Creative work, whether it’s fiction, art, music, etc., takes a special kind of energy. Like any work, creative work demands our attention and concentration. However, creative work is usually something we have to fit in around other time demands, such as a day job and chores. We write or paint or compose music because it’s fun, and because we’re passionate about it–but this same passion means it can be hard to take breaks when we need to.
If someone were paying me for it, I could probably make a comfortable living reading those writing advice articles that tell writers to “write every day, whether you feel like it or not”. There’s something to be said for consistent practice, especially for writers who are just starting out. I have two serious bones to pick with those articles that hail producing every day as the key to success, though: first, they make no room for letting creative works lie fallow (more on this in a later article), and second, writing every day without stopping to recharge is a recipe for frustration and burnout.
It can be tempting not to think of creative work as work–after all, at its best, it’s fun, a kind of play. But even play takes energy, and if you draw on that energy without ever replenishing it, eventually your energy will run out. That can be a bad place to be for a creative; it’s much easier to recharge while there’s still some creative energy left than to rebuild your reserves from zero.
The good news is there are lots of ways to replenish your creative energy. The even-better news is that they are usually enjoyable in themselves! Here are my three favorite methods to recharge my creativity when I’m feeling in the doldrums:
Step away from the screen or paper. When you’re in the middle of a creative project–especially if you’ve hit a roadblock–it can be tempting to stare at the screen all day, but it’s often better to step away. Take a shower, play with your pet, go on a walk–anything to get your conscious mind off the creative work. It sounds counterintuitive, but creativity research has suggested that the solutions to creative problems often come precisely when you’re not consciously thinking about the problem. When the conscious mind is occupied with other things, it gives the subconscious more room to churn and come up with creative possibilities.
Make room for recreation. It can be tempting to devote every waking moment not taken up by your job and chores to your creative passion, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you do. Spending some of that precious free time on fun activities that are ends in themselves not only helps you recharge creatively, it enriches life. Play videogames and/or sports, read for pleasure, watch movies–anything you like to do that isn’t directly related to your creative work*.
*A word of caution: Avoid making excuses for your hobbies like, “Reading helps me be a better writer”, or “I watch movies to learn about writing in a different medium”. These claims may be true (I’d say they are), but approaching a hobby with this attitude means you’re still mentally at work when the point is to take a break. It’s not only okay to switch off from the productive mindset, it’s essential. Your energy levels, quality of life, and work-in-progress will thank you.
Switch creative gears. If you’re in the middle of a longer project like a novel, and feeling lost or overtaxed, it’s totally okay to work on something else if you have the urge. Draw some line art while the latest layer of paint dries on your masterpiece. Write a short story while that novel draft ferments. I’ve written about the benefits of switching gears to clear your head between novel drafts, but sometimes it can help to step back in the middle of a work-in-progress to work on something unrelated.
It can be even more stimulating to switch artistic mediums completely. That is, if you’re a writer, you might draw or paint. A visual artist might write fiction or do some journaling. Exploring an art form outside of your own can be a refreshing shock to the creative system. Plus, if it’s not something you do professionally, there’s often a lot less pressure to be “good”, and as a result, more willingness to experiment with the art form. And who knows, maybe something you create on the side will give you an idea you can use later in your chosen medium.
Taking the time to replenish your creative energy benefits not just you, but also your work. I mention above that the “write every day” adage doesn’t leave time for creative works to lie fallow; in my next article, I’ll dig into why sometimes writing means not writing, and why giving your finished work time to ferment is an essential part of the creative process.