Every morning these days, I sit in front of a blank screen and patiently summon words to surface. Creation is fun. It’s also frustrating, scary, and exciting. This labour may or may not provide something useful each day, but I’ve been giving creativity a shot for a while now. Before the arrival of Covid, I spent this time crammed in a sardine can of a subway, manically commuting from one place to the next.
The sudden adjustment of quarantine life has brought on a variety of reactions in people. As humans we handle uncertainty in different ways. For a select few, Covid has served as a crossroad that’s forced them to question what makes them happy. Some have abandoned their 9 to 5 positions, and set up shop on their own. Others have responded with a chillaxed approach, where a Muskoka chair is now their workspace of choice. Then, there are many of us who’ve numbed tension with Netflix marathons, alcohol, or Doritos. Everyone’s method for finding solace at this time in history is as unique as their fingerprint.
For my own brand of therapy, initially, I threw myself into the stack of books collecting dust in storage. I disappeared into fun Manhattan society, where women wore five hundred dollar shoes and dated men with chauffeurs. Imagination was my distraction of choice. When I came up for air, I suddenly wondered if I had it in me to create my own world or even my own art, regardless of how it appeared to others. Perhaps creation would help me process this new life more clearly. I’d heard a bit about the mental health benefits of art in the past, but as I finally began to put the research in, I was blown away.
According to Medical News Today, creativity significantly lowers anxiety, and activates the reward center of our brains. It also improves learning and memorization, and can even help heal trauma. In more concrete evidence, in a 2016 paper in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, a group of researchers measured cortisol levels of 39 healthy adults. They found that 45 minutes of creating art greatly lowered this hormone, which is normally required to help the body deal with stress. Even more significantly, there were no differences in results between people who identify as experienced artists and those who dabble for fun.
Could this practice legitimately help with a global pandemic though? How much creativity was required in order to make a real difference? I felt compelled to find an answer. With a full time advertising job that helps finance the one bedroom unit I share with my partner, I still had an hour a day to spare for my experiment. So, the Thirty Day Creativity Challenge was born. I’d become an artistic guinea pig and create something (anything) on a daily basis. I kept a journal that monitored how I felt throughout the process, and how it affected key areas of my life.
I’m a bit nervous, as I my artistic muscles are puny at best. I’m thinking baby steps might be the way, so I kick things off with a short story. I get up an hour earlier and sit down in front of the screen in an attempt to type whatever comes to mind. The first few days, I feel stumped, so I begin journaling about how silly this feels. Suddenly, I get a glimpse of an idea, but can’t seem to nail it down, which is frustrating. Everyday, I still show up at the empty screen.
On day 4, I become so frustrated that I take a new direction and, simply go back to journaling about my desire to create something unique. I finally break through the wall of resistance and realize my story needs conflict and drama. Naturally, I insert a murder scene. Later, I change the genre to a romance and add a coming of age love triangle plot. This idea hit me earlier when I was on a walk through the cemetery beside our home. I immediately write it down, so I can plan out how I’ll tackle the idea in my next session. I’m noticing that inspiration can present itself at odd times.
During this week, some stressful events come up. I find out that my work hours and pay have been reduced, and I have to recalculate my budget. I try to reframe things in my mind. I remind myself I’m lucky to have a job right now. I also receive an additional work project that will take a number of hours to complete. To top it off, our wifi, the glue that holds quarantine life together, is threatening to give up. I feel discouraged, but decide to keep things in perspective. I will conquer and divide. I’m not sure yet if the creative outlet is helping, but if my calm response is a coincidence, it’s an interesting one.
The routine is becoming easier this week. It’s just a regular part of my day, instead of a new obligation I have to adjust to. A lot of my nerves about being ‘not very creative’ are beginning to sudside. I mine for ideas that were probably hidden in my subconscious for years. As they surface, I try not to judge them. I’m surprised by what has been lying dormant in my right brain this whole time. I finish my short story. It’s about a girl who moves to New York’s West Village and gets romantically tangled with a moody artist. It’s not amazing, and I haven’t really shown it anyone, but I’m proud that it’s complete. It makes me want to write more.
My skeptical side wonders if this could be a placebo effect. I keep studying the benefits of creativity. I stumble across a Ted Talk video given by celebrated artist Domingo Zapataon on the healing power of art. He humbly states that he turned to creativity during the toughest days of his life – when his newborn son was in surgery. “I kept sketching and sketching, and sketching and that is what made me get through that week,” he said. “It made me feel better, it made me relax.” It’s interesting to note this man has access to the finest things in life, including the world’s top therapists. Yet, creativity is what he turned to in his darkest hour.
At this point, I’m feeling less irritable than I was a couple of weeks ago. Working from home, it’s easy to prematurely hit that mental panic button. Frustration mounts with technical glitches, unreasonable requests, or having to share cramped work space. Art is helping me vent my negative thoughts, even with the small stuff, like difficult co-workers, or dropped Zoom calls.
I share a small den with my partner and there have been some tough moments when the space simply can’t contain both of our jobs. For the most part though, we’ve worked well together. I’m feeling more focused on the positive things, like his thoughtfulness when he makes me breakfast or checks if I need a water refill each time he goes to the kitchen.
I begin to test the waters of creative writing. I sign up for an online class with a pop up writing school. It’s on how to create a non-fiction book proposal, something I’ve never done. Being around other writers, even just virtually, is helping my creative juices flow. I begin brainstorming ideas for books I’d looked for in the past, but which didn’t seemed to be published anywhere. Maybe I’d plan to write them myself one day.
I seem to be getting better at my digital advertising job. Unorthodox requests are causing me less panic, which is creating fewer errors in my work. I hadn’t noticed my stressed out response until it was gone. I feel a balanced perspective wash over me. The tough moments come and go with less struggle.
With creative alone time, I also notice my partner and I are navigating quarantine life as a solid team. This new focus gives us that time apart we need while living the new normal. It also gives us interesting things to discuss besides work or Covid news. With the exchange of creative energy between us, he decides to work on a podcast idea of his own. This is undoubtedly helping our dynamic as a couple, and gives us each something we can call our own.
I’ve decided to keep my focus on writing, but I’m inspired to get more creative with my workout routine. I start You Tube cardio dance classes in the evening. I also find myself singing showtunes in the shower. Looks like it’s spreading.
This week I’m starting work on a book proposal idea about creativity. Down the road, I’m thinking of creating a newsletter, and maybe even a podcast. Even though I’m still consuming regular Covid updates, I’m deliberately reducing my media scrolling to fifteen minutes a day. I notice I have a more positive outlook, and my general anxiety levels seem to be dipping. My diet has finally stabilized too. When quarantine life made its introduction, I stress ate barbeque chips and strawberry ice cream like they were my last meal. Maybe because I’m feeling productive in one area, the feeling seems to be migrating. Miraculously, I’m back to batch cooking veggies and casseroles for the week.
I now feel a sense of purpose besides my job and relationships. This is something that’s all mine. Who knows if it will lead to anything, but having this focus seems to make the current stressors of life more manageable. I still have negative thoughts, but I notice a sense of lightness when I go about daily tasks. The stress that used to send me into a tailspin isn’t getting under my skin the way it once did. I think I’d now feel incomplete if I went a day without this ritual.
If you want to search for creative treasures in yourself, don’t use logic or reason to deny it. Life is busy. Bills need to be paid, but if you truly want creativity in your life, simply reach for it. Make the time to look within. In the wake of quarantine life, there’s a lot of talk about making the most of your time- really having something to show for it. But, what if we’re slightly missing the mark here? Could it be more about listening for the inner voice that’s been drowned out in the quest for something that looks good on paper? This 30 day challenge- now a lifestyle, has taught me what it is to genuinely search for that voice. There will always be problems in life, but when you’re doing what spiritually serves you best, the other parts sometimes fall into place.
Here are the top 5 tips to begin your own Creativity Challenge:
1. Commit to daily appointments with yourself and show up every day. If you miss an appointment one day, book a double session for next time. Keep up the momentum.
2. Pick your medium but feel free to mix it up. You can use painting, sculpting clay, writing poetry, cake decorating, or even knitting. Do what inspires you and ignore tradition.
3. Go for progress, not perfection. Be easy on yourself and focus on enjoying the process, not the need to have a specific outcome
4. Brainstorm your ideas. If you’re feeling lost or unsure of where to begin, journal your thoughts and desires. One idea can lead to the next, and the answer will present itself.
5. Remove “but, I’m not creative” from your vocabulary. The reason people stop creating is that they don’t feel their work is good enough. Toss these toxic thoughts and push on.