I have no original ideas! Help!
February 27, 2008 1:07 AM   Subscribe

I need to recultivate my artsy hobbies, most specifically my writing and drawing. The problem is that I can't seem to initiate anything - I have no new ideas, nothing to work on. I'd also like to grow as a writer, but I'm my own worst critic and stop before I start (fear of failure and whatnot) - I'd like to hone my skills but I'm petrified of, well, sucking.

I feel fairly competent technically. Give me a drawing or photo and I can recreate it ok, or give me a writing exercise ("describe the weather," "recount a defining moment in your life," etc.) and I do ok (...just ok.)

But I just can't make that leap out of learning to actually...making, initiating, and creating. So, Mefites, how do you tap into that font of creativity? And how do you simply get better at your creative endeavors? Any advice specific to art or writing would be much appreciated. Thanks!
posted by Eudaimonia to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not an artist, but I think that a great way to get better at creative endeavors is to work, work, work, if you can, every day. A great way to do that is to come up with some kind of project that will require daily work. You could, for instance, get a sketchbook and make yourself fill a page every day, whether it be with drawings, writing, mixed media collages, etc. If you want inspiration, and evidence that daily work can improve someone's art quite notably, no matter what the skill level, there's always Henry Darger, subject of this great documentary.
posted by farishta at 1:26 AM on February 27, 2008

About the fear of failure thing: Give yourself permission to fail. Deliberately set out to write something that will be rubbish. It's just an exercise; it doesn't matter. You can burn it afterwards if necessary! Just get writing.
posted by emilyw at 1:45 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I need to create or really need to concentrate I put on some music. usually putting on headphones work better then using my laptop for some reason. But it helps take my mind off of what needs to be done and just create what comes to mind.
posted by lilkeith07 at 2:07 AM on February 27, 2008

First of all - you don't 'have' to. You really don't. I'm not being glib, but people attach all kinds of baggage to these kinds of endeavors and more often than not it just gets in the way.

Sucking/not sucking should not be in any of your thinking. Because you will suck and it is irrelevant. Everyone at the outset of an new endeavor (to greater or lesser extent) sucks. In fact, you should find a way of ignoring any ideas about the 'value' of what-ever it is you're doing beyond any you attach to it yourself. 'Value' should not be anything near the reason you do this (at least at first, certainly).

Because it is really, really not a contest. There is no 'wining.' You do it, you enjoy it. If you stop enjoying it for long enough that you forget what it was to enjoy it, then you move on.

Also, there is no 'initiating.' I know what you mean, but thinking in those terms is perhaps not the most conducive. You just sit down to work. You'll make a lot of crap, but as you work, (at that moment and over time) you'll focus and refine your ideas and then suddenly you'll be doing 'it.' (And probably making crap but seriously, just do not do not do not think about that. Unless someone is paying you (and even then) it can be a really poisonous way of thinking). Some days will be harder than others; if you go to a gym or run it's like those days when you just can't get going - but you keep on anyway and then the next day or the next, you're into it again.

The upside of these kinds of endeavors is almost entirely personal anyway, so don't think of it as anything but personal and as with personal things - you don't share it with everybody anyway but the ones you do share it with appreciate it so much more. And most importantly, enjoy yourself.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:33 AM on February 27, 2008 [8 favorites]

Reading your tags, I'll say the confidence comes from doing it. No one starts off being perfect so just concentrate on producing, not perfection. Don't be too harsh on yourself, just write or paint. There is a whole movement going on now called "a painting a day" and there are several blogs and websites about it if you want to search. It is what it sounds like-- people committing to making a painting a day. It keeps your flow going without having to get bogged down in perfection.
posted by 45moore45 at 3:34 AM on February 27, 2008

It is funny that this question should be asked. I have just been looking at some writing I did about 18 months ago. It was the beginning of a novel, a Nanowrimo project.

I ultimately stopped for a variety of reasons - work.. and the same fears that you have: that it was frustratingly poor. But re-reading it 18 months later I see that it actually wasn't too bad. There were flashes of brilliance (if I do say so myself) mixed in with the more mundane. It might even be enough to come back to and expand upon.

So my advice is. write...something..anything.. then let it sit for a while and come back to it. You would be surprised how well you do. I also take comfort in the words of Ernest Hemingway - one of my literary heroes:

"The first draft of anything is shit"
posted by TheOtherGuy at 3:36 AM on February 27, 2008

I'm a former artist (can that be? What I mean is, I'm not creating art right now), and I think that all artists face exactly these dilemmas. Doesn't matter if they are good/bad, active/dormant. The creative pulse (impulse?) is not a steady light, but just that-- a pulse. It comes and goes even when you are actively working.

There are a couple of practical things you can do. Carry a small sketchbook and a pencil or pen that you like, and draw. Draw on the subway, draw over lunch hour, draw during meetings. Mkae stuff up, draw your coffee cup, draw your handing drawing your hand. Draw anything. Doodle if you can't think of anything to draw. Carry a moleskin and write. Write laundry lists, notes, poems, sketches, plot lines, AskMe answers. All the time. The more you do it, the more confidence you'll feel and the better you will be at it.

The second thing is to set time aside. Make it a job. 8 to 10 each night, Saturday afternoon, whenever it works in your schedule and *however long you want* (don't feel like it has to be a lot of time, but it has to be consistent time when this is what you do). During that stretch, you *must* write or draw. Don't worry about the creative spark, don't worry about inspiration, just do it. (Your boss doesn't worry that you're inspired when you show up each day, right? She just expects you to work.)

The third suggestion is the iffiest. You could try taking a drawing or writing class. I suggest this with some trepidation. It's a good way to get that set-aside time, and to connect with others like you, but there is also a danger of feeling like a dilletante. If you're younger, you'll find these classes full of old people (not bad in itself, but maybe not what you're seeking). I have also had the experience of condescending instructors in these classes-- "working" artists who feel like having to teach these wannabes is beneath them. So if you do this, hunt around for a good program, and talk to current students. I would recommend a figures class as your best bet, as you're more likely to find serious artists and serious hobbyists who just need the naked body to draw, so they have to take a class. A writing class you might be able to audit at your local university or even community college.

Your question alone is very inspiring! I have an unused studio in my basement that I have spent 20 years swearing to get back into.
posted by nax at 4:02 AM on February 27, 2008

Draw you hand drawing your hand. Hey. It's early.
posted by nax at 4:03 AM on February 27, 2008

You might want to take a look at The Artists Way.
posted by shothotbot at 4:12 AM on February 27, 2008

I go through periods of trying to write regularly. Here are my tips based on what's been most successful for me.

- Write every day. Even if it's only 100 words - hell, 10 words - write *something*. Once you start getting used to sitting down and opening up a text editor/notepad, then the mental obstacles that stop your creativity from flowing will start to break down.

- Don't worry if it's crap. There's an old saw about having to write a minimum of 100,000 bad words (some say 1,000,000) before you can start producing good ones (and god knows I'm nowhere near there yet). It may not be true for everyone but I think it's a good principle to go by. Everyone has bad tendencies and ideas that get in the way of writing their best stuff, and it's quicker and more helpful to plough through, overcome and learn from these than it is to try and skirt around them. In addition, if you're currently working on something then you'll tend to think it's worse than it really is.

- Don't edit on the fly. This is definitely my worst habit. Just. Write. Then you can edit later when you have something substantial to work with and mould into a decent piece of writing, rather than sentences at a time which will just bog you down and ruin your flow.

It may seem like the above aren't directly related to improving your creativity, but in my experience it's impossible for good ideas to flow if your techniques are hobbling your writing and keeping it from getting off the ground. Open the spigots and let the stagnant water run out, and eventually you'll find the good stuff flowing. Here's a couple of thoughts about "being creative":

- As far as I can tell, a lot of the best 'ideas' in writing are cribbed directly from real life, ideally something that the author has seen or experienced in person. A good writer can take nearly anything they see and spin it into something interesting by selecting what details to mention, what hints to drop, and what connections to make. The more you see and learn about, the easier this becomes.

- Likewise, don't be afraid to borrow and adapt ideas from other writers. As long as you can give them a new setting and use them in your own way, they will usually not even be recognised, and if they are, it would take a very slavish type of copying to really cross the line into plagiarism. "Good artists copy, great artists steal," as Picasso supposedly said.

- Once you've written enough and are sufficiently used to the ideas and principles you've borrowed or picked up in your life, your own artistic goals and 'vision' will start to emerge, though they may go through several changes over the course of your career. This is a process that takes time; waiting for a lightning-bolt of creativity to strike you out of the blue *before* you start writing will almost certainly mean that you just never start.

Hope this helps. Why not try doing a short bit of writing right now?
posted by Drexen at 4:29 AM on February 27, 2008 [5 favorites]

This is a very common issue with many people, including myself! The thing about writing is that you can rewrite. Allow yourself to suck. You cannot edit thin air but you can edit those little marks on a screen.

What’s gotten me going in the past has been to join a writers group or take a class at a community college. It’s difficult for me to feel creatively inspired when I’m sitting here worrying about the dirty bathroom (which becomes so very important to clean when I am dithering over whether my latest character should have green or brown eyes, and ditching that bit to go back and read my dialogue and moan about its suckitude, but a sparkling toilet bowl gives me instant gratification). And give me a group of people who are expecting to hear a reading and I manage to pump something out. I don’t like creating in a vacuum and frankly, there is no shame attached to using a writer’s prompt. If the prompt is “burn,” for instance, you and I will come up with two very different stories, won’t we?

I find that most writers and artists are very willing to give people tips and encouragement, so seek out a weekly drawing group and/or a writers’ group. Cultivate some mentors from those groups who do what you want to do. As far as being a dilettante, how is one supposed to hone one’s craft without instruction and guidance? Must we all live in a garrett and get M.F.A.’s to be considered worthy? Although I do admit to being “old,” so perhaps I will go sit in the corner and take up knitting instead of going to school, so as not to offend anyone with my wrinkles. After all, “I am not young enough to know everything.”

What has motivated you in the past to write or draw? Can you replicate that environment? Were you in school, surrounded by loads of people who were doing similar things, or were you alone? What is your main goal here? Is it to get published? Do you want to draw like the great masters? They did study after study, both drawings and practice paintings. Many of them belonged to groups.

A suggestion regarding drawing: people love gifts. Perhaps you could ask friends or family if you could practice doing portraits in exchange for a giving them a completed drawing. I bet they would like drawings of their pets as well. Maybe a nice landscape or rendition of their home would be appreciated. No, it’s not very inspiring, but it will get you in the habit of drawing again while honing your skills. After doing some of these drawings, if you’re not satisfied with your perspective, for instance, a session with an experienced artist can help.

My personal inspiration has come from asking “what if?” What if that crow over there could talk? What if my wooden table started turning into rubber before my eyes? What if I mixed yellow and green paint and then topped it with magenta? Well, yeah, that last one sucked, but I don’t have any expectations of being a painter, it’s just for fun. Also, it serves to keep me in a creative mode while I’m gestating new writing ideas.

And no, you are not going to suck. You are going to do at least “okay,” as you said. And okay is a wonderful starting point. Write about the emotions tied to your fear of sucking. Where do you think they came from? Did they pop out of a crack in the sidewalk one day and jump into your body and slither up to your brain? Or was it someone who criticized you? Tell the Suckmonsters to take a hike by exposing them for what they are: useless, non-productive little demons who don’t deserve to lick your boots.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:15 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you are diligent about filling notebooks, writing even when there is nothing to write about, using exercises and writing prompts or just journaling about what happened that day, eventually you will find ideas. You'll be writing about something inconsequential, and it will call up a surprisingly intense memory - or you'll start to draw the connections between different subjects - and you'll train your mind to view what you see as raw material for writing.

It takes patience, it takes practice, and it takes time.
posted by Jeanne at 6:39 AM on February 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Stephen King in On Writing says that there are two ways of writing: with the door shut and with the door open. He recommends starting out with the door shut (writing for yourself) and only opening the door after your first draft is done (thinking of the work's potential reception).

You might also be interested in books intended to help people be more creative/less fearless, such as Fearless Creating and Kaleidoscope: Ideas And Projects to Spark Your Creativity. Your local library probably has those books or others on the subject; if not, they can most likely get them through ILL.
posted by johnofjack at 6:40 AM on February 27, 2008

Go to Craiglist or Ebay, check out a personal ad or odd item, and make it the basis of your writing. Write a story about the guy who is seeking a pretty girl who doesn't mind ingrown toenails. Or do some research about the 19th-Century chair someone is selling.

When you're writing, your on the wrong track if your goal is "to be original" or "to not suck." Your goal should be "to communicate something to the reader." That's all. "To not suck" is about your ego. The reader doesn't care about your ego, so don't be selfish and dwell on it. Instead, give the reader a gift. Make him feel something.

You can write about almost anything, and it will thrill the reader, if you write sensually; if you work to evoke how whatever you're writing about looks, sounds, tastes, smells and feels. Place the reader right there with your subject. Let him know that if he tries to lift the chair, he'll find it surprisingly heavy; let them know that the girl absent-mindedly plays with her hair.
posted by grumblebee at 6:59 AM on February 27, 2008 [5 favorites]

I write for a living. I'm with emilyw on this one: Set out to write something awful. Intentionally make it bad. That's how you get the momentum going. No one writes a good first draft. The successful writers are good rewriters.

There's a book out there (sorry, I can't begin to remember the title) that shows the early drafts of famous writers. Sometimes the problems are so glaring you wonder how the person could stand to see the text emerging from their typewriter. But they wrote it because they knew they could go back and fix it.

Rather than waiting for inspiration, you might give yourself an assignment to write 250 words about the first thing you smell in the morning, or the first thing your right elbow bumps into, or the first snippet of conversation you hear on the bus. Fact or fiction, whatever you want. Nothing profound. Even stream of consciousness is fine. You'll find ideas for longer pieces emerging, and you'll get used to pouring out an unselfconscious first draft.
posted by PatoPata at 7:14 AM on February 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Seconding The Artist's Way. It's a structured process that is specifically designed to get blocked, stunted, hyper-self-judgmental artists flowing again. Look for (or consider a starting) a group in your area that works through the book together.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:25 AM on February 27, 2008

Since no one else has, I'd like to recommend the adventures in writing that are Script Frenzy and the National Novel Writing Month.

The next Script Frenzy starts April 1; you'll have to wait until November for NaNoWriMo.

What makes these programs so successful and so fun and maddening and all sorts of fun adjectives is that while the goal is to put such an ungodly number of words on paper in 30 days that you can' edit and you can't second guess yourself, you are not doing this in a vaccuum. You'll have a whole community of people who are doing the same crazy ass thing at the same time. I don't know why this is so freeing, but it is. Are you going to come out on the other side with a masterpiece. Absolutely Not. But you will have freed yourself and you will have a blob of words and scenes and conversations that you can then take the time to mold into something that sings.

I did both last year and it completely changed my world. I hadn't written anything for myself in five years and now I've written a screenplay and a novel. Woohoo!

Are either ready for me to let anyone else even peek at them as a whole thing? No, but bits and pieces are. And that's exciting.

So, check it. It might just be what you need.
posted by ilikecookies at 7:42 AM on February 27, 2008

1. Seconding the Artist's Way. Also read Art and Fear.

2. On the "do it every day" tip: I don't do it every day. My variation is that I set aside an entire upcoming weekend to work on creative stuff. Early enough that I really look forward to it. I include some romantic artistic stuff, like a plan to go get coffee in a cafe halfway through, or to go out to a movie on Saturday night.

3. I also sometimes go away for a week to a cheap motel in a picturesque location (Cape Cod off season, North Carolina) and bring my materials.

4. Switch mediums! You can get around a writing/drawing block using photography or sculpture. I don't mean to switch mediums permanently. Just on one of those set-aside weekends. The thrill from getting cool results out of another medium can really spark ideas.

5. For help switching mediums, consider a photo-blog side project, or mail art via Nervousness.org, or make a music video for a friend's band or favorite song, or make some chopstick rests out of Sculpie. In fact, head over to the art supply store and pick up any fun kit. Making gifts for others is a good idea, and will be idea-generating clues, since they'll be a mix of your ideas and the recipient (make a birthday card for a friend who likes birds, but the way you draw birds is with blotchy ink...)

6. Think about the themes that interest you. They'll be in your favorite movies, books, art works. They'll be in the things you liked when you were 6 and had no reason to like anything in particular. Write down those themes. Reminisce, think about gadgets you like and clothes and cities and times of day and what things you romanticize and what makes you teary. (For example, my list contains things like, "memory, death, the beach, one-room living, night, glitter, standing outside of things listening to what's going on inside...") Once you have this theme list, the things you read/see will remind you of your own list, and you will start making connections. Those are the seeds of ideas. (E.g. It snows, and it's your weekend to write/draw/make photos. Well, snow + death/memory = lumpy snow-blanketed gravestones. Snow + one-room living = a story about a winter siege of Prague. Snow + glitter = a painting of tiny embedded textures.)
posted by xo at 8:13 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

nthing Art and Fear, adding Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. When I started out as a photographer, I had an ingraned fear that I had no visual talent whatsoever. I used that book and began to draw a little bit. It wasn't anything particularly good, but I found that, like anything else, if I put my mind to it, I would get better and better. I stopped doing it after that, and put my visual energy into photography.

Another important thing I think is limiting yourself. It's very difficult for me to do but I think it's important. Maybe you want to write short stories, under 1000 words. Or a novel, or a series of paints of your navel, or whatever. It took me a long time to realize that artists tend to work in projects, and rarely work in individual pieces that don't relate to each other. It seems restrictive, and it is, but it gives you a thing to come back to every day.
posted by sully75 at 8:18 AM on February 27, 2008

When I am surrounded by other artists who are much better than me, I tend to push myself harder, and the question goes from "How do I get started?" to "How do I keep up?" Taking a class is a great way to meet artistic people.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 8:42 AM on February 27, 2008

Here's an idea: try to write the suckiest story about how you have no ideas. Just stream of consciousness it if you have to, but don't worry about how it's coming out. Then give it to someone to read without telling them this backstory.
posted by rhizome at 10:03 AM on February 27, 2008

I have the fear of suckage too, in a big way.

Best way I've found to snap out of it is to not try to create "finished work". Do exercises, sketches, experiments, studies; play around with new techniques or new media, and plan to throw the results away or recycle the material. I find that if I'm not stressing about every little detail, trying to make it perfect or worrying about whether it's 'good enough', I end up doing much better work (and more importantly more of it) and I start having more ideas just because I'm doing it more often.

Try to put whatever you're doing back in the "play" zone instead of "work".

I just can't make that leap out of learning to actually...making, initiating, and creating

Creating is learning. There's no gap to leap across.
posted by ook at 12:51 PM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

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