Monday 20 May 2019

Writer's block? Painter's elbow? How to unlock your creative side

If you start every year hoping that it'll be the one you finish that novel, or start to paint, best-selling novelist Carmel Harrington has some advice for you

Control: Writer Carmel Harrington finished her first draft of her first novel in 13 days.
Control: Writer Carmel Harrington finished her first draft of her first novel in 13 days.

My birthday falls early January, so within days, I've got the new year and my ever-advancing age to contend with. It's impossible not to get retrospective, which in turn makes me ponder the year ahead.

Before I've sang the last notes of Auld Lang Syne, I've set new resolutions.

Well, new is probably the wrong word, because for nearly a decade they were always the same - lose weight, get fit, write that novel. I've always had dozens of stories buzzing around in my head. But my desire to write and the actual putting of words down on paper, were two different things. A few chapters in, I'd falter and end up overweight, unfit and shamefaced the following New Year's Eve, with an unfinished manuscript mocking me.

Sound familiar? You could argue that there is little point in setting yourself up to fail, safer to refrain from making the same unattainable resolutions. Well my response to that, is this - maybe this is the year that you don't fail. Maybe this is the year of a new creative you.

Have you harboured an ambition to write, to paint, or perhaps to design something? Well, here's an extra incentive to make you turn that dream into a reality. Scientific research has proven that creativity is linked to happiness.

A team at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro published a report in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, that reported that participants in their experiment were happier when they were doing something creative.

Think about the children you know and picture the expression on their faces when they are doing arts and crafts. You won't find a happier child than one with a paintbrush in hand, blobbing colour on paper. That's because when busy being creative, our minds become absorbed in our task and we can switch off from some of the more harsh realities of our lives.

Think about the last time you did something creative - perhaps you baked a cake, did some knitting, renovated a piece of furniture. How did it make you feel?

We've just come through two bouts of chicken pox in our house. Two small, irritated, itchy children, who, during their most miserable moments, had their minds taken off their illness by being creative.

We painted, we drew, we sang, we made paper chains and with each creation, they beamed with pride and happiness.

Kids are luckier than us adults though. Because they are not worried about the end result, their artistic drive is not crippled with self-doubt. They are secure in the knowledge that even the most basic splatter on paper will result in oohs and aahs of praise from proud parents.

And that there is the real reason I ignored my creative side - fear of failure. I'd tell myself that I hadn't enough time to write. But there's always time if you really want to do something.

So what changed for me? The catalyst happened 10 years ago. I had moved house, was newly single and had recovered from a bout of bad health. I felt a strong need to regain some control in my life, so decided to get out of my own way and stop making excuses. I joined a gym and ticked off two items in one go.

That just left one thing, and fate presented me with an ideal opportunity to realise it.

I was a sales and marketing executive at the time and had accumulated quite a bit of unused holidays. So I took myself off to Florida and spent two weeks writing the first draft of what eventually became Beyond Grace's Rainbow.

I worked tirelessly to get it completed, writing early morning, breaking for a few hours mid-afternoon before getting back to it again every night. And at about 4am, on day 13, I wrote the two glorious words that I've never grown tired of - The End.

It was a shaky first draft, full of rookie errors, but with some rewrites, that book went on to secure me a life-changing book deal with Harper Collins. Now, I have never felt so fulfilled professionally or personally as I do writing for a living.

The money is pretty lousy and the hours are long, but I've not stopped smiling since this adventure began.

Now, with a family I don't have the luxury of disappearing off on my own to write. I fit my writing around my family's needs, often writing late into the night, once the children are asleep. And I can concur with the research, since I began to write, I've never been happier.

Which is why I want this year to be your year to be more creative. To help you out, I've spoken to three deliriously happy people who have turned their creative genius into a career. They have each shared their top five tips on how to get started:

Blaithin Ennis is a multi-award winning Irish designer. She specialises in couture fashion pieces alongside her range of handmade contemporary jewellery

• Think outside the box? - what box!

• Write down your own creative thoughts/ideas - a wish list.

• Great ideas start in the mind!

If you don't have the hands, don't be afraid to borrow a pair.

• Make a prototype, no matter how rough and ready.

• Seek opinions from your close friends and family. They won't be afraid to give you the honest truth.

Oonagh Latchford is a visual artist and workshop facilitator based in Wexford. Her paintings are held in numerous collections within Ireland and the USA

• Paint frequently - set aside regular time to paint - and then if you are not in the mood, push yourself to do it for just half an hour.

• Stay positive. It's easy to see what you don't like in your painting - but it's also good to pick out three things that you do like - however small - each and every time.

• If a painting is not working out, put it aside, start another one or work on two at the same time. You will be surprised at how one will feed off the other.

• Feed your creativity. Look at other art, visit galleries - read art books. Carry a camera / notebook to record any inspiration when it strikes.

• Sign up for a class.

Hazel Gaynor is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling author. Her second novel, A Memory of Violets, is available in bookshops now

• Write the book you want to read. Don't follow fads or trends or try to copy another writer.

• Set achievable writing goals. 400 words a day, 2,000 words a day - whatever works for you. Don't use lack of time as an excuse for not writing. Even small adjustments to your day, such as getting up an hour earlier or switching off the TV a few nights a week, can really see the words build up over a week.

• Embrace the first draft. All books go through dozens of drafts and rewrites before they hit the shelves. The first draft is when you tell yourself the story. It will be messy and confused but is an essential part of the writing process. Let the ideas and the words flow at this stage.

• Let your work go. Nothing is ever absolutely perfect. Ask a few trusted friends, or other writers, to read early drafts and give you their honest feedback.

• Finish what you start. The first book you write might not be the first book you publish. Most writers have an early attempt at a book hidden under the bed.

• Just do it. Stop making excuses, put your creative side first.

Carmel Harrington's third novel 'Every Time a Bell Rings' is out now

Irish Independent

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