When are you at your most creative?

Photo by Morgan Sessions

Photo by Morgan Sessions

My friend Gina Barreca, a syndicated columnist, often polls her Facebook followers, many of them professional writers, when she’s researching one of her columns. Recently, she asked friends to identify circumstances that allow them to do their most creative work, and I knew I would have to respond.

I wasn’t the only one. More than a hundred of Gina’s Facebook friends weighed in. So, what situations freed their imaginations? Travel, listening to music, meditation, deadlines, drinking strong coffee/tea, driving, running, being in the shower, being around interesting people, and switching off social media—among other things.

Obviously what sparks creativity for one person does not work for everyone. Too much coffee and I can barely stay in my seat let alone write an insightful sentence; meditation isn’t my thing, although it might be if I gave it a chance; and forget about ignoring my Instagram and Twitter feeds. I've found inspiration often comes when I’m fully engaged by what I’m reading, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, short stories or memoir, The New Yorker or Real Simple. (Lately it’s been the astonishing coming-of-age novel A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.) I keep note cards nearby to jot down ideas as they occur to me.

The pressure to write application essays that “dazzle” colleges is great—and I believe counterproductive. In their hunt for inspiration, students often struggle. To help my coaching clients begin work on the 650-word Common Application essay, I encourage them to talk with me about anything but. When do they feel relaxed, happy, at their best, fully themselves? Their answers sound familiar: while driving, swimming laps, running, playing sports, hanging out with friends, baking, browsing bookstores. 

I ask clients to be mindful during those times, to be open to the possibility that an essay idea will emerge when their focus is elsewhere, as often is the case for professional artists. I also remind them that an idea needn’t be well formed to be an excellent starting point: a creative thought might be as vague as a feeling. (One of my clients, who gets her ideas when she’s alone in the car, wondered if there might be a relationship between her mathematics skills and her love of tennis. Her gut told her there was, and after some brainstorming she developed a narrative that tied her two interests together elegantly.) 

Nowadays, most students have little experience with first-person creative writing because it’s not part of the typical secondary school curriculum. By giving my clients permission to daydream or bake cookies or even watch TV—however they like to spend their down time—I hope I’m also helping them discern how to access the creative thinking they most certainly possess. 

— Written by Pat Berry

Pat Berry is a writing coach and founder of College Application Camp, four-day and weekend programs on the campus of Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. Visit collegeapplicationcamp.com for more information.