Like most creative people, sometimes my creativity gets stuck in the mud. No matter what I do, things just don’t seem to happen. Ideas are sparse, projects stall, and everything seems derivative and stupid. Even busting out my tried and true creativity boosters doesn’t help. Before admitting defeat and heading off to the donut shop to drown my sorrows, I have one last hail Mary to try: Go small.
Most of my writing life consists of big projects. Manuals, novels, lengthy articles, novellas, and technical documentation all require lots of time and research. Often, these blog posts are the shortest things I write. I love the big stuff, though. There’s something fun about digging into a huge project and seeing it slowly evolve into an ordered piece.
Most of the time.
The problem comes when my creativity flies the coop. There are times when it’s difficult to stick with big projects. “What’s next” is sometimes elusive. The next idea isn’t there, or I can’t figure out where to look for the information I need. My ability to go off script isn’t happening and the project stalls.
One of the things that’s sometimes helpful is to start a new project. The act of doing something new kickstarts my overall creativity and gives me new ideas for old projects. So I’ll start on a new freelance project, or dig a new novel idea out of the file. But sometimes this doesn’t work. It’s like my brain says, “I refuse to engage in another huge project. Therefore, I will now shut down entirely. Screw you.”
I’ve discovered that what’s needed in these cases (other than a tropical vacation, which I cannot afford) is to give my brain something entirely different to play with: Something small.
Small acts of creativity can fire up your brain, particularly if you’re used to dealing with large projects. They are low stakes and (generally) low time investment. That lack of pressure alone can make your brain sigh with relief.
So what counts as small? That’s up to you. If you’re used to writing 150,000-word novels, or painting fifteen foot murals, your definition of small is likely different than the person who writes short stories for a living. “Small” could be defined as, “Small enough to feel like a relief.”
If you’re a writer, try micro fiction or a short poem. Short stories can be small as long as you don’t get carried away. Stick to a couple thousand words instead of pushing toward 30k. If you’re an artist, paint a postcard or decorate a Christmas ornament. Instead of drawing an entire comic or graphic novel, try a three panel comic for Twitter. A jeweler could make a small ring instead of an elaborate necklace. If you usually make huge metal yard sculptures, try a small desk ornament. You get the idea.
You’re going small because it’s a novelty to your brain. Just don’t expect it to be “easy.” In fact, working small can be more difficult. Small work often requires more exacting detail because you’re working in a smaller space. When you have an entire novel to work with, you can take your time unfurling your plot and characterizations. In a short story, you’ve got to be quick and precise. It’s much more difficult to do well. The same holds true with most creative projects. When you have less time and space to work with, you have to compensate with a high level of exactitude .
Plus, if you’re not used to working small, you have to deal with the unfamiliarity of the medium. Things that are strange to us are often more difficult, simply because they require skills we don’t exercise often. If ever. I rarely write poetry. When I try, I may have a great idea, but my skills for conveying that idea are weak. As a result, I struggle.
That’s okay. It’s the struggle that can unstick your creativity. Wrestling with something novel and difficult makes your brain happy. As a result, it becomes more open and the ideas begin to flow again. That small thing won’t eat up a ton of time, either, getting you back to your big projects before you know it. When you come back, you’ll be refreshed and unstuck.
Hopefully. If not, there’s always the donut shop.
(Photo courtesy of Vlad Tchompalov)