12 Days of Creativity

Something that I was struggling with as 2020 came to a close was that I was leaving the year the same way I started it – feeling burnt out. Whilst things had improved – I had managed to get a better baseline, address life debt, change the situations that had caused me to be burnt out – I hadn’t managed to reconnect with my creativity.

Of course, the pandemic has not helped. Emotionally, the background news of the world being on fire is draining. Practically, I used to write on planes, in coffee shops… I managed a couple of posts written in hotel lobbies or bars, but a hotel stay is an expensive way to blog, and not always possible anyway with the periodic lockdowns. I used to spend a lot of time in art galleries, exploring, finding inspiration. This, too, has not been possible.

I have felt so lacking in drive and inspiration to create; I haven’t known where to begin. My Glowforge arrived in May and it took months for me to even do a test print – let alone anything more. My house renovation blog post moved achingly slowly. A common topic in coaching calls was that I wanted to write, periodically had ideas and yet… consistently failed to do it. Of course, these things often don’t get easier as time goes on, either. Writing is a habit; a practice… my habit was gone.

But as the working year wrapped my coach and I came up with a plan. 12 days off, something creative every day.

I took a broad view of what would constitute “being creative”, simply put it meant something would exist that didn’t before.

Day 1: Flowers

I started with something easy, where the only variable was raw materials. I knew if I bought home enough fresh flowers, I would do something with them. It has been mostly seasonal bouquets at the grocery store lately, but thankfully M&S came through for me. A great selection of both small and large roses, and some exciting seasonal extras.

I made up three vases. The first combined sticks of willow with lilies and eucalyptus leaves. It’s a really large arrangement (around 3ft x 1.5ft) but it’s been a lovely focal point in the kitchen.

The second is the simplest, three colors of small roses (white, deep pink and yellow) in a bowl vase.

The third is another large (not quite as large, ~2×1.5ft) my favourite pink blush roses with cream and some Alstroemeria (what I would call a “filler flower”) to round things out a bit.

Aside from being easy, flowers were the perfect way to start because they became a physical reminder and validation of the exercise. All of the arrangements are still going, and I’m excited to create new ones to replace them as they die out.

Total cost was in the region of €50-60, which is pretty reasonable for three good sized arrangements lasting around two weeks.

Day 2: Cake

Day two I was still not feeling particuarly “creative”, and so looked for something that it would be easy enough to see through if I started it. I settled on making a coca cola cake (this recipe looks similar, although I suggest single cream instead of milk).

It was going pretty well until I made a crucial mistake towards the end. I flipped it, regretted it, tried to unflip it, failed. I piled the pieces that had fallen off on top and iced it, figuring it would taste the same anyway. Unfortunately (or fortunately? for my sugar intake) that was not that great (two more mistakes: double cream because there was no single, and cooking it fully – it’s better slightly undercooked and gooey). I stuck most of it in the freezer, so maybe I’ll be grateful for it one day.

Day 3: Photography

Day 3 was December 25th, and I was still lacking in momentum. My partner and I went exploring, walking a completely new route. I took some photos, and tried some new styles when editing them.

Day 4: Bowl

Made a bowl on the Glowforge. This was following a pattern from the catalog, but the gluing was pretty finicky. I learned some things, bought a different kind of glue, and a few days later, much more easily, made a second one that is a little bit better aligned.

Still! It was an achievement and the first meaningful thing I had made on the Glowforge.

Day 4 was the day that I finally found some momentum and could see how the practice compounds. I photographed the flowers, incorporated the previous days walk into my “usual” walk.

I start making notes about how I’m feeling to turn into this post.

Already this idea has allowed me a broader lens. Instead of “I must write” or “I must use the glowforge” I think more broadly, and pick something I “want” to do, or that fits the energy / expertise I have. The bowl was a print from the catalog, next step will be a print from the catalog on a material where I have to encode the settings. I’m working up to printing some ideas I have from scratch, but I don’t have to start there.

What would it look like to do something “creative” every day, even once my time off is over?

Day 5: Friendship bracelet

During time spent searching around town for materials (more glue, keychains, spray paint…) I found thread for friendship bracelets. I used to make loads of them as a kid, and it seemed like a fun thing to try again as part of this project. I put on a movie and knotted away, by the end I had this. I gave it to a friend who was super touched, and a second friend asked for a thicker one (which took much longer to make), so in all it was a success.

The big project of day 5 was supposed to be a tea light holder, but I messed it up and put one side on inside out. So frustrating!

Question: is it creativity if it fails? I want to say yes, but I think the need to make things successful, to “finish” them, is one of the thing holding me back.

I learned a lot from my failures. Once I realized the tea light holder is wrong, I experimented with removing the protective coating with dish soap and a sponge (works great!) The bowl is not perfect, so I was happy to experiment on it. I ended up using them both to test out the metallic finishes I bought.

Day 6: Owl

I had had this kit for ages, so long I don’t even remember who gave it to me! (Sorry!) But in the mood for something different, I got it out the cupboard and spent the evening constructing it. I messed up a few times but I got there in the end, and I think the result is pretty cute!

I also printed out some leather letters for keychains. Blocked on keychains arriving (after searching Cork for them I eventually gave up and bought online). This was a momentous occasion, as it was my first time using a non proof-grade material in my Glowforge. I had been super anxious about this, but it worked fine. I bought some comparable leather, and used the same leather settings as the proof grade material. It probably needed a little more power, as some of the needle holes needed to be pushed through a bit more, but came out fine over all.

Finally, I took a second go at the bowl: this time with better glue (more precise, faster acting). Much better!

Day 7: Tiny Planter

I had been looking at this design for ages but lacked the required material (thick acrylic). Finally, I decided to try some fluorescent yellow acrylic I had but wasn’t sure about. Again, it wasn’t proofgrade (I love proofgrade, but shipping wood and acrylic from the US to Ireland seems bonkers) my friend Seb recommended a more local supplier and gave me his acrylic cut settings. My plan: print twice, glue together.

Unfortunately, I had two problems. The first was the material was a bit too big for the Glowforge. Apparently you can score (very deeply!) and snap acrylic, but there’s a real risk it will shatter and anyway… I lacked the tools to do the scoring. Thankfully the lovely man at our local hardware store offered to saw it in half for me. The second problem was that the design uses a lot of acrylic, and I didn’t have enough to print twice.

Instead I decided to make a tiny version. I sized everything down to 50%, and… voila!

It turned out adorable so I figured I could get four tiny planters out of the material I had. Unfortunately, I had a bunch of problems with the side pieces snapping off, and being just a smidge too wide for the cut. I think the design would work better at 60% rather than 50%, but I would need to check that. US sizing is in inches and it’s ~1/4″ (thick) and ~1/8″ (medium), but Europeans size in mm and it’s 0.5 (thick) to 0.3 (medium). Imperial “measurements”: why. So inexact and frustrating.

But still, I love it, and managed to produce one extra for a friend! Now to get a tiny plant to put inside it!

Also: experiments with spray paint and acrylic for the tea light holder. Conditioned the leather for key rings. Found some interesting supplies at the art store! Started on another, much wider friendship bracelet on request from another friend.

Day 8: Custom Print

Took a picture, used an app (Rookie Cam) to render it as a drawing, touched it up to remove artifacts (downloaded GIMP!), added a border and made it a PDF (keynote) and printed it. I did a test on some draftboard, and found a step I needed to remove.

Quite excited about this, will go through my archive and see if I can find other pictures this can work for. I think they need to be structurally recognizable, but low detail. This one with the (Skellig) island and the bird is perfect.

Day 9: Keychain!

The keychains I ordered online arrived earlier than expected – yay! I took the leather letters, applied leather conditioner and leather protector, then stitched together with two colours of thread. This was pretty hard and I stabbed myself multiple times with the needle; there was quite a bit of blood. I also ended up unpicking it and restitching it tighter, but in the end I’m happy with it. I like the two tone thread look!

Also: wrote the first WTHIC since October. Continued work on thicker friendship bracelet. Went through photos to create more of the day 8 style prints.

Day 10: Retro Camper Desk Organizer

My biggest piece yet, the Glowforge January design (I subscribe to Premium). It seemed like a good way to start 2021 and the #makedontbreak challenge (my friend Rachael suggested in response to my WTHIC email).

This was so fun! I am really happy with how the metallic paint came out.

Sprayed the tea light holder with a copper spray, so that is now “finished” bar the electronic tea light (which I have searched all of Cork for and cannot be shipped to Ireland from the UK). I’m not totally happy with the finish, so I may respray it again later, but for now but I think it will look okay once the light it in it.

Also: unpicked day 9’s keychain and restitched it tighter. Yet more work on the thicker friendship bracelet.

Day 11: Cross Stitch

Made this piece from a kit a friend gave me ages ago. I think I unpicked about as many stitches as I ended up with, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out!

Also: letter keychains for my friend and her husband! And, I finally finished the thicker friendship bracelet. 12 threads: never again.

Day 12: Bracelet

This was my most tricky creation yet. I had the idea that it would be fun to engrave my own handwriting on things, like the custom prints from day 8, but why not also a leather bracelet. Who knew how hard this would be.

Step 1: Write on a piece of paper. Attempt to write in a straight line.

Step 2: Use the scanning function on the phone to capture the text.

Step 3: Crop and make the background transparent (I thought this was easy to do in keynote, but in the end used some online service for this).

Step 4: Build up bracelet design in Keynote.

Step 5: Try and turn it into an SVG. Fail. Build it from scratch in Gimp. Somehow still fail to turn it into an SVG. Try various online services. Fail. Eventually find this site and get a reasonable SVG.

Step 6: Upload design to the Glowforge, and carefully select which bits to cut / engrave / ignore.

Step 7: Try on draft board, check size, adjust as necessary.

Step 8: Print on leather!

Step 9: Add thread and turn it into a bracelet.

I am summarizing here, because step 5 was actually around 100 steps and took about an hour but finally I have made something that if not perfect is wearable. I really love the way the handwriting came out.

How I want to improve it: double side it, and edge it with stitches, that will hold the thread in making it more sturdy.

Bonus: yet another keychain.

What I Learned

  • Momentum builds momentum. Looking back through the whole thing it’s really clear that I started with very little momentum but once I got going it really compounded. The first days I really just eked out one small project a day, but not long into it I was pushing multiple things along, and achieving larger things.
  • Ambiguity can be freeing. The lack of specificity helped a lot. It freed me from things that had become a chore (“write!” “use the machine you spent a fortune on and years waiting for!”) and focused me on how I wanted to feel – creative. It also set the bar lower on days when I needed it to be lower, and allowed me to get started at all.
  • Significant change requires singular focus. I had this time off work, but I did not fix my sleep schedule, the house is chaos, and I haven’t been outside every day (normally a core rule for me). I have generally lapsed at everything I would “usually” do, in order to address the one thing that I really wanted to change. This isn’t sustainable long term, but for twelve days? Whatever. And, after over a year of trying to “feel less burnt out” / “find some creative energy”, I actually did, so who cares about… anything else at all. Yes, I’ll have to bring those things back in, and find some sense of balance, but that’s fine – now I know I have it in me to create again.

What now?

The last three days of my project coincided with the first three of the #MakeDon’tBreak challenge, so I’m going to try and keep doing something every day through January [twitter thread]. We’ll be in lockdown all through January, so distractions are pretty minimal, and this seems like a nice way to spend it. I have more prints (like day 8), more friendship bracelets, more keychains, and another (terrifyingly complex) cross stitching kit. Wish me luck!

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