As he explains in his TEDx talk, “Embrace the Shake,” when artist Phil Hansen could no longer do his pointillist drawings due to nerve damage in his hand, he learned countless other ways to create art. But why wait for a disability to open your mind to new possibilities? Whether you are a poet, artist, teacher, novelist or musician, here are five unconventional ways to climb into your creative projects from a fresh entry point.
Use your non-dominant hand. This is a practice I learned at the Art Students League in New York, where I realized that drawing a model with my left instead of right hand made me see the subject differently. Sure, the drawings were terrible (though they did get better over time) but when I went back to drawing with my dominant hand, it was as if a bit of the left hand perspective had joined in. If you keep a writing journal, try making every other entry with the opposite hand. Yes, it will slow you down; that’s part of the benefit.
Get up and move. In her New York Times essay, “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” Joyce Carol Oates says that running allows her an expanded consciousness in which she can envision what she’s writing as a film or a dream. Back at her typewriter, she recalls that dream and transcribes it. The scenes in my own novels usually unfold during walks in the woods with my dog. In the classroom, I try to get my students up and moving as much as possible. Physical stagnancy can cause the creative juices to stagnate, too.
Employ the power of two. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Atlantic essay, “The Power of Two,” explores how the tense creative collaboration of Lennon and McCartney produced artistic genius that far exceeded the sum of its parts. Hemingway and Fitzgerald would not have been who they were without Maxwell Perkins. I regularly have my students do brief story-generating exercises in pairs or groups of three. Sometimes it devolves into silliness, friction and occasional brilliance. All are worth it. I meet weekly with writer friends to work in silence together, a practice which strikes some as bizarre, but which helps us stay motivated and on task. Even the lonely work of novel writing can benefit from company.
Sleep In. This is a luxury I don’t often enjoy, but when I have the time and courage to lie in bed for awhile after waking in the morning, looking around at the semi-dark room and frail light slipping between blinds, entire scenes from my novel write themselves without my having to do a thing. It’s amazing. All I have to do is be present and watch the scenes unfold. The trick then is to write them down before the obligations of the day surge into motion. This is sacred time. If your day allows it, take it.
Work on more than one thing at a time. Full disclosure: I am terrible at this, but when I do manage to do so, both projects benefit. My painting teacher, Roy Kinzer, always encouraged us to have multiple canvases in motion concurrently, so that if we got stuck with one, we could move to the other. Often that shift allowed obstacles to get sorted out in the back of the brain. Upon returning to the first canvas, voila, the solution was clear. Since I tend to get completely sucked up the fictional dream of whatever novel I’m working on, it’s hard to tear myself away, even when a poem calls. But working on several projects simultaneously keeps the mind malleable.