Give creativity time and space in your life

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

For Emma Donoghue, it comes down to building, and then flexing, creative muscles.

Among the panelists in the upcoming The Walrus Talks Creativity event, Donoghue believes, above all, enthusiasm precedes the creative process.

“It’s funny. I would say creativity, in order to write as many books as I have, needs a lot of discipline. But in a way, you don’t start with the discipline. You start with a massive enthusiasm. And if you’re finding your book sufficiently exciting to write, the discipline comes naturally,” she said.

“You don’t have to discipline yourself to spend time with someone you’re in love with. You just somehow find time. People make time, whether it be for exercise, or reading, or sitting and laughing with their kids. You make time for what you’re excited about.”

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Donoghue is the youngest of eight children. In 1990, she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and then received her PhD – on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction – from the University of Cambridge in 1997.

From the age of 23, she has earned her living as a writer.

Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose novels include the bestselling Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter and Stirfry. Room, her 2010 international bestseller, has sold more than two million copies. It won, among many honours, the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year, Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (for best Canadian novel) and Commonwealth Prize (Canada & Carribbean Region). The book was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Creativity won’t come on its own, said Donoghue, who settled in London in 1998. It’s not just about carving out time in a busy schedule. One has to be open to new ideas, allowing them to come as they please and giving them room to breathe, Donoghue explained.

“I suppose I allow myself maximum mental freedom. I’ve noticed over the decades, that I have this habit where I get quite far into a project, and then start to feel a little bit restless, and chafing, and I’d get ideas for brand new projects. And I always let myself run with that for a little while,” she continued.

“I will, of course, bring myself back to the project I was working on – I don’t leave books unfinished – but I would let myself go and do two weeks of highly enthusiastic research into something I’m not going to be writing for another five years. And it feels absolutely illicit. I would probably have told my agent I would have a draft at the end of April on Project 1, and here I am, working away in the library on Project 5. But I have to say, that gives me a great mental break from Project 1.”

In essence, Donoghue lets her brain wander where it likes, indulging whatever new idea may come, wherever and whenever it may come. Ideas sometimes come for her in the dark and she will get up to jot something down on her phone. Other times, ideas come at inopportune times and when this happens, she said, it’s important to record it as soon as possible.

“The idea for Room, I got while driving on the highway – I was in a position of high stress because I’m a dreadful driver and I remember thinking ‘I need to make notes!’ but I can’t pull over on the 401. I got to my destination and I made notes on a napkin,” Donoghue noted.

“I make sure to jot ideas down as soon as possible, and never tell those ideas to wait for the next time I’m officially working, because I wouldn’t remember them.”

The regular day-to-day will give you opportunities to think and write, and you should seize these moments, she added. Hindrances to the creative process are part of life – all of life’s necessities and to-dos – but there is time, if you look for it, to sit down and do what you please.

But what if you don’t fancy yourself the creative type? What if you’d like to be creative and don’t think you have what it takes? Donoghue has a word of advice:

Exercise your creative muscles as much as you can.

“I would say, right now, I’m not capable of running a marathon. I’ve done nothing to ever strengthen those muscles or those habits of body. But you know, I’m sure if I set my mind to it and started to train, it would come. I would probably never be a very talented runner. But like many of my friends who decided at a certain point in life to get really fit, I’m sure it’s technically possible,” she laughed.

“So, similarly with creativity, I’m not saying everybody is equally creative, but I would never write an individual author off as not creative, because they simply have to give it the time and space in their lives. I’ve been writing since I was 7. I’ve had a vast amount of time to practice at letting ideas come and following up and twiddling out the good ideas from the bad ones. I’ve mostly built up those muscles,” Donoghue added.

“Sometimes in every day life, I can tell I’ve over developed those muscles. Sometimes my overactive imagination can get me into trouble. If I get a message from a doctor saying, ‘Please call us back,’ I would assume it’s terminal cancer.”

Donoghue’s advice for aspiring writers is to get a journal. Jot down your ideas. Research them. Write. Read a lot.

And just maybe, come to The Walrus Talks Creativity event.

“What’s really fun about this event is most writers do events with other writers – you’ll see four novelists on a panel. But this has got such a varied lineup. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with a film festival programmer, a rapper, a TV host, a design guy. The range of disciplines is much broader than anything I’ve been involved in before,” she said.

“I think this is an important discussion to have, partly because Western is preparing for this Alice Munro Chair in Creativity. And people are thinking, ‘Huh, creativity, what is that?’ It’s a good time to be having this discussion,” Donoghue continued.

“Usually, the design guy would be talking to the art school, the business guy would be talking to the business school and writers would be talking to English. With this event, it’s wonderful to bring these together across those discipline boundaries. I think it will be hugely stimulating, for those of us involved, and for the audience.”