Back when DVDs were a thing, I loved the director’s commentary.
Remember? That option on the menu screen, tempting you to sit through the whole movie again and listen to the filmmakers give insider nuggets about shot choices or direction given to actors.
I guess I’ve just always been fascinated with how creativity happens.
Even though no one really watches DVDs anymore, there are plenty of other ways to peek behind-the-scenes of creativity.
For example, YouTube is an abundant source of videos of actors voiced their parts in animated movies (one of my favourites is Moana!). Watching the way the actors’ bodies contribute to their voices, and how many variations they can give on a particular line, shows the dedication and versatility required to nail the read.
Being able to see this process gives me ideas to try when making my own creative work, but my interest in these videos reaches beyond just that. Getting an insight into the “backstage” of the creative process also heightens my enjoyment of creative work itself.
Not everyone has this reaction, though. I can understand that seeing how the creative sausage is made might be off-putting for some. It ruins the magic, un-suspends the disbelief, and breaks the fourth wall.
But for me, delving into the lives of artists on the series Abstract, or watching the designers’ process on Project Runway, is inspiring and enriching.
My favourite ways to encourage creativity
There is no one “right” way for creative inspiration to happen, but in my experience, there do seem to be several repeatable conditions that can be set for creativity to flourish:
1. Set imaginary or real restrictions
Creativity thrives when there are limits imposed upon it.
For me, too many choices can be paralysing. The more options that can be removed (preferably by something outside my control), it feels liberating because I can better focus on what matters.
Some of my favourite episodes of Project Runway are the “unconventional materials” challenges. In these, the designers are taken to a place that seems incongruous with fashion design – a dollar store, car manufacturer, or a hardware store. Then, they are given a short amount of time to collect materials from that place, which they must then use for their design.
Even though I’ve never been on a reality show, I have sometimes imposed limitations on myself in order to experiment creatively. Cartoonist Lynda Barry has a well-known technique of diving a page up into sections, then timing yourself drawing the same thing in each section, in decreasing amounts of time.
Timing is one way to impose a restriction, but there are many others. Maybe you can restrict the medium you’re able to use: only draw with a Sharpie, or only on a window. Or restrict the palette to only 2 colours. Try it and see!
2. Make time for inputs
Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
In order to make work (output), creative people need to seek out inspiration (inputs). These inputs may come from other artists, from nature, from books, or many other sources, and help to create the fertile ground through which creativity can happen.
It’s a lot easier for the creative juices to flow when there is plenty of source material to work from.
One of the most inspiring things I did on a regular basis before the pandemic was to visit a museum. Having a membership meant that I could drop in whenever I could, even if I only had an hour or so, and explore just one part of the museum at a time. This allowed me to slow down, and really soak in the creative atmosphere. Sometimes I found somewhere to sit and write, or doodle.
But even in a time when museums aren’t open, there are other ways to seek creative inputs. Getting out into the world to to see the colours of nature, the typography on local signage, or the way light falls on a building at dusk, is an experience that can’t be replicated from a computer browser.
Seeking inspiration is also a mindfulness exercise. It’s about taking the time to notice; stopping on a walk to study the particular curve of a roof, listening intently to a bird call, or capturing the colour palette of a beautiful flower.
You never know what will inspire you, so the key is to just give yourself an opportunity to take it all in.
3. Take a class
Learning something new, or learning something old in a new way, is a great way to jump-start creativity.
When I’m taking a class, I try to embrace the opportunity to put aside anything else in life and be present in the moment. This is a time that I’ve set aside to allow complete immersion in the topic of the class.
For example, a few years ago my husband and I started taking an oil painting class. That two hours, every two weeks, was my time to disconnect from everything else except putting paint on canvas. I would often reach “flow state,” where I’d get absorbed in the work without distractions.
Even if not learning something as “traditionally” creative as oil painting, the act of learning in a class environment opens the mind to new ways of thinking, new skills, and new people. All of these can help inspire creativity.
4. Collaborate with others
When working as a freelancer, the thing I missed the most was to chat and brainstorm with other creative people.
Collaboration is the lifeblood of creativity for me, and as much as I love to do it all myself, there’s something magical that happens when two or more creative people are building something together.
In 2007, my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I collaborated on a short film submission for the short film festival Tropfest. We wrote the script together, performed in it together, and pulled in my dad and brother to help out as well. Having the opportunity to collaborate with others on creative work can enrich relationships (or sometimes, break them!), and never fails to produce work that is different from a single person’s vision.
Understandably, it can be difficult for creative people who have a strong creative vision to relinquish full control and openly collaborate with others. However, it’s certainly something to try if creative inspiration is needed.
5. Give and receive candid feedback
Creativity thrives in environments with a strong culture of feedback.
As a creator, sharing work (especially in an incomplete state) can feel unbearably vulnerable. A lot of time, care, and emotion has been poured into the work, so it takes bravery and trust to share that with others.
I used to be much more guarded about sharing work. It all came from such a raw and honest place, that I felt nervous about sharing that part of myself. I held back, for fear of embarrassment.
The turning point for me came when I was at university, completing my PhD in Performing Arts. I wrote and performed in a monologue, which was created from my own vulnerable thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The guarded artist in me would have loved nothing more than just hiding away in a cave to write and rehearse the work, then running out on stage, performing, and going back to my cave, never to speak of it again.
But that’s not how theatre works.
Instead, when writing and performing in your own play, I discovered that there has to be a Jedi mind-trick of distancing from the work you’ve written. This process often happens in rehearsal, where the act of performing those half-baked thoughts and feelings in front of other people is necessary in the pursuit of better work.
Testing the piece in front of different audiences, getting honest and open feedback about it, then ruthlessly letting go of what isn’t working, will greatly improve the work. This doesn’t just apply to theatre, but to any creative pursuit. It’s much easier to make adjustments and edits while a work is in process, rather than waiting until the end.
However hard it may be, feedback is a gift. Over time, I’ve learned that when you share with a trusted audience, openly and with humility, you’ll get so much back.