One day, I lost my creativity. Poof. Gone.
I put my favourite pieces of art on my wall and spent days staring at them, looking for clues as to where my creativity went. Before this happened, on any given day, I was creating small paintings, weaving textiles, sewing, rolling out clay, writing in my journal, snipping out magazine photos and playing with paper. I would paint and sketch with clients in my work as an art therapist and then go home and make art for pleasure. I would spend hours leading an art therapy open studio with my colleagues, yet we would stay for hours afterwards working on personal projects. Art and creativity fueled me. And then one day, my creative pilot light just went out.
So what happened? In March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. All at once, I wasn’t interacting with my art therapy clients anymore. Watching someone make art through a screen is not the same as co-creating side-by-side. And that art that I created myself for pleasure? I suddenly had no interest. All of my current projects were put on hold. I told myself that I would come back to them soon, yet seldom ventured into my art cupboard in the months that followed.
Maybe I should have seen this coming. In the early stages, life during the COVID-19 pandemic was exhausting, worrisome and lonely. Relational-cultural theorists Miller and Stiver state:
“We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.” (p. 72).
Emotional repression, heightened anxiety and depressive symptoms are natural consequences of social distancing and the resulting isolation that occurred (Solomon, 2020). In other words, this is scary and stressful. Although I desperately wish it did, being a mental health practitioner does not make you immune to stress.
Being a mental health practitioner, however, I know the incredible benefits of creativity and art-making. Engaging in the process of art-making is effective in alleviating emotional stress and anxiety by creating a physiological response of relaxation (Malchiodi, 2007; Learn more about the benefits of art therapy here). You might imagine how frustrating that was for me - I know art can help, I have witnessed and experienced it time and time again, yet my creativity was so sorely diminished that I couldn’t so much as pick up a paintbrush.
Luckily, I subscribe to the idea that creativity is not a fixed state. It ebbs and flows. In Ancient Greece, creativity was not even something you could lose. Human happiness, or eudaimonia, was referred to as being nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide (Gilbert, 2015). Creativity comes to visit you, it sits on your shoulder and it may fly away from time to time, but it will always be back. Elizabeth Gilbert said it best:
“When I refer to creative living, I am speaking more broadly, talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear”.
In these unprecedented times characterized by fear, stress and anxiety, here are five ways you can reignite your creativity through curiosity:
In The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron prescribes morning pages to all those who are creatively blocked. Morning pages are a writing meditation, wherein you write three pages (big or small) every morning upon waking up. Writing down whatever comes to mind, free of the internal censor that stands between you and your creativity. In this task, morning pages teach the logic brain to step aside and let the artist's brain have a turn. The pages work as a pathway to a strong and clear sense of self, as the free-flow writing acts as a meditation that connects to an inner source of power and gives way to insight.
Although I don’t religiously write my morning pages, I do find them such a freeing exercise when I am feeling blocked, stuck and stressed. Just the act of putting pen to paper helps me to clear my mind and untangle some of the thoughts swirling around in my head.
2. Connecting with Nature
Nature and creativity go hand-in-hand. Moments of awe inspire art, and nature inspires moments of awe. When asked to express images of fulfilment, almost without exception people will invoke natural settings such as streams, oceans, trees, the colours green and blue and soundscapes of birds, rain or waterfalls (Dreikurs, 1986; Williams, 2017). Nature experience is integral to our species’ evolutionary psyche (Buzzel, 2016).
Reconnection to the habitat our species evolved in can produce healing and joy within the mind, body and soul and can connect one to their inner nature of curiosity, exploration and community (Buzzel, 2016). Just as we evolved to live within nature, we have evolved to be creative. Taking a few steps back to our evolutionary roots by connecting with fundamental experiences in nature (even if it is just a short walk through the a city park) can jumpstart creative thinking.
“[Reading is] important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.”
― Matt Haig, Notes on a Nervous Planet
Reading, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, expands your worldview and invites inspiration. Instead of focusing on where your creativity went, focus on a book. Aside from the abundant benefits of reading (reading for pleasure can help enhance a growth mindset and meaning-making and increase empathy and resilience; Wilhelm, 2017), becoming immersed in a book can help to take your mind off of what is troubling you. When external pressure and anxiety is pushed aside, creativity can foster and flourish.
Some of my favourite quarantine reads so far have been: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig, Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, An Artful Path to Mindfulness by Janet Slom and The Switch by Beth O’Leary.
Curious about Creativity? Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert is an instant fave.
Curious about Curiosity? Curious - The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It by Ian Leslie can take you down that rabbit hole. Truthfully, I only got halfway through this book before I had to return it to the library, but it was interesting while it lasted!
Interested in following along on my reading adventures? Follow me on Goodreads to see reviews and lists of my favourite mental health, self-help and therapy-related books.
4. Practice Digital Wellness
Real talk: technology is keeping us connected to others, but can so easily disconnect us from ourselves (and from our friendly creative spirit guides). Digital wellness refers to using technology in ways that promote, instead of disrupt, physical and mental health and well-being. Digital flourishing that promotes well-being is reflected in online behaviours that bring joy, meaning, growth, self-expression and inspiration (Digital Wellness Collective, 2020)
You can use digital applications to enhance self-expression and inspiration. Apps and online courses (like these classes offered at Brit +Co) can help you learn a new skill like playing an instrument or introduce you to a new craft. You can search the hashtag #inspired or #calledtobecreative to see what inspires others.. Follow accounts that bring you inspiration and joy and do a social media purge of the accounts that increase negative feelings. If you find yourself comparing your creativity to others online, you can always take a break from social media. Improve your balance between online and offline activities by choosing a certain amount of time to unplug daily or weekly. Unplugging gives you more time to direct your attention to the other activities on this list!
If you want to find out more about digital wellness and how you can flourish in the digital era, take the digital flourishing survey.
5. Make Response Art
Creating response art helps to let go of any judgments that we hold onto when we are creating art for any other purpose than just to create. Response art is the art that you create to get something out of your system, to understand yourself better, to answer questions that you can’t answer in words. It can be any kind of art, using any medium to help you respond expressively to what is going on in your life. Maybe get back to what you loved as a kid - for me, this is collage, playdough and colouring. Creating art just for art’s sake can help you redefine your creativity.
This is perhaps the most important: What you create does not matter. Your creativity is not measured by your output, external standards of beauty or pretentious views of what qualifies as art. So if your creative spark is gone out of fear of creating bad art, know that there is no bad art.
There are no expectations for this art. One time I just painted with all the colours I had and swirled them around until the page was completely black. And it felt good. When you have made a few pieces, see if you notice any themes - what brings you joy, what comes out when you are feeling stressed, do you draw animals or vegetables or buildings? You might be surprised by what you find in this art.
The only art I created from the months of April to September was response art. Going from creating every day to feeling like my creative spark had gone out was difficult. I was so glad to have response art to reconnect me with my love of art - creating art to bring me some joy during the pandemic, without any expectations of what that art should be. To get myself making art again, I joined an online expressive art therapy group focused on self-compassion, run by Vancouver-based art therapist Holly Keen Goldes. You can join too in November! If you feel like you want to express yourself through art, but you don’t know where to start, check out the Self Exploration Through Art Online Group my colleagues and I are running in November.
The purpose of this article is to offer methods for reconnecting with and reigniting personal creativity and should not be misconstrued as a counselling or art therapy treatment. If you are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, with creativity or otherwise, there are mental health options available for you. Book with me here. Or find a counsellor in your area on www.counsellingmatch.com
Buzzel, L. (2016). The many ecotherapies. In J. Hinds & M. Jordan (Ed.), Ecotherapy: Theory, research and practice (pp.70-79). Macmillan.
Dreikurs, S. (1986). Cows can be purple: My life and art therapy. N. Catlin & J.W. Croake (Eds.). Alfred Adler Institute of Chicago.
Digital Wellness Collective (2020). Digital flourishing: Actionable Tips for Year-Round Digital Wellness. [PDF]. Visit their website: https://digitalwellnesscollective.com/
Gilbert, E. (2015). Big Magic. Riverhead Books.
Haig, M. (2019). Notes on a Nervous Planet. Harper Avenue.
Malchiodi, C. (2007). The Art Therapy Sourcebook. McGraw-Hill Education
Miller, J. B. & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy and Life. Beacon.
Solomon, A. (2020, April 13). For those of us with depression, coronavirus is a double crisis. The Guardian.
Williams, Florence. (2017). The Nature Fix. Norton Company, Inc.
Wilhelm, J. D. (30 October 2017). The benefits of reading for pleasure. Eudtopia.