On the ebb and flow of creativity

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity. Where does it come from, what makes one feel more creative, less creative, how we seemed much more creative as children than we do as adults, how to capture more moments of creativity … etc.

Just at the moment I feel like I’m getting nowhere on a major story project. Yup, I have writer’s block.

One thing I have learned is that simply demanding more productivity from myself as a writer does not help. If anything helps, it’s usually a side project that doesn’t have high expectations or imagined outcomes. So, as a side project, I picked up the book Creative Workshop by David Sherwin, a visual designer and writer on design. The book holds 80 projects, mostly for a visual designer, to develop their craft.

Aside from the 80 projects, though, in the first 8-9 pages Sherwin talks about ways to come up with more ideas. If you’re like me, you are used to basic brainstorming; you start with a blank piece of paper or a white board/chalkboard and jot down every idea you can. The wilder the better. But here David Sherwin goes beyond basic brainstorming. A couple of my favorites:

  • Word Listing, where you make 3 columns, put a list of ideas in column 1, pick one of those ideas and expand on it in column 2; in column 3 you write down opposite words to columns 1 and 2, then connect relationships among the columns for new ideas.
  • Picture Association, where you grab a bunch of different photographs and illustrations and jot down ideas suggested by the images; I like Flickr for widely accessible photos, but there are lots of image-banks out there.
  • Idea Inversion, where you take a concept that is not quite working and write down everything that is the exact opposite of it, then mix and match with the original idea to come up with an improved idea.
Photo by Theresa Barker

Although I had picked up David Sherwin’s book for no particular reason, when I came across these multiple methods of brainstorming I decided to experiment with some of them on my story. I’m happy to report I have made some little progress. Today I’m probably going to start over from ground zero – again – but at least the notion of where creativity comes from has been widened for me.

Just for fun I did a couple of design challenges from David’s book. This was from an exercise where you have to make an alphabet out of everyday objects. I arranged yellow Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils into letters. It wasn’t as easy as I thought! Since the pencils were all the same length, it was hard to get curves to come out. But it also helped me think about the way objects need to be broken down into smaller segments in order to be able to complete a task or reach a goal.

Here is the complete alphabet made of No. 2 pencils:

Photos by Theresa Barker.

And, for my work this week here’s a short prose piece on a line from the poem “Rhymes for a Watertower” by Christian Wiman.

Rhymes for a Ghost Town

After Christian Wiman

The town is so flat she sees her thoughts pass by her on Main Street before the sun goes down. The dusk is the color of brown-orange candy her mother used to buy for her in the five-and-dime. The row of school desks harbor ghosts of memories read by candlelight. A row of houses nearly demolished by harsh weather and winter storms. A courthouse spreading its wings getting ready to fly. A bank clockโ€™s lingering hands. A gleam of storefronts not quite spare enough for her spare thoughts. A memory of libraries in the dusty street.

Take care and good writing,


17 thoughts on “On the ebb and flow of creativity

  1. Davids book sounds very interesting! Brainstorming is so important and certainly key to everything creative such as writing, photography, videography, etc. We liked the way you cleverly wove the words and thoughts. Nice Theresa… nice!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘simply demanding more productivity from myself as a writer does not help’ You summed it up here when you feel uninspired. When I’m not feeling inspired to write, the more I sit down and try to write, the more writing doesn’t happen. Even reading doesn’t help. What I find is I need to do something completely different and then come back to writing – and writing in a different way helps.

    I really like your picture association suggestion. Visual is a different art form compared to words. Sometimes I like to flick through my photos on my phone or archives, focus on an image or moment in an image and try to write something based off that. Or maybe just come up with topics or ideas to write about. I don’t pressure myself into writing but more so find something to be excited about writing about at some point.

    I like how your fiction piece is very much visual, recollecting the past and what has been.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mabel! “When Iโ€™m not feeling inspired to write, the more I sit down and try to write, the more writing doesnโ€™t happen.” I love this observation. I’ve just been reading a book of essays by novelist Ann Patchett, in which she asserts you only have to sit down every day for 2 hours and eventually you will be productive. Not so! I really like the idea that you do something different and then come back to writing. I’m going to give that a try!

      About the picture association, I was also surprised to find this inspiring. As you know, my go-to prompts are poetry – words – but I found images remarkably good for the imagination, when I tried this idea. I love that you flip through your phone or other photos and start writing when you find something to respond to. Kudos!

      Thank you for your kind message about my fiction! It always makes me feel wonderful to have connected with you as a reader. ๐Ÿ™‚


      1. Sometimes I sit for two hours trying to write, and can’t, and end up feeling more frustrated than ever. So I don’t do that anymore – much rather spend some time randomly browsing the internet having some fun. Maybe Ann’s suggestion was more catered to those who are insistent they get something done.

        It is lovely t have connected with you, Theresa. Really like writing about your writing reflections too ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Mabel! Yes, in fact Patchett even says in her book (“This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”) that she gave a lecture to a group of students “terribly afflicted” with writer’s block, in which she instructed them to sit at their desk for 2 hours a day until they could write; then there was a pause, they looked at each other, and one young woman said to her, “Clearly you’ve never had it.” ๐Ÿ™‚ Not sure why she included that in her essay, as it seems a bit too self-revelatory!

    I LOVE that you noticed it wasn’t helping, only making you feel worse to sit and try to write. Your observation reminds me of a recent article I saw in the New York Times on procrastination, which included research that suggested “self-compassionate” self-talk is good for breaking a cycle of procrastination (rather than criticizing oneself for not being more productive). Tthat sounds similar to what you’re doing, in that you’re going away to do another activity rather than hang around feeling guiltily unproductive. So cool!

    Here is the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html

    Thank you again, Mabel, it is a gift for me also to connect with you on the other side of the world from me! I enjoy your writing as well, I especially always enjoy learning from your insights and research, and it is so reassuring to hear you’ve been in the same boat with writing challenges. ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. Those are some great poetic images, Theresa! I’ve heard of that first exercise before. The 3rd one really fascinates me. I would like that try that. Unfortunately, that won’t work very well for memoir (darn), but for fiction and poetry, I think it would be a wonderful “trick.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think you have a good point, Luanne, about it not being a good fit for memoir…but picture association, either of personal photos or perhaps photos of the time? might be good triggers, I bet! Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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