A friend and I talked about folding a daily origami heart to mark the transition between a long day in the home office and being ourselves again.
Rituals have become important. Ways to draw invisible lines that can guide us, not just between our life on Zoom and ‘the other life’, but also through a time that has been challenging to say the least. We are still in the midst of it, but as vaccination programs roll out in many countries, people reflect and begin cautiously to imagine what life after COVID-19 might look like.
Conversations everywhere talk not only about loss but also about what we have gained. Many share that they have gained new rituals which have brought them closer. Closer to their family, to their friends, to their colleagues – even when physically distanced.
Especially in the Western cultures, rituals have been eroded over time. They got lost under layers of productivity and commerce. They fell by the wayside as we sped through life. And the rituals or traditions that still matter to us have been curtailed or made impossible. Reduced or no family meetings over Christmas, no end of year celebrations, no Valentine’s Day dinner… There is sadness, frustration, sometimes anger over all that we can’t do. And quite frankly, we are also bone-tired. We need to make space for this sadness, as bottling up emotions can at best be a temporary fix.
Beyond the sadnessthere is a place for personal and modern ritual.
It doesn’t have to feel new-agey or esoteric. Understanding the ingredients of ritual, we can all create our own rituals and bring the experience of safety and meaning to our lives. Since rituals energize us and focus our attention, they can be great way to support us in crafting a meaningful and intentional life.
Here are some ingredients of ritual that can transform ordinary actions into symbolic expression and help you create your ‘DIY ritual’:
Space and setting
An opening element to mark the beginning of your ritual, this might include sensory elements like light (lighting a candle or watching the sunrise), sounds (your own music or a song/ piece of music you listen to, or nature’s sounds), fragrances, the aroma and taste of certain foods…
The intention and meaning you want to mark with this ritual
Finding ways to ensure you are present
Elements of reflection or contemplation
Gratitude or a closing element
Do you wonder which ‘lockdown rituals’ should be carried into the next chapter of life? Start by reflecting on your needs and what feels meaningful. Notice meaningful moments throughout the day and write them down. See what patterns emerge.
If you are experiencing significant transitions this year, or in this moment, here’s a simple ritual that can be used during transition.
It’s a writing practice that helps you connect with the meaning of letting go and beginning something new. You can find it in the post “Transformation and unlearning”.
Usually, the 100-day project begins on 7th April each year – a date as random as the start of the British tax year (6th April anyone??). In 2021 however, the project started on 31st January. Why? We all had a pretty stressful 2020. And so far, 2021 has not exactly started low stress either. People living in the Northern hemisphere will be in the depth of winter. For many this means lockdown, reduced social connections, worries about Covid… the community around #the100dayproject simply wanted something to look forward to.
What better than a creative project and one that helps us practice the concept of creativity as a habit, as something we simply show up for without any pressure to create a daily masterpiece.
In short, #the100dayproject is a free, global art project, based on a simple idea: “choose a creative project, do it every day for 100 days, and share your process online.”
The originator of this project is Michael Bierut, who taught a workshop for the graduate graphic design students at the Yale School of Art. It was brought into the world of Instagram by Ella Luna in 2014.
2021 will be the 8th year of people discovering, deepening, stretching and nourishing their creativity.
It is a practical way of befriending your creativity.
Just like making new friends in real life, these are a few steps you might navigate:
Find out what holds your curiosity
Your project must excite you enough to engage with it for 100 days. Just like when you decide who to approach at a conference, or who in your yoga/art/cooking class is someone you could get on with… In 2019, I did 100-days of sensemaking emotions. I explored 100 different emotions, each with a collage and a found poem. I noticed I was drawn to emotions because they play a key role in my work as a therapist and coach. And it was a way of expanding my emotional vocabulary and explore visual associations of emotions.
Show up consistently
Just as you would when you invest in nurturing a new friendship. Sometimes, a coffee catch-up might feel like effort, but without this commitment, especially in the early stages of a friendship, you won’t be getting very close.
Be open to experiment and change
This is also a useful principle when it comes to friendship in real life, because nothing stays as it is. We relocate, marry, have children, change careers… Any creative project will go through a few iterations, but the intention at its core remains. Possible adjustments might be needed on other parameters. Maybe it’s the amount of time you can spend on it. Maybe you play with different materials…
Incorporate play and fun into your creations
This is a big one for me. I can get a bit serious and ambitious with creations which will inevitably end up with aborting the mission. A friendship that doesn’t allow us to be silly or talk about some light-hearted stuff can easily get a bit too heavy and serious.
My advice for other high achievers: when committing to 100 days, not every day can be deep and meaningful. Being playful brings a lightness, and with that we often make new discoveries of what we enjoy. I discovered my love for found poetry in my 100 days of emotions and they have now become a building block of my creativity.
Build a ritual or routine
Routine can sustain us in moments of wavering, when we don’t know why we bother or simply get bored of 100 repetitive creative acts. This is a good experiment in loyalty and commitment. It acknowledges that we are humans in a busy and distracting world. It’s easy to get distracted, when we are bombarded by news and media, navigate pandemics and life as such.
You can explore what may serve you as an anchor and later apply this to other creative endeavours, areas in life or work.
Is it a time of day?
Is it linked to a ritual like lighting a candle, putting a specific piece of music on?
Is it linked to place – do you best create when you are in the same spot and how can you stick with routine when you need to move around more or even travel? Not that this is currently on the cards or most of us…
Focus on the process
The process is the goal, not the outcome. If you need an upfront definition of what success looks like: showing up consistently for 100 days.
‘Process over product’ is also a mantra in art therapy and creative coaching. The creation might be important and something to keep, but often we learn more by consistently showing up and noticing micro steps in the process.
Practicing how we pick up again after a creative hiatus is an important part of a creative life. And of life in general. Just like getting in touch again with a friend after a busy period or a time when it might have felt that we were on different trajectories. Explore whether you feel the need to catch up, do you need all 100 days to be complete, or are you ok with skipping and having a few gaps. In the end, you make the rules about your creative process.
Notice what helps in showing up.
Which guardrails are useful?
When might they become too rigid?
What do you need to hold yourself accountable?
Do you need external accountability or is the agreement you make with yourself enough? Posting about your project online can help but shouldn’t become something you dread. Share with joy and be gentle if you don’t share on certain days (or at all, depending on your social media use).
For 2021, I have decided to be working in a small format. To make it manageable and to practice reduction, not everything has to be big, complex and multi-layered. Sometimes, small and simple is what I need.
To leave a lot of room for experiments, my project is simply called # 100 days of responding randomly and I’ll share – randomly, not daily – on my Instagram (have a loog for the specific #).
So far, sources of inspiration have been: a podcast I listened to, my clients, my own reflective and coaching work, a sense of stuckness with ongoing restrictions due to the pandemic. I’m curious what else will show up….
Art therapy can support us with a broad range of challenges and experiences as we find ways to creatively express our experiences in life, past or current, aim to better understand our personal values and patterns and find strategies of connecting and being with our emotions in a helpful and sustainable way.
Firstly: you don’t need to consider yourself artistic or an artist. You don’t need any experience in making art, drawing or painting. You might even share my own experience of being given some pieces of rather unfavourable feedback by an art teacher at school. If, like me, this made you stop doing creative stuff, it’s never too late to reconnect with your creativity!
And while no artistic knowledge is necessary, I find it helpful to write about some qualities that can help people get the most out of art therapy and creative coaching. Remember, we don’t need to be accomplished in all of these, just open to them…
You are open and curious, willing to try something new and experiment with materials or techniques you haven’t used before.
You are proactive and ready to participate – as with any form of therapy you will need to participate actively in our work together and be prepared that this might at times be hard. I believe in you as the expert in your life, and as such you will shape your own process of art therapy with my help and guidance.
You are willing to play and let your rational mind take a back seat every now and then.
You care about living a life that’s aligned with your values and are interested in exploring them further.
You desire to explore your emotional, behavioural and relational patterns with a view to make deliberate choices of how to be with them.
You are an abstract thinker – you often look for the bigger picture, the deeper meaning, patterns and connections. You are ok with things being a bit ambiguous until you find their meaning and significance for you. You are able to suspend a final interpretation, definitive analysis or the impulse to fully explain or label what your art making might be telling you. It’s important to remember that most of us use a mix of abstract and concrete thinking depending on the situation. I invite you to ponder whether abstract thinking feels comfortable and might be your main mode of thinking.
Is this you? Can you see yourself in this list? If yes, I believe art therapy is worth exploring.
Twyla Tharp’s book ‘The Creative Habit. Learn and use it for life’ is one of the books on creativity I return to again and again. I remember looking at it so many times before buying it. I was unsure whether it’s for me. Mainly because Twyla Tharp is a renowned choreographer. And I am not a dancer. In fact, dancing has always felt like a very strange, unlearnable language to me.
I’m so glad I eventually got it because her writing and teaching isn’t just for dancers, choreographers or people interested in dance. It is for everyone who is interested in nurturing and using their creativity. In her book, she says:
Creativity is for everyone
Tharp’s writes about the benefits of engaging in creativity and the many shapes and forms of creativity well beyond artistic endeavours. Her broad definition of creativity aligns with my work and how I aim to introduce creativity into coaching or therapy sessions. I love that she challenges any notion of creativity being elitist or exclusive to people with certain talents, degrees, job titles or skills.
I have read many books about creativity and my favourite ones are usually those that give clear advice on how we can rekindle and nurture our creativity. This practical advice is what makes creativity more accessible. I have met no-one who said that they don’t want to be creative, but plenty of people told me that they don’t believe to be creative. Twyla Tharp is very practical when it comes to creativity and she shares so many examples of herself as well as other artists, writers, athletes, businesspeople, and many more who have all found their own creativity hacks.
Creativity as a habit
She is honest about the fact that creativity requires work and commitment. It requires steadiness, dedication and vulnerability. She shares her tricks of keeping habits in her life that nudge her to being creative. We are creatures of habit, but we are also creatures of convenience. Doing creative work isn’t always the most convenient way of spending time, especially when distraction and passive ways of consuming entertainment are everywhere. It requires a good amount of discipline to show up for your creative work. Tharp emphasises the importance of “automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”
Creativity as a skill
When visiting museums, I often find myself most drawn to artists’ sketchbooks, less to the final masterpiece. The sketches reveal how much preparation, planning and practice has gone into a piece which, in isolation, can easily look like the work of a genius, an accomplishment reserved for the most gifted. But we can learn to be creative.
In an interview for the Harvard Business Review Tharp acknowledges: “I create about six times more material for my dances than I end up using in the final piece.” In The Creative Habit, she also talks about the importance of practice as a way of building and strengthening one’s skill. She warns us from getting too stuck in our ways and quotes the sixteenth-century Japanese swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi: “Never have a favourite weapon.”
When it comes to using creativity in coaching and therapy, I experience this as a fine balance. It is great to have some go to modalities, things we enjoy, that come to us more easily. Yet often the most surprising, significant and useful insights are reached when we use a modality we are not that good at or haven’t used before. It won’t surprise you that one of the most significant insights I personally gained in coaching was reached when I engaged in some movement. It was clumsy, uncomfortable, cringeworthy and… insightful.
Creativity as discovery
Even though creativity is something we are all born with, as we go through life, it’s easy to forget what our natural creative process feels like. We are unsure at which points we tend to get stuck and which phases of the creative process come easily to us. At the end of each chapter, Tharp shares exercises as an easy and fun way to explore your creativity.
She invites us to mine for memory in a photo, explore our creative DNA, and suggests removing one of our skills from the equation and see what we can still create or how we create differently.
Here are a couple of questions from her creative DNA exercise:
What is the first creative moment you remember?
Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?
My first creative memory is this: I was helping my mother bake Christmas cookies. I stood on a little stool to reach the worktop and used my favourite cookie cutter, a pig. I still have a real soft spot for pigs… My mother was there to witness it. I remember that she commented on my Christmas pigs… some were a bit wonky. I can still hear my mother’s Austrian accent and I remember that I was so excited to be helping with the baking.
Creativity for joy
Sharing a creative act with the world involves risk. Perfectionism is a way of managing the fear associated with such a risk. Perfectionism is a creativity killer that often gets in the way of joyful creating.
The inner critic keeps telling us we’re not good enough. As a result, we either judge ourselves harshly (no joy in that!) or stop creating altogether. It’s important to acknowledge that perfectionism can have its origin in deep attachment or childhood wounds. It can be a formerly useful, now unhelpful strategy to ensure one’s safety.
In my experience, trying to ignore the inner critic never works. It only gets more disruptive. The only way forward is to befriend your inner critic. We must see its interference as a safety exercise designed to protect us from the vulnerable experience of creating.
Twyla Tharp embraces failure as part of the creative process. In fact, she lists a range of failures in her book – but that’s a whole other article… She recommends gathering a ‘validation squad’. This isn’t necessarily a group of people who will love anything you do. They are people you admire for their talent, who care about you, who don’t compete with you and provide constructive feedback, with great honesty as well as substance and respect. This is an invaluable support structure if your creative endeavours are designed to fly out into the world, possibly to earn you a living.
When we think about creating in a more private setting, creating purely for joy is such a balm for our emotional wellbeing. I recommend a group of like-minded friends or people you find you can easily connect with. Often, deep friendship emerges from creating alongside and experiencing the vulnerable act of creativity together.
Maybe this has whetted your appetite to read The Creative Habit.
And I do hope you feel inspired to create!
More tips on how to rekindle your creativity can be found in this article about creativity as a work skill and in this one, where I share some information about the various reasons why many of us stop creating. My own journey back to creativity began tentatively after a twenty-year hiatus. Needless to say, I haven’t looked back!
Taking clients through an exercise of exploring the creative process, reflecting on typical blocks and ways to overcome them is one of my favourite ways to begin a creative coaching relationship.
The world is changing… it has always been changing. Most recently though, we might have felt this change more intensely. The reality of living in a VUCA world has moved from board rooms into living rooms. VUCA stands for a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – and don’t we know what that feels like?! This world asks for creative resilient responses. It’s no surprise that creativity has been listed among the top work skills for the future.
The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report predicts creativity, innovation and ideation will be key skills. A 2010 IBM study among CEOs revealed creativity as the single most important leadership skill. The McKinsey Global Institute identified increasingdemand for higher cognitive skills including creativity.
What exactly is creativity?
Too often people’s thoughts jump to art classes and canvases. They hasten to add that they don’t have a creative bone in their body. And many of us have been made to believe that creativity is for the creative types or the truly gifted – an exclusive club which we don’t belong to.
I offer you an alternative definition, quoting Sir Ken Robinson: creativity is “the process of having original ideas that have value.”
Most of us have memories of being creative as a child. There might be anecdotes or even videos of your contribution to dance, music or drama performances. The drawing that hung on the fridge for ages, or maybe even something that got framed?? And then there are all the games and roleplays we invented; the fancy dress outfits we wore.
George Land’s longitudinal creativity study showed that 98% of 5-year-olds fell into the category of ‘creative genius’. This percentage dropped rapidly as these kids grew up, and among a representative sample of adults, 2% believed to be creative. Land concluded that “non-creative behaviour is learned”. Therefore, we need to nurture our inherent creativity and un-learn the non-creative beliefs and behaviours.
Creativity for survival
We can find more evidence that we are creative creatures beyond statistical research: our dexterity with an opposable thumb suggests we evolved to make things. This ability and our creativity ensured our survival. As Liz Gilbert wrote:
“If you’re alive, you’re a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers–these are our common ancestors.”
Benefits of creativity
Creativity has several benefits which are very useful in the VUCA world and the workplace of the future:
When we engage in a creative act, we focus on the present moment and calm our busy minds. this is increasingly important in the context of information overload and a world full of distractions.
In the early stages of the creative process, we think divergently. We think broadly and delay filtering and selecting of ideas. In a world of speed and productivity this doesn’t always come easy.
We experience accomplishment and learn to trust the process and our abilities – cultivating a growth mindset instead of a fixed one.
We strengthen our imagination and problem-solving skills.
We explore and express our inner world – being grounded in our inner selves helps us navigate an ever-changing external world.
We build resilience for tough times.
Nurturing creativity becomes a cornerstone in caring for our wellbeing, in our private lives as well as in the workplace where the above-mentioned benefits can lead to more successful innovation, increased productivity and focus, better crisis management, overall resilience, improved collaboration and empathic leadership.
How to re-start your creativity
The main success factor in rediscovering creativity is time. Not tons of it, just the commitment to choose creativity and find pockets of time to practice it with intention. Ringfence a time of day, go on an artist date with yourself, establish a weekend practice.
Even though art therapy shows that our most significant insights are often achieved when working with a modality we are less comfortable or familiar with, I recommend starting from a place of preference or familiarity when you befriend your creativity again. Think back to creative activities and forms of play you enjoyed as a child. Whether it’s improv theatre or water colour painting. If you feel drawn to a particular material like textiles, wood or clay you might want to begin there.
It also helps to start with something that fits more easily in your everyday life. For many of us, a sketchbook is more practical than easel and canvas. Exploring photography through a daily photo using your smartphone can be more achievable than attempting your SLR camera manual.
Are you drawn to practical things or do you like to do things ‘just for fun’? If you are the practical type, making your own tea mugs or baking might suit you more than knitting miniature fruits and vegetables. And vice versa.
The accountability, encouragement and shared joy of creating in a group can also assist. Find a class, workshop, or an online course. One of my biggest joys of 2020 was the emergence of a small writing circle with women around the world using Zoom. Remember that many creative adventures do not need to begin with competence or learning a skill. We can simply get together and write or make a collage. If, at some point, we want to get better at it, we’ll be already motivated to put in extra effort. If we make ‘being good at it’ the first step, we’ll likely never start.
If you have a competitive streak, participating in a challenge can kickstart your creative endeavours. I personally love the 100-day project, but there are plenty more. You might want to use sharing your creations publicly, for example on social media or in private groups, as an accountability mechanism.
From hobby to life skill
As Tom and David Kelley write in their book Creative Confidence: “everybody is the creative type.” With the right encouragement and practice creativity can easily be rekindled, “but the real value of creativity doesn’t emerge until you are brave enough to act on those ideas.”
When we practice our creativity in this safe and joyful way, as a hobby initially and to re-charge our batteries, we will strengthen our ability to come up with creative solutions under pressure or when there’s more at stake. We will learn to trust our creativity as a work skill and weave it into our problem-solving and decision-making, steering us away from the dreaded ‘we’ve always done it like that’ principle. Most of us have been in a meeting where this was muttered, if not proclaimed aloud by some creativity grinch.
Creative coaching is a process that can kickstart the re-discovery of your creativity.
And while you are at it, you might learn a few new things about yourself, your values, beliefs, patterns or simply find the courage to begin a creative practice that could do with a cheer squad.
When I introduce myself and my work, I’m typically met with lots of curiosity and some confusion.
Here’s what I hear a lot: That sounds great, but sadly I’m not creative. I can’t draw for the life of me. That’s so interesting, is it mainly for blocked artists? Do you work with children?
Listening to a conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown, I came across the term creative midwifery. Brené Brown spoke about her inherent ability to tell stories, but when writing her first books she struggled. Only when she realised that her creativity needed a midwife, was she able to fulfil her potential. She simply asked colleagues to join her in a weekend getaway and listen to her stories, as if they were sitting around the campfire. Sharing her stories, in an auditory format, and receiving her colleagues’ suggestions and questions helped structuring her knowledge and research into what, in the end, became very successful books. The term creative midwife resonated strongly when I thought about my work.
Now, you might ask: if we are all born with creativity and it is an inherent ability, why would some of us need a midwife to give birth to it (again)? Isn’t creativity alive in all of us? Well…
Sadly, creativity is something we unlearn.
Putting my researcher hat on, I was delighted to find evidence that this isn’t just a hunch based on the typical answers I get from people who don’t consider themselves creative…. A longitudinal study by George Land, developed for NASA, assessed children’s creativity. Among 5-year-olds, a whopping 98% of kids were categorised as creative and imaginative. This percentage dwindled as the children grew older: 30% when they were ten years old, 12% when they were 15 years old. In a separate group of adults, who have been asked to complete the same test, a shocking 2% remain who call themselves creative. Against the trend we see with most other skills and talents, we don’t expand our creativity as we grow older, we unlearn it. And this explains why some of us need to tease it out again, later in life, when we want to re-connect with our creativity.
I come across three typical reasons why someone has lost their creativity:
Many of us lose our creative confidence and our self-belief. We have art scars from experiences when we were told we had failed at a creative endeavour and that we were clearly not talented in this field. Whether that’s the teacher who criticises a drawing or essay; or the ‘banter’ stating jokingly that we shouldn’t give up the day job; or a parent who, often with good intentions, reinforces other talents over our creative ones.
Another reason why we unlearn our creativity is purely neurobiological. Whenever our brain encounters a problem it searches through our database of experiences and knowledge to find an answer. When we are young, this database is naturally tiny and needs to be built. We play to explore the world, ask a gazillion ‘why’ questions and our brain busily files everything for later use. If all goes well, we emerge from childhood with a database grown in size and complexity, ready for solving the challenges of adult life. And now that it has grown into a substantial knowledge base, our brain develops ways of tagging and filtering this database to rapidly access the information that seems most relevant. This is useful as it makes for faster decisions and saves energy. Remember that the brain represents only 2% of the weight of an adult but consumes 20% of the energy produced by the body. To limit this significant need for energy, we develop automatic behaviours and muscle memory, such as being able to tie our shoelaces without having to think about it every day. And our brain develops narrow search algorithms to find useful information quickly. If we are in the process of learning a new computer program, it’s more useful if our brain sifts through what we know about user interface and software and ignores our memories of family gatherings in the 90s.
And then there’s the conditioning and expectation of being fast and efficient in our problem-solving. It’s easy to understand why very unfamiliar and creative solutions to problems are less likely to see the light of day. They carry a greater risk of failure, push-back or rejection. Our creative muscle weakens. Pathways of ‘tried and tested’ become grooves, then deep canyons. Our brain gets a bit stiffer. And just like we end up unable to touch our toes, we struggle to put pen to paper and scribble away, or we feel inhibited to write a story, even though we write tons of emails, articles, and reports every day.
How can we re-learn creativity?
There are three key ingredients to strengthening our creativity: inspiration, process and encouragement. All of these can be initiated in creative coaching and then practiced going forward. We need to train our brains for a wider search, even though this is harder work and often more time consuming. Making time for divergent thinking is a key step in creative coaching. I cultivate openness and soft thinking around anything that can serve as inspiration and a starting point. That’s why I share books, quotes, TED talks, random questions, or different frameworks, whether from the therapeutic or coaching world, in my sessions. I also have a set of what I call ‘poetic prompts’ which often yield unexpected and delightful results.
Then we need process – not in a formal, rigid or technical sense, but in a sense of offering a safe space, some structure and guidance. This ensures that every inquiry gets wrapped up safely and captures the new insights. We often begin by exploring our own creative process, where we tend to get blocked and how we most easily achieve the state of creative flow. And it includes a big selection of creative processes and reflective exercises which allows us to remain open without losing ourselves down a rabbit hole and stalling our progress. This is the area where I hugely benefit from my Art Therapy training, bringing together creative process and psychological expertise.
And lastly, we need encouragement, back-up and support, a cheer squad, and someone who can ask the right questions, including those that feel a little uncomfortable to begin with. Creativity requires risk, and it is easier to do something that feels a bit risky with someone in your corner.
Of course, working with a creative coach or art therapist can support you in the process of bringing your creativity back into your life. Especially if you want to explore and heal deeper art scars. But also, because creativity usually brings up fear.
They can offer a safe and supportive exploration of these memories and the emotional risks of creativity as well as the emotional cost of suppressing your creativity.
But re-connecting with your creativity as a hobby is a great way to start. It’s how I started again after years of disconnection. And it’s the reason why I love that part of my practice: delivering creative workshops, workshops that don’t dive more deeply into the therapeutic territory, but a gentle portal back into the world of creative strength. I encourage you to find your portal back into this world! Whether it’s a workshop, a self-paced, pressure-free online course, a guided journaling exercise – anything goes. And as you practice your creative muscle, you might find that it contributes to all areas in life. You’ll be more creative at work, in your parenting, in your relationships and friendships. It makes for a richer, more varied life. It supports you in taking transformative decisions and navigating change with a new resilience and robustness. Creativity certainly takes courage; we need to be willing to take a risk or make a mistake. But it also builds courage through greater self-awareness. It makes us braver in our choices, in asserting our boundaries, in staying true to ourselves.
Start with these two writing prompts:
For me, creativity is ….
When I can be creative ….
And feel free to get in touch with any questions you might have around creativity. The lockdown has proved that Zoom-based sessions are working well! And if you worry about requiring a huge range of art materials to get started with an online session, have a look at this video where I share a glimpse into my studio.
The need to ponder and reflect is a basic human need and a valuable mechanism of evolution. It supports us in learning from an experience which ensured survival. In today’s complex world, we continue to benefit hugely from learning through reflection, but often we don’t have (or don’t make?) time for a deeper reflective practice that goes beyond thinking or talking about our day.
But the desire is there! ‘Reflective journaling’ returns over 1.2 million Google search results. Amazon sells over 1000 books with ‘reflective journal’ in their title. It’s clearly something people want to find out about. Reflective journaling might be the most prevalent approach to reflection, and this post focuses on writing. But reflection can of course be achieved through other means than writing, for example through a visual art journal or sketchbook.
Reflection provides the opportunity to process and integrate experiences and let them inform our future actions. This learning can be two-fold:
learning about the world and others
learning about ourselves
Learning about the world is particularly important in a world that’s changing constantly, quickly and in deep and significant ways. When we reflect on new situations and unfamiliar encounters (and our way of responding to them), we understand what has worked and what hasn’t led to a beneficial outcome. By putting ourselves in others’ shoes we develop empathy and compassion for those around us.
Learning about ourselves occurs when we make our typical patterns and responses visible through reflection. This includes emotional responses which we may not want to share with others. We can therefore attend to our emotional world as the journal offers a container to hold all kinds of experiences and feelings. Reflecting on emotional patterns builds self-regulation skills, resilience and emotional intelligence. When we use a reflective practice in the workplace, it helps us identify areas for learning and development. It can therefore inform the sometimes dreaded appraisal conversation and turn this into a shared reflection – not all reflection has to be a solitary activity. Reflection can be used as a tool for self-motivation and encouragement as it makes our progress visible, no matter how small the steps. Teresa Amabile has done extensive research on the importance of identifying and acknowledging progress in the workplace.
For learning to happen we must find a way of effectively capturing the key insights. There is always a risk of losing them in the constant busyness of our minds or in a sea of written notes. That why I find a written reflective practice so valuable. I have written about my process to find what works for me before. It is based on Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but I now call my practice ‘Anytime Pages’, acknowledging the original approach of Julia Cameron, just with the twist that I’m writing them whenever it works for me. I figured going a little rogue on the original concept is better than not getting into a habit of daily writing at all.
But doesn’t all this writing just create more stuff? More words? More cognitive load? It’s true, even three pages a day create a lot of words, and I felt the need to reduce my writing to memorable key insights. Some people promote the idea to trust that whatever is meaningful will automatically stick. But as a recovering ‘high achiever’, I needed to process my pages in some way. In order to build a habit around my writing it had to feel useful and purposeful beyond the act of writing.
I achieve this simplification with one of my favourite art therapy processes: key words. Whenever something resonates with me, surprises me or somehow feels important, I underline it. Every now and then I write all my underlined words or phrases onto a sheet of paper. Sometimes I do this after a couple of weeks, sometimes when I have filled a journal (which takes me roughly two months). Collecting these key words helps me to record my insights in a reduced manner.
They become something I can USE:
Unexpected – my underlining is guided by my curiosity. I often underline what feels new or surprising, sometimes even dissonant, that makes my key words relevant and worth following up on as part of learning about myself.
Simple – just some key phrases – for example: from my last journal (they are just under 200 pages) I have collected five themes. This makes is manageable.
Emotional – key words resonate with me on a deeper level which in itself means they touch something inside me. Our brains have developed in a way to remember emotionally charged situations or content better than just factual stuff.
As with every creative process – it only needs to make sense to you. If you want to have a stab at developing a reflective practice here is my suggested approach to start with – remember to adjust it to whatever works for you:
Get a cheap journal, nothing fancy.
Use stream of consciousness writing, simply let the words flow without censoring or editing, ignore spelling and grammar.
Consider writing with pencil, it allows you to write fast, which is often important for stream of consciousness writing, and with little pressure (good for a daily habit, avoids any repetitive strain injuries…)
I don’t recommend typing, writing longhand seems to help me get into the flow of writing, it feels more personal and intimate, there are fewer distractions to manage. There is a form of body memory when I’ve written something by hand rather than typed it, which again supports the end goal of learning from my reflections.
As suggested by Julia Cameron, I write three A4 pages each day. It helps turning it into a habit and is achievable on a daily basis.
If you can’t get started, tune into your mind and write whatever internal chatter you hear, It might be thoughts like: I don’t know what to write, I’m bored, what a waste of time…Write that down, it’s a start.
I underline as I write. With some practice you will notice the little jolt in your body when something you just wrote is important, resonates and should be captured as key words.
Review all your key words regularly. You decide what ‘regular’ is for you. It can be every two weeks or when you have filled a journal. Whatever feels right. But set aside some time to sit with these words.
Don’t get disheartened by a few days without major insights and little or no underlining. The good stuff will bubble up eventually. Sometimes it’s like doing some stretches before you start a workout. Give yourself time to warm up.
Sometimes I create a little ‘poetic reduction’ or a tagline from my key words (hello, marketing background!). This is a way to reduce things further. But that approach is another post altogether.
Go get a journal and start writing, you’ll be surprised how much wisdom you carry inside you!
If you have any questions around this topic, email me, I’m happy to share my experience.
Recently, I’ve been pondering the power of play. Where I trained for my Art Therapy Masters, the following quote underpinned their teaching philosophy:
Tell me and I forget,
Teach me and I remember,
Involve me and I learn.
And I must say, it was a very unique teaching and learning environment. Out with the bell curves of performance, in with the flexibility to adjust to individuals with their imperfections and unique ways of thinking, learning and expressing themselves. I was in heaven. I’ve never done less revising in my life, yet I can tap with ease into an internal catalogue of knowledge, creative processes and procedures and apply them in my client work. I can remember every detail of key moments in my training where I had an insight about my typical patterns and the way I am in the world. I don’t need to write them down, I can remember them with my entire body.
Recently, I experienced this way of learning again when trying to get my head round proper colour mixing – not all Art Therapists have a Fine Arts Degree… I have read multiple times about colour theory, I have stared down many colour wheels, I have watched plenty of online videos. But still, so often I created mud! Then I watched an online video by the artist Ginger Cook and she suggested creating your own colour mixing journal. So rather than listening, watching, reading… I actually mixed alongside and painted colour swatches in my journal. I was still creating some mud, but now by design, it was part of the experimenting to understand how pigments react with each other. I celebrated the creation of some beautiful shades when I got the cool/warm mix right and added just the perfect touch of raw umber – who knew! The colour mixing journal is a playful and hands-on way of learning. The process of mixing and capturing the ‘colour recipe’ has sunk in so much quicker and deeper than any other approach I’ve tried before.
I can see the same learning process taking place in Art Therapy and Creative Coaching. We involve our hands (and sometimes the whole body), we make and create, we play and experiment with materials, we embrace the process with all its accidents, stop/starts and detours. There is a place for talking and written reflection as well. It ensures a whole-brain approach and assists us with integrating our insights.
My colour mixing journal as well as the many art therapy sessions I was privileged to witness also reflect the research conducted by Dr. Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University:without playful engagement, it takes over 400 repetitions to learn something new, as in create a new synapse in the brain. Alternatively, you can involve play in your learning and you’ll only need about 12 repetitions! This should be a major selling point for play in the time poor era we live in.
Next time, when you want to learn something new, how can you get hands-on and playful with it? Can you create a journal or collage, sketch a diagram, hang up a huge sheet of butchers paper and add doodles, post-it notes, images… In business meetings, a mind map or sketchnotes can add playfulness and assist with memorising the content.
This winter I want to slow down, take fewer decisions, conserve energy, reflect and recharge. It’s the first time that I fully recognise this shift in energy… I’ve spent many winters in the Northern hemisphere where Christmas and the beginning of a new year introduce a natural pause. The darker, shorter and often snowy days call for retreat. The beginning of a new year is a natural invitation to reflect on the year gone by and gather intentions and plans for the year to come.
This is the first time I’m spending winter in the Southern hemisphere without the more rigid schedule of a Monday to Friday work week. With more freedom and flexibility in my life, I can give into my desire to hibernate a little and get stuck in some projects that fill me up. One particular practice I’ve been rekindling this winter is reflective writing. I’ve been through many false starts of developing a journaling practice. I tried Morning Pages, for example, only to realise that early morning hours are not my peak time for writing. Different writing challenges left me with a stack of half-filled notebooks. The internet is bursting with advice and techniques for reflective writing and it’s easy to get side-tracked and worry whether I’m doing it ‘right’.
One aspect I believe in is that our writing becomes a richer source of insight when we write about our inner world and emotional experiences. And for that to happen we should always write for our own eyes only. The importance of this was highlighted by James Pennebaker, an American social psychologist. He researched the impact of expressive writing on health and wellbeing in the 1980s and became a pioneer of writing therapy. His worked showed that writing about difficult experiences and the emotional responses to them led to lasting improvements of physical health, mood and level of optimism.
How to get started
When should I write? My advice is to find a time that works for you. We can make a case for writing in the morning before our brains become reactive to the day’s events. It seems sensible to write at the end of the day, as an opportunity to review and wind down, allowing for a brain dump in the hope of sound sleep. Ultimately, I think the time when you write has to fit around your typical day. Otherwise it won’t happen. You can consider splitting your writing into shorter chunks if that is more practical, for example a morning and evening check in. Once you experience the benefits of your writing practice you might find that you naturally make more time for it.
How much should I write? Unless you want to experiment with a specific format, such a Morning Pages, I suggest you remain flexible in how much or how little you write. This also makes it easier to actually do it. But write regularly, ideally daily – the odd exception is totally fine, life has its own ways of happening… And when you skip a day, don’t let that stop you. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, promotes the motto: Never miss twice.
What to write about? Write about whatever is occupying your mind. It’s called stream of consciousness writing. Structure, spelling, grammar are unimportant. You can overcome writer’s block by noticing what your senses are taking in right now. How is your body feeling? Try to catch the thoughts you’re thinking right now, without censoring. It could be: what’s for dinner, this is dull or the groceries you need to buy. And once you’ve started writing try to add your emotional experiences, don’t just write about events and tasks if you want to harness the health benefits of writing.
What works for me
I currently write ‘mid-morning pages’, based on Julia Cameron’s work in The Artist Way. Mid-morning is a realistic and manageable time for me, so that’s what I do. I stick with the three A4 pages Cameron recommends, no more, no less. I also write into a daily gratitude journal every night, three brief bullet points, every day. Beyond that my style is a ‘journaling on demand’ approach. When I’ve got lots going on I write more, reflection is part of other creative projects and my work. I embrace this additional writing in waves.
If you want to get started, I’ve got a few specific winter reflection prompts for you – remember, winter is a time of rest and renew:
What do I want to make space for?
It’s time to let go of…
If I could write myself a permission slip, this is what it’d say…
What does a perfect moment of pause and rest look like for me & how does it make me feel?
What lights my inner fire?
Happy writing! My monthly newsletter also includes a regular journaling prompt… You can sign up here.
I first came across art journaling around ten years ago. Full of excitement and enthusiasm I bought books, blank journals, paints… And then I waited on the sidelines. I was in awe of art journals shared online. I saw a stunning page and bought the stencil, stamp or paint that seemed to have been instrumental in making it. And then I waited again. Looking at videos and photos of other people’s creations without the heart to start.
Excuses were easy to come by:
I worked full time and didn’t have enough free, uninterrupted time to begin a page.
I didn’t have the right space. I needed a studio or at least a very large table where I could be messy and leave projects out for days.
I wasn’t good at drawing and I needed to be able to draw faces before filling an art journal.
Whatever I was going to produce wouldn’t be as good as what others were making.
Whatever I was going to create wouldn’t be original.
All the books and YouTube clips were paralyzing. There was so much inspiration online – it was easy to keep myself busy on the sidelines. It was easy to give into my fear, and my inner critic’s voice of telling me to not even try. All our beliefs of ‘not good enough’ and ‘done before’ are in the end fear based. Our excuses of time and space are rationalisations to give into our fear. (Sidenote: some of the time/space stuff is of course real, but we could make time and space if only our fears were less overwhelming…) But: fear is good, generally. It keeps us safe and makes us proceed with caution. But our fear response has a tendency to overreact, just in case… and it tries to keep us safe from such low risk activities like putting some paint on a journal page. But it isn’t the paint application our fear tries to protect us from. It is the vulnerability that comes with any creative act. Even if we have no intention of sharing our creation. Even though we could throw it if we dislike it. But somewhere deep down we know that we become visible when we create, and without the certainty of a successful outcome this can be difficult to bear.
Finally, after years of ramping up, I started my first creative journal in winter 2015. What was the catalyst? I had been through a pretty tough time in life with lots of challenges and uncertainty. I faced the self-doubt and deep thoughts such challenges prompt in us. It was the start of winter here in Melbourne with shorter days and cold weekends that called for indoor play. I still needed the impetus of a final art material shopping expedition, but then I finally got started. Because I had plenty of uncertainty in my life already, and worries and fear. And suddenly, the fear of starting on my first creative journal felt trivial.
And I haven’t stopped. I go through phases when I add daily to my creative journal. There are times when other projects occupy me. But it is the one creative practice I return to without fail. I love looking through journals and remembering what inspired a certain page. I love seeing how my style has developed. Yes, some of my early pages might make me cringe, but they were the stepping stones to something that keeps me sane, fills me up and is a rich source of insights about myself. I’m still not that good at drawing faces, but I’ve learned some tricks. I’m still dreaming of the perfect studio space, but my journaling supplies move through the house like a wandering dune. I still see journals I love and have moments of feeling less talented. But I’m filling my journals.
And on that last excuse that my journals wouldn’t be original… I wish I could say this thought has been dealt with by beginning my journaling practice. But far from! Instead it shows up more often than ever before, the side effect of a creative career I suppose. And when it does I channel Elizabeth Gilbert:
Considering how much time I needed to get started I’ve created a 5-week workshop series on Creative Journaling. My hope is that this can be an accelerator for anyone who wants to make time for creative self-exploration but doesn’t know where and how to start. I really believe in a learning by doing approach. I also hope it is a space to enjoy the momentum and support gained through working in a group. And just because it’s winter… and really cold here… it could be a wonderful opportunity for reflecting and recharging.