anna brones

writer + artist + activist

Posts Tagged ‘creative inspiration

What Blocks Our Creative Flow? (And How Do We Get Back There?)

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Creative flow is that sought after state that so many of us keep wanting to get to. When we’re there, we feel strong and empowered, as if we are doing exactly what we should be doing in that exact moment. We may work hard, but in a sense, that work feels effortless. When we’re not there, that state feels more elusive than ever, and we try to think of every possible means of chasing it down, hoping to harness that power once more.

But what is creative flow? When and why do we get into that state?

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” wrote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow. 

That’s what we feel when we are in that moment of creative flow. We are immersed in what we are doing, everything else falls away. This doesn’t just happen in creative practice. Ever felt a runner’s high? That’s because of flow. Or when you come out of an hourlong yoga practice and realize that you haven’t thought about anything else in the last 60 minutes besides your physical presence? Flow.

I found a segment from WNYC from a couple of years ago on the neuroscience behind creative flow, featuring an interview with Dr. Heather Berlin. “Productivity doesn’t necessarily correlate with creativity,” says Berlin. An excellent reminder that just because we are producing work doesn’t mean that we are being creative or doing creative thinking. Some of the best stuff comes to us when we’re on a walk, or staring out the window. That’s because, “the unconscious can do much more complex processing,” says Berlin. The creative flow state can’t be forced. In those moments it’s better to turn off and tune out.

In her interview, Berlin mentions a study that involved MRI scans of jazz musicians’s brains while the musicians were improvising. This study is about ten years old, but the lessons to be drawn from it are timeless. According to Science Daily, “The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview.”

In other words, if we can turn that part of the brain off – or at least put it in pause – we might be better able to lower our inhibitions and better tap into our flow state.

Earlier this week, someone asked me what my writing process was. I would love to say that I diligently sit down on a regular basis and write for a predetermined amount of time, avoiding all distractions and committing myself to the process. I can think of about one month in the last year and a half when I was good about doing that (and I managed to write a book in that month, which I guess is proof that such commitment does work). However, for the most part, my writing process is what I call the “marination method.” I have an idea, or an assignment, I file it away at the back of my brain, and let the idea sit and percolate. Eventually the deadline nears, and I have to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and release those ideas.

Often I feel that I am up against a block, and in those moments I know that before I can sit down and do the work, I have to do something to get the creative juices flowing. A creative warm up so to say. That can be a run or a walk, or just taking a few minutes to paint with watercolors. (Sidenote: I am avoiding a deadline at this very moment, but telling myself that writing this is a good way to warm up to finishing the piece I need to turn in). Something to get my mind away from focusing too hard on the project at hand, and letting it wander instead. Often I find that somewhere in this process the unconscious kicks in, things come to the front of my mind that I hadn’t even considered. When I finally get there, then I feel like I am in the flow state.

I’m not necessarily advocating for that as a writing strategy, but in the moments when we feel that we are up against those creative walls, it’s an important reminder that pushing through isn’t necessarily the best path forward. If you let the prefrontal cortex do too much obsessing, you’ll keep coming up against that block. One study even used targeted electric currents to block that part of the brain, showing that doing so can help to break down that wall and lead to more creative thinking.

But we don’t need electric currents to stop obsessing. Think of another use of flow: physical movement. Exercise is good for our creativity. Intuitively, I think it makes sense that physical movement would lead to creative movement.

If we’re looking for that creative flow state, we have to do the things that get us there. There’s no magic solution, but you can be sure that refreshing your email isn’t one of them.

Stay small; often we don’t have an entire day to devote to a creative project, instead, think about what you could do creatively in fifteen minutes. If you can do those fifteen minutes every day, that ends up leading to a very regular creative practice, which helps to encourage the flow state.

Focus on putting one foot in front of the other; your overall project may be huge, but focus on the individual steps to get there, in order to distract your brain from derailing.

Think process, not product; flow is about being immersed in the moment, not getting hung up on whether or not the end product will be perfect.

Change your scenery. Take your notebook outside.

Avoid distractions. Unless of course they are the kind of distractions that encourage creative thinking.

Move.

Breathe.

Flow.

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Written by Anna Brones

July 20, 2018 at 11:40

Is Doubt Getting in the Way of Your Work?

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“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

– Lao Tzu

I feel like I need this reminder this week, and maybe you do too. Let things be what they need to be. Tell the doubt that you don’t have time for it today. Let your words and mind go where they need to go. Get out of the way of yourself. Stay with what needs you but let yourself move on to whatever is next when the time comes. Allow yourself to flow.

Why is it so hard to exist in that flow space though? I came across a 1973 lecture by Agnes Martin, titled “On the Perfection Underlying Life” that begins to get at the answer to that question.

When we wake up in the morning we are inspired to do some certain thing and we do do it. The difficulty lies in the fact that it may turn out well or it may not turn out well. If it turns out well we have a tendency to think that we have successfully followed our inspiration and if it does not turn out well we have a tendency to think that we have lost our inspiration. But that is not true. There is successful work and work that fails but all of it is inspired. I will speak later about successful works of art but here I want to speak of failures. Failures that should be discarded and completely cut off.

I have come especially to talk to those among you who recognize these failures. I want particularly to talk to those who recognize all of their failures and feel inadequate and defeated, to those who feel insufficient – short of what is expected or needed. I would like somehow to explain that these feelings are the natural state of mind of the artist, that a sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work.

Fear. Failure. Defeat. Doubt.

So many of us struggle with this. Perhaps it’s because this has been on my mind, but I have seen numerous references to doubt pop up in the last week. I saw the writer and illustrator Emily McDowell tackle the question on Instagram (I loved her answer), I saw a comic about impostor syndrome, after reading an article about Gabriele Münter I thought about how much inspiration someone can give someone else, and how quickly that can turn to doubt.

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Written by Anna Brones

July 13, 2018 at 08:38

Creativity is Messy Work

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This week, I put together a selection of work to show at my local library. After gathering it together (last minute, of course) I took a step back to look at it. I hated all of it. This quickly led to questioning my worth as an artist and a creative individual. I know better than that, but the feeling gnawed at me for the rest of the day, and I went to bed still feeling frustrated.

I woke up the next morning and immediately thought of my irritation. It was early morning, and I had a new day ahead of me. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this should not be a point of frustration, but instead a challenge to do more, to do things differently, to push myself. I realized that the reason I didn’t like my work was that it didn’t feel like I had gone deep enough, as if I had only skimmed the surface. I had taken the easy route. And if I didn’t like that work, it was simply an indicator that it was time to step things up a bit.

We often think of creativity as a lightning bolt striking from above, crashing down to earth and energizing its recipient with a stroke of genius. From there the ideas flow.

So when that doesn’t happen, we resist the work. We ask ourselves why the creativity isn’t flowing. We make up excuses. Most commonly, “If only I felt inspired, then I would create something…”

How many times have you said that to yourself? I know that I have. Regularly, in fact, as an excuse to get out of sitting down to do the work. Often that sense that we need to feel inspired is because we’re under the assumption that we have to create something great. That we need perfection straight out of the gate. So we avoid doing the work out of fear of failing, of not being perfect, of not creating a masterpiece.

The reality is that we can’t create a masterpiece every single time. We have to work through plenty of ideas that don’t end up working out before coming on one that does.  Creative work isn’t clean and perfect. Creative work is messy. As Joseph Chilton Pearce put it, “to live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”

Even sitting down to write this post I didn’t really know where I was going with it. In fact, I thought to myself, “do you even have the authority to write about this?” But as I started writing – just the simple act of putting ideas into words – my brain started to jump from one idea to the other. And while that mean little voice in the back of my head never really goes away, when I finally dive into working on something, at least it knows that I’m too busy to listen and it’s time to shut up.

“If only…”

One thing is certain: if we only created when we felt inspired, we might never make anything. Creativity isn’t something that we’re born with, it’s something that we work at. Unfortunately, we don’t always function in a system that encourages creativity and creative thinking, which is why it’s easy to (falsely) assume that we’re either creative or we’re not. There are of course those blissful moments when inspiration strikes, the proverbial lightning bolt, and maybe we have a few more of those every once in awhile if we are good at investing time in improving our creative practice. But most of the time, ideas come to fruition because we sit down and do the work that needs to be done. We write the essay. We draw the sketch. We brainstorm. We think. We edit. We come up with something new. We get out of the way of ourselves and our hangups and our expectations and we keep working. We work through the mess.

But to do that work, we need to invest time in our creative selves.

“Why do I need creativity?” you ask yourself, “I’m not an artist.”

Whatever you identify as, we all need creativity in our lives.

To be creative is to be able to create something out of nothing, whether that’s a painting, a story, or even a business idea. To think creatively is to incorporate all of the inspiration and ideas that you have opened your brain to over time into something new. To make new connections, new associations. To think out of the box. To push past your expectations and find new ground.

To be creative, we don’t need to feel inspired, but we do need to be awake.

Being awake means being open to the small joys around you. Being awake means seeing the lines, the textures, the colors, the details in the big things but also the smallest of things. Being awake means finding beauty in the darkness. Being awake means showing love and compassion. Being awake means facing the world with an open heart. Being awake means seeing, hearing, feeling.

Where to begin? Literally, anywhere. There are so many activities that fuel creative thinking and help us to improve our creative practice. In fact, you probably already do some of them – like spending time outside, exercising, daydreaming. Even being bored helps you to be creative (something to consider next time you reach for your phone). My all time favorite: taking a coffee break, or anything that gives your brain a little free space to just wander instead of focusing on to-do lists.

Need a jumping off point? I love Jocelyn K. Glei‘s work, and it’s all about this stuff. She has an excellent roundup of ways to find more creativity and meaning in your daily work.

Whatever you do, don’t expect perfection, or easy answers. Seek out the messy bits, that’s where the good stuff is.

Excited about reawakening your own creative practice? I’m co-teaching a workshop in October devoted to just that. You can find more info here.

Written by Anna Brones

July 6, 2018 at 06:04

Share What You Make

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A few months ago I was visiting my friend Amy on Cape Cod. While there, we went to a cafe for lunch. It was a cozy place, the kind you could sit and read for awhile, and they had an assortment of magazines – the bright, beautiful indie ones with gorgeous photos, you know the kind. I happened to have a copy of Comestible (the food journal that I publish) with me, and I stashed it in the pile, my own small act of guerrilla marketing.

Thanks to Instagram, I found out that a few weeks ago, someone happened upon it while visiting the same cafe. The person was so moved by it that she wrote about it on her blog. The entry was titled “Hope.”

Here is an excerpt:

“While I waited for my breakfast, I paged through a short stack of literary journals with titles I didn’t recognize. Some were rich in bold, brash photography, but one in particular — a collection of essays and poetry called Comestible — stood alone. Stark in detail and void of ads, each page is an unvarnished offering from writer to reader. 

The candor and vulnerability present in every piece reminded me that sometimes life on Earth is beautiful and sometimes it’s sufferable; expecting it to be different is the real mistake. Also, though our creations will be flawed, we should share them anyway. Doing so is a reminder to self and other that we are alike more than we differ. To create is to live, and to share what we make is to offer hope and healing from the inside out.”

I was so touched by her words, and it was the reminder that I needed that whatever we put into the world inevitably has an impact.

Creating, whatever our medium is – words, painting, dance, food – can often feel like a personal act, something that we do because it sustains us. I know that I write and make art because I just feel that I need to, it’s how I process the world around me. It’s what keeps me balanced and sane.

But when we share what we create, we have the opportunity to impact someone else. That might be someone that we know, or it might be a total stranger. Those moments of exchange can be small and individual, or larger, but regardless of their size, they are all meaningful.

What if as part of our creative practice, we included a sharing practice? Not to show off our work, not in the hopes of getting acclaim, but simply to bring joy to someone else.

We all have the power to inspire each other, to encourage each other, to help each other heal. In a time where it feels like we need more of that, why not take time for the little acts which do just that?

Written by Anna Brones

June 29, 2018 at 09:51

The Winding Path of a Creative Life

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In February, I worked on a project with Subaru and She Explores. This post is brought to you in partnership with Subaru, all opinions are my own.

“I don’t really think that I’m creative.”

I was road tripping from Taos, New Mexico to Marfa, Texas in a 2018 Crosstrek with my good friend and filmmaker Sarah Menzies. We were headed to a storytelling experience hosted by She Explores and sponsored by Subaru. I was driving and she was sitting next to me, and I had just asked her if she had some kind of a daily creative practice.

Sarah makes a variety of films, all focused on interesting characters and important issues, like my recent favorite, “The Mirnavator.” For the last couple of years, I have been working with her on “Afghan Cycles,” a film about women cyclists in Afghanistan and challenging gender stereotypes from the seat of a bicycle. I would certainly consider her a creative and passionate individual, and she’s one of my friends that continually keeps me creatively inspired.

“You don’t think you’re creative?” I responded back to her, not hiding my shock at her statement. This is a woman who always has interesting ideas for how to tell a story, is always drumming up new ideas.

This launched us into a conversation about creativity, what it is and whether or not we “have it” or not. The idea that some of us are creative and that some us aren’t, based on the idea that creativity is some kind of talent, simply isn’t true. Creative thinking is a skill, one that takes work and practice. You don’t get off the couch and run a marathon in record time, and you don’t go from zero creative practice to coming up with a masterpiece. We have to work at creativity, work at doing the things that make our brains better able to think creatively, better able to make connections between ideas, and come up with new ones.

Our conversation about creativity continued, and we began talking about some of the difficulties that come with working in a creative profession. Creative work can be exhausting. There’s a privilege to being able to say that. I am well aware that I don’t have to go work in a mine every day, and I am thankful that I have a profession where I get to do things that I love. But one of the big fears that I often have is that eventually, the creative ideas will cease to come. When your income is tied to your creativity, there is a real fear in wondering whether or not one day you’ll run out of ideas. What happens if you don’t have another idea for a new project? Then what?

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Written by Anna Brones

March 1, 2018 at 10:47

The Journey is as Important as the Destination

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Yogyakarta by Anna Brones

“The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for.” -Louis L’Amour

I love this quote that my friend Dan sent to me this week.

We are so often focused on the end goal – be it a destination, a deadline – that we forget to enjoy the process in between.

That is of course very true when we travel; we forget to slow down. But I also I think about this a lot in terms of doing creative work. You are always hustling to get something finished, it can be hard to focus on anything besides that list of things that you need to have accomplished by a certain time.

I have to force myself to stop and ask yourself, “why do I write?”

When I step back and think about my work, I remind myself that I do in fact love to write. If I let my mind wander, it immediately goes to envisioning a day when I can just sit in a quiet space with a cup of coffee and just write whatever I feel like writing.

But that’s the romantic version of writing. Instead, when I dive into my work, I am mostly stressed about getting an interview, getting to a certain word limit, or cutting something down. In the midst of the madness of the freelance hustle, I completely forget to appreciate that I am in the middle of actually doing the thing that I like to do.

The process isn’t always enjoyable. It can be downright frustrating and hard. But it can also be fun. That moment when you get into a certain flow and you feel like you could just keep going forever. It is those constant ups and downs – the seemingly never-ending roller coaster – that make the entire process so gratifying.

Overall, do you enjoy the journey? If not, it’s time to change paths. What can you do to slow down and appreciate the process?

If we don’t slow down, we forget what pushed us on our various life paths to begin with. There’s a routine to the everyday, but you can’t led it become a rut that silences your passion.

We are all on a journey somewhere, and it’s not just the destination that counts, so let’s all take a little time to slow down.

Written by Anna Brones

April 16, 2015 at 14:06

The Ten Commandments That Block Creativity

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Path in Brittany by Anna Brones

My mother sent me a photo of a typewritten piece of paper this week. It’s a list, titled The Ten Commandments That Block Creativity. Actually it’s written in all caps, since whoever wrote it down thought it was very important.

I assumed she sent it as a push towards creative inspiration as I plugged through deadlines. Deadlines which I am procrastinating on right now by writing this. Mothers are good like that.

The list is credited to Stanley Krippner, and I don’t know where he published the original, but I did see it made an appearance in the 1973 book Child Development and Learning.

In his commandments, Krippner was writing specifically on children, and the cultural norms at play that hamper their creativity from an early age. But I think that as adults, particularly in a creative field, we can find truth in these.

The full list of the commandments goes into detail on each one of them, but I think that they stand for themselves.

The Ten Commandments That Block Creativity

by Stanley Krippner, PhD

1. Everything Thou Doest Must Be Useful

2. Everything that Thou Doest Must Be Successful.

3. Everything Thou Doest Must Be Perfect.

4. Everyone Thou Knowest Must Like Thee.

5. Thou Shalt Not Prefer Solitude to Togetherness

6. Remember Concentrated Attention and Keep it Holy.

7. Thou Shalt Not Diverge From Culturally-Imposed Sex Norms.

8. Thou Shalt Not Express Excessive Emotional Feeling.

9. Thou Shalt Not Be Ambiguous.

10. Thou Shalt Not Rock The Cultural Boat.

So here’s to rocking cultural boats, learning to not be perfect and reminding ourselves that not all we do has to be a success.

Written by Anna Brones

April 14, 2015 at 16:32