On Priming the Creative Pump

Discussions of creativity, and writing in particular, seem to spawn water-related metaphors. We talk about drowning in ideas, about creative flow, about priming the pump or filling the well. There’s a certain primal logic to it. As water is the most basic necessity of life, a foundation, so are ideas the starting point for creative endeavors. You need other things to survive, but without this primary substance, you will never make it. But how do you keep your creativity from drying up?

Maintaining a healthy creative flow is not the same thing as tackling a bout of writer’s block, though the two things can overlap. Writer’s block, as I posted previously, comes in fits and starts, when you’re unsure where to take your story next or you’re having a difficult time getting a new project underway. But your overall creative health is an ongoing concern and it affects how you function as a writer on a daily basis.

Ideas tend to birth more ideas. Writers develop their own systems for generating ideas over time, looking at mundane circumstances from fresh angles, questioning how things came to be, or wondering how a scenario might have played out if a few key constants were altered. Allowing the imagination to roam freely can lead to more story sparks than a writer knows what to do with. And that’s fine, because not every idea has the chops to continue on to full-blown story-hood.

But even the most bizarre idea that pops into your head comes from somewhere. It might not be obvious to your conscious mind, but somewhere deep inside your brain, something you’ve seen or heard or smelled or remembered helped to formulate that idea. You are always going to be the sum of your experiences, which serve as raw material for your imagination to mix and splice and kneed into new ideas. And while even a limited number of memories can generate a nearly endless supply of new ideas, you can always help that process by taking the time to add new experiences to your stockpile.

Author Nova Ren Suma recently blogged about the importance of taking time after she’s finished writing a book to refill her own personal well. There’s a sort of depletion she experiences following a large project that has required all her creative attention, and she must energize again to tackle whatever is next on her to-do list. As with a runner completing a marathon, an author completing a novel needs to rehydrate. But even the daily workouts needed to develop a running habit or keep in shape require some refueling when you’re done.

So what can writers do to keep their creative energy and ideas flowing? The obvious answer is to read, because all writers must read constantly, their own genre, other genres, poetry, short stories, nonfiction. Writers read to see what they like, to understand what works and what doesn’t work, to know what is being published today, and to realize what has come before. But beyond that, the answer is to get out and really live life. Walk away from the desk, give your brain a break, and experience something for yourself.

It’s tempting, in today’s busy world, to devote all your free time to writing, especially for writers who have day jobs and families and other responsibilities vying for their attention. And of course, the writer’s life outside of writing qualifies as experiencing the real world. A strange day at work, your child’s funny comment, the way the dishwasher has started to shake — it’s all grist for the mill. But every once in a while, it’s important to make a conscious decision to find something that will inspire you and remind you why you want to write. Go for a hike and allow yourself to be amazed by the natural world around you. Visit a museum and stare at a couple of masterpieces. Hit up a science center and play with the exhibits meant for kids. Go to the symphony, or curl up with your headphones and listen to some jazz or classical music or a film score — something without words. Sketch something or try your hand at watercolors.

Every creative person needs time to regenerate. Writing takes brain power, and it sucks  at your reserves. If you spend all of your free time writing, eventually your mind will rebel, and even if you don’t suffer from writer’s block, your output will be less fresh, less creative. Writers trying to work through burn out produce stale stories that lack the spark that brings them to life. So take an hour or two, or a day, and remember what the world looks like. Experience something creative outside your chosen field. Take a day off from print and typing and sentences dancing in front of your face and enjoy some other art form or physical activity. Don’t wait until you have trouble writing to pay attention to your creative health. Instead, add an occasional creativity break to your schedule. Even a periodic mini-adventure will help to keep those ideas flowing.