Creativity (& Life) Can Be A Messy Process

I love a good movie about the creative genius. They struggle, hit the EUREKA! moment, and then ride away into the sunset of fame and fortune.

It feels so neat and tidy, like the way creativity should work. But we all know that’s how things go in the rarest of cases and usually after long intervals of frustration.

I’ve written about being okay with okay, then maybe becoming great, and I’d even go as far as to say this is true about anything you want to do in life. It’s just not going to go as planned. Even when you are a world renowned author.

Consider this sentence written to a publisher from someone considered to be one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

“It has lost my favor, and I have no idea what to do with it.”

Who was this writer? JRR Tolkien. What was he talking about? The Lord of the Rings, after working on it for months. He also said this after aching over a bit of chapter one:

“it is difficult to find anything new in that world.”

We nearly lost Frodo, Aragorn, and the White City.

In her book Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the InklingsDiana Pavlac Glyer reminds us that creativity is messy and that keeping that in mind is helpful:

The fact is, creativity itself is a messy business. We want to think of it as linear and efficient, but in actuality, it is full of false starts, dead ends, long hours, setbacks, discouragement, and frustrations. Knowing that it works this way can help us be more patient with our own untidy processes.

If you’ve run into a roadblock and are beginning to consider that you are not creative, please remember that it’s not linear. It’s not easy. It’s full of long hours, setbacks and struggle of all sorts.

But keep moving. Do the next thing. Focus on the process not what your work is now. Judge it when you are done, then do it better next time, and the next.

The quotations contained in this blog regarding The Lord of the Rings were taken from  Tolkien: A Biography pages 210-211 by Humphrey Carpenter.

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Let’s Get Okay With Just Okay. Then Maybe We Can Be Great.

I have in my mind a perfect morning routine. It goes like this.

I wake up, spend some time praying and reading, I work out, then write five hundred words – all before leaving for work.

That is it. Simple and perfect.

But I have a newborn. And four other kids. And other life demands.

Recently, I spent some time looking for a perfect beginning to restart my blog. I soon realized that I was rusty and I wasn’t up to the bar I envisioned. Could the same be true for a morning routine?

I read this article about productivity measurements between night owls and early birds and thought, maybe I am a night owl! Maybe that’s it. There may be science behind this, but in all honesty, I was searching for an excuse, or an attempt to find perfection.

I don’t expect this from my art. Why would I ever expect this from my routine?

In her book, The Creative Habit Twyla Tharp explains that it is important to build habit into creativity. That is the biggest hurdle to a morning routine. For Twyla Tharp, the biggest hurdle is getting out of bed at 5 to get to the gym by 530. After she gets into a cab in New York City she knows she’s on her way to a creative routine-filled day.

The difficulty I have with building a routine is that I want my efforts to result in perfect. If I am going to wake, write something, and hope it impacts the world in some way, I don’t want effort after effort to not punch through the ceiling of creative mediocrity.

Here’s what Jessica Abel says about that in her article on perfectionism:

You have to be able to live with the discomfort of knowing what you want to be able to do, and not being able to do it (YET!) and putting it out there anyway.

Authors and artists David Bayles and Ted Orland Put it this way in their book Art and Fear:

Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did.

And goes on to say:

Your job is to learn to work on your art.

This brings us back to the title. Can you be okay with just okay when you are getting in shape? When you lose one pound instead of the goal of five that you set?

This is the part of pursuing art that I am trying to understand. I know there is a way through, where blogs like this will cease and I’ll present you, dear reader, with something of more substance.

Until then, let’s not give up. Let’s battle through the mediocrity to something great in our work, in our routines, and in our lives.

An Ode To Stickin’ Around

Man in striped apron paints canvases in Bardolino
Eddy Klaus, Unsplash.com

I’ve been married for about thirteen years, been at the same company for nearly twelve, and pursuing the same art (writing) for twelve.

This may seem long or short depending on your perspective. All of those years in those areas of life have not been meadows filled with daffodils, but through the grace of God, mountains of encouragement from my writerly and non-writerly friends, I’ve stuck with them.

Recently, I wrote about how I haven’t been writing. How I’ve been uninspired and if I’m honest I felt that I wouldn’t miss much if I stopped. This would not be true but it’s how I felt.

This feeling has occurred multiple times with my art. But because of an awesome community and this nagging in my mind that just won’t go away I keep huffing and puffing along.

The reason I started writing again is twofold. One, because I want to publish a work of fiction. I have two books that I’ve been attempting to ship for a combined eight years. The second is because recently, I looked back at what has happened through the ups and downs of twelve years of chasing my craft.

I was astonished at their cumulative weight

Reading that list may have made you feel gross, like I was boasting, and I apologize. But what I wanted you to take away was that all of those mile markers happened because I stuck around.

There were failed starts, massive struggle, five kids being born (zero upon negative-infinity-absolute-zero hours of sleep) and all the while managing a full time job, and making sure that my wife and I have a strong marriage.

I wish life could be straightforward. I learn something, improve, and then move onto the next thing. But what I’ve come to understand is that sticking around for a while, staying in the game, and being downright stubbornly consistent can offer an opportunity to build a foundation then a first and second story and so on.

Are you thinking of stopping your art? I’d encourage you to keep working.

Who knows where you’ll be in twelve years?

Are You Waiting For Perfect?

A man in boots sits on a ledge in front of plate glass windows
Brooke Cagel – Unsplash

There have been many changes in my life recently, great ones. They’ve kept me busy.

A new home. A new town, a promotion to a dream job, and a new child. Amazing provisions for which I am unequivocally grateful.

Through it all, I waited. For the perfect post to begin my blog again. I searched for the perfect subject line, moving content, the best beginning, but I wrote nothing at all.

An email hit my inbox a few weeks ago from illustrator/writer Jessica Abel author of Growing Gills and my personal favorite Out on the Wire (which has an amazing podcast by the way). The title went like this – If you are waiting for conditions to be perfect, you’ll die waiting.

Distractions, both good and bad, are everywhere.

She said this in her email:

And it’s easy to look at all those things (any distraction in life) and despair, to think there’s no way you’ll ever get a handle on it all. You might be right. But here’s the big secret to having a sustainable creative life.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO.

You can CHOOSE your work even if everything else in your life isn’t dialed in.

You have a right and a responsibility to your creative work.

We’re imperfect people with imperfect schedules. Why would I think shaking the rust off would mean anything more than an okay post with mediocre passion for it?

It’s time now to move. For action.

I truly hoped to start blogging again with something amazing, but this is what you get. A resolve to not wait and a commitment to write. Also, an admission that I let the beast of perfection win for a while.

But no more.

In what area of your life are you waiting for perfect?

 

Writer, Need Inspiration? Here Are Three Ways To Get It

If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve been there – the dark forest of writing.

There are no words here, no progress, only suffocating doubt and self-loathing. Every writer has experienced this before and just when we think this feeling will never surface it’s ugly face again, there it is.

Getting stuck is easy.

Stopping halfway through a book is normal.

But how do you get unstuck?

Are there elements that a writer can incorporate into their life so that these valleys are few and not as dark and deep?

coffee cup

Yes. Here are three ways to get inspired again. These will also reinforce the writer that is on the mountaintop of inspiration.

FIND A SCENIUS

Austin Kleon is a connector. He repackages ideas and makes them accessible. One of his ideas is described in his book Show Your Work!. It is the idea of Scenius

He claims that the lone genius myth is just that, falsehood. Writers, artists, and anyone that has achieved any level of success did that inside a community that fostered the pursuit.

Find a group of people that love writing and hang out with them. Online, in a bookstore, or come to the Jot Conference.

IF IT’S NOT WORKING DO DIFFERENTLY

Ever stop to examine your process? Ever come to the same worn out and unproductive conclusions after writing in the same place, with the same utensils, at the same time? Sounds like it’s time for you to make a change. 

Get up early or stay up late. Go for a walk and sit on a mossy log and write using physical instruments – paper and pen.

I was in the dark depths of writing for a while, then I began rising early and suddenly, even though I knew I was done as a writer, the passion for words flooded back. 

Often we need a break from monotony. A newness, a freshness to reinvigorate us on the writing road. Doing differently is a shock to the creative system.

CREATE MARGIN

We’re all busy. It’s the response to the question – how are you doing? Busy we say. Everyone has too much to do. Too many obligations. Too many service projects. Too many organizations to which we are committed. There is little time for joy, thrill, and novelty. Our weeks are planned out and we are sleeping five hours a night.

Most of the activities listed above are not bad things – save maybe the five hours of sleep a night – but we all need space. Our bodies need down time to rest and our brains and creativity wells need the same.

During a difficult season at my job where satisfaction was at an all time low I decided to incorporate a walk into my lunch. I grabbed a pen and notebook and began walking in the woods. I’d sit down on a bench, stare into the dark green forest or bare trees and snow covered earth and let the ideas come. I’d write them down if I thought they were worth keeping and sharing.

Don’t believe a walk is beneficial? C.S. Lewis loved walks. As did T.S. Eliot. It’s the white space where our brains rest and ideas can surface.

Today, if you need a little writing pick me up, I challenge you to find your own Scenius, do differently, or create some margin by saying no to one obligation this week.

Do you have tips for getting inspired? Share below.

You Can Be Creative. Even If You Think You Are Not.

Have the words – I’m just not creative – ever come out of your mouth?

I hear them often and even apply these four words to me when I am in the dark forest of a project.

But is this a true statement?

Are some people born with a creative gene and the rest are not?

That sentence – I’m just not creative – should be abolished.

The idea that some elect individuals are born with a creative gene comes from the same people that believe writers are born. Would you believe that about a plumber, an electrician, or a doctor?

Absolutely not. Just ask Chuck Close. He was told he should aim for trade school and body and fender work in eighth grade.

These are terribly lies and limiting beliefs that keep us from living creative, fulfilling lives.

Creativity is only a name for aged, intentional practice.

I can’t count the times I have heard the phrase – I’m just not creative. I wish to stop this nonsense. If you say them to me I promise to be gracious. But remember, creativity is born out of diligent practice and exposure to new ideas.

You may have to read more difficult books and write down definitions of words you do not know to expand your vocabulary.

Perhaps it is time to tell that art teacher you know that you’ve always thought plein air painting was interesting, could they point you in the right direction?

Part of creativity is curiosity – looking for new ways of doing the same old stuff to reinvigorate or uproot established processes.

Ira Glass, famed radio personality and producer, was recorded saying that there is a gap between being a beginner and a professional in creative work. At the edge of the gap – this is where people stop.

We figure that’s it. I guess I’ll never become/attain/change ______.

Maybe you’ve stopped?

Stopped being brave or hopeful because creative work is not easy. We get frustrated with a process or even our own inability to create this great work that we know is harbored deep within.

I challenge you today, and this is just as much for me as it is for you, to examine your process. See what is in your way.

Do you need more practice?

Do you need exposure to creative ideas or people?

Are you doing the very same things that don’t challenge or inspire you and lead to the very same results?

What is in the way? What is creating that gap?

Here’s what Ira Glass has to say about The Gap:

 

Resistance And The Writer’s Battle Of Self-Doubt

I’d never encountered writer’s block, or Resistance as Steven Pressfield calls it, like this before. I’ve always put Neil Gaiman’s philosophy to practice – that people won’t be able to tell if you wrote when inspired or not, you just need to get the words out.

But I have to admit I am here. Resistance is winning big time. I delete more words than I put down and no matter how I push against this Wall I can’t seem to move it. My creativity is suffocating.

Have you ever been there – where you just could not stomach the march forward that your book required? Have you ever thought your message had zero impact and no one would notice whether you wrote or not?

The comforting part about these questions is that every writer has been there. From Euripides to Chaucer to JK Rowling to you, every single person that aspired to write has encountered this feeling before.

If the above statement is true, how did they get past the Wall of Resistance?

Brick wall
Courtesy David Playford Freeimages.com

Last week was the dark battle.

Philosophical questions about my worth surfaced.

These questions were enemies I thought I defeated long ago. Turns out they are always there and I was unequipped to face them this time.

Then a thought occurred to me as I sat down to put words on the page again, something I am sure I read but have forgotten the attribution.

Writing is about writing not about who I am or what I’ve done or not done. It’s about putting another word down. All of it is momentum. And momentum can be slow and grueling. It can take an hour to string four sentences together.

I tricked myself into believing that writing would be inspiring every time I put myself in my chair and when I wasn’t enjoying myself and the progress was deleting the bad and not adding the good, I came away discouraged. When that happens too many times doubts can surface, ugly doubts.

There is a saying in our house. When my young children are crying in the middle of the night or won’t go to bed I repeat it to myself or say aloud to my wife  – parents win every time. No matter how long the crying or the number of questions or mess in the room parents win by persisting, by rising above.

If you are here, at the edge of giving up like me, remember that writing is work.

It’s taking punches as much as giving them.

Sometimes you have to wait for your opponent to tire before striking back.

This blog post is my first attempt at a left hook.

What’s yours?

The One Thing I Never Mind Cleaning Up

If you have children you have no choice: Your house will get messy. I have four of them. It’s difficult to keep order when there are four tornadoes living in your small home and each one decides to unload a different tub of toys.

But there is one mess I never mind picking up.

One that, instead of frustration, brings joy.

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Clara at one and a half

Books. I have thousands of them.

We have books in every room of our dwelling: in the kids’ room, in my bedroom, in the living room, basement, kitchen, and in a drawer in the bathroom.

Some of these paper and glue treasures are borrowed from the library. Some have been rescued from the discard/free bin in front of Lowry’s Books & More. Others were acquired at a library book sale, a friend’s book signing, inherited from our parents, purchased by impulse or because of college requirement.

My wife and I didn’t have a conversation about it but somehow books ended up on the bottom of our bookshelves, easily accessible to crawling babies and toddlers. Its almost as if the shelves are begging to be cleared off with one sweep of the arm. This occurs daily and is almost always followed by one of their smiles of immense satisfaction like you and I would have after a hard day of spring cleaning.

But my kids don’t just make messes with books.

Before they could even read I’ve found each one of my children in a room by themselves, by their own volition, flipping through a book. A pile lay all around and they sift through their favorites, looking at the pictures and occasionally making up the words using incoherent babble.

Here’s a few of the books my children have settled on recently.

Emily, my youngest and a proud eighteen months old, goes for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. It’s on my night stand. I admire the dense plotting at the end of this unfinished novel and she points to random words and emits screeches. Cute screeches.

Bobby, my third child a robust three and a half, carries armfuls, yes, armfuls of Spider-Man and Star Wars books around the house. His favorite is anything with black Spider-Man. He clarifies it is when he has the symbiote suit on not Venom. There’s a difference.

Clara, my second, a joyful five and a half, is currently learning how to read. I marvel at her willingness to trudge through books fit for second graders. She is eager to learn and is already reading astonishingly well. She loves the Finding Dory book a #2 reader she recently picked up from the library.

June, my oldest at seven and a half and most advanced reader, loves Elephant and Piggy Books, Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel, and the Princess in Black series. I marvel at her confidence and vocabulary. Life goes so fast.

Some say books belong on shelves. A home is neat and tidy that way.

I am happy that our books rarely are.

How does your family incorporate books into daily life?

Resistance, Chuck Close, & The Work Behind Our Art

Several months ago I felt creatively empty and faced a deadline. The horrible reality behind this toxic pairing is that I want to be a published author and meeting this deadline would cause this dream to come true.

Have you ever been in this place? It’s very different from procrastination and similar to writers block. But the source of the emptiness – that was what I was after. I wanted to be through this barrier, or resistance as Steven Pressfield labels it, once and for all.

I decided to wade deep into the exhaustion. I was surprised by the answer I found.

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Photo Credit: cellar_door_films via Compfight cc
During a sermon a few weeks ago my pastor mentioned the artist Chuck Close. I’d never heard of him before (being more obsessed with writers) so I looked him up. My interest  piqued when a quote from him was offered.

It went like this:

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us show up and get to work. Every great idea I’ve ever had grew out of work itself – Chuck Close on Notes to Younger Self.

He delivers it in this youtube clip. I highly recommend you watch it below.

The showing up and getting to work is the hardest part of any endeavor that asks us to deliver our best self. Raising kids, doing quality work at our jobs, or finishing a chapter in a book.

The simple and troublesome answer to my emptiness, was to get up and put the time in.

After many hours and much word worrying, I turned in my first draft. Then my second four days after I received my revisions. I received an approval from the editor just days ago. The chapter I wrote will be included in a book to be released this autumn.

I don’t know where you are in your writing, painting, or parenting journey. I don’t pretend to have answers to make you feel warm and fuzzy nor to ensure you that everything will be perfect on the other side.

The point is, I showed up and gave myself a chance for success to happen. If you’re stuck in the pit of blackness maybe meeting a tiny goal, like writing for ten minutes a day, is all that is required?

I assure you the odds of success or getting through the turmoil with all of your limbs will improve immeasurably.

Been struggling or made it to a finish line? Share your story or celebrate your victory in the comments section below.

Steve Martin, 14 Years, And Becoming A Wildly Famous Writer

In my last post, I listed books I read in 2016. Born Standing Up was one of my favorites. I was familiar with Mr. Martin‘s stand up and a few of his movies, but not much else.

Come to find out, he’s been successful as a comedian, actor, musician, and author. It’s like he’s mastered the art of perfecting whatever he chooses to throw his energy towards.

I picked up Born Standing Up because I wanted to see if I could learn something, anything, that could help me in my own creative journey.

Here’s what I found out.

When you think about Mr. Martin and all he has accomplished, it’s easy to forget about the backstage. To forget about all of the work that went into making him such a success. In Born Standing Up, Mr. Martin got straight to the point (page one first sentence) about how long it took him to become a great comedian:

I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.  – Steve Martin from Born Standing Up

If we apply this to writing, it becomes less about getting published as fast as possible and more about learning the craft, sending off drafts, and learning that process. It’s not about how to write but about how to navigate the paperwork, research, heartache, and anxiety a project cycle can bring.

In my own writing journey this process, idea-to-submission, has been equally as important as the mechanics of writing.

Do you start out thinking your idea is amazing and end up in the Dark Night of the Soul?

What do you do when you get bored?

How do you persist when all the voices in your head make you think your story is a mistake?

These are different questions than, “Did I just use that semi-colon correctly?” and ones that every creative must face and learn to overcome.

What’s your process? Share below.