I’m back from my trip, refreshed and revived from my mull time. It’s been a long time since I’ve travelled and I’m amazed how much difference it has made. Time to mull, to stare out plane windows, to expose myself to beauty and to let all the content I’ve consumed process itself in the back of my brain – all this has both refreshed me and unblocked the creativity which was running dry before I left, and I’m raring to go with this intense phase of creation I’ve got lined up in my PhD.
It has also reminded me that I wanted to share with you four of the things that I think are crucial to staying unblocked and living a sustainable creative life. Over the years I’ve discovered that I need all four of these elements of a creative life, but that I need them in different intensities at different points. Giving myself permission to do whatever I need to do in order to progress (rather than beating myself up for needing what I need, or wasting my time wishing I didn’t need it) has enabled me to make my creativity both more sustainable and more enjoyable too.
If your creative process is similar to mine, then you may have found that at points you hit a wall with your creative endeavours and find that all you want to do is something other than what you are meant to be doing. This is totally normal and is really your brain’s way of telling you what your next step on the creative journey is. This very simple framework will help you interpret that message, stay unblocked and build a guilt-free, sustainable creative life!
Consume Inspirational Content
Julia Cameron talks about the importance of artists “filling the well” with a wealth of diverse images which they can draw on as they do their artistic work. “We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them,” she says. I agree, though for me filling the well involves exposing myself to mischievous words, new turns of phrases, great fiction, inspirational new business models and playful academic texts as well as to beautiful images.
Part of the work of creation is drawing together unexpected pieces of other people’s work in ways that create a light bulb moment, or tell a story, or become beauty. It becomes very difficult to do this when you haven’t got much to draw on.
In my academic work, I notice the need for more consumption when I feel like I have nothing left to write. At that point, rather than beating myself up the best thing I can do is go and read other people’s work. This gives me ideas about how to interpret my data, about how one idea could be looked at through another lens, and about what contribution I have to make to the bigger conversation. Soon I have far too much to say and it’s time to get back to writing it!
Carve Out Mull Time
Mull time is the time you give yourself to process creative ideas and make connections. Creativity is the work of making new, interesting, important and beautiful connections. You can’t expect your brain to do a good job of that work if you don’t give it time to think, to process and to play.
Mull time might be time spent playfully – doodling, colouring, brainstorming and messing around. Mull time might also be time spent staring out a window and watching the world go by. It’s amazing how much creative work your brain can do while you doze and dream and ponder.
This is an important phase of any creative work and although it’s tricky to do, if you want to live a sustainable creative life, you’ve got to make time for it. I always find it sad to watch talented creatives get famous and start churning out poor quality work. I wonder if it is partly because they no longer have time to be inspired, time to mull, or time, quite simply, to come up with new material.
I don’t believe it has to be that way though. You can guard and fight for and carve out some mull time, even if it is not very often, and once you’ve done it, enjoy it guilt free! It is serving your creative goals, I promise you that.
The third important element of a creative life is, of course, creation. It’s easy to get stuck consuming and mulling and dreaming and consuming some more and never actually give yourself an outlet for all that inspiration. Although it always takes a bit of work to switch off the consumption stream and sit down to create something for yourself, it is absolutely worth it. Consuming without creation becomes very boring – very stagnant. If you keep filling the well but never draw from it, you end up with a flood.
I find that transitioning into a period of creation can be really hard. A blank canvas – or an empty word document – is profoundly intimidating. You may be tempted to fill your time with more inspiration, more of other people’s ideas, more sources, but there does reach a point where you just need to make the choice to get started on your own creation – however small it may feel. It doesn’t have to be anything groundbreaking – the first step is just something to build on – but getting started really does matter. It matters for you (you need to create as much as the rest of us need you to create) and it matters for the world (which will be richer for seeing your particular take on all those connections your brain has been making).
Rest Feeds Your Creativity
Rest is so important. Creativity and innovation are not borne of exhaustion. Rest allows you to recover from your last creative phase and get back the energy you need to re-enter another one. This is so important and close to my heart I wrote a whole blog post on the subject.
Finding the Balance
I don’t want to give the impression that each of these elements of a sustainable creative life are perfectly balanced with one another, always occurring in the same order and for the same length of time. Perhaps some people work best by having a little consumption, a little mull time, a little creation and a little rest every day – but I don’t! I can both create and consume in crazy little phases of intensity, either “filling the well” to nearly overflowing, or draining it till nearly dry as I create like crazy for days on end. There’s nothing wrong with short bursts of intensity, but over time each of these elements is needed, and if you consistently deprive yourself of one of them your creativity will eventually start to stagnate.
So if you’re feeling blocked or discouraged in your creative endeavours, use this super-simple but effective framework to figure out if you’re running low on one of these elements. If you are, work towards restoring yourself in that area and I dare say your creativity will naturally start to flow again.
I believe that we humans are all creative beings. We don’t have to try to make ourselves creative. Creativity flows through us, and our job is just to remove the obstacles – like a barrenness of inspiration, or no time to process, or exhaustion – that block the stream of creativity from being able to flow. When we do, it flows of its own accord and then our job is just to turn up, do the work and be sure that we don’t judge it until it’s done.
Creativity was never meant to be something that burned us out nor something that burned out within us. A sustainable creative life is certainly possible; we just have to learn how to live it.
Featured image by Rachel Hughes Shah during mull time.
All uncredited photos from the personal collection of Rachel Hughes Shah.