I first discovered Maya Stein’s poetry in Patti Digh’s book Creative Is a Verb. It instantly struck me as some of the most powerful and beautiful words I’d ever read. It rekindled my love for poetry — which was, essentially, nonexistent — and reminded me that writing and creativity are truly limitless. There are so many imaginative ways to use words and mold your creativity.
I’m thrilled that Stein agreed to chat with me about her creative process for our monthly series. Her answers are, not surprisingly, very inspiring.
In addition to being a poet, Stein also is a creative nonfiction writer. She has published two collections of personal essays, “The Overture of an Apple,” and “Spinning the Bottle,” and “Enough Water,” a collection of poetry and photographs. Her weekly “10-line Tuesday” poems, which she has been writing for nearly seven years, reach more than 900 people around the world.
Stein recently completed “Tour de Word,” a two-month traveling poetry project that brought writing workshops to children, teenagers, and adults in 25 states, and is heading out on another mobile adventure, this time riding a bicycle and toting a typewriter, beginning this May. To learn more about Maya Stein, visit www.mayastein.com.
1. Do you incorporate creativity-boosting activities into your daily routine? If so, what activities do you do?
For me, movement is a vital part of activating any kind of creative work. It’s not about sitting in isolation and waiting for the muse to strike (although occasionally that can happen too).
But I usually have to “trick” myself into writing by doing things that have nothing to do with writing. I take walks, go for bike rides, even just go for a drive – I find that the best foundation for opening my mind to creativity is to do things that help it relax, that keep it from thinking too much.
It might sound counterintuitive, but for me, a relaxed mind is a more open mind, a more porous mind. Unexpected inspirations can come when I’m not focused on thinking but actually spend time doing.
I often tell my writing students that not writing can be beneficial to writing, that ideas can get jarred loose and become more accessible when the mind is turned off to some degree.
And one of the most important discoveries I’ve made is that I can have more trust in myself when I’m not writing, because there is always the gathering process, the assembly, the musing and marinating. I really believe that a very small percentage of writing actually involves sitting down to write.
2. What are your inspirations for your work?
People, relationships, love and all of its complications. Actually, complications are inspirations for me. Conundrums. Contradictions. Forks in the road. Moments of departure. In-betweens. Human nature. Human error. Imperfection. Indecision. Almosts and not-quites. I like writing about middles a lot. That see-saw place between here and somewhere else. That’s very rich territory for writing.
3. There are many culprits that can crush creativity, such as distractions, self-doubt and fear of failure. What tends to stand in the way of your creativity?
Comparing my creative development or output or success to others’. The moment I think about what someone else is doing or accomplishing, I lose.
4. How do you overcome these obstacles?
I try to keep a steady eye on my own rhythms and choices and trajectories and timelines. The less I worry about how someone else is spending their time and resources, the better. I remind myself that things are taking exactly the amount of time they should and that I’m doing the best I can.
5. What are some of your favorite resources on creativity?
Honestly, some of the best resources I turn to are children. They seem to be the least inhibited of all people, the most in touch with their creative instincts, and the most self-nurturing and forgiving when it comes to allowing themselves to explore. And I think they have a much higher tolerance for mistakes. They bounce back much more easily than adults.
6. What is your favorite way to get your creative juices flowing?
Some people need to write at the same time every day, or have a word count goal. But for me, that’s the easiest way to find myself in a creative block. So to stay active and flowing creatively I have to shift gears, change routines, surprise myself with doing something unexpected.
I try to move toward things that I’m curious about or feel a sense of excitement with…the more engaged I am in a positive way, the better chances I have of feeling creative, or thinking creatively.
I have found, however, that I tend to be able to write more fluidly late at night, when my mind is less taut and controlled. It’s like my thoughts go soft-focus, and in that fuzzy place there’s a lot more space to let myself wander into language.
I’ve often gone back to read poems I wrote during these late nights and I can’t quite understand how I made certain connections, or came up with particular word combinations…it’s like being in another mind entirely. But I think my best writing comes out of this place, when the reins are much looser.
7. What’s your advice for readers on cultivating creativity?
Move toward things that engage you energetically. Trust in the time and space needed between taking in inspiration and transforming it into creative work. It often takes longer than we think it should take, and that’s where the suffering comes in. Don’t force anything.
Find a community of other creatives with whom you can share your work and your process. Try creative activities that aren’t necessarily in your genre – you never know what kind of work they’ll draw out of you. Define your own rhythms and stay in tune with them, then break your own rules when necessary.
8. Anything else you’d like readers to know about creativity?
To me, creativity is more about personal exploration than it is about something tangible being made. And in this way, it’s more about navigation and a kind of internal radar than it is about destination, or output.
I think the roots of creativity are so deep that even when we don’t think we’re being creatively activated, there’s something underneath it all, over time, that begins to develop awareness, that begins to see things and make sense of them, that is cataloging and sorting and shaping even when we’re not sitting down at that writing desk or that blank canvas.
So building a life where creativity is a threadline asks us to develop a trust in our intuition, in our rhythms, in the intelligence of our choices, and even to trust in the interims when something isn’t obviously being made.
Because the moment you look up, a scene unfolds, and you start making a connection with it, and orienting yourself around and in it. And so the ability to recognize that all it really takes to occupy a space of creativity is curiosity and engagement – if we can wake into our day with this and let that carry us, I honestly think the rest will take care of itself.
And what I mean by that is that whatever comes out of that engagement — a poem, a photograph, a painting, a song — will have this sense of being organic, of coming out of a space of connection instead of isolation. The more we can expand into our surroundings — physical, social, emotional, spiritual — the more enriched our work becomes.
Photo by Stefanie Renee.