Creative Challenges

Every now and then I like to set myself a creative challenge. I should disclose that these challenges are seldom well-thought out, but tend to be based on a suggestion picked up from elsewhere or a random thought which seems like a really good idea. From this somewhat vague beginning I’m off on a journey which may last mere moments or months, depending on the situation.

Recently I attended a workshop on taking photos with a smart phone. It is easy to take for granted the ease and speed at which such photos can be taken then mentally discarded or left to take up space in the cloud – quite a contrast to what was involved in taking and printing a photo previously. Now instant gratification of the impulse to record a moment is within our grasp, but I was interested to learn a bit more about framing a shot and to work on quality rather than quantity.

The course was informative and interactive, and also provided insight into some of the many tools available these days to tweak shots and highlight aspects of a photo. It created a heightened sense of awareness too – on a brisk walk into Blackheath at lunchtime I felt as though there were photo opportunities everywhere. And what better way to embed these skills than to take some photos. Perhaps every day for the month of May. This was decided on 30 April, the day that I completed the course.

Early on in May I was blessed with some stunning sunsets and one morning, whilst thinking about some issue at work, I passed a beautifully painted doorway that I’d not noticed before. Even in a distracted state it seems my mind was scouting about for photo opportunities. But what occurred to me on reflection was that this collection of moments is as much about what isn’t captured as it is about what can be contained in the briefest wink of time.

There were the stunning palettes of sunsets that changed incrementally with silent grandeur when I took the time to be still and admire them. And the graceful dance of autumn leaves eddying this way and that, a meandering waltz towards the earth. The bare branches reaching skywards, as if with outstretched arms waiting for a cloak of spring leaves and blossoms. Or the clarity of the night sky, and the gradual progress of the moon.

It isn’t always possible to capture a moment that seems to hum portentously, nor should it be. Often it is enough to simply experience it, for the moment to leave the lightest of impressions on our minds, something to be called upon and reimagined as required. A perpetual reminder to be present when you can, to be ready for the delights and surprises that await your attention.

[Photo: frost on leaves spotted during a morning walk]

 

We fall into old habits*

I like routines. I find comfort in habits and having things in their place. By creating structure I find I have more freedom and mindspace to think about other things.

Routines do need a bit of room for give and take as things inevitably happen. I’ve written before about morning pages, which are an enduring legacy for me from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Since January 2014 I have been writing three pages daily in A5 journals, emptying out my head, ranting when I need to, testing out ideas, plot points and thinking through work related challenges. I was surprised that I kept to it, even though I have kept a journal intermittently for years. There is now a growing collection of these journals, swollen with the ink of many pens, marching their way along the desk in my study.

The routine of writing these three pages, preferably in the morning, has saved my sanity at times. There are other days when sleep is too tempting, or I have an early start, or there is some other hurdle to sitting down and getting the words out. But if I do miss this morning session, I tend to feel less ready to deal with the day ahead. There are some days when, before sitting down, I can’t think of a single thing that would be worth writing. And yet, with the weight of a pen in my fingers, the flow begins. If I miss the morning, I usually write when I get home, knowing that I’ll feel better for spending 20 minutes doing it, and vowing that I’ll get up earlier to honour this time tomorrow.

I know that keeping this routine matters to me when I miss breakfast or coffee to get the words out before I face the work day. If I do a self-scan at some point in the day, I will recognise a restlessness if I’ve missed a part of my morning routine including daily pages, meditation or walking my dog. These activities provide structure, but all of them also give me time to think, to dawdle a bit if I need to, to look up and see something other than the challenges of work or chores or the endless to-do list that keeps spitting out tasks like a dot matrix printer in my mind.

Sometimes routine is turning up at the desk even though the well feels a little dry. Pick up a pen or poise fingers over the keyboard and see what comes out. It might be slow and sluggish at first, but by creating the framework for creativity the chance of having something to show for the admission price of turning up is greatly enhanced.

How important is a routine in your creative life?

* The opening line from ‘Laugh in their Faces‘ by The Whitlams.

[Photo: winter landscape near Cooerwull in Lithgow]

Don’t ask, don’t get.

Something that never ceases to amaze me is the power and capability of the mind. Whilst I’m quietly confident that I seriously under utilise my mind’s capacity, there is comfort in knowing that I can call upon it to help me out and that it will usually deliver. This is particularly true in relation to creativity.

A little while ago I was walking my dog late one night after a long day. I was really tired and although it was frosty outside, it seemed like every fascinating scent was out and my dog insisted on careful inspection of all that was on offer. We finally turned the corner for home and an idea popped into my head for a short story. It was incomplete but with enough shape and structure to get started. We made it home and I shrugged off my weariness to capture the words and images that were tumbling through my mind.

Recently I reviewed the rough draft, tweaking it and making some changes. The two main characters were really clear to me, but I hadn’t named them in my haste to get the story down. What to call them? I left my brain to work on that problem overnight and woke up  with a handful of possibilities. The characters now have names and that tricky ending that I was worried about has been replaced with something better.

There is another short story idea that I have simmering away in the back of my mind. The images are clear and I’ve jotted down some notes for when the time is right to start it, but again I was thinking about the name of the main character. There were a couple of secondary characters who were easy to identify, but I wanted the main character to have a surname that could be mispronounced by a child and end up as one of those abbreviations that becomes a nickname which ends up as the main form of address for someone. A name with a couple of levels of meaning or significance in the story. I was driving recently when there was a discussion on the local radio and one word literally rang a bell for me. It was the perfect fit.

Putting it out there may not always be entirely reliable or a quick solution, but if you have a bit of time and space to let your mind sort through the possibilities, or listen out for solutions, the results can be pleasantly surprising. Don’t ask, don’t get.

How do you find solutions for your creative challenges?

[Photo: part of a phrenology head spotted at a local market]