Megan Tatum explores the links between anxiety and creativity, and gives some top tips on how to stay creative.
Creativity can be elusive at the best of times. I’ll sit down at my desk, the house blissfully quiet, the coffee machine bubbling away and a full day ahead to write or pitch and … nothing. Then just as I’ve given up and headed out to run errands, hands loaded down with shopping bags the most brilliant idea will float in, often forgotten before I reach home.
But in the last few weeks that creative flow has gone from elusive to well, evaporated. Or at least hidden under thick, sticky layers of anxiety. My first waking thought now is of a virus I had never heard of three months ago. I worry about catching it, about friends and family catching it, about the financial implications, about my sanity when faced with the same four walls for another 24 hours. That leaves precious little space for the flow of creative ideas I rely on.
I’m far from alone. As the World Health Organization has warned, stress and anxiety is set to spike at an alarming rate. This stress breeds an inability to focus, it makes us feel more tired and it can even cause the creative centre of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – to switch off completely.
For creative freelancers that creates a huge dilemma: how can you protect the creativity you rely on to pay your bills?
1. Accept and address your anxiety first:
We’re living in exceptional circumstances and the bravest of faces won’t trick an anxious brain. In other words, sitting at your desk and willing creative sparks to arrive won’t work. Instead, accept you’re struggling and take steps to address your mental health before anything else.
What works will be different for everyone. But take a look at resources from organisations such as, The Mental Health Foundation and Mind where you’ll find advice, links to relaxation techniques and suggestions on how to structure a day. For me, building a lockdown routine has been a lifesaver.
2. Readjust your professional expectations:
I can’t expect my creative output to be what it was prior to this pandemic. That has meant going back to my professional goals and readjusting what is realistic. Yes, that includes financial targets, but it’s also been about shifting less creative targets to the fore.
For example, I’m now putting far more focus on commercial copywriting work as opposed to securing commissions from those dream consumer publications. No, it doesn’t fill me with quite the same joy, but it uses my skillset with less need for big creative ideas, the work often has longer lead times allowing for a dip in productivity, and the rates can be better too.
3. Try an Artist’s Date:
There are ways to (gently) cultivate creativity, one of which is an Artist’s Date. I know I know, it all sounds a bit bohemian for British sensibilities but it’s actually very simple and kind of lovely.
The idea is to take a block of time – an hour or two is ideal – and immerse yourself in something that fires up your imagination. It doesn’t have to be related to the creative work you do financially – in fact, it’s much better that it doesn’t. The idea is simply to cultivate that prefrontal cortex.
Listen to music, paint, go on a virtual holiday, write poetry, dance… there really is no wrong way to spend the time. This weekend I followed this recipe to make some of the best, doughiest chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever tasted. All that matters is that you’re alone, free of distractions and immersed in something that brings you joy.
4. Use exercises to spark creative ideas: You can’t force creativity, but you can offer it up some encouragement and, for writers in particular, there are some great exercises you can experiment with. Again this doesn’t have to feed into your daily work, it’s about eking out creativity without obligation. So make like Ernest Hemingway and write a six-word story each morning or pick a writing prompt and spend 20 minutes with pen to paper.
Or if you’re desperate for this to feed into ideas you can pitch to editors then my personal favourite is the reverse assumption technique. Scan the news and question the assumption of every single article. Take this one on home-schooling sending parents insane. Might home-schooling actually be a good way for adults to calm down? Is it a great way to boost their CV? Or pick two seemingly unrelated news events and find a connection somehow. By using this technique I’ve sparked some really unusual ideas that have created the foundations of ideas I’ve then gone onto pitch.
Most important of all through this unprecedented craziness though is to cut yourself some slack. Your creativity hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s just – like all of us - on a temporary lockdown.