What fuels your creativity?

Being cre­at­ive can be as chal­len­ging as grabbing a hand­ful of fog. The mind and body may be will­ing, but the muse of­ten chooses its own time to ap­pear. Some people seem to be in a con­stant state of cre­at­ive con­scious­ness, while oth­ers grunt and grind their way along as if push­ing a two-ton rock up a steep hill.

But soon­er or later, most cre­at­ives ex­per­i­ence an “aha!” mo­ment that pro­pels them for­ward on a rush of star-stud­ded euphoria.

So, what flips the switch from mundane to innovative?

Sometimes I can write my way into a cre­at­ive flow by play­ing with a vari­ety of words, scen­ari­os and ran­dom com­bin­a­tions. Or a walk in the woods or along the Salish Sea can trans­form neb­u­lous thoughts into a quirky idea.

And, al­though far less en­joy­able, cre­at­ive thoughts also emerge while do­ing some­thing mind­less like wash­ing dishes or vacuuming.

But even when strug­gling, I’m drawn to the craft of story.

Curiosity is the driv­ing force be­hind my cre­ativ­ity. Even as a child I was al­ways ask­ing ques­tions and si­lently watch­ing what people did and the ways oth­ers re­acted. I want to know why some­thing hap­pens and how people be­come who they are.

Inspiration is usu­ally sparked by an ex­tern­al in­cid­ent: rot­ting fish be­ing con­ver­ted into oo­ligan grease, a cou­gar scream­ing in the green­space be­hind my home or feel­ing un­com­fort­able around the home­less in my community.

I’m in­trigued by the reas­ons people live and act the way they do. And of the dark that lies be­low the sur­face some­times swim­ming to the top to wreak hav­oc. What’s the back­story? How do people change? Or even survive?

In pre­vi­ous books, I’ve ex­amined re­la­tion­ships between people and wild­life, the land­scape, and oth­er cul­tures. Now I’m ex­plor­ing a more in­tim­ate re­la­tion­ship, that of a fam­ily shattered by past events, nev­er ac­know­ledged or spoken about.

Switching from non­fic­tion to fic­tion is a chal­lenge, lead­ing to much thought and con­tem­pla­tion. On his web­site, in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned au­thor Michael Connelly says he re­cently cre­ated a new series, “Because you have to write like a shark. You keep mov­ing or you die creatively.”

Now I’m ex­er­cising my cre­at­ive muscles in dif­fer­ent ways and learn­ing new as­pects of the story-telling jour­ney. Writing like a shark in­volves change and step­ping out­side my com­fort zone.

I nev­er know how each dance with the muse will turn out but that’s part of the charm. Every story is an adventure.


How I beat the worst writers block ever – twice

I was stuck. On page one.

Life stuff had hal­ted my writ­ing for months but today was the day I’d re­claim my real life. The only prob­lem was noth­ing got bet­ter after the first page. In fact, the first ten chapters of the nov­el I was work­ing on prob­ably con­tained the worst words I’d ever written.

It was like get­ting into a brand new, shiny red Mercedes with black leath­er seats and then hav­ing a fis­sure crack open on all sides of the vehicle with no way over it.

I stewed, fret­ted and cursed. But no mat­ter how much I stared at the page, I couldn’t get past this road­b­lock. Usually, a walk on the beach or in the woods clears the way for cre­ativ­ity. But there seemed no way back into this story.

In my 30+ years of writ­ing, I’d nev­er been this stuck be­fore. It was like ter­min­al con­stip­a­tion of the brain.

Finally, Harold Macy, a friend and writ­ing col­league since my wanna be a writer days, told me to ditch start­ing at the be­gin­ning of the story and to just dive in any­where. Another long­time writ­ing friend, Caroline Woodward, said she was go­ing to write 1,000 words a day for a month. I wondered if I could too.

Following Harold’s ad­vice, I chose the cli­max of my story — where there was plenty of ac­tion and ex­cite­ment — as my re-entry point to the nov­el. The en­ergy was palp­able and work­ing back­wards was eye-open­ing. I couldn’t re­mem­ber if I’d set up events in pre­vi­ous chapters so it was al­ways a sur­prise. It was al­most like read­ing a book in­stead of writ­ing one.

One thou­sand words a day – or even more – no prob­lem. I was elated!

Then I got to chapter 10 and the red Mercedes screeched to a halt. The first third of the book still sucked. I felt like the guy in this photo — lots of ideas and all bad, bad, bad.

I was back where I star­ted. But in­stead of a crevice, the Andes Mountains had sprung up in the road and there was no way over, through or around them.  The prob­lem was, I still really liked the story and didn’t want to aban­don it.

I felt like a fail­ure and wondered if I should give up writ­ing. Be con­tent with what I’d already ac­com­plished. But, if I didn’t write, what would I do?

Then Derrick, a tai chi buddy, told me a story about one of his wife’s cats. I’m not a cat per­son but the couple’s struggle with Sophie stuck in my mind. A few days later I watched a 2003 Russian com­ing of age film, The Return.

A scruffy, doped up cat and two young boys ad­just­ing to the re­turn of their fath­er was all it took. The moun­tains crumbled to dust and the Mercedes roared to life. I wrote a pro­logue and totally re­vised chapter one. The mo­mentum kept up for re­vi­sions of the fol­low­ing chapters. After months of angst, I was writ­ing again. And lov­ing it.

So, what did I learn about deal­ing with a double whammy of a writ­ing logjam?

-Be open to find­ing in­spir­a­tion any­where, on a bus, in the gro­cery store or in between moves on a check­er board.

-Set writ­ing goals and stick to them. The act of writ­ing it­self can shake some­thing loose.

-Approach your story from a com­pletely dif­fer­ent angle, try work­ing back­wards, in­tro­du­cing a new char­ac­ter or chan­ging a character’s point of view.

-Don’t be shy about shar­ing your woes and listen­ing to suggestions.

-And per­haps most im­port­antly, if you be­lieve in your story, don’t give up.


Feature im­age cred­it: iStock 1085064170 Moussa81




Creativity and goofing off

Scientific stud­ies re­veal that not think­ing gives cre­ativ­ity a big boost.

That means do­ing some­thing that doesn’t re­quire much con­cen­tra­tion, such as go­ing for a walk or wash­ing the dishes, is more likely to res­ult in an ima­gin­at­ive idea or the solu­tion to a prob­lem than sit­ting at your desk strain­ing your brain into an acute case of constipation.

It turns out that the mind op­er­ates in two modes: lin­ear and cre­at­ive. The first, which most of us are in most of the time, helps us plan and ac­com­plish our day-to-day tasks and long-term goals.

The second is more of a free­wheel­ing state pop­u­lated by day­dreams, ran­dom ideas and off-the wall thoughts. Some call it goof­ing off.

It’s this free­dom from fo­cused think­ing that opens the door to cre­ativ­ity. It works best when the body is act­ive, and the brain min­im­ally en­gaged. So, walk­ing (alone or with a si­lent com­pan­ion) is good, scrolling through your so­cial me­dia feeds is not.

Throughout his­tory, fam­ous people have cred­ited non-think­ing mo­ments to cre­at­ive in­spir­a­tion. Mozart claimed he of­ten “heard” his mu­sic while on a walk, while Albert Einstein coun­ted on Mozart’s sym­phon­ies to loosen the cre­ativ­ity tap when he was stuck.

Unfortunately, our cul­ture and there­fore our brains have been trained to go, go go and we of­ten don’t get enough — or maybe any — idle time.

In a Psychology Today art­icle titled, “3 Ridiculously Easy Tips for More Creativity and Happiness,” Emma Seppälä suggests:

-Make sure you have some down­time every day

-Do some­thing dif­fer­ent, meet someone dif­fer­ent or read or watch some­thing different

-Play, wheth­er it be sports, or with your chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, or pet(s).

Those all open the door to a broad­er per­spect­ive and thus more in­vent­ive thoughts. In fact, re­search­ers say, di­vid­ing your day into fo­cused and non-fo­cused think­ing seg­ments is most pro­duct­ive. It will likely boost your mood too.

As George MacDonald, Scottish au­thor and ment­or to Lewis Carroll, once said, “Work is not al­ways re­quired. There is such a thing as sac­red idleness.”


On being creative

Some say be­ing cre­at­ive has to do with a person’s ge­net­ic makeup. Others con­sider it an at­ti­tude. I’ve learned that the drive to cre­ate can be a lifelong passion.

In 2013, I in­ter­viewed Ruth Dickson about her up­com­ing art show at the

Ruth Dickson in 2013. Image cour­tesy Comox Valley Record

Pearl Ellis Gallery in Comox, BC. Within the last 12 months, she had com­pleted nearly 52 paint­ings and pub­lished her sixth book. She was nearly 95 years old.

As a young moth­er liv­ing in the isol­ated com­munity of Sayward, BC, Ruth played around with her children’s paints and pas­tels. Later, when the fam­ily moved to Cowichan, she took her port­fo­lio to the University of Victoria and was ac­cep­ted into the second year of the art pro­gram. Eventually she taught classes in oil paint­ing, silk­screen and batik at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University).

When Ruth turned 90, she de­cided she’d lived long enough to have some­thing to say about her past. So, she took her walk­er and a ma­nu­script to a week-long work­shop at the Victoria School of Writing. “I was the old­est stu­dent they’d ever had,” she said. “But they thought my work was funny and in­ter­est­ing and were ex­cited about it.”

Ruth wrote the first draft of her books in longhand as it “helped her think.” She taught her­self to type and tran­scribed her first two, po­etry col­lec­tions on an old Remington type­writer. For later books, Ruth joined the tech­no­lo­gic­al age, not­ing that she loved everything about com­puters ex­cept learn­ing a new word-pro­cessing program.

Ruth cred­its her love of the out­doors and her rich fantasy life to grow­ing up in re­mote loc­a­tions on Scottish light sta­tions and the Canadian Prairies.

She was al­ways curi­ous and eager to learn but, due to the Depression, was un­able to re­ceive as much edu­ca­tion as she wanted. Instead, after mar­ry­ing in 1941, she vowed to learn some­thing new every year.

I dis­covered you can learn your whole life — and to nev­er be afraid to try some­thing new,” she said.

Ruth’s mem­oir about her time in Sawyward, BC in the 1940s. The paint­ing on the cov­er is her work.

In her mid-to late nineties, Ruth’s nor­mal routine was to paint one week and write the next. One wall of her spare bed­room con­tained a table and paint­ing sup­plies, while the oth­er was set up for her lit­er­ary endeavours.

Despite health chal­lenges in her later years, Ruth ac­cep­ted a com­mis­sion to cre­ate a two-metre paint­ing of a great white shark. She also par­ti­cip­ated in an hour-long Port Townsend, Washington ra­dio pro­gram shar­ing the story of how, as a young moth­er, she shot at a cou­gar sneak­ing up on her baby’s car­riage. And, when a rat made a brief ap­pear­ance in her apart­ment, she in­cor­por­ated a much cuter ver­sion of the un­wel­come guest in a baby sweat­er she knit­ted to cel­eb­rate the birth of a great-grandchild.

Despite our age dif­fer­ence, my in­ter­view with Ruth evolved into many emails, phone calls and vis­its over tea and cook­ies. She was a lively, en­ter­tain­ing com­pan­ion and will al­ways be an in­spir­a­tion to me on how to re­main curi­ous, en­gaged and cre­at­ive through­out life.

Ruth passed away in Courtenay, BC on March 12, 2021 at age 102. Wherever her spir­it has gone, I’m sure a paint­brush, note­book and com­puter are close at hand.

When You’re 97 is a col­lec­tion of hu­mor­ous draw­ings and com­ments Ruth cre­ated as a light­hearted look at the chal­lenges of grow­ing old.