Posted by: Liz Massey | May 18, 2008

The bare essentials

Having the right tools can sometimes lead to tremendous creative leaps. Advanced or “professional-grade” equipment can open new possibilities, inspire worthy projects, and motivate artists to spend extended time practicing until they’ve mastered a tool’s use.

But good tools are at best half of a creative impulse. The other half of creative inspiration and accomplishment takes place inside of us–before the idea manifests in the outer world.

Accessing this part of our creativity can be enhanced by paring back to the bare essentials every once in a while. I’ve devised a series of exercises designed to do exactly that. As you try the exercises outlined below, enter into them not with a spirit of deprivation but an attitude of curiosity, led by the question, “What is the least I need in order to create?”

These exercises are wonderful for dissolving creative blocks, dealing with time-management challenges, or nagging worries about being held back by “equipment issues.” Once you’ve tried these suggestions, it becomes much more apparent how available creative inspiration is to you as an artist, and how easy it is to act on those moments of inspiration.

Bare Essentials Exercise, Part I: Tools

+ Instead of writing the draft of your next story, send out a Twitter version of it (140 characters or less!) or attempt a one-sentence version of it to record in your journal.

+ Sketch or doodle the way you may have in elementary school–using a dull No. 2 pencil and wide-lined, loose-leaf notebook paper.

+ Go out of your way to literally compose your next great song, poem, article lead or movie concept on the back of a napkin.

+ Speaking of movies, go scout a location you’d like to film at, but don’t bring a video or still camera. “Script” or “shoot” your ideas by storyboarding scenes or recording shot list ideas on index cards.

Bare Essentials Exercise, Part II: Time

+ Try to accomplish as much as you can on your current creative project in the next 10 minutes.

+ Now, see how much you can accomplish on it in the next five minutes.

+ Finally, see if you can make progress on your latest creative project in the next 30 seconds. (Hint: Write down one idea. Make one call. Fire up the e-mail to send a quick reminder to yourself.)

(Much credit for this section should be given to creativity coach pioneer Eric Maisel and coach Durga Keyser.)

Bare Essential Exercise, Part III: Quality

+ Practice the art of the brain-dump: express a raw feed of images, ideas, sounds or words related to you project. Ignore structure for a moment and focus on the gist of your idea.

+ Introduce deliberate errors (or leave in questionable elements) in your work. Discover at what point this becomes distracting. (In other words, where does wabi-sabi become wabi-slobby for you?)

Bare Essentials Exercise, Part IV: Motivation

Sometimes we try too hard to muster “sufficient” motivation  to accomplish a creative task. This exercise attempts to circumvent this tendency to think and plan instead of doing.

Take your next off-the-cuff idea and run with it. As far as you can–all the way to completion, if that’s possible. Start the query letter, the book proposal, record the podcast, draw the preliminary sketch, take a preparatory photo with your mobile phone camera.

Don’t worry about how “good” this idea is.

Don’t worry about marketing this idea (yet).

Don’t worry about whether you’ll really finish this–just work on it as long as you can.

Sometimes we can only assess our idea’s worth in retrospect. If we don’t give it enough room to flower, we’ll never know how fruitful it may turn out to be.



  1. […] that creative endeavors can be broken into amazingly small tidbits. I’ve blogged before about how to create in short blocks of time, and I’m of the belief it’s not necessarily a bad situation; it may be that the ideas that we […]

  2. […] with assignments that force you to be agile. In a post last year on “the bare essentials” of creativity, I made a number of suggestions of things readers could do to determine the […]

  3. […] The Bare Essentials A series of exercises to help you pare your creative practice back to the minimum you need to create. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Voluntary Simplicity: Northwest Earth Institute Classes Starting Up in MarchP.S. […]

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