10 Unusual creativity prompts to help you get unstuck

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When it comes to creativity, it's easy to get stuck in a rut, whether that's a rut of not making anything (hands up those who are stuck here!) or a rut of making the same things all the time. When I started making mail art, I was worried that every piece would end up being a similar sort of collage and both I and my customers would get bored with it real fast. How could I come up with new and unique ideas?

Since the project had been inspired by Nick Bantock's books, I decided to look to him for inspiration. He has a great little book called The Trickster's Hat:  A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity which provides dozens of mysterious prompts and exercises to help artists, writers, and creative dabblers go deeper into their work. I opened it up and chose randomly. What I found sparked an idea for a unique letter (using poems as an oracle) and a fun collage to go with it. High on the success of that attempt, I tried another one. This time he suggested making collages out of letters, which led to one of my favourite envelopes so far.

I haven't been following the instructions explicitly - just taking the main purpose of it and adapting it to my own project. In the process, I've also started generating more ideas out of my own mind. Once the taps are open, things really start to flow. 

I've developed a bit of a collection of books with creative prompts - some of which I've worked through from start to finish, and some of which I dip into when I'm feeling stuck. They can help get projects going, but they also encourage the practice of creative play, which is super important.

What is creative play?

Creative play is anything that gets you energised and feeling good about making stuff. Something that requires some effort but isn't too challenging, and that stretches your perceived creative capacity. It can be a warm-up to other activities, a springboard to starting something new, or the purpose itself.

Mail art has become my favourite method of creative play, since it is a constant process of exploration and experimentation.

With creative play, you can't have a purpose in mind or want it to turn out a certain way. You just have to give in to whatever happens. 

Why this helps:

  • It creates constraints: It's hard to start creating when we are overwhelmed by possibility. Setting ourselves a specific task can lift the fog of too many choices and focus our attention and intention. 

  • It acts as a warmup: I don't know about you, but I find it hard to jump into a creative project when I haven't worked on it for a few days. I like to start every studio day with 30 - 60 minutes of an activity with no pressure or consequences. For 6 months I worked through this book, then I moved on to the Drawing Project, and now I use mail art!

  • It reminds you of what flow feels like: If you have been stuck for awhile or haven't made time for creativity, it can be hard to remember what it feels like to be deeply caught up in a project. I find that it's that feeling that keeps me coming back so I try to cultivate it whenever possible. 

  • It builds new connections in your brain: A huge part of creativity is connecting things that might not otherwise be connected - in fact, that's often how they test creativity in a lab setting. Completing an exercise that you might not normally do can get you thinking in new ways and starts to stir the pot of ideas and knowledge. You never know what flavours might emerge! 

  • It helps you practice following impulses: Part of why we get stuck is because we tell ourselves that our impulses are stupid and we refuse to act on them. Playing with a project gives us permission to make something sub par and to practice saying yes to ourselves, rather than no. 

  • It gives your inner critic a break: When you work on something just for yourself, it lets your inner critic off the hook. It doesn't need to protect you from criticism or failure so it can just hang back and watch. You might even convince it that you have something worth sharing! 

And if you need further convincing, there's always science!

"Scientists say there are two main reasons we play: first, it’s preparation. It allows us to practice skills that we will need in a safe environment where we can fail with few consequences, so we can apply those skills when they are really needed. Bears in the wild who play as cubs have a much higher survival rate than those who don't. Play is also necessary for brain growth. In fact, studies in mammals show a nearly identical match in growth curves between brain size and playfulness during childhood." Source

Creativity Prompts

Now that we've covered why creative play is a good thing, here are 10 exercises from some of my favourite resources that will hopefully help bring some playful energy to your practice. Either do the activity in full, or pull something that intrigues you from it for your next project. I challenge you to make one thing this week in response to this post and tell me about it in the comments! 

1. Write a letter to strangers: Choose three random addresses and send each one a story of a time when you helped someone. Decorate the package and include something personal, like a recipe, or some seeds they can plant. Ask them to write back and share a similar story to provide inspiration for your art, and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

"If you get something back, relish in the fact that you communicated/connected to a complete stranger. See what comes out of that."(from Creative Block: Get Unstuck, Discover New Ideas. Advice & Projects from 50 Successful Artists, by Danielle Krysa)

2. Collage self-portrait: Do several blind contour drawings (where you look only at your subject and never at your paper, never lifting your pen) of your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. Cut out the best ones and collage them together, then look in a mirror and fill in the rest.

"After you feel good about your portrait, not because it looks exactly like you but because there is an honesty in it, begin writing. Surround your drawing with text, beginning each sentence with, "If you really knew me you'd know..."" (from Creative Block)

3. Write the alphabet in slow motion: "Write it large and in slow motion, staring at the line. Pretend it is alive and you are just watching." (from What It Is by Lynda Barry)

4. Create your own country: "Inside every one of us is a world just as significant as the five-senses world we share with others. This interior landscape is a place of personal mythology that's potentially far more potent than our passing fantasies or daydreams."

Imagine your own country and write down everything you can think of about it: its size, geography, terrain, climate, population, currency, flora and fauna, politics, etc. Create a postage stamp for this country and a postcard to send from it. Keep going if you want, creating illustrations, maps, or stories about it. (From The Trickster's Hat by Nick Bantock)

5. Make a magical object: This one is completely open-ended: make a shrine, a talisman, a totem, a charm or anything that represents what magic means to you.

"No, I'm not offering spells and incantations, merely a homeopathic taste of what it might feel like to create something magical -- not something that does magic but an object or artifact that conjures up the essence of unreasonable specialness." (From The Trickster's Hat)

6. Make an encouraging banner: Choose an encouraging phrase that you like and make a banner out of it. Hang it in public or keep it as a gift. Unlike the other projects on this list, this is one that I've actually completed. You can see my results here. This was inspired by Miranda July's project, Learning to Love You More. 

7. Recreate an object from someone else's past: Ask someone to describe an object from their past in great detail. Recreate it using only neutral coloured cardboard and tape. (From Learning to Love You More by Miranda July.)

8. Be an egg: This is an exercise that choreographer Twyla Tharp uses in her practice. Sit on the floor and pull your knees into your chest and curl your head down to your knees. Try to become as small as possible. Then, move some part of your body so that you are in a new position. Come up with as many different positions as possible and see if you can come up with names for each one (Examples given include 'walking egg', 'jackknife egg', 'tall egg'.)

"I like Egg because it forces you to think about change. Once you shrink yourself into a fetal ball, you have no choice but to do something expansive. You cannot hold the starting position forever, though you can hold it as long as you like. Eventually, though, you'll have to do something. Egg is an exercise that teaches you how to accomplish the most difficult task in any creative endeavour: begin." (From The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life by Twyla Tharp). 

9. Play with verbs: On one side of a sheet of paper, write a list of 10 nouns. Fold the paper, and on the other side, write a list of 15 verbs associated with a profession, like a chef, a nurse, or a bus driver. Open the page and see if you can match up the nouns with the verbs in interesting sentences, changing the verb tense if you need to.

The goal is to, "be aware of your verbs and the power they have and use them in fresh way." (From Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg)

10. Draw something in great detail: This is an exercise that has become one of my favourite warm-ups. I didn't pull it from a book about creativity, but a novel about finding your true self and applied it to what I was doing at the time. I've started drawing taking photos of intricate natural phenomena like lichens, barnacles, dangling seed clusters, and drawing them as accurately as I can. It's very challenging, but also meditative.

Here's what inspired me: "Focus intently on the precise outcome your want. Do your absolute best to achieve it. Notice where your creation doesn't match your intention. Try again. You'll fail again, but you'll fail better. Repeat. This is called "deep" or "dedicated" practice, and neuroscience has shown that though it's physically and mentally demanding, it leads to very rapid increases in ability.

More importantly, it keeps us at the edge of our capacities, and this is the zone where our brains brew the perfect hormones to create a sensation called "flow". Happiness researchers have found that flow is the most satisfying experience humans can have. If you do [this exercise] for the joy of this sensation, not for spectacular results, you'll eventually get both." (From Diana Herself: An Allegory of Awakening by Martha Beck)

Need an excuse to practice creative play? There are three nights of Art Camp for adults this summer open for registration until June 26th. Sign up now and come play with us!