by Erin Whittinghill
For those who create, waiting for great ideas can be excruciating. For many of us, there are long stretches of questions and doubt, leading to a loss of confidence and further delaying the ultimate goal. In my graduate writing program, I regularly tortured myself over what seemed like bad ideas that would surely lead to bad results. Afraid to proceed, I waited. And waited. And waited a bit more for the right ideas. The result of being so discriminating was paralysis.
While killing my own seeds of creativity, I’d often think of a line in An Affair to Remember. When addressing the reason Nickie Ferrante no longer painted, his grandmother explained, “The artist in him would create. The critic would destroy.” It’s true that the inner critic can wreak havoc and obliterate the artist’s chance to allow the creative process to unfold.
However, as a student with deadlines looming, I realized one important thing: at some point, I’d have to pull the trigger—no matter what I had to work with. The surprising outcome of embracing a word or phrase here and there, whether eventually viable or not, was that other, often better ideas followed. To that end, here are a few of my favorite ways to cultivate ideas and get moving:
Look again. Something that seemed wretched yesterday might be feasible today or lead to a new direction. In her essay “Mystery and Birds: Five Ways to Practice Poetry,” Ada Limón points out that through multiple readings the same poem can induce both feelings of joy and anguish. She explains that the poem itself does not change; rather, what the reader brings each time he engages the poem—associations, moods, circumstances—creates shifts in perception. These new views can also apply to how we appraise our own work. Do these shifts suddenly make me think even my worst ideas are wonderful? Absolutely not. But cutting myself some slack and allowing the creative process to continue beats immediate rejection. With time and attention, even a seemingly useless line or image can evolve into a worthwhile work.
No blocking. This one seems obvious, but we often suppress ideas that come at inconvenient times. I tend to have more creative ideas while driving. Yes, it can be dangerous, and I cannot always read all of what I’ve scribbled on the backs of receipts, but some nugget is better than nothing. Get something (bag, receipt, wrapper, pant leg, palm) and capture that thought. Heck, pull over if necessary! (Why not carry a notebook, right? I have been too often affected by the curse of preparedness. As long as I’m ready with a pen and paper, I am bereft of ideas about anything other than what I will buy at the market. For me, it’s too similar to waiting in front of the computer screen.) Also, there’s an excitement involved in creating on the fly that leads to…more creating. When we’re in a hurry and the focus is already split, we’re less likely to censor ourselves.
Work with pieces that succeed. Attempt to emulate them and see what else they evoke. One example of a poem to which I am repeatedly drawn is Nicole Cooley’s “Directions for Ordering the Voice” (from her collection The Afflicted Girls). It wasn’t until I really studied it that I discovered why I had been so fascinated. Initially, it seems like one of Cooley’s least complex poems; however, the poet effectively uses both the imperative and strategic line breaks to provide emphasis and manipulate meaning. I have emulated its style a few times and have had at least one pretty good result. Better yet, take the time to visit a place filled with fantastic ideas. Museums work especially well. Spending time with a painting or sculpture can lead to an ekphrastic poem or some other creation. An added dividend is that watching other people stare at art is entertaining. In short, looking at someone else’s well-executed ideas can unclog the artistic stream. And I’m happy to let the other creators do the initial heavy lifting for me.
Eventually, most of us shape and sharpen our own creative processes out of sheer necessity, as long as we are not our own worst enemies. So welcome even the “bad” ideas, and enjoy the results.