Collage by Sean Eidder.

Collage by Sean Eidder.

Ever since I started grade school, the lack of structure during summer break has made me anxious. Although my definition of “productivity” has changed, I have always craved it. When I was in elementary school, I would work on craft projects like booklets classifying all of my Build-A-Bears, complete with information about their favorite colors and hobbies. When my family went on vacation for my birthday in September, I would look forward to it by planning detailed itineraries—down to what time we would ride a certain rollercoaster and what restaurant we would go to, regardless of the fact that wherever we ate I would end up ordering chicken fingers and chocolate milk.

As I got older, my interests morphed and these summer activities changed, but I yearn for creative productivity just as much now as I did during my Build-A-Bear booklet days. How much I can get done over the summer depends on how much time I’m willing to spend: I’ve done huge projects like running an art show I curated, but I’ve also opted for smaller goals, like making a considerable effort to fill up my sketchbook. More than developing time management skills, I’ve found it more important to develop ways to remain inspired in my creative work. Turning dull situations—service work, visits to the barren local mall—into illuminating experiences has since become my specialty. Here are a few helpful tactics to ensure that your to-do list ends up with checkmarks all over.

Catalog your surroundings.
Living in the suburbs, there isn’t much to do in the outside world. In my suburb, I’v always found that the plethora of playgrounds in place of peaceful, vast parks, and the lack of galleries or museums makes it hard to have fun—especially on a budget. To give structure to the summers that spooled out before me, I’ve found it useful to look at my surroundings carefully, seeking what is special. At the part-time job I had throughout high school, I interacted with customers with a hidden agenda; to commit their interesting characteristics to memory and later draw them. While this wasn’t as possible during the school year when I was busy with schoolwork after my shifts, I’ve always found the constant stream of new, unusual faces at my part-time job really useful in expanding my drawings. Because most of my visual work is portraiture, seeing a pair of funky glasses, a weird mustache, or captivating wrinkles is enough to help me fill up my sketchbook. It can be hard to diversify the faces in my drawings when I stick solely to the faces of my friends or what I make up, but basing it on interesting faces that you interact with momentarily bases the characters in reality making them all the more compelling!

Sitting on a bench near the entryway of a mall guarantees you a steady stream of subjects. Because this is less natural than customer interactions, the people may be somewhat creeped out, so make sure to be coy about the operation, perhaps by bringing a small sketchpad! If you’re looking for more than human inspiration for your art, taking a trip on a bus route you aren’t familiar with can be fruitful for inspiration.

Thrift for characters.
No matter the size of a town, thrift stores are bound to be close by. I’ve spent a lot of time at thrift stores, probably too much, but they’re useful for more than just finding new, inexpensive threads. When I look at clothes, I immediately think of the person who they would have belonged to and the person who will one day happily buy them. My personal favorite find for this purpose is my one-strap denim jumpsuit with flared legs, which no doubt belonged to someone much funkier than me. I always have a tough time with writing fiction, and grounding it in reality through a piece of clothing is really helpful in dispelling this feeling and cracking my brain open. For this reason, thrift stores can be very helpful if you’re in a rut with creative writing. Characters can easily be built around the clothes, taking a snapshot of a particularly stimulating piece makes it easier to remember. The clothing of others allows me to escape my own brain—”walk in someone else’s shoes” becomes literal. If the trek to the thrift store is simply too exhausting, try looking at candid images on Google and building your character’s story from there.

Find your niche on the Weird Wide Web, and contribute to it.
It’s not only images that come in handy on the ’net, of course. There are endless resources for creativity and inspiration online; my favorites include old postcards, puppy pictures, and those Facebook profiles that people set up for fun as a means of persona building or tricking friends into thinking it’s a real person.

In high school, I was upset by how hard it was to find enjoyable books to read; so-called classics were pushed on me in school and I didn’t really know about anything else. Goodreads is a great starting point where you can see what all of your friends and favorite writers are reading. Often, the site’s users include reviews, which can help you decide whether the book is for you or not. This is much easier than hunting Instagram posts for pictures of good books (which I spent a lot of time doing) ’cause Goodreads is entirely dedicated to reading. Make sure to check your local library for books if you’re on a budget. Many libraries also have interlibrary loan services that transport books from other libraries within your county if your branch doesn’t carry the title you’re looking for.

Posting your own work online is equally as fun as absorbing someone else’s work. In middle school, I gained a modest following on YouTube through posting videos of my scrapbooking and card-making. This appeased my desire for productivity and pleased my parents, who continued to buy me supplies so I could make these videos. Eventually, I was being paid to make invitations for wedding and baby showers, allowing my hobby to support itself.

Average experience counts.
When I started high school, I felt that I had nothing worthy of sharing—I hardly traveled and my social life wasn’t exactly booming given that I worked weekends. In 10th grade, I started reading zines about absolutely anything, and graphic novels like Aisha Franz’s Earthling, which connected to me as a morose suburban teen. In this media, the ordinary shone. I realized that creativity that brings light to average experience can be illuminating; I finally felt I had something worthy of sharing. I started submitting my work to websites. My first post online, outside of my own blog, was about going to camp—not exactly unusual, but it led me to form a zine with a bunch of internet friends. Not only did this make me feel productive, it allowed me to connect with others who keep me motivated to create with their mere existence. Now, I can fill my days without even having to leave the house.


Since summer’s just beginning, you’re prepared to have a fruitful break whether it’s spent at home in your sweats with the AC cranked, or at the mall doodling your surroundings! Make sure to not put too much pressure on yourself, though—sometimes just a little relaxin’ is what gives me a creative boost. ♦