How to Regain Creativity in Grad School and Beyond
I lost my creativity in grad school. Creativity was once my solace, my refuge. As a child, when things seemed to be crumbling at home, I could always turn to a pen and paper. I could stay after school and participate in drama club. I could turn to reading about other people’s lives and pretend they were my own. And for those brief moments, I felt empowered.
But in grad school, I suddenly lost my creative voice. Theater practice was discouraged and research on critical theory was encouraged. Creative writing was frowned upon and academic or “scholarly” writing was praised. Reading about anything other than foundational scholarship in my field was scoffed at and reading work that would push my scholarship forward was a requirement. In my drive to produce “groundbreaking” scholarship about Mexicana and Chicana theater, I lost my voice and my passion for the topic altogether. Everything was about playing the game; it was about doing the work necessary to get a coveted tenure-track job at an R1 institution rather than doing work that mattered, which to me meant work that would directly and positively impact others like me.
To my surprise, my shift into entrepreneurship is helping me rediscover my creativity. I get to write—I’ve got my forthcoming Grad School Femtoring Guide, this newsletter and blog, content creation, brainstorming children’s book topics, and journaling for fun. I get to perform vis-a-vis my podcast recordings, guest interviews, and public talks. I also get to read for fun; I’m enjoying reading about social justice, productivity, personal development, entrepreneurship, personal finance, and first-gen immigrant stories. For this blog post, I thought I’d share four easy ways to regain your creativity no matter where you are in your schooling, career, and life.
How can you be creative while simultaneously working on improving your efficiency at work? Believe it or not, being creative can improve your productivity by, among other reasons, encouraging you to try new things and giving yourself permission to make mistakes and then learn from them.
Getting creative within your academic workload can mean:
- allowing yourself to freewrite about anything that comes to mind before getting started on writing for your manuscript
- getting curious about how you do what you do and consider if there are different ways to do things
- leaning on collaboration to mutually learn from each other’s strengths
- identifying a problem and then coming up with several options to solve it
1. Freewriting is the act of writing nonstop in a stream-of-consciousness way for a delimited period of time. Freewriting is a helpful tool for writers because it helps us release our thoughts. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to know what you are writing about to get started. You also don’t need to have all your thoughts gathered and organized to begin. The act of writing itself can help you to clarify your thoughts. Remember, it’s okay to make a mess. It’s okay to write the way you think or the way you speak. It’s okay to make countless grammatical and syntactical errors. The thing about writing in a creative way is that you allow yourself to do what comes naturally to you and see where it takes you.
Let me share a personal example: the first time that I started intentionally freewriting was in undergrad. My faculty mentor at the time encouraged me to do it and to send her my “messy” notes on all things related to my undergraduate research topic. I would freewrite about books and articles I read, about performances I watched, about concepts I learned in other classes, and so forth. And I cringed at the thought of sharing my notes with her. I also felt ashamed each time I walked into her office to receive her feedback. That shame brought to mind the six-year-old me that was in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and struggled with language arts. But it worked. This freewriting exercise helped me to combat my writer’s block and produce enough ideas to write a senior thesis.
2. Changing the way that I approached writing, transformed my relationship to writing. Similarly, getting curious about the how of anything that you do can be a transformative act. Have you ever wondered? Is there another way to do this? How can I make this easier? Do I have to keep doing things in this way? You actually do not have to do things the way they’ve always been done. Yes, we all have things that we do to meet our basic needs, pay our bills, and survive. But there are so many decisions in our day that we make subconsciously without realizing that there are other ways to do it.
For instance, I once had a client who struggled with her email inbox. It got so bad that she developed email anxiety and dreaded opening her email and responding to thousands of unread messages. Her inbox also served as a metaphor for feeling like her life was a mess. But in actuality, her life wasn’t a mess. She was doing the best she could given her circumstances. Not only that but she was also rocking other areas of her life. But she had not considered that perhaps there was another way to approach her email inbox to help manage the overwhelm. In our coaching sessions, we brainstormed some options and co-created a system that worked for her. And guess what, her inbox isn’t perfectly clean (mine isn’t either, by the way) but she’s maintained the system and no longer feels the heavy weight of anxiety that she used to experience.
3. You can learn a lot from collaborating with others, whether that’s a peer, a mentor/femtor, or a coach. Collaboration can also help you to regain your creativity because we all have different strengths, approaches, and perspectives to offer. I have been working collaboratively with the Chicana M(other)work Collective since 2014. Through this collective, I gained valuable experience in how to work laterally, in a grassroots way, and without needing to be tied to a particular institution. I learned how to be patient, how to make decisions slowly and deliberately, and how to hold space for all opinions before taking action. Ultimately it has resulted in us presenting our work at multiple conferences, creating a podcast and blog to share our work in a more accessible way, and co-editing a bestselling anthology. Unfortunately, in many disciplines, including my doctoral program, collaboration wasn’t praised. What was praised was individual scholarly research projects and sole-authored publications. But years later, my relationship and collaborative work with this collective remains. I continue to learn from my wise, artistic, light-hearted, and brilliant comadres.
The tie in here is leaning into curiosity and being willing to try new things, especially in community. You don’t have to do things right the first time. And if you give yourself the time to reflect and asses, your creativity in grad school and beyond has the potential to help you do things in a way that work best with you, in light of your body, your mind, and your spirit.
4. This is what I do in my coaching sessions. All of my clients approach me with a problem or outcome they are seeking (e.g., “I am feeling stuck and need a change,” “I need help with time management,” “I want to submit strong applications”). After that, in our coaching sessions we brainstorm possible options to help them come up with their own solution and form a plan. I also share strategies based on my expertise. And I ask key questions to help them gain clarity on the topic, problem, or project they’re working on. The point is not for me to give you answers or tell you what to do. The purpose is to use the coaching session as an opportunity for you to have someone that will hold space for you, that will listen as you make your own decisions, that will co-create a plan with you, and that will hold you accountable to making a positive change in your life.
This week, I encourage you to set aside 20-30 minutes for creativity and creative thinking, then, see where it takes you. If you’re enjoying reading my blog posts, check out my latest post on micro forms of self-care. And if you’d like extra support on setting and reaching your academic and personal goals, please don’t hesitate to schedule a coaching consultation with me.