Young, creative & trapped

How to have ideas when the studio is shut

Credit: Steve P

In a wonderful book on creativity called The Courage to Create psychologist Rollo May says ‘creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations’.

Spontaneity, at least in terms of going wherever you choose at the drop of a surgical mask, is currently in rather short supply. Limitations, however, are in abundance.

Which, for craggy old creative hands, who could sniff out inspiration from behind the fridge if the occasion called, may not be a terribly daunting turn of events.

But for young creatives — like the ones I teach now and in the recent past on our Creative Advertising course at The University of Lincoln — a shut studio can cut them off from the safest and most nurturing environment for having good ideas.

There is no universal remedy for disembodied creativity, just as there is no panacea for anyone struggling to summon their imagination in isolation.

All I have to give are three bits of advice that work for me, and just might help you form a new — and perhaps even more effective — creative habit.

1. Walk

Now, unless you want to be chased down the cul-de-sac by a government drone, this step should only be attempted in line with the current lockdown advice.

But I would heartily suggest using your state-allocated strolling time to heave some oxygen through your creative gills.

George Lois, in a booked called Damn Good Advice offers, predictably, a damn good bit of advice:

‘If you’re trying to achieve greatness in any creative industry, go out into the world and sail the ocean blue and live a life of discovery.’

Creativity does not do well in captivity, and the familiarity of routine can be murderous to a healthy imagination.

The funny thing about outside, is that it’s generally where the world can be found — or at least, the most inspiring parts.

What’s more, if you’re struggling with an unruly mind indoors, you may well find that even the most troublesome brains tend to behave themselves far more reasonably in the fresh air.

So take a stroll, take a notepad, leave behind your headphones and let your imagination wander.

2. Read

William Faulkner, when asked for his best advice on becoming a writer is said to have replied in the following way:

‘Read, read, read! Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.’

The key to this entirely useful piece of advice, is that it provides you with permission to read anythingyour like.

Read bad magazines, read hideous novels, read your own appalling poetry from when you were 16 and wanted to get a pet raven. Read wonderful things too. Read things you’ve never read, and read things you’ve always read. Read what you love and read from way beyond your comfort zone. Read til you’re more papercut than person.

And remember, this is reading without pressure or judgement or expectation. This is not reading to be well-read or to enrich your mind — or at least, not in the way that people who use the words ‘enrich your mind’ mean. This is chumming the waters of your imagination until the sea monsters arrive.

As novelist Francine Prose says, writers ‘read carnivorously’,searching (perhaps without realising) for what may be ‘admired, absorbed and learned’. I generally find this is true for all types of creative people, who are a strange sort of benign parasite, hitching a ride on mighty beasts of curiosity.

Reading, quite simply, makes you want to write or create. Great stories make you look for your own. And, best of all, when you’re creatively stuck, somebody else’s words and thoughts and feelings have a habit of helping you find yours.

3. Study

The paradox of boredom is that you often become so bored you lack the energy to attempt anything that could distract you from your boredom.

Study, in the enforced and aimless sense, is probably not going to wrestle you away from that programme about tigers and mullets and suspiciously vanished millionaire husbands.

But studying the creative field you want to hopefully end up in, is an excellent way to invigorate your creativity, both in terms of having ideas and, more importantly, doing something with them.

There’s another superb book on creativity called The Runaway Species, written by Anthony Bradt (a composer) and David Eagleman(a neuroscientist).

This is what they have to say about where to find new ideas:

‘Creativity does not emerge out of thin air: we depend on culture to provide a storehouse of raw materials. And in the same way that a master chef shops for the finest ingredients in preparing a new recipe, we often search for the best of what we’ve inherited in order to make something new.’

In other words, the people who create the most remarkable new ideas are those that best understand the old ones — whether they use that knowledge as inspiration or opposition.

Young creatives may be trapped but, fortunately, they are trapped alongside an entire universe of creative thinking, design, writing, advertising, psychology and general brilliance.

The complete box-set of creativity is at our fingertips, and we just so happen to suddenly have the time and space to accommodate an almighty binge.

This isn’t about history, or respecting your elders, or showing deference to the past — it’s about understanding the ideas that have already been done, so you’re better equipped to come up with the ones that have never been dreamt of.

Senior Lecturer in Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln & Copywriter