3 Ways to Leverage Your Creativity

creativityIn this article written for PROJECT EVE I offer ideas to ignite your workplace spark.

Our brains automatically put things into categories. When a new project at work resembles an old one, we have the advantage of experience, but the disadvantage of routine—creativity’s kryptonite. If we always approach tasks by way of the usual entrance, they begin to all look alike. When the front door to a project is wide open, it may seem like lunacy to climb a trellis to a third floor window, but your stained knees and scraped hands will have been worth it. It’s counter-intuitive, but true: self-imposed challenges are creativity’s kindling. Imagination loves a dare.

1. Emulate with a Twist: Painters traditionally learn their craft by copying master works. As a novelist and teacher, I sometimes challenge my students to do writing exercises in the style of the writers they most admire. In your workplace, try noticing the style and strategy of colleagues you’d like to emulate. How do they open a meeting? What is their manner of listening and speaking? What makes their emails distinct? What is it about their work that stands out? When you sit down to begin your next project, pretend you are that person. Inhabit her mind for a moment. Would she climb the trellis? Snake in through a basement window? Learn from as many different tactics as you can and select the best from each. Borrow from people with divergent approaches and combine them to create your own. The more styles you draw from, the richer the personal palette you’ll create. Read More »

Looking for Inspiration? Let IT Find YOU.

My guest post on MsCareerGirl.com offers thoughts on how to fling open the doors of your imagination. In addition to Elon Musk, Marie Curie, Steph Curry and Malcolm Gladwell, my advice takes inspiration from the fabulous TED Talk below by EAT, PRAY, LOVE author Elizabeth Gilbert. Enjoy!

 

 

The Love Affair Between Creativity & Constraint

Can we boost our creative goals by constraining them? Here is a counter-intuitive method of unleashing creativity by putting chains on it. Like Houdini, the imagination likes to use its wits to unshackle itself. This talk explores artists and writers who sought out constraints to leverage inspiration. Innovation needs a boundary to push against. Shakespeare did it. Countless artists and innovators have done it. Discover how to give your own creativity a wild dare.

Enjoy!

Writing Prompt: The Things You Carry

JoaoSilasHere’s a writing prompt for personal journal writing, poetry or fiction:
1. For inspiration, read or listen to the phenomenal work “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. Notice what each character chooses to carry and what that tells you about him.
2. Make a list of the things you carry on your body, in your purse or backpack, in your wallet, etc.
3. Think of each item as a metaphor, a signpost pointing to something else. Maybe your reading glasses point to your feelings about aging. Maybe your keys symbolize the different compartments of your life, the places you inhabit. Maybe your driver’s license represents the face you show to the world. Draw a line from each object to the thing it stands for.
4. Now add to the list the things you carry that are not reflected by physical objects, your preoccupations, worries, hopes, etc. Include any thought patterns that routinely circulate in your mind.
5. Read over your list and circle the things that jump out at you, the ones that hold the most energy. Free write about them for five minutes. As much as possible, include details of time and place. Incorporate smells, sounds, tastes, textures, temperatures, colors and patterns–all of the senses.
Allow your musings to arrange themselves into lines of poetry or a character sketch for fiction.

Unleash Creativity Part 5: Enter Windows Instead of Doors

Buzac Marius window and doorThis post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry Blog on 12/11/15. As he explains in his TEDx talk, “Embrace the Shake,” when artist Phil Hansen could no longer do his pointillist drawings due to nerve damage in his hand, he learned countless other ways to create art. But why wait for a disability to open your mind to new possibilities? Whether you are a poet, artist, teacher, novelist or musician, here are five unconventional ways to climb into your creative projects from a fresh entry point.

Use your non-dominant hand. This is a practice I learned at the Art Students League in New York, where I realized that drawing a model with my left instead of right hand made me see the subject differently. Sure, the drawings were terrible (though they did get better over time) but when I went back to drawing with my dominant hand, it was as if a bit of the left hand perspective had joined in. If you keep a writing journal, try making every other entry with the opposite hand. Yes, it will slow you down; that’s part of the benefit.

Get up and move. In her New York Times essay, “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” Joyce Carol Oates says that running allows her an expanded consciousness in which she can envision what she’s writing as a film or a dream. Back at her typewriter, she recalls that dream and transcribes it. The scenes in my own novels usually unfold during walks in the woods with my dog. In the classroom, I try to get my students up and moving as much as possible. Physical stagnancy can cause the creative juices to stagnate, too.

Lennon McCartneyEmploy the power of two. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Atlantic essay, “The Power of Two,” explores how the tense creative collaboration of Lennon and McCartney produced artistic genius that far exceeded the sum of its parts. Hemingway and Fitzgerald would not have been who they were without Maxwell Perkins. I regularly have my students do brief story-generating exercises in pairs or groups of three. Sometimes it devolves into silliness, friction and occasional brilliance. All are worth it. I meet weekly with writer friends to work in silence together, a practice which strikes some as bizarre, but which helps us stay motivated and on task. Even the lonely work of novel writing can benefit from company.

Sleep In. This is a luxury I don’t often enjoy, but when I have the time and courage to lie in bed for awhile after waking in the morning, looking around at the semi-dark room and frail light slipping between blinds, entire scenes from my novel write themselves without my having to do a thing. It’s amazing. All I have to do is be present and watch the scenes unfold. The trick then is to write them down before the obligations of the day surge into motion. This is sacred time. If your day allows it, take it.

Work on more than one thing at a time. Full disclosure: I am terrible at this, but when I do manage to do so, both projects benefit. My painting teacher, Roy Kinzer, always encouraged us to have multiple canvases in motion concurrently, so that if we got stuck with one, we could move to the other. Often that shift allowed obstacles to get sorted out in the back of the brain. Upon returning to the first canvas, voila, the solution was clear. Since I tend to get completely sucked up the fictional dream of whatever novel I’m working on, it’s hard to tear myself away, even when a poem calls. But working on several projects simultaneously keeps the mind malleable.

I invite you to share your own creative insights with me on Facebook and Twitter@TessCallahan. I’m always on the lookout for new locks to crack.

Unleash Creativity Part 4: Limit your Palette

Unleash Creativity Part 3: Impose Time Constraints

Greta Skagerlind GestureThis post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry Blog on 12/9/15.

My teacher Roy Kinzer routinely warmed us up for our life painting class with a series of timed gesture drawings beginning with lightning fast poses. He required us to use large paper and to fill up the whole page. Grumbles of exasperation reverberated as every 15-seconds he told the model, “Switch.” Sometimes, in his smooth evil voice, he would call the change after only five seconds. Our hands flew. Our charcoal snapped. We tore pages from our sketchpads and cursed. When the beauty of a particular pose made me desperate to capture it, I held my breath until the switch. Details impossible to catch abbreviated themselves into lines expressing movement, rhythm and musicality, as seen in this drawing by artist Greta Skagerlind. Once Roy had us where he wanted us, that is, with our thinking brains shut off and our arms in motion, he would gradually lengthen the poses to 30, 60 and 90 seconds. By the time we reached two minutes, it felt like luxury. He had succeeded in shutting down the part of our brains that wanted to hesitate, deliberate and ponder accuracy. We simply dove in.

Just as I had in Roy’s class, my creative writing students love to hate our timed exercises, which take many forms. Here are a few:

BAG OF TRICKS: I pass around a “bag of tricks” filled with various objects. Each student reaches in and grabs one, a pinecone, a playing card, a broken watch, whatever. Using the object as a prompt, they write for X seconds, and then pass the object to the right until every student has written about every object. Sometimes they write pure physical descriptions using the five senses. Other times they write memories or associations the object evokes. In the spirit of gesture drawing, we start with 15 seconds of writing and work our way up to a minute or more.

NOUN VERB SWAP: In a variation of the above exercise, I ask each student to write on separate slips of paper a verb and a noun. I tell them to go for highly specific words (“wire fox terrier” over “dog” or “paraded” over “walked”). Next, I set the timer and have them pass nouns to the left, verbs to the right. Students combine the two words in their hand into a prompt (…the wire fox terrier paraded…”) and write for a minute.

SPEED DATING: We do similar exercises in pairs, wherein students “speed date” by joining their words to a partner’s words for a blitzkrieg brainstorm before the timer sounds and they move to the next person. Inevitably they argue and beg. “We were just getting started!” Eventually, I increase the time.

IN-HOUSE FIELD TRIPS: The exercises the students love best are in-house “field trips.” For example, if we are brainstorming for a one-act play, I send them out of the classroom to collect eavesdropped dialogue for ten minutes. Another day I might have them pick from a hat a particular location in the school (library, cafeteria, gymnasium, etc.) and send them there to speed write sensory details (sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, colors, shapes, etc.) I ask them to write down both the obvious ones (the sound of a basketball bouncing), and those that normally fall below conscious awareness (the clinking of utensils, the hum of an air conditioner). When they return to the classroom ten minutes later, they share their spoils.

Lynda Barry Syllabus2-MINUTE SELF PORTRAITS: This idea comes from cartoonist Lynda Barry’s book SYLLABUS. Instead of drawing themselves as Barry suggests, students write a description of themselves in the 3rd person present tense using as many sensory details as possible. It might be a portrait of themselves when they arose from bed that morning or from when they were 5-years old. Their choice. Many of the wonderful cartooning exercises described in both SYLLABUS and WHAT IT IS are easily amended to writing.

5-MINUTE STEPPING STONES: Adapted from Ira Progoff’s INTENSIVE JOURNAL METHOD, this exercise asks students to map their lives in 8 to 12 stepping stones beginning with, “I was born,” and ending with the present. The stepping-stones could be external markers such as “We moved to Brooklyn” or “I made my bar mitzvah” or more interior ones, “I was afraid of the boys in my gym class” or “I had a crush on Lisa.” Stepping-stones can be done multiple times with different results, depending on how you’re seeing your life that day. They can also be done for a certain time period or project, such as the stepping-stones of a novel you’re working on.

7-MINUTE INVENTORY: Also transmuted from Jungian scholar Ira Progoff, this exercise asks students to take stock of their current life circumstances through a series of quick lists. For example: Who are the people in your life right now, both the inner circle—family and friends—and the outer circle—the gas station attendant, bakery cashier or others you see daily but may not know by name? We go on to list recent life events, projects we are working on, current circumstances relating to our bodies (health, sleep, diet, exercise, sexuality) as well as the current places in our life, both those we visit and those we think about. Next comes a brief list of our societal circumstances (home, office, school, town, nation, etc.) followed by any recent dreams we may remember. After compiling the list, I ask students to write a paragraph beginning with the phrase, “This has been a time when…” or “This time has been like…” Often a simile is waiting to unfold.

These exercises are fertile additions to what Anne Lamott refers to in BIRD BY BIRD as “the compost heap” of our journals. Lump these things together on a page and something is bound to combust. Whether describing an acorn in 15 seconds or writing a life inventory in 7 minutes, the clock we love to rail against is our writing ally.

Unleash Creativity Part 2: Emulate the Masters

Mona Lisa Eric Terrade

This post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry blog  on 12/8/15.

For my students’ first poetry assignment this year, I distributed a dozen past issues of BEST AMERICAN POETRY along with other anthologies snatched from my shelf and asked them to browse through and settle on a poem that caught their eye, one whose style or cadence made them envious, a poem they wish they had written. Next, I gave them several prompts to consider and we did a bit of memory brainstorming around those ideas. In particular, we conjured up the memory’s smells, tastes, sounds, textures and visual details. Finally, I asked them to use their brainstorm to construct a poem in the style of the one they admired.

Initially, some students were not enthralled. Hadn’t they signed up for this course in order to unearth their own personal voice? Why imitate someone else?

I described the copying exercises that are part of traditional visual arts training, in which the student tries to create a replica of a masterpiece by analyzing the brushstrokes, composition and color. In the painting classes I took with artist Roy Kinzer, (seen in photo) we sometimes started with monochromatic under paintings, as the masters did, and built the painting up from the inside out, endeavoring to mix colors and apply brushstrokes to resemble the original. The learning curve was steep. The point was not to do one such copy and subsequently forever paint like that artist, but rather to do dozens of them from a wide range of styles, each time depositing another tool in the toolbox, building up our own style. Art forms, whether painRoy Kinzer Shanghai Cuttingting, poetry, dance or music, move forward collectively, an unfolding conversation. Picasso borrowed from Braque, Braque from Cézanne and so on. Last year, a student of mine named Michael wrote an emulation of Major Jackson’s “Why I Write Poetry” called “Why I Do My Homework.” Another student named Dani wrote an emulation of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map” entitled, “The City,” which Poetry.org selected for publication on their website. These poems were not appropriations of Jackson or Bishop, but a salute to them. This year, a student wrote an emulation of Robert Haas’s “After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa,” an emulation of an emulation!

I sometimes do a similar exercise with fiction. I give students signature lines from established authors with a wide range of styles—Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Borges, for example. (Having asked my English Department colleagues for their favorite lines of literature, I have an ample supply). I then ask the students to pluck out the nouns and verbs and replace them with their own words while retaining the scaffolding of the sentence. What’s left is a syntax the student may never have considered using before. While there’s no immediate end product to this exercise, it attunes their ear and broadens their idea of what’s possible.

Strictly speaking, these are not true copying exercises in the style of the visual arts, but many writers do find it useful to handwrite passages they love word for word as a way of absorbing their rhythm and structure.

Perhaps the best part of an emulation exercises is that it offers students the luxury of wading through stacks of poetry anthologies to find a poem that speaks them. It all begins there.

Tune in to tomorrow’s post to see how time constraints can be your new BFF.

Unleash Creativity Part 1: Give Students Chains to Break

HarryHoudini1899This post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry blog, 12/7/15.

Give your students a Houdini challenge. Having taught creative writing for more than ten years now, I’ve found the most restrictive assignments, the ones they gnash their teeth over, invite the most inventive work, while the free-for-alls they beg for often produce reams of ‘meh.’ I’m talking high school students here, but writers of any age enjoy outwitting a dare.

When I was a high school student myself, my English teacher asked us to write a story on the theme of violence. Maybe he was trying to engage the bored freshmen boys by giving them the chance to write shoot-em-up stories (not so quaint anymore). I thought the theme was stupid and retaliated by writing about the violence of being silent when your voice is needed. I thought I had tricked the teacher by twisting the prompt to my own design. Of course, he had tricked me by giving me a chains to break open. Read More »