This is a guest post by Edwin Henry, a writer based in Boise, Idaho. Connect with him on Twitter @edwinthenry.
Let’s take care of some myth-busting about creativity and inspiration.
There is a preconception that inspiration or creativity is something that happens, because it’s a romantic ideal. The image of a person struggling over a piece of work, when, eureka, a light goes off in her head and she gets to work until she finishes it and the flash is over.
Inspiration can creep up on you, but it needs to be planted in the first place. You wouldn’t expect to find a garden overflowing with thick, hearty vegetables in your backyard if you never planted any seeds or watered them, right? It’s the same with most creative endeavors: you have to put work in.
Sometimes it won’t feel very productive, or you won’t see the results of your work for some time. That’s fine, and part of the process. Your plants aren’t ready for harvest one week after planting them. It takes time, consistency, and persistence.
For the last couple years, I’ve been writing books. It was… very difficult at first. There’s a sense of information overload that can really wear you down and stop you in your tracks the first time you set off to do something new, and as you’re processing all that, you have to work to organize what you’ve learned and implement it.
This paralysis can stop you before it starts, but you can overcome it by meaningfully implementing a plan of action.
I didn’t sit down to write a novel on day one and finish it. I didn’t even complete a novel for a year, and I wasn’t working on one either; I wrote short stories. I practiced with short form by completing short goals. You can, too, with anything you want to do. Here’s how to start:
Make a goal, keep it short.
This is kind of self-explanatory.
If you’re writing, set off to write a short story (say, 3000 words). Writing or creating music? 30 seconds. Painting? A sketch with pencil or a light medium. Don’t set off to write an epic eight hundred page novel, don’t try to create a forty minute album, don’t dive into mixing oils and colors. If you feel like you have a burning desire to create something great, hold on to it, but don’t waste it.
You’ll get to do it one day, but today isn’t that day.
By keeping the goal simple and not setting up a huge project, you save yourself from the very problem that can plague you: information overload. These beginning projects are to get a taste for consistent and persistent work. With a short story, you can find your “weak links”. Does your dialogue feels awkward? Good, that’s something you can focus on next time. Not quite grasping perspective or accuracy? Good. I hope you’re seeing a pattern emerge here.
This relates to having work to reflect on. It might take you a while to finish your first project, you’re either out of practice or brand new. That’s okay. But when you’re done, you’ll want to do it again. Don’t rehash the same thing (unless you feel that helps you learn, in particular, with drawing), branch out, explore, and try new things.
You might not be super happy with your first work, but that’s okay.
You probably weren’t too happy the first time you tried to ride a bike either. When you’ve completed your endeavor, take note of how long it took, then do it again. Break up the process into chunks, whatever is most comfortable for you. If smaller chunks will bring you back every day, do that. If you like to feast, do that. Just be persistent. And that brings the next thing.
Whatever schedule you’ve discovered works for you, stick with it. Some days, it might be agonizing, but don’t dwell on that kind of feeling.
If you get really stuck, take a small step back; ask yourself, “What is keeping me from enjoying this?” You might be surprised at your answer: I just can’t get the shading right – what can I do to combat this? Flip the drawing, the figure (if possible)? My characters aren’t doing what I want them to do – what would help? What if this happened? How would they react?
Analyze and Reflect
This is the key to all of it. While you will improve from pure work and sweat, the progress will be painfully slow. You’ll never quite grasp that level of awareness that would help elevate your work to another level.
By deliberately examining your work (good job, by the way), you can find your flaws and weaknesses and fix them. You can focus on them. Improve them. Until you don’t feel deficient in that area. Maybe you’ve learned how to create a rhythm and control the pace of a story with dialogue, character movement, and description. Maybe you have a better eye for composition, since your mind has the vocabulary or experience it lacked before.
“Innovation starts with asking good questions. This is an area we often gloss over in our busy, harried work lives. But it’s very important to innovation. Take a problem you are wrestling and rather than drive for an answer, write down questions to ask yourself about the problem. Resist running to the answer. See what it generates.”
Analysis and revision is the key to any successful project. If you want to improve as an artist or a person, you have to reflect. Like Piotrowski says, you might not always have the answers, but that doesn’t mean the questions aren’t important.
With work, you can reflect and start to improve on what is holding you back. For most everyone, there is a sense of what style, tone, or feeling they want to evoke, and this creates a disconnection between their work and that ‘ideal form’. Without work to reflect on and see what mechanics are holding you back, you cannot hope to overcome them. A flash of inspiration won’t do you any good if you aren’t able to even take advantage of it. And it will happen, more and more often.
With motivation, determination, and persistence, you can grow and develop any skill you want to improve. No one is born knowing how to speak, solve math, or ride a bike. They’re all skills that must be learned. Keep learning.