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Where do ideas come from

Words by Anna Hoghton

We all know the feeling. You’ve started a new project and you need an idea. Something game-changing, unique, never-been-done-before, totally mind-blowingly, heart-shatteringly courageous, visionary, innovative, beautiful, sexy... but also moving, poetic, authentic and possible on that minuscule budget, which is really half the amount you need to be able to make anything. The deadline is looming. And how many ideas do you have?

A big fat zero.

We’ve all been there. Artist’s block is a ubiquitous condition for the creative classes and an infuriating side-effect of the unpredictable imagination. Here are some of our tips for getting those juices flowing.

Get out the office

Whether it’s for a coffee at a nice independent shop, or a walk through some local greenery in a park, or even just a fifteen-minute browse of a local artisan shop - getting out of the four walls you’ve caged yourself in can do wonderful things for your creativity and mental well-being.

It’s important to take breaks. No matter how stressed you are and how close the deadline feels. I promise you - those short, managed excursions make a world of difference. One might even provide the golden inspiration you’ve been looking for and even if it doesn’t, when you’re back at the desk you’ll be calmer, more focused and have the distance you need to be able to tackle the project from a new angle.

Talk to people

Conversation is good. Whether it’s about your idea, or about something else entirely - real face-to-face interfacing is the most valuable resources humans have. Your grandmother will tell you that talking about a problem halves it and there’s truth in that. Through talking we are able to rationalise all those crazy doubts and frustrations our mind has been tormenting us with and share this with someone else.

I’m not talking texts, emails or phone calls. I mean real old-school chat. Modern technology means we’re losing lots of our face-to-face interactions and this is such a shame. Real conversation is where the magic happens; it is collaborative creativity in action. So talk to people!

Yes, I know that that twelfth conversation about the weather isn’t doing wonders for your creativity. But it takes two to tango. Making the conversation interesting is your responsibility too. Everyone has something you can learn from them, you just have to uncover it. Ask interesting questions, and listen - really listen. Not looking-at-your-phone-checking-your-tweets-thinking-about-what-supper listening. But really hearing what the other person is telling you. Being really listened to is one of the best things in the world. And it’s a gift you can give so easily. Connection is what stops an artist feeling lonely or isolated. And you never know what you’ll learn.

The art of freewriting

Freewriting is wonderful. There are so many books on how to do it and people often fetishise it as something you need to train in or else go on some ludicrously expensive course for. You don’t. You just need to pick up your pen and practice. Freewriting is sitting down and letting whatever mess comes into your head pour out onto the page. Often that blank paper can feel terrifying: a horrible reminder that you’ve still got no ideas. But this is exactly why it’s good.

Face your fears. Set an egg timer for twenty minutes and just write. Write whatever comes into your head. It can be total rubbish. Good. That’s the whole point. This isn’t the idea you’re writing, this is just to free you up, to loosen the binds of can’t and won’t. You might think you’ve got nothing to say: that you’re mind is as blank as that page in front of you; blank as snow, even more blank because snow sometimes has paw prints in it… Stop. Write this down. Even if it’s total drivel. Keep going until the timer rings. Get out all your frustrations. You’ll find it hugely cathartic and feel ten times better. You might even unearth that winning idea that’s been buried away in your subconscious.

Try to free-write every day, early in the morning is best. Handwriting is better. Not only is it good practice for those of you who are getting reliant on typing, but it forces you to slow down because you’re likely not to be able to write as fast as you can type. I also think there’s something in drawing different shapes and swirls for each letter, rather than the monotonous repetition of pressing buttons on a keyboard - something that connects with the imagination and frees it up. Try it for yourself and see if you agree.

Find inspiration everywhere

This ties in with getting out of the office and talking to people: Inspiration can come from anywhere. Of course, if you’re writing a book: read books. If you’re making a magazine: go look at magazines. If you’re making a film: watch films. This all goes with the territory and if you’re not doing these things have a word with yourself. But also go broader than the specific specialism you’re working in. Inspiration comes from the strangest place, and often from the ones we don’t expect.

Keep your eyes open. Try something new; a new dance class perhaps or a different genre of TV show. Try to see old things with new eyes. Look around, you’ll be surprised what you don’t notice every day. I wonder how many people commute to work and could describe details of that journey. We’re usually so wrapped up in our own stories and the filtered lens of our view of the world that we’re completely blind to things all around us. Could you tell me what the third tree or building you pass every morning is called? What colour was the sky at 9 am? The sky is never the same: we look at it and see weather, but each sky is unique and amazing. This might sound a bit too hippy-dippy, head-in-the-clouds for you. You’re thinking, I just need to get to work, I’ve no time to look around! But I urge you to slow down. Life isn’t a race. The finish line is the same for all of us. There’s no hurry.

Really look around you. You’ll be surprised.

Shit first draft, time for the edit

Once you’ve got a few ideas, get a rough first version together as soon as possible. This is the best rule we’ve ever learn. Don’t put it off. Just. Type. Make. Paint. Whatever it is. Get that first draft down. Nothing exists until this point.

Once it’s out of your head then the craftsmanship comes in. The skill is in the edit. And only practice can make perfect. Allow yourself time to try things out and play with your structure and style at this stage. Allow yourself to be a beginner. It’s ok if sometimes a project doesn’t work. Not everything is going to be award-winning, Vimeo staff-picked, viral. But don’t let that put you off. Failing is important. Sometimes it’s only by making things the wrong way that you learn. And always hold onto the fact that each project is setting you up for the next one.

All the greatest artists, musicians, filmmakers, scientists, astronauts had one thing in common: they were not those things when they set out. Everyone starts somewhere. Don’t be disheartened; this is all part of your creative journey. Embrace it. Let yourself walk and experience the view, rather than rushing and ruining it. Take your time. Connect with people. Enjoy yourself. Or else, what’s the point? One day when you’ve made it and are a multi-millionaire living in a condo in New York, you’ll look back on these years when you were figuring things out and you’ll miss them.

So make the most. Relish every challenge. And create in a way that makes you proud to do so.