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There are two approaches I use when I need a creative spark—and by this, I mean My Next Big Creative Idea, not just “I need an idea for a birthday card”.

For the latter, the usual methods work pretty well: Browsing through stamping magazines or websites. But when it comes to Big Creative Ideas (BCIs), I’ve got to get away from the magazines and websites that that are so close to what I do. I know I’m not going to get my BCI from Somerset or Cloth Paper Scissors. In fact, I have to limit the direct inspiration—put away the magazines, and get off the computer.

Instead, I need something that jars my brain from another direction. This means two things: Getting out of my comfort zone, and giving it time.

What does getting out of my comfort zone look like? Well, it could be an interruption of a routine, seeing a film or reading a book in a genre I don’t normally go for, or taking a trip somewhere—even if it’s just to the next town, or just a different neighborhood. I also find inspiration comes from reading about or listening to creative people outside the mixed-media world…musicians, quilters, people who make gigantic metal sculpture or carve things out of Styrofoam or what have you.

Most of all, though, I often find those Big Creative Ideas come when I’m not forcing them. And this is the hard part.

I’m not a super-patient person. I’m not even a semi-patient person. And having to give things time is the surest way to get me dancing with impatience.

Truthfully, the only way I can really “give things time” is because I know what happens when I try to force BCIs: They don’t happen. Inspiration never comes to me when I’m forcing it; in fact, the opposite occurs and I find I’m creating things I don’t like, or that don’t reflect me.

Here’s an example: Earlier this summer, I wanted to propose workshops to an art retreat. The deadline was coming up fast and the retreat’s reputation was for edgy and innovative classes. The more I tried to force myself to create day-long workshops based on edgy, innovative techniques, the harder it was to come up with anything. My efforts were dismal because I was trying to fit myself, and my work, into a place I thought they should go. And to do it fast.

It didn’t work.

No, I mean it really didn’t work.

In the end (and after a lot of internal struggle), I let the deadline pass by. I didn’t propose the workshops because they didn’t fit the event and in the end, they didn’t fit me. I couldn’t imagine myself teaching these topics because I simply wasn’t passionate about them. I didn’t even relate to them. So I let it go. It was at once a huge disappointment, and a tremendous relief.

The projects lay half-finished on the floor in my studio, not made with love or interest or passion or anything more than a sense of duty. I was picking up the other day and went through them. And somehow, without the deadlines, without the expectations, without the trying so hard, I could see a few possibilities in this pile of frustration. Move this. Glue that. Paint here. Or, just tear this piece up and use it for collage scraps. I found myself breathing evenly, a sure sign that I was finally approaching this pile of paper and twine and scribblings and pressed weeds (don’t ask) with joy and fun instead of dread.

Of course the deadline is long past, and these projects won’t be taught at this edgy retreat. Well, not this year. Or maybe never. But they still can be something. And now that I’m not forcing it, I’m curious to see where this pile of possibilities ends up.

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