Shifting Perspectives to Find New Creative Inspiration
Combatting winter dreariness by finding small bits of wonder
I guess we’re past the phase of wishing each other “happy new year,” but February still feels like a new start to me. Perhaps more of one than on January 1st, where the social expectations for making grand declarations and statements are at an all time high.
I try to treat January as an in-between month. Not a month of starting or beginning, but as a month of rumination. Coming out of that, in February I feel a little more ready to say yes to things, to plot a course forward, to commit to projects.
Which means that February feels new. Fresh. But not in a demanding kind of way. It’s a quieter month in a lot of ways. It expects less of us. Or perhaps, we expect less of it.
February kind of sits there awkwardly in between January and March. If we don’t pay attention, it’s a month that can easily get sucked into the void. I’m not entirely sure why the three day difference (well, two when we’re leaping) between the first two months of the year means that January feels like one endless span of time, and February feels like just a short couple of weeks. But I do know that in the midst of winter, when I am not actively paying attention to my surroundings and intentionally committing to a creative practice, then the February days can slip away. They can feel repetitive and routine. Mundane if you’re not careful.
Did you know that January and February didn’t even used to be months? When Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, put his calendar in place in 738 BC, it started in March. Winter was just a month-less time. Which is sometimes how it feels: one long and dark season. And that says to me, that just like January can be an in-between month, maybe February should be as well.
There is something in that: allowing this time and space to exist within its natural rhythm instead of forcing it into a schedule that we need to abide by, or push ourselves to work on and attain things we actually don’t have the energy for.
As my friend Roshni said in our weekly Creative Fuel Wednesday session this past week, “I thought I was going to make a bunch of art in January. But it turns out I just needed to do nothing.” We have to pay attention to those cues. After all, this time of year can get a bit ruthless, and it has a reputation for being miserable.
But things are shifting. The light is coming back. I walked home from the studio the other day at 5:30pm and it wasn’t pitch black yet. A small shift worth celebrating.
In fact, we turned a seasonal corner this week. As Katherine May eloquently reminded us, February 1st marked the halfway point between winter solstice and the vernal equinox. This is nature’s reminder that things are always shifting. That there’s always something new, even in the gray of winter.
The cold hit the Pacific Northwest this week, and walking through the forest I came across a white bundle on the ground, clumps of delicate strands of ice sprouting from a small piece of wood tucked in between brown leaves. It looked like white feathery locks, or even bleached cotton candy, emerging from the dead twig.
Alfred Wegner, the same scientist who proposed continental drift theory, was fascinated when he found a similar specimen in the early 1900s. He was the first to study in detail what we now call “hair ice,” suggesting that there must be a connection between the fungus in the decaying wood and the ice formation. Yet it took over 100 years to prove that theory. Now scientists know that the ice is caused by the fungus Exidiopsis effusa, and requires the perfect convergence of conditions to appear.
This was only the second time that I had seen hair ice. The first was a couple of years ago in a ditch alongside the road that I live on. From far away it looked like shredded pieces of a runaway plastic shopping bag. When I spotted it this week, I immediately felt a sense of thrill coursing through my veins. “Oh hello, I recognize you!” I got as close as I could to look at it, inspecting the strands of ice in detail.
My focus narrowed, and as I tromped around the area, I spotted more, even smaller specimens peeking out from underneath the familiar brown leaf carpet that covers the ground during the Pacific Northwest winter—my familiar surroundings giving birth to something new and unique.
We need nature for this reminder. There is novelty in even the most well known of places. If we keep our eyes peeled, we can find something that shifts our perspective.
Last year when we launched the Creative Fuel podcast, we started with an initial question: do we need newness for creativity?
I’ve thought of that question a lot since then, and it has been on my mind at the start of this year. This time that is supposedly “new.”
We can think of creative inspiration as coming in big spurts, brought on by new experiences and changes of scenery. But everyday creative inspiration inevitably comes from the places that we know well. To find it, we are required to open ourselves up, to allow ourselves to be astonished, to look at even our most intimate surroundings as having the potential for the unexpected.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, ice holds a lot of novelty for me, simply because it’s not a constant fixture of my winters. And so when it appears it creates a special filter for looking at the rest of the world. But what if ice was a common part of my winter experience? Would it evoke an equal sense of awe?
I was thinking of this as I came across the work of Terje Isungset. In 2000, Isungset performed the world’s first ever ice music concert, from inside a frozen waterfall in Lillehammer, Norway. He went on to found the Ice Music Festival, his intimate relationship with ice translating into a path of creative opportunity.
“If I start playing the ice-ophone, I can’t play for one hour, I have to stop after five minutes or so. This affects the concert because if I notice that the instruments are starting to melt, the sound will change and gradually disappear,” he told The Bristol Magazine. “Nature is the boss.”
In this case, nature establishes the creative constraints. If you’re wondering how ice manifests creatively, listen to Isungset’s Ice Music playlist. As he calls it, “the sound of winter.”
Listening to his music, I can’t help but think of how often we avoid the lessons of nature, or at the very least, tune them out by leaving the sounds of our modern day lives on at full blast. The lesson of the natural world, in all of its seasons, is that there’s so much abundance around us, if only we open ourselves up, if only we pay attention. As Dacher Keltner writes in Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life, “... it is hard to imagine a single thing that you can do that is better for your body and mind than finding awe in the outdoors.”
Back in the Pacific Northwest forest on that very cold day, the temperatures eventually rose and the hair ice was gone by the afternoon. On my walk later that afternoon I found myself keeping an eye out for other surprises, as if the ice had reminded me that there were all kinds of things to look for. The contour of lichen, the shadow from afternoon sunlight.
Winter can leave us feeling a little fidgety. The cabin fever sneaks in and takes over, particularly if we’ve been sick, or haven’t been able to get outside because of extremely frigid temperatures, and what once felt cozy—like being curled up with a book, or taking a nap—turns into more of a “is this all I do now?” The cold, gray days continue on and spring buds have yet to appear with the promise of regrowth and renewal. We start craving a dose of something new.
On the days when we have a drearier outlook, our surroundings that we know so well may not feel like much of an invitation for exploration. They are simply muddled and clouded, more prone to sulking and sighing and feeling like something we need to get through as opposed to something we need to sink into.
But with a slight perspective shift? Then we have the opportunity to tap into what can be an endless well of creative inspiration, even in a slumbering winter state. We can ease our way back into awe. Take a slower approach. Find bits of beauty tucked in amongst the dead winter leaves.
A few nights after seeing the hair ice, a friend texted to let me know that I should step outside and look at the moon. I put on a jacket and walked outside barefoot (remember, I’m a cold water person). I looked up, and there, surrounding the moon was a perfect circle.
A moon halo. The result of… you guessed it… ice. More specifically, ice crystals suspended in clouds high above the surface of the earth.
As they refract the light, a 22-degree halo forms. My friend Mike who writeshas covered some of the very cool things that happen in the sky, including this.
How could you not be curious about such a beautiful thing?
Perfectly framed by the winter tree branches, the halo was stunning. I stared at the sky until my bare feet couldn’t take the cold ground anymore.
The next morning I read about moon halos. I learned that it’s call mångård in Swedish. I looked up old art depicting the natural phenomena. It all felt, well… inspiring. Something new.
Winter days will inevitably shift and change into spring. In the meantime, it’s up to us to “seek out novelty in the mundane,” as Oliver Burkeman suggests. And when we do, we might just come to find that the mundane isn’t so mundane at all.
After all, if the perfect conditions converge, you might just find a stunningly beautiful growth of ice sitting in the forest, or a stunning winter moon, or a frozen pattern on a lake or in a puddle, asking for you to come and investigate.
SPEAKING OF NEW THINGS…
If you’re a longtime reader of my Creative Fuel newsletter, maybe you’ve picked up on the shift to Substack. I’ve written the Creative Fuel newsletter since early 2019 (although I haven’t moved all the archives over here… it’s nice to have a bit of a blank slate). Last year I launched the Creative Fuel podcast as well as Creative Fuel Collective, and moving this newsletter to Substack is another shift in building out the Creative Fuel programming.
It’s going to be a little more robust and frequent than my former personal email (for example, there will be creative prompts) and I’m looking forward to seeing how it grows.
If you want to help support all of that, I’d be thrilled and very grateful.
I recently discovered the work of Mary Jo Hoffman, and I am so enthralled by her work. And as luck would have it, she has some pretty amazing ice creations with leaves as well. Explore more of her work here.
A LITTLE CREATIVE INSPIRATION + OTHER TIDBITS
The visual power of a few simple lines to tell a story.
The “shadowy frontier between waking and dreaming may be the source of humanity’s most novel ideas.”
Black, white, and curvy lines… I obviously love Christoph Niemann’s New Yorker cover (I also loved his approach to easing into the new year).
“The refusal to be complicit can be a kind of resistance to dominant paradigms, but it’s also an opportunity to be creative and joyful… So much of what we think about in environmentalism is finger-wagging and gloom-and-doom, but when you look at a lot of those examples where people are taking things into their hands, they’re joyful.” Robin Wall Kimmerer
More nature awe: sun halos. [Let me say here that I had bookmarked this link *before* I had the moon halo experience in the night sky… so sometimes the creative serendipity just aligns]
I will be sending out a free monthly prompt on the first Saturday of the month so stay tuned for that tomorrow. In the meantime, here are some prompts from January that might be of interest:
I’ve seen ice “growing” out of wood before too, but had no idea what it was called! I too am needed if to read everything here more than once to soak in the different parts. Thank you for sharing so much of what’s on your mind!
I'm so excited about this newsletter. I, too, do Slow January. It was kind of forced on me when I had children because of the inevitable illnesses and snow days! But it does feel like a good way for me to start the year. I'm part of an unschooling group and a lot of the people are in Australia and NZ. They have their long summer holiday during the holidays through January so many are just now getting back into their "routines" and I thought that sounded really nice! I really do love the beauty of winter, but some years it feels like it drags on for so long. Thanks for this beautiful reflection. I loved the weekly prompts and have combined all of them into a process book. I'm starting one for our unschooling journal as well.