I’m currently in my final semester of college as a Media Arts and Science: Digital Storytelling major, and over the past three and a half years I’ve taken plenty of classes that have taught me how to think like a professional writer/artist/content-creator. Whether or not I consider my skills to be “professional” is neither here nor there for this post, but these classes have shown me a really strange problem:
Being creative can be hard, and can be way harder if you don’t know how to do it right.
I’ve had a few professors that have given their classes very open-ended assignments or projects. One extremely infamous weekly assignment involved creating something the professor called a “visual journal,” which was a weekly quota of roughly two sketchbook pages worth of content. What kind of content? Anything. Literally, anything. Some of the content had to somewhat tie into the week’s lecture or assignment, but you had to fill those pages every week. Doodles, sentences, drawings, colorings, ramblings, what you had for dinner last Tuesday and if it was good, a reminder to pick up white sticky notes, literally anything.
Some people absolutely despised these journals. I didn’t see them as much of an issue, but people constantly complained that they didn’t know what to draw or write in these journals. People took these journals so seriously because they were homework, and while I do think there’s reasoning for thinking that way, I found it really strange that people, including myself, struggled with the concept of “create anything”.
It’s a really silly problem for creative types. I mean, people studying in creative majors are supposed to be creative, right? You would not believe the amount of push back my professors got from students whenever they felt an assignment didn’t have enough direction. That professor that gave out visual journals had to devote some time during one of classes to teach people how to doodle. Filling out two pages was like climbing a mountain for some people.
That professor said that there was a culprit to all this, why college-level students struggled with the concept of creating anything. He pointed his finger to the current education system, where instructions and rules are an expectation. There is no room for anything, there is only multiple choice and memorization. Be quiet, follow the process, do the homework, rinse and repeat until you graduate. It’s not normal for a teacher to ask their students to draw or write anything for their next assignment. Anything is a challenge because it’s not something we’re used to, it’s too free, too liberating.
In a more poetic sense, to be creative is to disregard the rules and throw all caution to the wind as you embrace every passing thought like it’s as easy as breathing.
What I’m about to tell you next is how to convince your mind to think creatively and start embracing the thought of anything. It’s a process that will feel pretty uncomfortable if it’s your first time trying to do it, but I guarantee it’s worth trying.
I’m currently in charge of creating content for our magazine’s social media pages, which includes managing written content and any visual graphics. As you can imagine, this involves a fair amount of writing, planning, and creating. Last week, I posted a calendar displaying all the events I felt were notable for people to consider going to in February. I spent about the same time coming up with the style and art for the graphic as I did actually making the darn thing, which took about five hours total. It probably doesn’t look like it took five hours, but that’s the truth. A lot of modern logos and designs look really simple, but I guarantee that some of those logos spent a lot of time in the planning phase, and some probably even had an entire team dedicated to making them.
The most invaluable thought I’ve subscribed to as a soon-to-be graduate is the idea that every idea is valuable. Whenever I begin a project, I start by writing out every idea I can think of in the span of an hour, no matter how I feel about them. Whether it’s your next story, poem, drawing, blog post, thumbnail all of your thoughts. Your first idea should never end up as your final product and I encourage anyone to challenge me on that. Your best idea will come to your in time, but the only way to find it is to continue jotting down idea after idea. This also includes the thoughts you don’t think will work out or ones you won’t end up picking, just get it down so you don’t think about it later.
While you’re in the middle of doing this, start stealing. Yes, stealing. Not plagiarizing, but stealing. Look at what inspires you and consider why it resonates with you so. Find ways to replicate that feeling, but do not plagiarize it. You want your ideas to be your own, it doesn’t do you any good to cut and paste someone else’s work and call it a night. Collect a small folder of these inspiring things and grab as many as you can. If your next project is going to be something big, you should be spending at least an hour making thumbnails and gathering images.
Now you’ve got a really big list of directions. Instead of just jumping into a project with no idea of what’ll come out the other side, you’ve just created an entire list of potential. Don’t start in one direction yet, take a look at the ones that resonate with you the most and give them some more detail. If you start running into roadblocks on one, stop and start working on another. Whichever idea you feel you can go the farthest with after that is your next project.
For me, this entire planning process normally takes longer than creating the final version. It might sound ridiculous, but by spending so much time planning and gathering references/inspirations, I’m much more likely to end up with something I can be excited about. Why bother rushing into a project with no guarantee I’ll make something I’m confident about, especially as a professional? Better to get into the habit of doing it now than worry about learning it later.
If you’ve found yourself struggling to create professional-level work or even create your own personal projects, give this method a try. It’s especially important to continue creating what you love (especially in the middle of this pandemic), and giving yourself the confidence to continue creating can make all the difference. I know it has for me.
It's alright to be intimidated by the concept of anything, but once you learn to conquer that fear, you'll start making some truly spectacular work.