Emily Keener’s 5 top tips on connecting with your creativity
Struggling with your songwriting during this period of isolation? Hopefully, these tips will help you to find a new rhythm…
Emily Keener grew up in the rural Midwest of America, not too far from Cleveland, and credits the vulnerability that can be found in her rootsy music as coming from this upbringing – her home, where she was also schooled, was situated within a forest deep in the rustbelt.
Since then, starting with her 2013 debut, she has followed a creative path which has led to her upcoming album I Do Not Have To Be Good. It’s a rich and vulnerable collection of songs held together by Keener’s smoky vocals. Someone who is used spending a lot of time in their own company, we asked her for some help in getting through these challenging times (and she even came up with a meditation for you all to try)…
Creators and performers are reeling in the wake of cancellations and postponements. In the midst of the life-altering changes resulting from this new era of social distancing, there’s a palpable desire to make this season a purposeful one. How do we move forward individually and collectively? I’m here to suggest five ways we can adapt to these new challenges and connect with our creativity in meaningful ways.
1. GET INTO A ROUTINE
One of the best ways to support yourself during a transition is to invite structure into your life. Chances are that your schedule has changed dramatically in the past week or two. In addition to gigs and writing sessions evaporating, your second and third jobs may have also been affected by closures. Suddenly everyone’s calendar is looking a lot emptier. Take a moment to check in with yourself and extend some self-compassion. This is difficult. You’re likely going through a lot, and that’s okay. Consider asking yourself a series of questions to determine what your needs are, and what kind of routine would best support you in this time. In my case, I reflected on questions like:
How can I support my body?
How can I support my mind?
How much sleep do I need?
What kind of remote social interaction works best for me?
What time of day do I generally like to create?
What books, movies, and educational materials will inspire me and keep me engaged?
How can I relax and play?
Ask yourself any other questions that arise and write down your answers. Look at the needs you’ve expressed to yourself, and draw up a daily routine from wake-up to bedtime. Expect to make changes during your first week of following it; routines are almost always different in practice than they are on paper. The state of the world may not be within our control, but we do have the ability to step into a daily flow that supports our health.
2. SHOW UP CREATIVELY EVERY DAY
A good routine allows us to show up purposefully each day. This doesn’t mean we need to show up perfectly or productively and have a beautiful result every single time. It simply means we are consistent and dependable, and we are making our work a priority. Steven Pressfield notes in The War Of Art that, “When we sit down to do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves.” The quality of our work is directly linked to the consistency with which we show up to do it.
A tempting form of creative resistance is to wait until it feels right, until we are inspired, until we feel secure, until we are certain. But if our ability to make time to create is dependent on everything feeling acceptable, we’ll be waiting forever. The best time is always today. If all you have to give is 10 minutes, give it. Show up.
3. IF YOU’RE PUTTING PRESSURE ON YOURSELF, TAKE IT OFF
My fellow perfectionists, I see you in your social-distancing dens concocting elaborate plans to create your next masterpiece; a project to end all projects. In times like these, it’s important that we continue to make big picture plans and take on creative challenges. That said, putting pressure on ourselves to make something incredible is not always the most sustainable way to work.
Writing may not feel productive, because we’re likely rejecting young ideas as subpar and finding ourselves in a place of stagnancy. The reality is that we’re probably not showing up every day if we’re thinking this way. Why would we? Even if we do manage to work under the weight of self-censorship and judgement, it feels exhausting. The pressure to be at our best becomes a creative barrier very quickly. Use this time as an opportunity to step into a more accepting mindset. When we take the pressure off and release our expectations of the end result, our creative spirit is free to be present and engaged.
4. INVITE MEDITATION INTO YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS
Breathwork and mindfulness are deeply supportive practices that can help us to de-stress and release judgement. I’m going to provide a simple, flexible meditation for you to try out. As a gentle reminder: there is no correct way to meditate, or a correct way to respond to it. Mindfulness looks different for everyone. Rather than intending this to be a formal session, I offer it up as a relaxed awareness practice to help us transition into a creative space. This could be utilized before or during writing time.
Have a glass of water and settle yourself into a room where you won’t be disturbed for the next few minutes. Find a position that is most comfortable for you; sitting or lying down, ideally. With your eyes open in a soft gaze, take a slow breath in through the nose and a slow exhale out through the mouth. Do this a few times, with a special focus on each exhale. Try to release the breath slowly, so that it lasts longer than your inhalations. Notice the feeling this creates.
Now bring your awareness to the muscles in your face. See if you’re holding tension there. Is your jaw clenched? Your brow furrowed? Simply notice and continue to breathe, inviting these points to relax. On your next exhale, gently close your eyes and feel your body settle like a heavy stone. You are supported here. Allow your breath to return to a normal rhythm, in and out through the nose.
If you notice that your mind has wandered in thought, instead of trying to snap back to attention, simply make a mental note. With a gentle internal voice, say “Ah, thinking.” Imagine that you are touching the distraction with a feather, or a leaf, as a soft reminder to redirect your attention to the breath. This is a practice called “noting”.
If you find yourself distracted by a physical sensation, say “Ah, feeling” in that same gentle internal voice. These are the only two labels we’ll use here. Simply continue to breathe, and remain aware of your breath. When you notice your mind has drifted – and it will drift continually – gently note it as either “thinking” or “feeling” without judgement and return to the breath. Continue this for a few minutes or as long as you wish. When you feel ready, gently open your eyes.
This noting technique is a practice in non-judgemental redirection of thought. In the creative space, it’s very easy to be distracted by worries, self-criticism, and comparisons. When you begin to write after this meditation and you notice that your mind has wandered, gently label it and come back to your breath and the work at hand.
5. REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Working writers and artists are all in the same boat. We have a hard journey ahead of us, but it won’t last forever and we’re not going it alone. This is so important to internalize. Carve out as much time as you can to connect with friends, family, and other creative folks in safe, meaningful ways.
Have writing sessions over video chat, make playlists for people, share lyrics and ideas with each other, watch live stream performances to support your favorite artists – anything you can do to remind yourself that creativity is alive and well, and that other people are navigating the same situation as you. The music community is resilient, and we will make it through this together. The art we make now will help the whole world recover.