I’ve written little in the way of what I’d refer to as “creative work” this summer. A few thousand word of prose here, a few bar-napkin-scrawl verses of poetry there, but not much in the way of polished, cohesive work. Submissions went out to magazines and journals at a snail’s pace, to little fanfare. But these are the least important things one can do to stay creative.
Whenever someone asks me what my advice is for churning up new ideas, I give a little speech about creative cross-training. If you are solely a verbal artist, try your hand at something visual. You can’t draw? Sure you can. Drawing, much like writing, is about training the eye and the hand to have conversations. Sure, at first the results may be shaky nonsense, but the harder you look something, the easier it becomes to render. See things from all sides. Draw every view of the places you see every day–the seats on the subway, the tree branch bisecting your bedroom window, the water glass you keep on your desk at work. Training your eye to view things as the sum of many parts will give you new sensibilities the next time you sit down to write. You will better understand how the small details build into a bigger, moving picture. This exercise is especially effective if you feel like your images haven’t been as strong as you’d like.
This next one is almost redundant, but keeping a notebook is an invaluable tool if you’re stuck for ideas. I’m beyond certain that somebody somewhere has proven by now that the simple act of moving pen across page (especially now that most people predominantly write by typing) activates you brain in a way that other activities can’t. The physicality of writing longhand–the momentum and movement, the weight of the pen, the way words look as they are conjured on the page–always helps me tease out concepts I’m not quite sure about. And a free write can be a window into new ways of thinking, especially when you misspell, skip words, or can’t decipher what you’ve scrawled. Oftentimes, when I go back to read a passage of longhand text, I find unintentionally off-kilter turns of phrase that inspire new associations and images. But even if you don’t have time to wring your brain out on page, the next best thing is keeping brief notes. A list of seemingly random thoughts can end up a goldmine of ideas, depending on how each snippets interacts with its bedfellows.
And, of course, you cannot be a writer without first being a reader. Remember, reading is not limited to “literary” work. Magazine articles can turn your idea of prose on its ear if you only ever sit awhile with long-form fiction. Poems and those internet round-up lists have more in common than you might think. Your next story or sonnet could be lurking between the lines of a breaking news story, or in the margins of a cookbook. Watching TV or a movie is another act of reading, albeit a more passive one. But more important than reading in the first place is hashing out what you’ve read. Talk about what excites you in your reading to whoever will listen. As you speak, things will crystallize. In this same way, talking about your own work with a friend or small workshop group will help you chase down the ways to make it the best piece it can be. The more people you have to bounce ideas off of, the more fully formed your ideas will be. This isn’t to say you should be making art by committee; you should just feel comfortable articulating what it is you enjoy about art, as well as what it is you want your art to accomplish. The more articulate you can be, the more your creative energy will benefit.
Emily O’Neill spends more time playing with acrylic paint than she does on her short stories. She edits poetry for Side B Magazine.