Is creativity something that can be exercised? If you have ever taken a creative writing class, your answer should most definitely be yes. I spent my first few weeks of my first creative writing class frustrated that we weren’t doing enough writing. It turns out you can’t write without being creative, and you can’t practice writing without also taking the time to practice creativity.
How do you “practice” something so abstract? Here are a few of my favorite suggestions.
Come up with random writing prompts
On my first laptop, I used the Stickies app (virtual sticky notes that “stick” to your desktop) to keep track of random writing prompts. Every once in awhile a character would pop into my head – a trait or flaw or desired achievement – and I’d stick it there, knowing I’d be able to find it later. Other times, I would do the opposite of what we did in school – come up with my own writing prompts, as if I were the English teacher giving students something to write about in their homework journals.
When we claim to lack inspiration, we’re really just at that unbearable stretch of time that falls between deciding we want to write something and actually writing something. When you’re sitting on an airplane and that airplane is sitting on the runway, it’s pretty awful. You just want the giant machine to carry you safely to your destination already. But the plane can’t do that without first making its way onto the runway, and then – slowly at first, faster at last – speeding down that strip until it finally takes off.
The same way a flight crew has to make preparations before flying (what those are, I’m not knowledgeable enough at this moment to say), we have to prepare ourselves for writing as well. Sometimes the act of sitting down and thinking up random writing prompts, even if we don’t use them right away, or ever, stimulates our minds just enough to engage a creativity takeoff.
Build with LEGOs
Though it seems silly now, I’m not sure I would have ever had the chance to play with LEGOs growing up if it weren’t for my brother. (If you’ve ever wondered, by the way, pink LEGOs do exist.) I’ve played with enough of those bricks in my lifetime to know there’s nothing quite like figuring out how to build a tower that touches the ceiling, as a seven year old with no knowledge of physics or architecture. How did we figure it out? By figuring it out. Literally. There was no Google back then. You couldn’t search on YouTube and watch someone else do it.
I never liked those sets that came with instructions showing you exactly how to build something. It’s not fun if you can’t dump an entire bucket of LEGO bricks on the floor and create something from nothing. If we still had them, I’d probably still do the same thing. It makes you think without realizing how hard you’re actually thinking. You can build whatever you want, knock it down, take it apart and build something else.
If you think about it, you’re doing the same thing when you sit down to write something. You have a general selection of story elements and ideas and have to figure out what to put where to build it into something awesome. Playing with LEGOs may seem like a pretty strange way to practice how to do that, but when all you have in front of you is a bunch of plastic, your brain is going to weave a lot of threads of ideas together while you’re building.
Write your own dialogue for an already existing video
Bad Lip Reading, anyone? This is an exercise I remember doing in my creative writing class in high school, and I still do it sometimes when I’m “bored” (aka want to write but don’t know what to write about). All you do is find a short video, or a piece of a longer one, and watch it on mute. All you have then are visual cues. You have some context, but give yourself the task of writing your own script to go along with what you’re seeing, and you’ll be busy for quite awhile.
Probably the most fun part about this exercise, after coming up with at least a few versions of what you think is being said, is going back and watching the entire video with the sound back on. Whether you were somewhat on track or completely wrong, the first benefit of doing this is laughing at the comparison. The second, of course, is letting your imagination do most of the work, something we don’t often do enough.
I catch myself doing this subconsciously scrolling through Facebook, since most of my news feed is now mostly videos I have no interest in watching with sound. This might be especially beneficial for those who also want to practice writing dialogue, because it forces you to not only write your own, but to listen more closely to the way people talk in real life, if it’s an interview or speech or something you’re watching on mute.
Four words: coloring book and crayons
Some of us need structure in our creativity – most of you reading this are probably writers, after all. Outlines exist to build some kind of defined framework and foundation to a story before creativity takes over, which you wouldn’t think to be a skill that can be practiced or refined. You’d be surprised how all those hours you spent bonding with markers and colored pencils in grade school actually probably contributed to the writer’s brain you’re now stuck with for the rest of your life.
I don’t know about you, but the smell of crayons alone warps me right back to my coloring book days. “Adult” coloring books are a thing now, and it’s not just some random fad or marketing scheme. Coloring is mindless in some ways and mentally stimulating in others. Especially when you have a Disney princess coloring book like I do, and make Belle a blond and Cinderella a redhead just because you can. (I’d still never color outside the lines though … that drives me crazy.)
Do I even need to mention here how we rely way too much on technology to stimulate our own creativity? Watching a few videos here and there can help, but if you’ve ever had a shower epiphany (haven’t we all though?), you know what tends to happen the second you stop staring at your computer screen. I’ve never been a believer in the wondrous claims of brain-stimulating games. I want to think, not have an app do the thinking for me.
Do something you already know you aren’t good at
When I was younger, I used to want to be an artist. Painting; drawing; sculpting; I did it all, and I loved every minute of it. There comes a point, though, when kids either cross over a line or don’t. When you’re little, no matter what you draw or paint or sculpt, it’s good. It gets put up on the refrigerator or put on a shelf. But eventually, bad art stops being cute. Some kids progress, and learn how to make better art. I was bad at it, and thankfully, realized that soon enough to shift my focus to music and writing, forms of art I was a little bit more skilled at.
However – don’t tell anyone – sometimes I still draw. Sometimes it’s just doodling, but other times, I dig out my sketchbook from way back when, and I start drawing landscapes and people and all the things I used to draw when I was eight. It’s just awful enough to laugh at, and don’t ask to see it, because I’d rather burn it than show it to anyone. But I do it, still, because it exercises a different part of my brain than writing does. There’s a visual component that writing doesn’t have in quite the same way. Because I’m not good at it, and don’t really have any desire to improve, it challenges me just enough to inspire me to put my pencil down and get back to writing.
This could be anything. Playing a sport, or a video game, or DIY’ing something. Creating something, even if you aren’t good at it, still forces you to engage in a creative activity. Even better, it frees you, in a way. There’s no pressure for me to draw something well, because I don’t need or want to. It makes you laugh at how awful you are at using a hot glue gun or a paintbrush or kicking a ball into a net. I think all of us need to do things like this regularly. Once you try to do something you’re terrible at, and then return to writing, you won’t feel quite as doubtful about your ability to craft a story that makes sense. Trust me.
As writers, we tend to obsess over small things – whether this character is relatable or that event could scientifically actually happen in real life. These are important details, and we’re trained to pay attention to them. But we can’t forget to, every once in awhile, let go of all that and just focus on being creative. Why do so many writers get bored so easily? Because all they do is write. You have to do other things, too. Especially things that make you think, and force you to have fun. Laugh a little, why don’t you? I’m staring at the literal character sketch (an actual sketch of an actual fictional person, or a sorry attempt at one) I tried to draw and I’m smiling. I’m going to go write a story about that character now. How about you?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.