kafka wrote late at night, after his family went to sleep. John Steinbeck sharpened a dozen pencils before sitting down to write. Goethe smelled rotten apples to get his juices flowing. Hey, whatever floats your boat!
Just remember: it’s your boat you need to float. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. Your routine needs to be tailored to your specific needs, circumstances and personality. When do you have time to do your work? Are you a night owl or an early bird? What gets you in the mood? In designing your routine, these are the sorts of questions you’ll have to answer for yourself.
Now, if you’re a free-spirited creative-type, the regimentation of a routine might seem rather off-putting at first. But look at it this way: the point of a routine isn’t to take your freedom away. To the contrary, it’s to give you the freedom to pursue your creative passions. A routine secures you a regular period of time for creative work, protected from the busyness of the rest of your life.
If you want to do creative work, you need time and space to focus on it. But in today’s hectic world, it can be hard to find some peace and quiet.
To escape the chaos of modern life, you can follow the lead of writer and literary scholar Joseph Campbell, and build what he called a Bliss Station. In its most tangible form, a Bliss Station is a silent and secluded place where you go to do your work – perhaps a special room or a garage.
But if you don’t have access to such a place, you can make your Bliss Station a time of day, rather than a specific location. For example, on weekdays, maybe there are a few hours when you’re home alone. With everyone else gone, you can bliss out at your kitchen table.
Whether it’s a time or place, the key is to treat your Bliss Station as something sacred. No disturbances allowed. That means disconnecting from the intrusions of modern life. How do you do that? Well, here are two tips that apply not just to maintaining the sanctity of your Bliss Station, but also to protecting your creative time and energy in general.
First up, embrace airplane mode – not just as an option on your smartphone, but as a state of being. Think about it this way: when you’re on an airplane, you’re stuck in a closed environment with a lot of time on your hands – and no social media or texts to fill it with. That makes it a great place to think and work. But whether you’re sitting on a train or in a waiting room, you can recreate the same effect by popping in some earplugs and putting your phone on airplane mode.
While you’re in airplane mode, you’ll be blissfully unaware of all the horrible headlines that fill the news these days. That brings us to the second tip, which is to disconnect from the news for at least part of the day – especially first thing in the morning. There are so many more uplifting ways to start your day: walking, reading, listening to music, playing with your kids – the list goes on and on.
Remember, you can always catch up on the news in the evening or on a designated day of the week. That way, you can stay informed without feeling bummed out all the time.
To protect your creativity from the hecticness of modern life, you’re now armed with a Bliss Station and some healthy habits of disconnection. In this blink, we’ll look at some other simple things you can do to lend some order to the chaos around you – and maybe get some inspiration in the process!
The first is to make lists. There’s the classic to-do list, but there are many other possibilities. The visual artist David Shrigley keeps a list of things he wants to draw; that way, when it’s time to work, he’s never at a loss for ideas of what to draw next. The writer Steven Johnson keeps a list of ideas to come back to someday, and he reviews it for inspiration every couple of months. And the English rock band The Wire defined their artistic vision by writing a list of things they wouldn’t do: solos, “rocking out” and ending songs on choruses, for example.
The next tip is one that you’ve probably heard a lot about lately: tidying. Now, tidiness-guru Marie Kondo’s war on clutter notwithstanding, some messiness in your workspace is okay. In fact, it can even be helpful. After all, creativity is all about making unusual connections between seemingly unrelated things. By leaving your work materials randomly strewn all over the place, you might end up with some inspiring juxtapositions.
But there comes a point when a mess becomes too messy. You know you’ve reached it when you have a hard time finding the tools you need to do your work. As a rule of thumb, your materials can be a jumble, but your tools should be organized.
With this limited objective in mind, tidying can be a great back-up activity to do when you’re feeling blocked. It’ll give your body something to do, which might loosen up your mind. And it might even spark some inspiration. For example, you might rediscover an unfinished piece of work that gives you an idea. To open yourself up to this possibility, tidy up slowly and reflectively, contemplating each item you come across.
Finally, don’t just tidy up your workspace; also tidy up your brain. How? Simple: take a nap! While you’re sleeping, your cerebrospinal fluid washes away toxins from your brain cells. When you wake up, you’ll often find that your mind not only feels refreshed, but has also arrived at new ideas.
In tapping into the power of a good nap, you’ll be joining good company. Famous practitioners of the art of napping include the Coen Brothers, Phillip Roth and Salvador Dalí!
Do what you love. Many of us have internalized that often-repeated message, and it’s become one of the main career aspirations of our time. If you haven’t already achieved it, imagine landing a job where you get paid to pursue your creative interests. Or imagine being able to support yourself by selling your work online. To many people, those scenarios sound like dreams come true.
But truth be told, turning your passion into your main source of income is one of the easiest ways of turning it into something you hate. When your livelihood is on the line, you’re no longer just doing your work for the joy of it; now you’re also doing it to keep a roof over your head. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on your passion. It can end up spoiling the joy.
To avoid this pitfall, consider having a day job and pursuing your creative work in your spare time. If you still want to “do what you love” for a living, mitigate the risk by resisting the temptation to turn your entire creative output into an income stream. Make sure you’re always doing at least a small amount of creative work purely for the love of it..
But money isn’t the only external reward that can undermine your passion. You can become just as narrowly focused on accumulating followers, likes, shares, comments, website visits and other online metrics. Here, too, the solution is to shield yourself. From time to time, ignore the metrics, at least for a little while. For example, if you post your work on social media, wait a week before checking how many likes or comments you receive.
Finally, here’s a simple but powerful way to reconnect to your creativity on a pure level, uninfected by money or popularity: gifting. Every once in a while, do something creative just for the sake of giving a gift to someone else – whether it’s a friend, family member or online follower.
For example, when he was feeling down about his work, the author would make a robot collage out of magazine cut-outs for his five-year-old son. Then his son would make a robot collage for him, and they’d keep making and passing robots back and forth. To this day, those robots remain some of his most treasured creations.
And hey, you never know. A gift can end up spreading across the world. A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit all began as stories the authors created for their children.
Check out my related post: How can creativity reduce stress?