Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Lion in the Attic: My Top Ten Tips for Boosting Writer's Creativity

Writer’s blogs are full of advice about boosting our creativity, and I have been trawling through them with interest. I have also read articles and watched programmes giving similar tips; but do they work? Below is a run-down of my favourites.
1)      Doing things differently
A Horizon programme, The Creative Brain: How Insight Works (14 March 2013, 9pm, BBC2) showed that having a new, surprising experience such as going up in a glider for the first time boosted people’s ability to come up with creative solutions. This was also the result for a research subject who was asked to carry out a familiar task (making breakfast) in a new way. Doing things in the same way all the time dulls our creativity and leads to rigid thinking which makes creativity more difficult.
   Having been sky-diving for the first time last year, I can confirm that having such an exhilarating new experience shakes you out of your usual complacent mind-set and stimulates your brain. However, I am also a creature of habit: until recently, when I went swimming in the mornings, I always used the same locker. Since watching the programme, when I catch myself on doing something in the usual way, I take steps to do it differently. I’m all over those lockers now! This one takes constant vigilance, since today’s innovation can quickly become a new habit – but try it. Go sky-diving. Clean the house in your underwear. Wear someone else’s underwear. Have lunch for breakfast – and see how your writing sparkles.

2)      Fasting
Bear with me on this one. I am fervently anti diets and am aware that this sounds like a crackpot idea, and that it makes some people quite angry. The evidence is out there to read, but here I’m only sharing my own experience. Eight months ago, some colleagues were trying out intermittent fasting, when you eat 500 calories or less (for a woman, 600 or less for a man) for two non-consecutive days a week, then eat what you like for the rest of the time. I tried it for a challenge, to see if I could do it. What made me carry it on was the totally unexpected boost to my energy and brain-power. I found that I felt sharper, more focused, healthier and much more energetic as a result, and I have continued to feel that these are the benefits. This week I have challenged myself to write a poem every day and was again astonished to note how much brighter and more creative I felt on a fasting day. Just saying!

3)      Silence
The world is full of noise, and we add to it by filling every moment with television, radio and i-pods, often mixed with other stimuli, such as checking Twitter while watching the news, giving our full attention to neither. Such constant input does not allow our thought processes to work through to their conclusions. We are not letting our poor brains finish their sentences. When things are at their worst, I wake up in the night thinking about things, simply because during daylight hours, my mind has not been able to process them. I urge you to find a time when you turn off all sound and just rest quietly for a time, allowing your mind to ponder. I have found a new route to work that is longer but quieter (I am lucky enough to be able to walk to work), and I don’t take music with me, but just walk quietly with my thoughts. This probably boosts my ability to think deeply and innovatively more than anything else. You don’t need hours, just some time every day when you turn off that radio and let your mind entertain you.

4)      Reading good writing
This might seem obvious but can be something we neglect if we are spending every spare moment writing. What you need to read probably depends on what you are striving for, or struggling with, in your own work. Recently when I was challenging myself to come up with new, fresh, surprising but apt ways of expressing things, I found reading Alan Hollinghurst’s  The Stranger’s Child a huge help, since he is so gifted (or so hard-working) in this area. Please add a comment to this post if you have found that a particular writer has helped you with a particular need. I would love to hear from you.

5)      Daily practice
This is recommended by many writer’s blogs. You might not feel that you need this if you are working on your writing every day, but think again; this is about boosting your creativity generally, which goes beyond just getting down to work. This week, while fasting (see point 2) I turned the radio off on the way to swimming (see point 3) and came up with the idea that I should write a poem every day this week. I have not written poetry since my teens, when it was an inalienable part of being the teenaged me, and returning to it has been both a challenge and a joy. I am not going to inflict my efforts on you because the point has been to produce a few lines daily, rather than to write something polished for public consumption. In any case, I don’t want to push my luck when I am already making you fast and turn your radio off.

6)      Exercise
OK, I know, now you really hate me. However, exercise not only stimulates and relaxes the body and hence the mind; it also provides a good distraction from the writing process, which the experts seem to agree is good for boosting problem-solving creativity. You don’t have to take up British Military Fitness if doing one-armed press-ups in the mud of your local park is not your dream activity; just go for a walk and let your mind run free.

7)      Honouring your creativity
A while ago when I was busy working and child-rearing and had allowed my writing to slide into the ‘one day, when I get time’ category, I kept having a dream. I would discover an attic room at the top of our house that I hadn’t known was there, but I would find it filthy with dust and covered in cobwebs. More recently, with my blog underway and my focus firmly on finishing my novel, I went up into the dream attic again and found a lion there. He was huge and beautiful, with a voice like Aslan, and he let me get on his back, ready to fly away with me, because he and I were going places. Dreams speak so beautifully of deeper truths that we are trying to ignore. Creativity is the lion in our attic. We can let it fall into disuse, or we can nurture it and make it more powerful. To do this, we need to take it, and hence ourselves and our hopes and dreams, more seriously. We are not given these gifts to let them wither away.
8)      Spring coming – hooray!
This is not in any of the other blogs. But you and I know it’s true. Everything just feels better. We can achieve anything!

9)      Having a cat

Honestly, one of the blogs recommended this. I am trying to believe it is true that cats are helpful to our writing while my cat, Misty, sits behind me, poking my head ever so gently with her claws, to tell me that she has lunch (she doesn’t) and that it is overdue. The picture shows her helping my film-maker son, Ben, with some film editing. I’m not sure if she is actually boosting his creativity here.

10)   Spending time with like-minded people
This is where you come in. Many of the blogs I have read about blogging (this is becoming very incestuous isn’t it?) have said that you will learn more from the posts comments of other bloggers than you dispense in wisdom from your own blog. I do hope this is true. Please leave a comment telling me what tips you have tried for boosting your creativity, and which were most successful. Or try some of the above, and report back!


  1. I find some of the top children's author's very inspiring (Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Pullman et al) - they are fanatical about storytelling. Listening to them talking about their stories makes me want to go back and read Grimm's fairy stories, or Greek myths, or Norse Legends or Russian folk tales and then write something of my own. I never get further than the going back and reading bit but I do regularly have moments of inspiration when I see or think of something that I think would make an interesting premise for, or a good scene in, a book.

  2. Thanks for a great list, and a very readable post :) Fasting is an interesting one. What sorts of thing do you eat on those days? Do you feel more creative during or after?

    1. Thank you! I have a cup of tea for breakfast, 2 oatcakes and a cup of bouillon for lunch, then a low cal meal in the evening, such as lentils and brown rice with broccoli - but you can have anything that fits in the 500 cal limit. I think I feel perkiest and most creative the morning after a fasting day. I have to admit my concentration can fade a bit late on a fasting day, before I get my lentils!