Capture Unexpected Downtime for Creativity

Can a volcano increase your creativity? According to Washington University psychology professor R. Keith Sawyer it can.

Sawyer discusses how travelers stranded around the world due to the massive ash clouds from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano have been finding themselves with lots of unscheduled time on their hands. He explains that “idle time allows people to think of their problems in new ways,” and discusses how this can lead to creative “aha” moments.

My local news has been following a story about a group of California high school musicians stuck in Europe. On the way home from a series of performances in Italy, they only made it as far as Germany. Stuck in a foreign country for days, the kids had unexpected time to experience a new culture. Some of them even put on an impromptu concert that wound up on German national television. I imagine this opportunity to absorb a variety of new things enhanced their creative experience tremendously.

While most of us don’t have such dramatic events changing our schedules, we all experience unanticipated moments with nothing to do. Traffic jams, plans canceled due to weather, waiting for someone who’s late to arrive, a stalled subway…

When my husband had surgery a couple of years ago, I was told the wait would be an hour or so. But that hour ultimately stretched into all day. Tiring of my book after a while, I went the the hospital pharmacy and bought a notebook.

I jotted notes for a novel that had been floating in my head. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to write this novel. But after an hour or so of plotting and characterization, I decided to try writing it for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as an exercise and a challenge to myself. This was two days before the start of NaNoWriMo, but I did it. And completed the first draft of a novel by the end of the month, learning a lot of interesting creative lessons along the way.

I have spent more time than I care to remember in hospital waiting rooms over the years, but this was the first time I really used the time—and nervous energy—to do something creative and big. I would never have decided to write this novel if the unexpected time hadn’t appeared. And doing something creative helped lessen my anxiety about my husband’s surgery.

So the next time you find yourself tearing out your hair and cursing the events slowing you down, why not grab a pen and write something? Or sketch. Or compose a song. Work on something new or continue a work in progress.

You might just find yourself happy and creatively energized because your dentist made you wait half an hour!

Copyright @ Sandy Ackers, Strangling My Muse: Struggling to Live a Creative Life in a Stressful World,

4 Responses to “Capture Unexpected Downtime for Creativity”

  1. 1 K a b l o o e y April 23, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    That was a very inspiring post. How amazing that you were able to turn that stressful time into something so positive. Hope you get to steer clear of hospital waiting rooms in future even if it removes this source of inspiration. Get stranded in Europe instead, huh?

    • 2 stranglingmymuse April 23, 2010 at 7:59 pm

      I’m glad you found it inspiring — thanks for letting me know! I actually haven’t spent any time in hospital waiting rooms since that long day, happily. Would love to be stranded in Europe!

      Hope you’re feeling better, Kablooey.


  2. 3 Mark Dykeman April 29, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Whenever I wait, I try to create.

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