What’s the link between the tea room and the creative process? Our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, looks at the link between downtime and getting the work done.

I did some work with the theatre and film company a few years ago, and the organisation went to a lot of trouble to engage with spaces that were conducive to creativity, writing and ideas. The company was based in an amazing ramshackle heritage-listed town hall, full of strange doors and secret passageways, and there were no shortage of nooks to hole up in and write.

You could work in the theatre itself, or at one of the office desks. You could commandeer an editing suite. You could climb a ladder into the attic space with a blanket and a notebook—or take one of the strange passageways out the back to sit in the sun. But for all the amazing and varied workspaces, the best ideas were invariably born in the tearoom.

There was something about that tiny, cramped little space that nurtured inspiration and solutions. You’d be making a cuppa, spreading peanut butter on Saos and having casual conversations with all the other creatives (who were drawn like scavengers by the sound of the kettle boiling) and suddenly, things would come together. The plot hole you were agonising over would seal shut. The characters would shift into focus. The ending would begin to take shape. The tearoom was magic.

It wasn’t like we ever set out to mine the tea-room’s creative powers—we were really just taking a well-earned break—but maybe that’s the point. The moment you stop trying to force something, it decides to relent.

In a memorable Radiolab episode about willpower and the creative process, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert quotes Tom Waites’ approach to songwriting. He told her, eloquently, that songs are born in different ways. There are songs you have to sneak up on, like you’re hunting a rare bird. Songs you find in little pieces, like checking gum under a seat, and scrape together to make something whole. There are songs that need to be bullied. And, every once in a while, there are songs that emerge fully-formed and perfect.

In my experience, fully-formed ideas are rare, if they exist at all. And all the other ideas are wily. Whatever you want to call the process—creativity, inspiration, even a muse—it’s mysterious and tricky. The trickier the idea, the trickier you have to be to tame it. But as a starting point, turning your back on it (even it’s only for long enough to make a cup of tea) can be exactly what you need to catch it off guard and seize it.

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