I talk to a lot of people. More than most, probably. In my day job, I tell other people’s stories, the kind you may not have heard because there’s no spectacle and no recognition. It’s my favorite type of story, the ones that happen every day while no one is looking. Most people think their stories are remarkably unremarkable, which makes finding and telling them a bit of an adventure.
I’ve fancied myself an adventurer since I was a kid. My favorite stories were of little kids with big imaginations, Harriet the Spy, Bridge to Terabithia, anything involving Ramona Quimby. Don’t even get me started on Choose Your Own Adventure books. To this day, I have a soft spot for stories that transport me someplace spectacular.
Curiosity is the linchpin of any creative work, whether it’s an everyday adventure or something more fantastic. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert famously defines a creative life as “Living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” Your reward? “A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life.”
That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? To expand our experience on this big blue marble. So, if you’ll indulge me, let’s adventure together.
Start Here: Feeling inspired?
If yes, skip to Just Curious. If no, start at Inspire Me.
Sometimes we want or need to work on a creative project but we’re not inspired by what’s in front of us. Maybe you’re on deadline. Maybe you have an idea but it’s not the idea. Whatever the reason, the best way to get inspired is to open your mind.
We’ve all had a great idea in the shower or basically anywhere we aren’t thinking about creating. I’m passionate about mindful creativity because meditation has served that role for me. The act of being present frees the mind up for new ideas and improves your ability to recognize good ideas when they come to you. So, let’s get present.
Exercise: Find a comfortable seat and stack your head over your hips. Set a timer for 10 minutes and close your eyes. Breathe deeply so you feel your ribs and belly expand and contract. Pay attention to your breath as it comes in and out of your nose. See if you can spend this time focused on your body and breathing. When your timer goes off, jot down any ideas that came to mind.
Ready to start?
If yes, move on to Just Curious. If not, repeat Inspire Me.
It’s time to adventure beyond the surface. You simply can’t create something great if you’re not curious. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve received is not to write the story you already know. You can’t have all the answers. A great idea isn’t a story unless you want to know more.
“If you’re not curious, your reader won’t be curious...” says Laraine Herring, author of Writing Begins with the Breath (and fellow Harriet the Spy fan). “It’s your curiosity and your questioning that first carries the work. It is this stage when the heart begins to beat.”
Exercise: Write down 10 questions about your creative project. Answer what you can. Set them aside and come back the next day. For every question you answered, drill down deeper. What else do you want to know? And for one of your unanswered questions, research the answer. Repeat this for at least three days, more if you have time.
If yes, skip to Second Look. If not, move on to The Starting Line.
The Starting Line
It’s natural to start creating when you think you have all the answers, but I beg you not to. In fact, the best work raises questions that have many answers. Start writing or painting or composing before you find your footing. The answers aren’t the point.
“It’s OK not to know, and I think important not to know, all the levels your work is speaking on. Trust it. Show up for it,” says Herring. Get lost and uncomfortable and keep going.
Exercise: Sit quietly for a moment. Deepen your breath. Consider the piece you’re trying to start. What emotions does it bring up? What does it feel like to inhabit that space physically and emotionally? How can you convey that in a way that moves people? Now, try to put it into words. Write something, anything. Make it better later. Now is the time to feel and explore.
Create something yet?
If yes, move on to Second Look. If not, go back to Inspire Me.
Many creatives file revision under technical craft work. But I think this can be the most personal, emotionally trying part of the journey. It’s the part where you need to get curious about whether what you created is any good. And if it is, how it could be better.
When I started this post, I wrote a straightforward account of my thoughts on curiosity in creative work. Then I decided to take my own advice for once and get curious about how I could create something authentic, original, and useful. It required some self-inquiry and open mind. It also required a complete rewrite. It wasn’t the easiest path, but it’s definitely “a hell of a lot more interesting” one.
Exercise: Re-evaluate. What have you created? What emotions does it elicit? What do you love about it? What’s missing? Where can you dig deeper? Revise, expand, don’t be afraid to start fresh.
Curious creativity is all about finding the path between knowing something in your mind and knowing it in your heart. Follow it and get curious along the way. Find the spectacular in the ordinary and the fantastic in the mundane. And when you think you’ve asked all the questions, come up with a few more.