Where Do Your Creative Ideas Come From?

How the concept of a ‘Creative Well’ can be a useful tool

A screenprint of a remembered scene of gardens beneath spring floods.

In my experience, it’s not only where your ideas come from that matters, but whether you are able to tap into them, make connections between them, and take action on them. In other words, you must have space, attention, AND ideas to draw from. To help navigate this, I’d like to look at the idea of a creative well. I have found this to be such a powerful and helpful visualization because it’s so tangible. It will take a bit of time, care, and self-awareness, but you can learn to keep your creative well consistently filled and clear-flowing so that you are able to draw from it, as needed, for your creative projects.

I have heard where your creative ideas come from described in many ways. Some call it a ‘bank’ (as in having a bank of ideas that you have deposited for yourself) or a ‘barrel’ – and when you scrape the bottom, you risk burnout and then a creative lull or, worse, a block. My favourite description is from Julia Cameron (writer of the Artist’s Way and many other books on creativity) who describes it as an underground river that you can tap down into. I love this image of a flowing river of ideas and experiences just below the surface that I can access if I know how. It feels magical and abundant.

She also describes it as a ‘creative well’. I find this second idea to be the easiest to understand and know how to take care of. I think of myself as having a creative well from which my creative ideas and work come from. A well that I have to ensure was healthy, clear, and free of sludge. A well that I have to make sure has water in it. Having a clear and healthy creative reservoir ensures that you have plenty of ideas, that you have the space and clarity to make connections between them, and that you can show up and do the work.

It will take a bit of time, care, and self-awareness, but you can learn to keep your creative well consistently filled and clear-flowing so that you are able to draw from it, as needed, for your creative projects.

When I am able to be mindful and slow down in the moment enough to focus on noticing new details, I will begin to be in creative flow. Ideas for artwork will flow and I will begin to make connections between different experiences to use in new work.

What indicates a healthy creative well?

  • When you have a healthy well, you are able to focus and hear your thoughts.
  • You are able to  become absorbed deeply in something – experiencing what I call ‘creative flow’.
  • Your well is filled with water for you to draw from. In other words, it is well-stocked with ideas and experiences for you to draw from to make work. (More on this below.)
  • You have a steady stream of ideas and can make connections between them. You can see the next steps for you to take.

How do you keep it clear and flowing?

  • Limiting inputs that create noise in your brain, that interrupt your thoughts. Or anything that causes you to focus outwardly on what others are doing or what you ‘should’ and ‘should not’ be doing.
  • Creating deliberate space in your life by consciously consuming less media.
  • Doing things that involve taking action in ways that don’t add additional information. For example, baking cookies, gardening, doing a puzzle, perhaps reading a non-fiction book, going for a walk or run. These are ways of actively engaging. The focus in these activities is on living, moving, and being, rather than on consuming.
  • Creating systems to offload the noise or negativity that can build up – my favourite is to journal each morning.
  • Regularly getting rid of things that are no longer serving you. Doing this removes the clutter so that you can see what is most meaningful and valuable.
Walking is one of my favourite ways to clear my head and find new ideas and inspiration.

What makes up the water?

  • The water is the pool of ideas and experiences that can be turned into art or creative work. Keeping water in your well means stocking it regularly with ideas.
  • This may be in the form of small things you find inspiring – things found on walks, a snippet of imagery, a piece of fabric, a sketch, a swatch of colour.
  • Sensual and spiritual experiences work very well, too – a walk at a different time of day, a day-trip to the coast or a forest, a visit to a museum or shop that excites and engages you.
  • Creating collections of things you find evocative. Taking notes, sketches, colour snippets, photos of things you find exciting, compelling, or that spark your imagination. When in search of an idea or a solution, these can be helpful future resources.
  • Do what works best for you. There are many ways to fill your creative reservoir and what is most effective is personal to each maker. Over time and trial and error, you will learn what works best for you. You have full permission to pick and choose for yourself to best serve your creative process.
  • Be aware of when you begin to find inspiration turning to ‘noise’ – the goal is to stock your well through mindful actions, experiences, and things. You want to be paying attention to what you are putting into your well and ensure that it is enriching.

Noticing when it’s running low

I have what I call my ‘low reservoir alarm’. After many times of draining my creative well dangerously low and dealing with the consequences (usually an extended period of rest and not making), I have learned to notice the early warning signs. Being a visual person, my low reservoir alarm makes a classic ‘barp barp’ alarm sound and is a flashing red light with one of those grilled cage-covers. It can be fun to invent a low reservoir alarm for yourself – adding a little humour and keeping things light.

Only when you have a clear and healthy creative well will you be able to build a sustainable creative practice.

Indicators that my low reservoir alarm is going off include: a feeling of low energy – like I’ve given away all that I have to offer energetically or emotionally, feeling as though I am running out of things to say… I have no ideas for what to create next and no itch to experiment. I heed these warnings as much as possible because I know that pushing through is rarely worth it.

Noticing when it’s becoming cluttered

As important as noticing when your well is running low, is noticing when it’s becoming cluttered and messy. For me, indicators are: mental noise, a brain that is skipping around between ideas and is unfocussed, a lot of fears and unhelpful questions like what am I doing? Or comparisons to others and their work – too much looking outward, in other words.

If you have many ideas but are struggling to take action, read about how to get out of your own way and start creating. While there is a time for making lots of work, you also have to keep an eye on burning yourself out, and have checks in place to create space in your creative process. This space is necessary to keep you healthy and productive.

If you are at a loss for ideas of how you might begin to refill your creative well, I share a list of free ways to feel inspired, and less-free (but still affordable) ways to fuel your creativity.

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