Taking a Crack at Creativity

Daniel Nayeri writes in Everything Sad is Untrue (a true story), that “Making anything assumes there is a world worth making it for… [It is] a hopeful thing to do.” (He goes on to suggest that those who do so are either brave or not in their right minds at all, but one step at a time here.)

Below are a few ideas for drawing on your creativity to make something. Will it be art? I have no idea! (Insert long and heated conversation on what constitutes art, acknowledging that creativity is not exclusive to the arts, and even there, creative impulse does not always lead to art.) In this context, it doesn’t matter (yet). Art as relief is for “when despair for the world grows in me/ and I wake in the night at the least sound.” (Wendell Berry)

Later, maybe we’ll get to what Untamed author Glennon Doyle meant when she said “Perhaps imagination is not where we go to escape reality. Perhaps imagination is where we go to discover the reality that we were meant to bring into the world.”

And, craft. Because those drawn to writing by a romantic notion of “the writing life” as a floatily creative endeavor 24-7, often feel disappointed by the reality. In the day-to-day, more time is spent on editing, then editing again, then waiting before editing again, then waking up with random phrases in your head to text to yourself before you forget them, than  in transcendent creative union with the collective unconscious, Platonian world of ideas, or whatever you want to call it.

So what does that mean for you? Let’s get concrete and creative.

Last week I invited you to make a physical space for contemplating your own creative spark. A journal or sketchbook, a folder in your Notes app on a tablet, whatever works. Then, you set your intention to listen (even if you’re not sure what you’re listening for), and you wrote down any ideas that came up since then.

To analytical readers, this may sound like mushy advice indeed. Because what does that mean? How do you step into the kind of creativity Van Gogh calls “relief” in times of anxiety, grief, stress, or other emotional pain?

When the blank canvas stares at you…

Stare back. Blankly into the numbness of despair and—I mean, no. Don’t do that.

Van Gogh advised in one of his letters, “Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring at you…”, because “Life itself… is forever turning an infinitely vacant, disheartening, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears…. But the [person] of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily. He wades in and does something…”.

So set aside a half hour or so, even just twenty minutes if it’s all you have. Pick something you wrote in your notebook or folder. Then sit and watch what crosses your mind and/or rises from feeling.

Then, act on your idea. Experiment—even if your brain says this will be the crappiest piece of junk ever created and you’ll never show anyone. If you come up with nothing, try something from the list below that fits for you.


  • Sketch your child’s form, or your pet, or your view out the window, or whatever you were thinking about this week. What kind of form might it take?
  • Write a character in scene, someone you can see in your mind and create in words.
  • If you are able, move your body. Put on music that matches your mood, and dance. If you’re worried your family or roommates will mock you, go into the bathroom, close the door, put on your headphones and find your music. Then let your body communicate your idea or emotion, through dance. Try a pattern. Can you shift from freeform to choreography?
  • Challenge: Take 4 or 5 pieces of music or excerpts without lyrics. To make it easier, choose something that elicits an emotionally strong reaction rather than something more subtle. Pick pieces that present clear musical contrasts when considered together. For example: 1) Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto #2.” 2) Melba Liston’s “Insomnia.” 3) Nine Inch Nails’ “Erasure”. 4) Louis Armstrong’s “Skokiaan” (instrumental portion). Or choose your own. After each one, try to create in writing the same experience for a reader that you experienced as a listener. Avoid analyzing, or any reference to the song at all (e.g. “This song evokes…” or “This song must be about…”). Rather, pretend your reader has not heard the musical piece. All they have are your words to experience the same feeling. I know. It’s tough. If it helps, start by creating an image or scene in words that “matches” the music.
  • Try the above exercise with another art form, such as painting. Buy some cheap 10” x 10” canvases, paints, and brushes. If you have children, invite them to join you?
  • If you have access to a musical instrument, set aside time to wander around in notes and melodies for a while. Try learning a new song. If you are more advanced, create something that emerges from the thought or feeling you wrote about in your notes/journal.

So get absorbed. Feel or think what has been on your heart or mind, and make something of it. If you feel foolish, take heart. Maybe it is brave to put a part of yourself down in front of you, even if it’s just for yourself right now. But I’m rooting for you, Creative Human, full of ideas and experiences. You are alive and you have something to give the page, canvas, musical instrument, dance floor, wherever the art leads you.

Thank you for reading.

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